Throwback Thursday: Wyatt Earp

posted on June 8, 2017

October 26, 1881, Tombstone, Arizona Territory

It was cold for October. Traces of snow still lingered from the storm a few days earlier. Clouds covered much of the sky, blocking out the sun and making it seem later than mid-afternoon. Each time the wind kicked up, little swirls of dust-like mini-tornadoes-danced along the dusty streets.

In the Marshal's Office, Virgil Earp, who was both the city marshal and a U.S. deputy marshal, and his brother Morgan, a city-police deputy, were preparing for trouble. Ike Clanton and his gang were in Tombstone, and they were armed-a violation of city law.

Virgil quickly deputized his brother Wyatt and Doc Holliday. As the four men stepped out onto Fremont Street, Virgil handed a shotgun to Doc, who was wearing the longest coat.

“Hope we won't need this, but hide it under your coat,” said Virgil. “I don't want to alarm anyone.”

The men lined up side by side and walked silently down the center of the street, eyes alert.

Wyatt was deep in thought. The Clanton family and their friends had become a real problem. The Earps and Doc had had several run-ins with them. They called them “Cowboys” because they were cattle dealers, but they were also cattle rustlers and horse thieves. They'd taken part in stagecoach robberies and even a murder or two.

Something had to give, he thought.The problems with the Cowboys had been going on for some time. Wyatt ticked off a few incidents in his head:

There were the six Army mules that Frank McLaury stole from Camp Rucker. Virgil caught him caught red-handed trying to change the brands.

There was that stage hold-up over near Benson. Two people killed.

And Ike and Billy Clanton stole one of his horses. Now that got his dander up!

Then there was the holdup of the Bisbee stage just last month. Virgil arrested a couple of Cowboys for that one.

In every instance, an Earp or Doc had been involved with bringing the Cowboys down. The Clantons started making threats. And now the Clantons were in town.

It's time to teach them a little respect for the law, thought Wyatt.

As the men neared the narrow, vacant lot next to Camillus Fly's photography studio, they spotted the Clanton gang-Ike and his brother Billy, Frank and Tom McLaury, and Billy Claiborne. A little further back, they could see horses, with firearms strapped to their saddles.

The lawmen stepped into the alley. The Clanton gang stepped forward to meet them. Doc poked his shotgun in Frank's stomach before shifting back to stand behind Virgil and in line with Wyatt and Morgan.

“Throw up your hands,” ordered Virgil.

Behind him, he heard the click of hammers being cocked.

“Hold your fire,” he commanded

As one, the Clanton gang reached for their six-shooters. BANG! A shot rang out, followed quickly by another.

Who shot first is something that has been debated ever since. What is known is that in the next 30 seconds, a barrage of bullets was exchanged. When silence reigned once again, Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton lay dead or dying. Ike and an injured Billy Claiborne had fled the scene. Morgan and Virgil were seriously hurt. Doc Holliday was grazed in the hip. Only Wyatt was left standing and uninjured in the midst of the carnage.


Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born in 1848 in Monmouth, Ill. He grew up on a farm in Iowa. By the time he was 13, the Civil War had started and three of his brothers had signed up with the Union Army. Despite being too young to serve, Wyatt wanted to be a soldier, too. He ran away several times to try to enlist, but each time his father found him and brought him home. When Wyatt was 16, the family joined a wagon train on its way to California. At 17, he got a job as a driver for a stagecoach line.

Over the years, Wyatt wandered the West and worked at many jobs. He was a lawman in a number of frontier towns, including stints as a deputy marshal in the Kansas towns of Wichita and Dodge City and deputy sheriff in southern Pima County in Arizona. He was also-at different times-a farmer, a buffalo hunter, a gambler, a miner, a boxing referee and a saloon owner. But it is his role in a gunfight near Tombstone's O.K. Corral for which he is most famous.

In that fight, Wyatt, his brothers Morgan and Virgil, and his friend Doc Holliday faced down the Clanton gang in an alley just a few steps away from the entrance to the O.K. Corral. The 30-second battle was fierce, and at the end of it, three members of the Clanton gang lay dead. Wyatt and Doc Holliday were charged with murder. They were both acquitted.

But the Old West was a hard and unforgiving place, and revenge was a way of life. Two months later, Virgil Earp was the victim of a shotgun attack. His left arm was so badly injured that he was never again able to use it. It was thought that the shooter was Ike Clanton, but there was not enough proof to convict him.

Three months later, gunmen shot and killed Morgan Earp with a bullet to the back. A second bullet hit the wall just above Wyatt's head, but he was unharmed. Wyatt and his brother Warren tracked down and executed the suspected killers.

Wyatt left Tombstone to live in Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, California and Alaska, before settling in California for good. In his final years, he lived in Hollywood with his wife Josie and worked as an advisor for producers of Western movies. He counted many Western actors among his friends.

Wyatt Earp passed away in 1929 at age 80. But the events of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral-and his role in it-live on. Today you can learn about him from numerous books or films, or travel to Tombstone to view a re-enactment of the American West's most famous gunfight.


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