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WYATT EARP: TOMBSTONIAN
by Tim Fattig
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Wyatt Earp   But for Wyatt Earp's arrival in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, in December, 1879, the ultimate fate of the "The Town Too Tough to Die" made famous in so many books and motion pictures, may have been different: while Tombstone exists because of prospector Ed Schieffelin, the town persists because of Wyatt Earp and his singular exploits on the Arizona frontier of the early 1880's. Although known in certain circles as an efficient if undistinguished peace officer in the Kansas cow towns of Wichita and Dodge City, and a part-time gambler or "sporting man," the Wyatt Earp who landed in Tombstone near the beginning of the silver boom was a man of no national reputation; even so, he commanded a certain cheerful dread among his associates. Onetime Tombstone mayor, and publisher of the Epitaph newspaper, John P. Clum, remembered Earp as possessing "strong, positive and pleasing" features, though adding that he "smiled only when the occasion warranted it... Quite my ideal of the strong, manly, serious and capable peace office-equally unperturbed whether...meeting with a friend or a foe." Sporting man Fred Dodge put it rather more bluntly: "...As a man he [Earp] was Ace high, and as a peace officer he WAS the peace..."

   The Earp brothers (James, Virgil, and Wyatt at this point; Morgan and Warren Earp would arrive in mid-1880) attempted to organize an opposition stage line for the silver camp, but this folded within two or three months. James soon found employment in the Allen Street saloon of "Colonel" James Vogan, while Wyatt was engaged as a faro dealer in a succession of gambling houses: the Golden Eagle Brewery, Danner & Owens' tent saloon, and the Oriental Saloon, all at the deadly intersection of Fifth and Allen streets. During his time "bucking the tiger" at the Oriental, Earp resumed his acquaintance with a Dodge City sporting man named John Henry "Doc" Holliday, soon to become one of the most outspoken (and least predictable) members of the Earp crowd in town. In the spring and summer of 1880, Earp did well for himself and invested a portion of his gambling income in various mining and water-rights proposals; thus far he and his brothers had done little to distinguish themselves from any of the hundreds of other adventurers arriving each week.

   All that changed in the summer of 1880. After repeated clashes with suspected rustlers Ike Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury, Earp accepted the appointment of deputy in the administration of Pima County Sheriff Charles A. Shibell. From late July to early November of that year, Earp kept busy with the usual roster of drunks and pickpockets, and started a nasty vendetta involving the Earps and their backers on one side, and the Clanton-McLaury stock thieves, known generally as "cowboys", on the other. The antagonism reached an all-time high after the October shooting of town marshal Frederick G. White by cowboy chief Curly Bill Brocius, and the latter's summary pistol-whipping and arrest by Wyatt Earp. Although Brocius was cleared of criminal intent in a subsequent hearing in Tucson, he and his friends would not soon forget Earp's involvement.

   Time passed, but memories remained vivid. By the spring of 1881 it was apparent that the Earps and the cowboys were on a collision course: in March, the Earps went after the Brocius-connected cowboys wanted for the attempted robbery of the Benson stage and the murders of two of the men aboard, and in early June Virgil Earp succeeded Benjamin Sippy (who abdicated in the face of pressure from the Citizens' Safety Committee), as Tombstone's chief of police. Threats were made by members of each of the factions in town, and it was considered unsafe to be too pronounced on the topic, unless well-armed or fleet of foot. As Fred Dodge recalled, "Everything seemed to trend towards an open collision..."

   The last straw came on September 12, 1881, when Wyatt Earp and two other lawmen arrested cowboy worthies Peter Spencer and Frank Stilwell, charged with the robbery of the Bisbee stage the week before. The jailing of the well-known outlaws from Texas enraged the Clantons, Brocius, and others in the cowboy fraternity, whom James Earp recalled "stirring up bad blood in Tombstone...[by] making threats against the Earp boys." Wyatt, for his part, was unsurprised by this turn of events. "I naturally kept my eyes open," he later said, "for I did not intend that any of the gang should get the drop on me if I could help it..." While Stilwell and Spencer beat the rap in the stage-robbery case, they unwittingly managed to light the fuse that would lead to one of the most celebrated and most argued-over gunfights in the long and bloody history of the Old West.

   Six weeks after the arrest of the men from Texas, Tombstone Marshal Virgil Earp, brothers Wyatt and Morgan, and the ubiquitous Doc Holliday, confronted Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, and Billy Claiborne, all members of the cowboy gang, in a small lot near the intersection of Third and Fremont streets in Tombstone. The O.K. Corral was nowhere in sight, but would soon come to be associated, if only in legend, with the thirty-second shooting scrape about to take place there. The best evidence in the case-and there is no shortage of witness testimony, secondary literature, and idle conjecture in connection with the gunfight-suggests that two members of the cowboy party, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton, answered Virgil Earp's call for their surrender by drawing their six-shooters; Wyatt Earp, by his own testimony, responded in kind, drawing his pistol and shooting Frank McLaury in the gut. The parties kept up a vigorous fire for about half a minute, when the principal belligerents in the cowboy party-Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton-were found to be dead or dying. Virgil and Morgan Earp sustained serious gunshot wounds, while Doc Holliday was grazed by the last shot from Frank McLaury's pistol. Wyatt Earp was untouched by any of the flying lead; he had a habit of going unscathed through episodes of gunplay, and, indeed, in a half-century of life in the Wild West he was never so much as nicked by a bullet.

   The end of the gunfight was only the beginning of trouble for the Earp boys: although cleared of any wrongdoing in a protracted hearing, lasting fully one month and attracting lurid press coverage as far off as New York City, the Earps remained highly visible targets. Dismissed as marshal by an apprehensive city council in mid-November, Virgil Earp was the target of cowboy-connected assassins on the night of December 28, 1881, and sustained crippling injuries in the shotgun ambush. Morgan Earp was less fortunate, being murdered by an unknown assassin (both Virgil and Wyatt Earp would insist that Frank Stilwell was the killer), while playing a game of pool in Campbell & Hatch's Saloon, on March 18, 1882. This killing, and Wyatt Earp's subsequent course of action, would effectively end the so-called "Earp era" in Tombstone.

   On March 20, while escorting the maimed Virgil Earp to the Tucson depot of the Southern Pacific Railroad on his way out of the Territory, Wyatt Earp encountered Frank Stilwell and meted out justice in the by-now-expected form: the cowboy's buckshot-riddled corpse was discovered the next morning, one observer describing Stilwell as having been "the worst shot-up man that I ever saw...Stilwell shot Morg Earp and they were bound to get him..." When Wyatt Earp returned to Tombstone following the Stilwell killing, he was threatened with arrest by the sheriff of Cochise County, John H. Behan, long a personal and political adversary of the Earp boys, from whom Earp expected little in the way of a fair hearing. Earp brushed past the sheriff and laughed at the murder warrants he held. The brothers' Tombstone experiment was all over, and had ended at such a terrific cost to the family; Behan's warrants held little terror for Earp or his followers. As they rode out of Tombstone late on the afternoon of March 21, 1882, Earp and his men knew it was the last time any of them would set foot in the scene of their greatest accomplishments, and most bitter personal tragedies. Nothing in Earp's long and varied career would ever come close to the potential, for good or for ruin, that Tombstone had represented, and he would spend another quarter-century trying to find another Tombstone, without success.

   The Tombstone record of the Earp brothers, and especially Wyatt, has been a controversial one; then as now, their admirers in southeastern Arizona are no less vocal than their detractors. Some agreed with the assessment of George W. Parson, a mining speculator and contemporary of the Earps: Wyatt Earp, he said, "was not an angel, but his faults were minor ones and he never killed a man who did not richly deserve it." A later Tombstone resident, Ethel R. Macia, born there in 1881 and dimly recalling meeting Wyatt Earp in Colorado later in the decade, spoke for another generation of Arizona natives when she observed in 1957 that Earp "was a fine man, and a lot of wonderful people believed in him...then and now. Earp was a gentleman. He was not coarse, but he had to be strong to keep Tombstone from being over-run."

   Wyatt Earp was many things to many people. But whatever he was, and whatever his accomplishments in a life spent wandering the great frontier, this much is certain: without Tombstone, Wyatt Earp likely would have remained a peripheral Old West character; and without Wyatt Earp, Tombstone never would have become a part of the mythic American experience of the old southwest.

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