Wyatt Earp was a lawman, professional gambler and buffalo hunter, among other occupations, who famously took part in the shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, on October 26, 1881. Find out more about this Old West icon, from how he met his friend Doc Holliday to what happened to him after the Tombstone gunfight.
After a Midwestern childhood, he headed to California by wagon train as a teen.
Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois, on March 19, 1848, and named for his father’s commander in the Mexican-American War. Earp’s father had a number of occupations, including farmer, justice of the peace and bootlegger, and Wyatt spent his childhood in both Illinois and Iowa. After the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Earp ran away from the family farm and tried to join the Union army; however, his father found him and brought him home. In 1864, the Earps left Iowa and ventured west by wagon train. Along the way, the travelers had to contend with Indian raids and Wyatt reportedly witnessed his first gunfight. By the end of 1864, the Earps reached San Bernardino, California, where Wyatt labored on his father’s new farm then hauled freight and worked in railroad camps.
He was a lawman in the “Wickedest Little City in the West.”
By 1870, Earp got his first job in law enforcement, as town constable in Lamar, Missouri, where his family had relocated. He left the job in 1871, having been accused of mishandling public funds. That same year, he was arrested for stealing horses in Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), although his case never went to trial. In 1872, Earp was living in Peoria, Illinois, working as an enforcer in a brothel. He went on to spend time as a buffalo hunter before moving to Wichita, Kansas, in 1874. Wichita was a cattle-shipping center and in 1875 Earp got hired as a policeman there. He left the following year, after seriously beating another man during a fistfight, and became an assistant marshal in Dodge City, Kansas, a booming center of the cattle trade; it was dubbed the “Wickedest Little City in the West.” For the next several years, Earp worked as a lawman in Dodge during cattle-trading season, spending the rest of the year as a professional gambler in Texas and New Mexico.
Earp met Doc Holliday on the gambling circuit.
Earp met fellow gambler John Henry “Doc” Holliday in Texas in 1878. Holliday, a Georgia native born in 1851, had studied dentistry in Philadelphia. In 1872, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and doctors recommended he move to a drier climate. He went to Dallas in 1873 and established a partnership with another dentist; however, Holliday soon turned his attention from fixing teeth to drinking and gambling. Earp and Holliday became friends on the Texas gambling circuit in the late 1870s, and Doc participated in the gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881. Six years later, Holliday died of tuberculosis at age 36 in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
He was arrested for murder after the gunfight at OK Corral.
Earp arrived in the silver-mining boom town of Tombstone, Arizona, in 1879, and eventually found periodic work as a law officer. The famous gunfight took place on the afternoon of October 26, 1881, in a lot behind the OK Corral, when Earp and his brothers Morgan and Virgil, along with Doc Holliday, confronted cattle-thieving brothers Billy and Ike Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury. Virgil Earp ordered the cowboys to give up their guns but instead shots were fired, although it’s unclear who pulled the trigger first. The shootout, thought to have lasted less than a minute, left three people dead: Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton.
Afterward, the Earps and Holliday were arrested for murder. In late November 1881, they were exonerated in court. A month later, gunmen tried to murder Virgil Earp outside a Tombstone saloon; he survived but sustained serious injuries to one arm. Wyatt, who’d been appointed a deputy U.S. marshal, organized a posse to go after the Clanton family. Ike Clanton and another brother surrendered to law enforcement and charges against them in connection with Virgil’s shooting were dropped. In March 1882, gunmen killed Morgan Earp while he was with Wyatt at a Tombstone pool hall. Exacting revenge, Wyatt and his posse murdered several cowboys. The killings tarnished Wyatt’s reputation in Tombstone and he soon fled.
Earp refereed a controversial championship boxing match.
After leaving Tombstone in 1882, Earp moved around the West, laying low and supporting himself through gambling. By the late 1880s, he was living in San Diego with his companion, Josephine Marcus, a New York City-born actress he met in Tombstone. In California, Earp trained racehorses and organized and promoted prizefights. On December 2, 1896, he refereed a heavyweight championship boxing match between Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey, before a crowd of some 10,000 spectators in San Francisco. In the eighth round, Fitzsimmons, who’d dominated the fight, appeared to have won after punching Sharkey and knocking him to the ground; however, in a controversial move, Earp ruled the punch was illegal and disqualified Fitzsimmons. Word quickly spread among boxing fans that the match had been fixed, and Fitzsimmons took Sharkey to court; the case was dismissed. Earp maintained his innocence, but the scandal left a scar on his reputation.
Earp was the last surviving participant of the OK Corral shootout.
Earp died at his home in Los Angeles, possibly of chronic cystitis, on January 13, 1929, at age 80. His longtime companion Josephine (she called herself Josephine Earp, although there’s no record they ever were married) had his cremated remains buried at a cemetery in Colma, California. Earp, who had no children, was the last surviving participant of the OK Corral gunfight. In his later years, he’d consulted on Hollywood westerns and gotten to known various actors and directors. His funeral was attended by such celebrities as Western film star Tom Mix, who served as a pallbearer.
After his death, Earp was portrayed by Hollywood as a heroic lawman, thanks in part to a best-selling—but significantly embellished—1931 biography, “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall” by Stuart Lake. The book helped spawn movies and TV series about Earp, starring actors from Henry Fonda to James Garner to Kevin Costner in the lead role.