Police History: The Earps of Tombstone

At three o’clock on the afternoon of October 26, 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona City Marshall Virgil Earp deputized Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc Holiday, and on Virgil’s command, the four began the long walk toward the OK Corral to disarm the cowboys gathered there

Editor’s Note: The history of law enforcement seems to be told by people who have, at best, minimal understanding of, and at worst, malicious contempt for, this great profession. At PoliceOne, we aim to fix that. Below is the latest instalment in an occasional series of columns featuring an individual or an event in American’s long and righteous history of policing. If you know of such a story you’d like us to investigate, just send me an email. Meanwhile, please enjoy the story of the Earps of Tombstone.

In 1862, James, Warren, and Virgil Earp joined the Union Army to enter the fight to make men free. Virgil kissed his wife, Magdalena, and baby daughter, Nellie, “goodbye.” Wyatt, who was too young to enlist, repeatedly tried to run away to join his brothers, but their father brought him back each time.

The Earps were mustered into the 83rd Illinois and saw sharp action in the Western Theatre of the War. Virgil fell grievously wounded in battle and Magdalena was erroneously informed that Virgil had been killed in action.

Perceiving herself a widow, Magdalena moved west with their daughter and remarried.

When Virgil returned from the war, he discovered his wife and daughter were gone. The heartbroken Virgil Earp turned west determined to make a new life.

After the war, Wyatt Earp began his career in law enforcement as a Constable in Lamar, Missouri. Wyatt married Urilla Sutherland, bought a home, and they began their life together.

After having been married only a year, Wyatt’s life was turned upside down. Urilla, pregnant with their first child, contracted Typhoid Fever and died.

Wyatt, devastated, left Lamar and also headed west.

The Earps Established as Law Men
The Earps worked a variety of jobs prior to entering law enforcement. Virgil was sucked into the career, when he saw Yavapai County, Arizona Sheriff Ed Bowers in the midst of a running gun battle with armed robbers. Virgil, with Winchester in hand, offered his assistance. Bowers deputized Virgil on the spot.

Virgil’s first action as a Deputy Sheriff was to take careful aim at one suspect and fire twice. Both shots struck the desperado in the head, marking the end of one career and the beginning of another.

Wyatt pinned on a badge in Wichita and then in Dodge City, where he built a solid reputation as a law man, without fear, who possessed a steely gaze that could stop a man in his tracks. Wyatt was also an expert shot as well as a talented pugilist. In most cases, however, Wyatt did battle with his fists rather than his guns.

Wyatt became involved in his first use of deadly force in Dodge City, when he interdicted a cow hand named George Hoyt, who was in the midst of shooting up the town.

Wyatt took careful aim at the out-of-control gunman and fired. The man’s horse was in full gallop through the streets of Dodge City but Wyatt’s shot knocked Hoyt from his horse and George later died from his wounds.

Earps Arrive in Tombstone, Arizona
Meanwhile Virgil became a Constable for Prescott Arizona. This was followed by his appointment as Deputy U.S. Marshal by U.S. Marshal Crowley Dake. Dake sent Virgil to Tombstone Arizona, where a loosely organized, but truly lawless group of cross border raiders called “The Cowboys” were running roughshod over the law in two countries.

Instead of shutting down the operation the local Cochise County Sheriff John Behan allowed them free reign as long as they paid him “a tax” on their stolen cattle.

Wyatt headed to Tombstone to join his brother Virgil, initially intending on avoiding law enforcement. Wyatt was drawn back into the business, when he witnessed an event that had a great impact on him.

One of the Cowboy’s most notorious members, Curly Bill Brocius and five other cowboys, began shooting up the town for the pure fun of it. Tombstone’s City Marshall Fred White intervened and ordered Brocius to relinquish his pistol. Curly Bill appeared to comply, but as he turned his pistol over to White, it discharged, striking White in the groin.

Wyatt, who was unarmed at the time borrowed a pistol, knocked Brocius unconscious and took him to jail. Days later, U.S. Deputy Marshal Wyatt Earp saved Curly Bill from an enraged lynch mob. A court of law eventually acquitted Brocius of all charges ruling the killing of White, “accidental.”

Virgil Earp was appointed to replace Marshal White. Virgil still held his position as US Deputy Marshal and Wyatt, determined to help his brother, held positions as a US Deputy Marshal, Deputy Sheriff for Pima County and Deputy City Marshal for the City of Tombstone.

The Gunfight at the OK Corral
Prior to the arrival of the Earps, the Cowboys had a sweet deal, which allowed them to come, go, and do as they pleased unfettered by the constraints of the law.

The conflict between the Cowboys and the Earps was fueled by a crooked election, stolen government mules, a double-homicide-stagecoach robbery, the court’s repeated failure to convict Cowboys, at least one woman, and the Cowboys’ constant death threats directed at the Earps, who refused to be cowed by the gang.

At three o’clock on the afternoon of October 26, 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona City Marshall Virgil Earp deputized Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc Holiday, and on Virgil’s command, the four began the long walk toward the OK Corral to disarm the cowboys gathered there. Tired of the lawlessness and death threats Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan and Doc were clearly saying, using today’s verbiage, “Bring it on.”

When the group reached Fly’s Boarding House, the Earps found Sheriff Behan talking with the Cowboys. Behan approached the Earp’s and told them that the Cowboys had been disarmed.

The officers ignored the unforgivable lie, by-passed Behan and stopped about ten feet from the Cowboys. Virgil challenged Ike Clanton, Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury and, Billy Claiborne to, “Throw up Your Hands!”

Witnesses agreed that the command was followed by the Cowboys reaching for their weapons and cocking them. Virgil responded to this movement shouting, “Hold. I don’t want that!”

There was another pause and then the first two shots rang out simultaneously fired by Frank McLaury and Wyatt Earp. These shots were immediately followed by general firing from both directions. Wyatt’s first shot mortally wounded the most dangerous man present, Frank McLaury, but Frank was still in the fight.

With the sound of gunshots, Claiborne, Ike, and Behan fled the fight. They would all give testimony later, sympathetic to the Cowboys.

As the fighting commenced Holliday was on the move, killing Tom McLaury with the double barreled shotgun blast to the chest. That done Doc tossed the shotgun aside and opened fire with his pistol. Billy Clanton fired at Wyatt, missed and was hit immediately in the right wrist by Morgan Earp.

Undeterred, Billy transferred his pistol to his left hand and continued the fight. Doc was grazed in the hip, Virgil was shot in the calf and Morgan had a round travel across both shoulders, before the guns of Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury were silenced forever by the combined fire of the officers.

Sheriff Behan Arrests the Earps
True to form Behan eventually arrested Holliday and the Earps, but after a lengthy court hearing Judge Wells Spicer ruled:

“I am of the opinion that the defendant, Virgil Earp, as chief of police, subsequently calling upon Wyatt Earp, and J. H. Holliday to assist him in arresting and disarming the Clantons and McLaurys, committed an injudicious and censurable act, and although in this he acted incautiously and without due circumspection; yet when we consider the conditions of affairs incident to a frontier country; the lawlessness and disregard for human life; the existence of a law-defying element in [our] midst; the fear and feeling of insecurity that has existed; the supposed prevalence of bad, desperate and reckless men who have been a terror to the country and kept away capital and enterprise; and consider the many threats that have been made against the Earps, I can attach no criminality to his unwise act. In fact, as the result plainly proves, he needed the assistance and support of staunch and true friends, upon whose courage, coolness and fidelity he could depend, in case of an emergency.”

Within months of the gun fight in two separate Cowboy Ambushes, Virgil was mortally wounded and Morgan Earp was shot dead.

Pushed to his limit, US Deputy Marshal Wyatt Earp formed a posse and went looking for the men, who grievously wounded Virgil and killed Morgan. Wyatt and his posse broke up an attempt to ambush his family at a rail road yard in Tucson. His family was present and attempting to leave the territory by train, just two days after the death of Morgan.

A former deputy of Behan, Frank Stillwell tried to carry out this ambush. Stillwell was not only a suspect in the previous ambushes, but he also previously been acquitted of two homicides and a stage robbery in separate incidents. This time the Cowboy would not escape Wyatt’s harsh justice for Frank Stillwell was shot many times to his death by Wyatt Earp in a face to face close quarter encounter.

After Frank’s “shot up,” body was found the next morning a warrant was issued for Earp and his posse.

Two More Dead
After Tucson, Earp and his posse located Florentino Cruz in a logging camp. Cruz was one of the men suspected of ambushing Earp’s brothers. Earp shot him dead.

Wyatt and his men now had a posse headed by Behan looking for them. Expecting to be re-supplied, Earp and his men rode into a watering hole called Iron Springs. Instead of being met with supplies, they were met with yet another Cowboy ambush. The Cowboys, led by none other than Curly Bill Brocius, who had been saved by Earp from a lynch mod, opened fire on the Earp Posse.

One member of the posse, Texas Jack Vermillion went down with his horse and the others fled for cover. Wyatt ignoring the rounds hitting all around him spotted Brocius and advanced on him, calling out his name. Brocius stepped out to engage Wyatt, but Wyatt instantly brought final justice to Curly Bill via both muzzles of his double barreled shot gun.

The Cowboys focused their fire on Wyatt hitting Wyatt’s boot heel, saddle pommel and the coat tails of his duster, but once again Wyatt escaped unscathed. While returning their fire Wyatt shot dead Johnny Barnes and rescued Texas Jack with the assistance of Doc Holliday.

The close call would mark the end of the “Vendetta Ride” of Wyatt Earp. His posse now had two unfriendly “posses” looking for him and ultimately they found it necessary to vacate the territory for good.

Post OK Corral
Virgil traveled to California with his family. His arm would be supported by a sling the rest of his life, but this did not prevent him from serving as a rail road detective, Colton California City Marshall, and a Deputy for Esmeralda County Nevada.

After receiving a shocking letter In 1898 Virgil traveled to Portland Oregon to reunite with his wife Magdalena, “Ellen” who thought him killed in the War Between the States. He also met their daughter Mrs. Nellie Law and his two Grandchildren. The family separated by war, maintained a relationship throughout the remainder of his Virgil’s life, which ended quietly at home in his bed in 1905.

Wyatt lived out his life with a beautiful actress and his common law wife, Josie Marcus, whom he met in Tombstone. His pursuits included saloon keeper, sporting man, gold miner and even a referee in a controversial heavyweight championship fight. Scarred by the events in Tombstone Wyatt Earp never again wore a badge, but his and his brother’s determined albeit controversial effort to bring justice to a lawless land secured their place in law enforcement history.

Wyatt Earp died in 1929, the last remaining survivor of the “Gunfight at the OK Corral.”

In life, Deputy Marshal Wyatt Earp was a man of action not of words. However he did leave some timeless wisdom for any law enforcement officer to take with them into any gun fight. Wyatt Earp, the legend, learned the hard way that in a gun fight, “Fast is fine…accuracy is final.”

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