I am doing some research on Wyatt Earp. His life was more incredible than most imagine, and it because far more baroque and surprising after his gun slinging. Here are some things I have put together.
Was he a lawman or an outlaw? It depends on who you ask. Most historians look at him as a man who became an outlaw after years of acting as a freelance Marshall for lawless frontier towns. In may ways this was the method by which lawless frontier towns created a stable environment Whoever had the moxie and the skills to shoot men for misbehavior. He was also fiercely loyal to his brothers, Virgil, James, and Morgan who left Missouri with him and headed out to make a living in the expanding territories. In 1874 Wichita Kansas was a legendary frontier town, comprised of about 2200 men, mostly Texas cattlemen, the money it was bringing in and of course, wine, liquor, and debauchery. When a large group of armed drunk men start partying, sometimes, bad things happen. No. Often bad things happen. Often the offenders were themselves criminals or thugs or drifters who were driven from a more civilized place back east. Towns like this couldn’t keep a marshal for more than a couple of weeks. It was hard to find a person who had the the nerve, lacked the vices and was willing to use lethal force.
Earp was a teetotaler, so sobriety wasn’t a problem. He was clean-cut, handsome, charismatic, and would do what he had to do to keep things calm. The merchants acted as a collective force and put a salary together for Earp. He loved the job, and was good at it. For the most part, Earp was a bouncer. He frequented saloons and brothels and places where liquor and card games met. Earp was likely to just calm things down and prevent a fight.
This lasts a few years and Earp becomes famous for “Buntline Special”, a pistol whipping technique characterized by striking with the handle and from behind. As sheriffs, the The Earps practiced gun control. Side arms had to be left with the bartender. It worked. At some point he and his brothers were run out of Wichita for abusing their authority and running afoul of the law themselves.
The Earps moved into Dodge City and took to the fashion of the day as law men who wore their guns in a big prominent holster. They made a big splash and eventually threatened Ike Clanton and his friends the McLougheries. The McLougheries who was acting as the local town leaders and administrators before the Earps decided to come in and encroach on the freelance work of “sheriffing”. The growth of Dodge City was the discovery of a massive silver mine and the prospecters it attracted. With prospectors came money and housing and transportation and saloons and prostitutes and ne’erdowells. It was October 26th of 1881 when the Earp brothers went and intended to arrest Ike Clanton in a vacant lot behind the OK Corral. After the gunfight, the Earps had each received wounds, however most of Ike Clanton’s minions were dead or in jail. The Earps headed further west. Still loyal to each other, an odd series of clashes occurred after the OK Corral gunfight and because of it. These became known as the Vendetta Ride. In March 1882, Morgan Earp was killed in a Tombstone billiard hall. The Earps pursued the killers, meaning to issue warrants, but instead, they hunted them down and killed them one at a time. An opposing sheriff organized a posse to ride against the Earps.
Wyatt Earp and his brothers were arrested and went to trial. Though exonnerated, the judge made special points to criticize them for their indulgent and violent methods, which the press pushed to the curious public. They were freed but with reputations tarnished, and so they set out to make a living. There were numerous legal actions between the Earps and the Clantons, some extraordinarily bad legal procedures but good courts straightened them out and after a while the Earps were more known for the gossip news that actual law defending or law breaking.
Earp went to Hollywood and made a name for himself around filmmakers, including a young prop man name John Wayne. He even served as a Deputy Sheriff in San Bernadito County in a mostly ceremonial role. In 1929, he died and was cremated and buried in Los Angeles. His wife Josie, Jewish, was too heart broken to attend the funeral, but later her ashes were buried by his; and Western actor Tom Mix served as a pall-bearer at Wyatt Earp’s funeral.