The Last Days of Wyatt Earp
On this day in 1929, Western legend (and one of my personal heroes) Wyatt Earp died in Los Angeles, California. While most people are aware of Wyatt’s legendary time in Tombstone, Arizona with his brothers and notorious friend, John “Doc” Holliday, most don’t much about him after he left the region. Suffice it to say, his adventures – and some say “checkered” career – continued.
Wyatt Earp in 1928
The gunfight in Tombstone only last 30 seconds, but it became a defining moment in Wyatt’s life. After the “Vendetta Ride” of Wyatt Earp, which ended with the deaths of Frank Stilwell and Curly Bill Brocius, the Earps left Arizona for Colorado. They stopped in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where they met Deputy U.S. Marshal Bat Masterson, Wyatt's friend. The Earps, Sherman McMasters, and Holliday rode with Masterson to Trinidad, Colorado where Masterson owned a saloon. Wyatt dealt Faro for several weeks before he, Warren, Holliday, and several others rode on to Gunnison, Colorado.
Holliday headed to Pueblo and then Denver. The Earps and Texas Jack set up camp on the outskirts of Gunnison, Colorado, where they remained quietly at first, rarely going into town for supplies. Eventually, Wyatt took over a faro game at a local saloon.
After Morgan was killed, Wyatt's former common-law wife, Celia Anne "Mattie" Blaylock, waited for him in Colton but eventually accepted that Wyatt was not coming back. Wyatt left Mattie their house when he left Tombstone. She moved to Pinal City, Arizona and resumed life as a prostitute. Mattie struggled with her addictions and committed "suicide by opium poisoning" on July 3, 1888.
In late 1882, Wyatt had gone to San Francisco, where he met up with brothers Virgil and Warren, and reunited with Josephine Marcus, whom he had met in Tombstone. Josie, or Sadie as he called her, was his common-law wife for the next 46 years.
The "Dodge City Peace Commission," June 1888. (L to R) standing: W.H. Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, W.F. Petillon. Seated: Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Frank McLain and Neal Brown.
But Wyatt’s peace-keeping days were not yet over – nor did his days of absolute loyalty to his friends come to an end. On May 31, 1883, Wyatt returned along with Bat Masterson to Dodge City to help Luke Short, part owner of the Long Branch saloon, during what became known as the Dodge City War. When the Mayor tried to run Luke Short first out of business and then out of town, Short appealed to Masterson who contacted Earp. While Short was discussing the matter with Governor George Washington Glick in Kansas City, Earp showed up with Johnny Millsap, Shotgun John Collins, Texas Jack Vermillion, and Johnny Green. They marched up Front Street into Short's saloon where they were sworn in as deputies by constable "Prairie Dog" Dave Marrow. The town council offered a compromise to allow Short to return for 10 days to get his affairs in order, but Wyatt refused to compromise. When Short returned, there was no force ready to turn him away. Short's Saloon reopened, and the “Dodge City War” ended without a shot being fired.
Wyatt spent the next decade running saloons and gambling concessions and investing in mines in Colorado and Idaho, with stops in various boom towns. He also owned several saloons outright or in partnership with others. In 1884, Wyatt and his wife Josie, Warren, James and Bessie Earp were in Eagle City, Idaho, another boom town. Wyatt was looking for gold in the Murray-Eagle mining district. They opened a saloon called The White Elephant in a circus tent.
Wyatt was named sheriff of the newly incorporated Kootenai County, Idaho. In Idaho Wyatt was involved in a brief shootout. On March 28, several feet of snow were still on the ground. Bill Buzzard, a miner of dubious reputation, began constructing a building when one of Wyatt's partners, Jack Enright, tried to stop the construction. Enright claimed the building was on part of his property. Words were exchanged and Buzzard reached for his Winchester. He fired several shots at Enright and a skirmish developed. Allies of both sides quickly took defensive positions between snow banks and began shooting at one another. It turned out to be a bloodless affair. Within six months their substantial stake had run dry, and the Earps left the Murray-Eagle district.
In 1885, Earp and Josie moved to San Diego. The railroad was due to arrive any day and a real estate boom was underway. Wyatt immediately joined the fray and between 1887 and 1896, he bought three saloons and gambling halls, all in the "respectable" part of town. At the height of the boom, he made up to $1,000 a night in profit.
Wyatt had a long-standing interest in boxing and horse racing. In the 1887 San Diego City Directory he was listed as a capitalist or gambler. He won his first race horse "Otto Rex" and began investing in racehorses. He also judged prize fights on both sides of the border and raced horses. Earp was one of the judges at the County Fair horse races held in Escondido in 1889.
Josie Marcus, who would remain Wyatt’s wife for the last 46 years of his life.
The Earps moved back to San Francisco around 1890 so Josie could be closer to her family. Wyatt took a job managing a horse stable in Santa Rosa and developed a local reputation as a sportsman and gambler. He won his first race horse, Otto Rex, in a card game and later owned a six-horse stable in San Francisco. It was during this time that Wyatt became involved in the second controversial event of his life.
On December 2, 1896, Earp refereed a heavyweight boxing match at Mechanics' Pavilion in San Francisco between Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey. He had refereed 30 or so matches in earlier days, though not under the Marquis of Queensbury rules. Fitzsimmons was favored to win, and bets flowed heavily his way. Wyatt entered the ring still armed with his Colt .45 and had to be disarmed. He later said he forgot he was wearing it. Fitzsimmons carried the fight until the eighth round when Wyatt stopped the bout on a foul, ruling that Fitzsimmons had hit Sharkey when he was down. His ruling was greeted with loud boos and catcalls. Earp based his decision on the Marquis of Queensbury rules, which state in part, "A man on one knee is considered down and if struck is entitled to the stakes." Very few witnessed the foul Earp ruled on. He awarded the decision to Sharkey, who was carried out of the ring “… limp as a rag.”
Fitzsimmons obtained an injunction against distributing the prize money until the courts could determine who the rightful winner was. The judge ruled that prize fighting was illegal in San Francisco and the courts would not determine who the real winner was. The San Francisco papers lampooned and scrutinized Wyatt for a full month, questioning his honesty. The San Francisco Call vilified him, calling him a crook and a cheat. Wyatt was accused of having a financial interest in the outcome, which was not true and even accused him of pulling a gun on Fitzsimmons when confronted. Wyatt left San Francisco in disgust and never returned.
In the fall of 1897, Wyatt and Josie joined in the Alaska Gold Rush and headed for Nome, Alaska. He operated a canteen during the summer of 1899 and in September, Wyatt and partner Charles E. Hoxie built the Dexter Saloon in Nome, Alaska, the city's first two story wooden building and its largest and most luxurious saloon. In Alaska, Wyatt reunited with long-time friend and former Tombstone mayor and newspaper editor John Clum. He also met future author Rex Beach and writer Jack London.
Wyatt (Left) and John Clum in Alaska
In 1901, with a fortune estimated at $80,000, Wyatt and Josie returned to the states. In February, 1902, they arrived in Tonopah, Nevada, where gold had been discovered and a boom was under way. He opened the Northern Saloon in Tonopah, Nevada and served as a deputy U.S. Marshal under Marshal J.F. Emmitt. His saloon, gambling and mining interests were profitable for a time.
After Tonapah's gold strike boom waned, Wyatt staked mining claims just outside Death Valley and elsewhere in the Mojave Desert. In 1906, he discovered several deposits of gold and copper near the Sonoran Desert town of Vidal, California on the Colorado River and filed more than 100 mining claims near the Whipple Mountains. That summer, they lived in Los Angeles and it was here that Wyatt found the city that would become his home.
In 1910, Wyatt was 62 and was hired by the Los Angeles Police Department and former Los Angeles detective Arthur Moore King at $10.00 per day to carry out various tasks "outside the law" such as retrieving criminals from Mexico, which he did very capably. This led to Wyatt's last armed confrontation.
In October, 1910 he was asked by former Los Angeles Police Commissioner H. L. Lewis to head up a posse to protect surveyors of the American Trona Company who were attempting to wrest control of mining claims for vast deposits of potash on the edge of Searles Lake held in receivership by the foreclosed California Trona Company. Wyatt and the group he guarded were regarded as claim jumpers and were confronted by armed representatives of the other company. King wrote, "...that it was the nerviest thing he had ever seen." With guns pulled, Wyatt came out of his tent with a Winchester rifle, firing a round at the feet of Federal Receiver Stafford W. Austin. "Back off or I'll blow you apart, or my name is not Wyatt Earp." The owners summoned the U.S. Marshal who arrested Wyatt and 27 others, served them with a summons for contempt, and sent them home. Wyatt's actions did not resolve the dispute, which eventually escalated into the "Pot Ash Wars" of the Mojave Desert.
Around 1916, Wyatt started working in Hollywood as a mostly unpaid consultant for silent cowboy movies. He met many of the famous actors of the day, including Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, who was especially in awe of the frontier lawman. On the set of movie, he met Marion Morrison (who later became famous under the assumed name of John Wayne). Morrison served Earp coffee on the sets, and later told Hugh O'Brian that he based his image of the Western lawman on his conversations with Earp. Director John Ford worked as an apprentice on the studio lots about the time that Wyatt Earp used to visit friends on the set, and Ford later claimed he reconstructed the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral based on Wyatt's input. Wyatt also became close friends with popular western stars of the day, Tom Mix and William S. Hart.
Western star Tom Mix became one of Wyatt’s close friends and often paid him out of his pocket for consulting work that he did on many of his films.
Sadly, but this time, Wyatt and Josie were broke. In the early 1920s, Wyatt was given the honorary title of Deputy Sheriff in San Bernardino County, California, but most of the money he’d made was long gone. They were living in a shack on the edge of the desert when a friend that Wyatt had known in Alaska invited them to live in his top floor apartment in L.A. This may have been were most of the work was done on Wyatt’s “autobiography” by family friend and mining engineer, John Flood.
The mysteries surrounding the so-called “Flood manuscript” would likely fill a book of its own. The biggest mystery is why Wyatt didn’t seek help from other writers that he knew with the book, like Jack London or another friend, playwright and scriptwriter Wilson Mizner. The main reason why the Flood manuscript was never snatched up by a publisher or a Hollywood studio – despite William S. Hart’s valiant efforts – was that it was awful. Not until 1931, two years after Wyatt’s death, did Stuart Lake, the former press secretary of Theodore Roosevelt, write the book that cemented Wyatt’s legend forever – Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal. Lake’s book came at just the right time. Americans were just seeing the end of Prohibition and the last of the days of the gangster-battles in city streets. Enough time has passed since the end of the frontier and America had started to feel nostalgic about its heroes. After the successful book’s release, everyone knew about Wyatt Earp – a realization that had come too late for the former lawman.
Copy of Stuart Lake’s book from my collection of Wyatt Earp materials.
The last Earp brother and the last surviving participant of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt Earp died at home in the Earps' small apartment in Los Angeles at the age of 80. His pallbearers were prominent men: George W. Parsons, Charles Welch, Fred Dornberge, Los Angeles Examiner writer Jim Mitchell, Hollywood screenwriter Wilson Mizner, Tombstone mayor John Clum, and Western actors William S. Hart and Tom Mix. As voiced by Robert Mitchum in the closing moments of the legendary film, Tombstone, “Tom Mix wept.”
Josie was too grief-stricken to attend the service. She had Wyatt’s body cremated and buried his ashes in the Marcus family plot at the Hills of Eternity, a Jewish cemetery in Colma, California. When she died in 1944, Josie's ashes were buried next to those of her beloved, Wyatt. A beautiful epitaph graces their shared marker: “That nothing's so sacred as honor, and nothing so loyal as love.”