This is the grave of Wyatt Earp.
The thug Earp was born in 1848 in Monmouth, Illinois. This was a family that moved around on the frontier a lot. They lived in California for awhile but ended up in Iowa. When Earp was only 13, his father, a strong Union man, volunteered for the Civil War and left his teenage sons in charge of the farm. He was severely wounded in 1863 and left the Army then and there was more California and other places in the future.
To understand the post-Civil War West, we have to look at both post-war settlement patterns and the role of the federal government. Whites on the frontier were often violence-prone for a number of reasons. A lot of these people were self-selecting to leave the cities and remake their already screwed up lives in the West. A lot of them had PTSD and other issues stemming from the war. But the federal and state governments also controlled who had access to these resources. The territories were almost completely run as patronage networks coming from DC and there were smaller versions of this coming out of state capitols when This usually meant the Republican Party. So in battles between various violent thugs, your politics really mattered. If you were a Republican, you were probably going to be on the side of what we might falsely call “law and order” and if you were a Democrat, you were probably going to be an “outlaw.” In truth, there wasn’t much difference between these sides for the most part on the issues that mattered. It was about access to resources, jobs, and patronage.
This is where Earp enters the story. He was a good Republican boy and thus was on the side of law and order even though law and order were not particular concerns of his. He may or may not have been legally married when he showed in Wichita, Kansas in 1874 with a woman, but in any case, she ran a brothel and he did the dirty work in that business. This was only after he already ran into problems, with an early first marriage ending with her death, him stealing public funds, then getting arrested for working in a brothel in Illinois. In Kansas, he got a job with the cops, but got fired when he beat up a political opponent of the sheriff. He floated a lot. He was in Dodge City, where he was involved in violence on the side of law and order. He was in Texas chasing the outlaws when he met Doc Holliday, a gambling thug and consumptive doctor, and they became buds. He followed his brothers out to Tombstone, Arizona, where once again, he was involved in the thuggery of territorial law enforcement, though his brother Virgil was more involved. See, being deputy sheriff like Virgil meant you got to keep a chunk of the money you collected for various things. He could then move that money however he wanted, which in this case meant in part to Wyatt. By most accounts Wyatt was actually good at this. He was a pretty fearless (or maybe just plain stupid) dude who was happy to pull his gun when needed. Or, you know, when he just felt like it.
This led to the Gunfight at the OK Corral, possibly the most overrated moment in American public memory since it was just two bands of thugs shooting at each other. But the violence was real enough and it had long roots in the politics and control over land and resources of the era. All of this would eventually kill Earp’s brother Morgan and seriously injure Virgil. Somehow Wyatt managed to never get shot.
It is also worth noting here that these western towns really were a mess. There really were lots of stories of drunken cowboys just riding into bars and theaters and starting to shoot them up. There really was a need for law enforcement. It’s just not some kind of heroic or romantic story. It’s just a mess.
It was in Tombstone that Earp met Josephine Marcus, a Jewish girl who was involved in all of the ridiculousness there, a sort of concubine to the county sheriff. They started a relationship. She left for San Francisco, where she was from, before the shootouts in Tombstone. Earp went there and joined her after the killing and they were together for the next 46 years, although never officially married. They moved around all over the place. Earp was completely rootless and it was boomtown to boomtown to boomtown, even as the West “closed” as the official violence was replaced by corporate domination where such thugs had fewer opportunities. He was in gold rush towns. He ran saloons. He fixed fights. And as the twentieth century dawned, he engaged in endless self-promotion.
See, from the moment the West was “won,” easterners found all of this fascinating. Funny how genocide will lead to nostalgia, but that’s what happened. So all of these writers and then later filmmakers were looking to tell stories about the Old West, even if that wasn’t not just old, but was in fact Right Now or at least like 5 minutes ago. This is how Buffalo Bill Cody became so famous. Owen Wister’s The Virginian provided the upper crust edge of this sort of thing, even though it is a terrible book. Theodore Roosevelt‘s endless promotion of himself and the violence he loved gave it political overtones. And then there were the endless dime novels. Well, Earp wanted to be famous too. He wasn’t unfamous. But what he really wanted was to be in the movies, or at least see himself portrayed. By this time, Earp and Josephine were splitting time between mining claims in the desert they worked in the winter and Los Angeles in the summers. Lots of these new young actors who looked good on a horse got to know the old-timers and that included Earp. So he lobbied them to get himself on the screen. But this only happened one time in his life. That was in the 1923 film Wild Bill Hickok, with William S. Hart. The Earp character only has a small role. He was disappointed.
In fact, it would not be until the 1930s that Earp joined the ranks of famous old-timey western gunfighters. That was due to a ridiculous 1931 “biography” of him that was filled with falsehoods and painted him out to be a total hero, which was very much not the case. Then the film portrayals came in spades. By this time, Earp was dead. He died in 1929, at the age of 80.
Wyatt Earp is buried in Hills of Eternity Memorial Park, Colma, California.
If you would like this series to visit other figures of the violent late nineteenth West, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Bill Hickok is in Deadwood, South Dakota and John Reynolds Hughes, the inspiration for The Lone Ranger, is in Austin, Texas. Previous posts in this series are archived here.