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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 70

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This is the grave of Virgil Earp.

2016-08-19 15.32.30

Born in 1843 in Hartford, Kentucky, Earp joined the Union army in 1863, serving with the 83rd Illinois Infantry. He was married at this time with a baby daughter. His wife was told he had died. She then married another man and moved to Oregon. He left the army in 1865 and went to Iowa, where he thought his family resided. But they were long gone. He remarried in 1870 but the woman disappeared from all public records so we don’t know what happened. Earp and his brothers Wyatt and Morgan moved all around the West for a long time, doing a variety of jobs, including law enforcement. He eventually found himself in Dodge City, Kansas with his brother but it’s unclear if he served in law enforcement. He did however hear through friends about opportunities in Tombstone, Arizona, and convinced his brothers to move there with him. In 1880, Virgil was appointed town marshal on and off for the next couple of years.

It was here that he played a critical role in the Shootout at the O.K. Corral. After a series of threats by outlaw cowboys known as the Cochise County Cowboys, Tombstone passed a law requiring people to turn in their guns. The Earps had tried to crack down on the Cowboys organized crime activities and their lives were frequently threatened. On October 26, 1881, the two sides battled in Tombstone and 3 of the Cowboys were killed. Virgil, his two brothers, and Doc Holliday were originally charged with murder but a judge quickly exonerated them. That was not the end of their travails. On December 28, the Cowboys attempted to kill Virgil, shooting him three times in the back. They failed, but they destroyed his left arm. Morgan Earp was assassinated in March 1882. While Wyatt led a posse to kill the Cowboys, Virgil went to recover at his parents house in California.

He took two years to recover from his wounds. After that, he served in a variety of law enforcement positions in California. He later ran a saloon, moved to Colorado and then Arizona, where he got involved in mining and ranching. It was not until 1898 that he discovered his first wife and daughter were alive. They made contact and he became close with his daughter and grandchildren he did not know he had. He died in Goldfield, Nevada in 1905.

Earp has been portrayed many times in popular culture. Among the highlights are Tim Holt playing him in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, Guy Wilkerson in Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73, John Hudson in John Sturges’ Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Frank Converse in another Sturges production, Hour of the Gun, a far too old for the part Sam Elliott in George Cosmatos’ Tombstone, and Michael Madsen in Lawrence Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp. Also, Charles Maxwell played him in an episode of Star Trek, which I guess I have never seen.

Virgil Earp is buried in River View Cemetery, Portland, Oregon.

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  • CP

    Amazing how completely forgotten it’s become that the most famous shootout in Western history happened over an attempt to control firearms. Doubly so since the Earps are almost always remembered as the good guys.

    • CrunchyFrog

      Yes. In stark contrast to the NRA myth of “armed society = polite society” the reality of the wild west was that the frontier towns frequently banned firearms inside the city limits. No one complained about 2nd amendment issues then because this was before modern propaganda movements.

      • CP

        Yep. Back in the days when a gun actually WAS “just a tool, like a hammer or a drill,” no one minded them being regulated. It’s only in the modern era, when they’d become fetish objects rather than something ordinary people might actually use, that NRA type craziness became mainstream.

        • Sly

          The NRA basically got swept up in the anti-Johnson backlash of the 1960s, specifically with respect to the Gun Control Act of 1968, and there was a faction of far-right loons headed by Harlon Carter who effectively took the entire group over in a coup in the mid/late-70s. Carter was the one who hired LaPierre, then a legislative aide to a Virginia state pol, who became his successor.

          • joel hanes

            loons … took over the entire [NRA]

            Thank you for remembering this.

            Between 1940 and about 1965, the NRA was a responsible and much less political organization, largely concerned with marksmanship and gun safety training. At a time when a large fraction of young men could expect to eventually be in the armed forces, such training was regarded as a civic good, and patriotic, much like buying savings bonds.

            My grandfather was an NRA trainer.

            I convinced my father to drop out of the NRA sometime in the 1970s when I showed him that their direct-mail material was full of lies and propaganda.

        • Manny Kant

          Well, obviously the Cowboys minded.

        • tsam

          They complained–that gunfight was over those pricks insisting on carrying their guns in town, and disarming them led to the death threats and escalated to an all out war.

      • Just_Dropping_By

        the reality of the wild west was that the frontier towns frequently banned firearms inside the city limits. No one complained about 2nd amendment issues then because this was before modern propaganda movements.

        Frontier towns (and even major cities) also committed what would today be considered massive First Amendment violations throughout the 19th Century — censorship of books and pamphlets, government-sanctioned Christian pageantry, “blue laws” concerning various business activities on Sundays and Christian holidays, anti-non-Christian laws (such as various Mormon bans), etc. — and no one, or close to no one, complained about those things either. In fact, it wasn’t until 1925 that SCOTUS determined the First Amendment even applied to the states. I guess it must have been because of “modern propaganda movements” that SCOTUS decided that.

        • Srsly Dad Y

          Fair.

        • Murc

          I believe blue laws are, in fact, still considered constitutional.

          I guess it must have been because of “modern propaganda movements” that SCOTUS decided that.

          Perhaps the two situations are entirely different? Because the presence of a modern propaganda movement around the gun-fondlers is, in fact, a thing, as is the horrible jurisprudence and public policy arising from it.

          • tsam

            Minnesota, of all the baffling locations, still has blue laws

            • BruceJ

              Most states still have blue laws on the books. Many are blatantly unconstitutional, but since they’re not enforced they don’t get overturned.

    • TopsyJane

      Amazing how completely forgotten it’s become that the most famous shootout in Western history happened over an attempt to control firearms.

      This is a point well made in Tombstone, the first of the many pictures about the O.K. Corral shootout to make a real effort to follow the historical record.

      • BruceJ

        Too bad control of firearms wasn’t actually practiced in modern Tombstone.

  • swiftfox2

    As a Star Trek fan, it’s interesting that the Earps are portrayed as the villains, per se, against the Trek crew. It was the rare interesting episode of the show’s terrible last season.

    • Marlowe

      The episode is Spectre of the Gun, which I just happened to watch a couple of nights ago in my umpteenth Star Trek rewatch over (hard for me to believe) 50 years. (As a 12-year old SF fan, I was on pins and needles for months waiting for the show’s debut in 1966.) It’s an odd episode, but really not that good, though certainly not as bad as the worst Season 3 episodes. With a small number of exceptions, the quality of that season is far lower than the first two seasons.

      • ΧΤΠΔ

        Three words: Code of Honor.

        • ΧΤΠΔ

          ETA: D’oh; I thought for a second you were referring to TNG. Anyway, “Spectre” is meh with “Spock’s Brain” and “The Omega Glory” being unintentionally hilarious, but the space-hippies episode is fucking annoying and “Turnabout Intruder” & “Ane the Children Shall Lead” are unwatchable pigshit.

          • Jordan

            ya, TNG and TOS kinda reverse it. Early TNG episodes kinda suck and then get good (obvious exceptions apply). more or less the reverse for TOS (but same exceptions).

            and ya, code of honor is an utter racist shitshow.

            • Woodrowfan

              Patterns of Force. If you decide you want to copy the NAZI’s you are not a kindly old professor. You are an evil piece of ….

              • The Dark God of Time

                The scariest part is how easily Kirk impersonates an Ekosian Nazi.

            • CrunchyFrog

              There really aren’t any hidden gems in season 3 – I’m sure of this as millions of fans have gone back and looked hoping for one. There are bits and pieces, and much of what happened in season 3 featured importantly in subsequent Star Trek. The self-destruct sequence in “Let that Be Your Last Battlefield”, for example. The Spock-McCoy interactions in “All our Yesterdays” were fun. Parts of the “Savage Curtain” were fun, notably the introduction of Surak. And the title “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky” has to be one of the all time greats, up there with “Repent Harliquin, said the Ticktockman”, although the story was weak.

              The best of season 3 was probably “The Enterprise Incident” – and it also set a lot of precedents for future Trek.

              • BruceJ

                “World is Hollow” story is weak because they fucking edited chainsawed Harlan’s script badly…

          • The Pale Scot

            “Spock’s Brain”

            Loved those boots

          • John Revolta

            Pfffft. Whaddda you know? Stupid grup.

        • sigaba

          “A Fistful of Datas”

          • Jordan

            I like that episode, I don’t know why everyone hates it.

            Its very, very silly, of course. And a bit late in the game for the “omg the holodeck malfunctioned again”.

            That said, I like evil western data.

            • sigaba

              I think it’s sorta cute that everybody pretends for an hour that Troi actually has interests outside of work or has some sort of inner life.

              • Jordan

                Hey, Troi also has relationships with various men all the time!

                Oh, wait, hmmm. Right.

      • N__B

        With a small number of exceptions, the quality of that season is far lower than the first two seasons.

        Not every episode could match the high-water mark of "Spock's Brain."

        • sharonT

          Hey, it wasn’t easy to find a way to cast the entire troupe of Dean Martin’s Golddiggers in a Trek episode. They really rose to the challenge.

          • Dennis Orphen

            Lesser people would have settled for just working Joe Piscopo as himself into the episode.

        • Hogan

          The episode was referenced in Modern Principles: Microeconomics by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok of George Mason University Press as an example of how it is virtually impossible to have a command economy; in that not even Spock’s brain could run an economy and many fans consider the episode the worst ever.

          If further evidence is needed.

      • sharonT

        Worst third season episode:

        A battle between The Empath and Requiem for Methuselah. OK, maybe Cloud Minders. OK, maybe Enterprise Incident.

        I always save a special place for Spock’s Brain and Turnabout Intruder because they’re both so delightfully bad.

        “Brain and Brain! What is brain?!”

        • CrunchyFrog

          It can’t be Enterprise Incident. It featured a lot of the elements that make for the great Trek episodes, only not done so well. Except Kirk as lady-killer – they gave that role to Spock. And yes, there are quite a few fans who can’t deal with that. As well as Shatner himself – is that you posting here again, Bill? Forget it, Bill, the Final Frontier will always be the worst Trek movie ever. You can’t win that argument.

          No the worst of season the was Turnabout Intruder, edging out Spock’s brain by a nose – and the fact that those two bookended the season has to mean something. But as bad as they were, you could at least follow the plot. Which is why season 1’s Alternative Factor gets the worst-of-TOS title.

          • sharonT

            I’ve always believed that there’s a complete script of the full, three-hour version, of The Alternative Factor buried some place in the back of a Paramount warehouse. A feature length movie treatment is the only way that episode could have made any sense.

  • Sly

    Slight Correction: The name of Kasden’s film was Wyatt Earp, not Tombstone.

    Elliot gave a good performance in Tombstone, but I think the reason he looked too old for the part is because Russell was around 10 years older than the real Wyatt Earp when the latter was at Tombstone. Virgil was 5 years older than Wyatt, and Sam Elliot is has about the same age difference with Russell. Plus Elliot has always looked like he washes his face with tannin and a whetstone.

  • Todd

    The Earps seem like the worst sort of people, gilded age gunmen only too happy to be a part of official corruption.

    My favorite Earp portrayal (though no Virgil character appears) is the thinly disguised Earp/Holliday characters in “Warlock”, based on the book by Oakley Hall.

    • ZakMcKrackenAndTheAlienMindbenders

      @Todd I’m not a big fan of westerns as a genre, and had no idea there was even a film adaptation of Warlock (which I *am* a big fan of). Thanks for that.

  • Karen24

    Look for a cheap direct-to-video movie by some RW outfit with the Earps as bad guys any day. Also, I love the detail about his wife being told he was dead, and then him finding her and becoming close to his grandchildren.

    • witlesschum

      Hollywood made a couple of versions around 1970s with the Earps as at least anti-heroes according to an article I read about the various Earp movies.

  • wjts

    Also, Charles Maxwell played him in an episode of Star Trek, which I guess I have never seen.

    He was also played by Victor Carin in the Doctor Who serial The Gunfighters.

    • Manny Kant

      Complete with utterly abominable “American” accent?

      • wjts

        I wouldn’t be surprised, but I haven’t actually seen it. The couple of Hartnell “historicals” that I’ve seen haven’t inspired me to seek out the others.

  • Woodrowfan

    Imagining Tombstone: The Town Too Tough to Die by Kara L. McCormack
    (University Press of Kansas, 2016) discusses the role of the gunfight in popular culture, including that Star Trek episode “Specter of the Gun”

  • N__B

    Thomas Berger was a strange, strange guy, but I enjoyed some of his novels. His second best line was having a man challenge Wyatt Earp to a gun duel with “Draw, you goddamned belch.”

    Berger’s best line was having Morgan Le Fay say, in response to Mordred’s taunts that she’s been trying for decades and still hasn’t managed to kill Arthur, “Canst thou do better, little shit?”

  • lige

    It’s amazing to me how mobile people could be in the late 19th century. That’s a lot of moving.

    • Jordan

      Thats kinda what I was thinking, and also: how could they reconnect over that much space without even telephones???

      Very strange.

      • Dennis Orphen

        The population was much smaller, and the the lack of electronic communications and media probably worked both ways. They couldn’t communicate as instantaneously, but people probably had a better idea who everyone in their community was, and what they were doing.

        • Colin Day

          They did have telegrams.

          • The Dark God of Time

            And a national mail service, although R.F.D. wasn’t until the 20th Century.

            • Owlbear1

              My Great Great Grandmother had some fantastic stories and even a few photographs of her brother’s Mail Courier job for private company in Chicago. It sounded like it employed quite a few people. They would train the horses to the routes so if anything happened to the riders the horse still might make it.

              She often joked, “If Mark was any indication it was a damn good thing the horses knew where they were going.”

              • The Dark God of Time

                That’s what the Pony Express was, a mail courier service between the East and the Pacific Slope.

                I, …, do hereby swear, before the Great and Living God, that during my engagement, and while I am an employee of Russell, Majors, and Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language, that I will drink no intoxicating liquors, that I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect I will conduct myself honestly, be faithful to my duties, and so direct all my acts as to win the confidence of my employers, so help me God.”

                — Oath sworn by Pony Express Riders[11][12]

    • sigaba

      He was a very rootless man. And there were trains.

    • tsam

      Wyatt did the same thing. Mining, saloon operating, law enforcement, they didn’t keep jobs very long. Overall, I think the Earps were more the exception than the rule.

      • witlesschum

        Not necessarily. I remember something quoted by Larry McMurtry where a contemporary was complaining that people on the frontier were constantly moving and couldn’t be induced to stay in one place. Doesn’t seem like they were that unique.

        • Ahuitzotl

          It was a society of grifters, everyone kept moving looking for the big score.

          plus ca change

    • Keaaukane

      As I learned on the TO thread, his constant moving around is probably what is keeping him out of the HOF.

      • Keaaukane

        I thought I was making a joke, but it turns out there is a Gunfighters Hall of Fame, and Virgil is in it. I apologize to any members of the Earp clan who may have been offended by my mistake.

        • tsam

          Gun fighters in one century, serial killers in the next.

          • Keaaukane

            A serial killer museum is a brilliantly twisted idea. But where would one place it? Seattle, home of the Green River Killer and Ted Bundy?

  • Jordan

    Its very bro-ey, but man do I love the Cosmatos “Tombstone”. Mostly for the dialogue, but still.

    • bender

      I love it too, especially Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday. Wyatt Earp was released at the same time and made tons more money because of Kevin Costner, but the screenplay is a snooze.

      • rhino

        Val Kilmer was fantastic in that part. Only time I can think of where his acting impressed me. Not that I watch a lot of film from that era. Or a lot of film period, really.

    • witlesschum

      Agreed. A lot of the crazier dialogue is supposed to be actual western slang and the “You’re a daisy if you do” thing is supposed to be something Holliday actually said.

      The version that came out was apparently really cut down from the epic that the writer/original director Kevin Jarre imagined. Robert Mitchum was going to play the Cowboy’s patriarch but he ended up as just the narrator. The studio fired Jarre early one because he was behind schedule and a lot of the scenes he envisioned never got shot, so it’s not like they can even put together a director’s cut.

      It’s still a real good movie and Russell, Kilmer and Dana Delany seem impossible to top, but I wonder if someone might take a shot at filming Jarre’s script as miniseries or something, what with peak TV.

  • rob_b

    How and why did his corpse travel 800 miles to be buried in Portland?

    • sigaba

      I repeat myself, but in 1905 the US had significant transportation infrastructure. He died in Goldfield, Nevada, which a little research tells me was on a spur of the Tonopah and Tidewater railway, which terminated with a junction with the ATSF in Ludlow. The ATSF ended at Los Angeles, where services of the SP and UP went all up and down the Pacific coast.

    • Michael Cain

      This piece has the story. Short version, his daughter, with whom he stayed in touch after being reconnected, lived there.

  • shawn k

    Wyatt and Morgan are on a few episodes of Deadwood, presumably when Virgil is recovering. If I recall correctly they were out of the gunslinger trade; and Morgan was portrayed as sleezy if not exactly evil.

    • tsam

      All of the Earps were pretty sleazy. They were pimps at times.

      • bender

        Wyatt Earp married a beautiful woman who was probably a whore when he met her. She was from a wealthy San Francisco Jewish family. They stayed together for the rest of their lives, which were pretty long. At one point they ran a dude ranch type resort. Wyatt is buried in his wife’s family’s tomb in one of the Jewish cemeteries in Colma, just south of San Francisco, which suggests that his wife’s family did not disapprove of him. The tomb gets a lot of visitors.

        I’m sorry I don’t recall Earp’s wife’s name, but I’m sure it’s available on the Internet.

        • witlesschum

          Josephine Marcus. She’s played by Dana Delany and forms a pretty big part of the Tombstone. Her being a whore isn’t something I recall seeing before, worse she was an actress. Earp had a wife he left for Marcus, who is commonly thought to have been a prostitute.

          There’s a pretty good book about the Earps and pop culture called Inventing Wyatt Earp by Allen Barra.

  • Dilan Esper

    Fun fact: DeForest Kelley, who was obviously in the Star Trek episode, also had a role in Gunfight at the OK Corrall.

    • Dennis Orphen

      Dammit Jim, {CRACK, POP, ZING} I’m a doctor, not {POP, ZING} a gunfighter!

    • Jestak

      He played Morgan Earp, in fact.

  • John Revolta

    I’ve seen him pop up in several Westerns. Of course Roddenberry used to describe Trek as “Wagon Train in space” so this makes prefect sense.

  • Jestak

    Sam Elliott was over a decade older than his character of Virgil Earp in Tombstone, but he still gave a very effective performance, plus, the film does right by history in making Virgil the town marshal on the day of the fight, not Wyatt.

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