Born in 1848, Wyatt was one of the five Earp brothers, some of whom became famous for their participation in the shootout at the O.K. Corral in 1881. Before moving to Tombstone in 1879, however, Wyatt had already become a controversial figure. For much of his life, he worked in law enforcement, but his own allegiance to the rule of law was conditional at best.
In 1870, residents of Lamar, Missouri, elected Wyatt town constable. He did a good job as constable, but within a year his wife died of typhoid and he began wandering about the West. Not long after, Wyatt was arrested for stealing horses in Indian Territory, and he fled to Kansas to escape prosecution.
In 1873, Wyatt joined his older brother James in Wichita, Kansas, the rowdy cattle town that was the northern terminus of the Chisholm Trail. Wyatt again pinned on a badge. At first, it appears that he worked for a private security force employed by local saloons and businesses to keep order, but Wichita Marshal Michael Meagher hired him as an official city policeman by 1875.
Wyatt soon proved to be a daunting police officer. He knew how to use his Remington pistol, and he kept his skills sharp with frequent sessions of target practice. However, Wyatt also liked the Remington because it had a strap that made it an effective club: whenever possible, he preferred to pistol-whip his opponents rather than shoot them. He was also a formidable fistfighter. His friend and fellow law officer, Bat Masterson, later recalled that, “There were few men in the West who could whip Earp in a rough-and-tumble fight.”
During the next year, Wyatt again proved his mettle as a law officer, but his political skills were less refined. In April, Wichita held an election for city marshal. An opponent named William Smith challenged Wyatt’s boss, Michael Meagher, for the office. On April 2, Smith made several disparaging remarks about Meagher, and Wyatt took offense. Wyatt confronted Smith and beat him in a fistfight.
Although Meagher won reelection, he was unable to save Wyatt’s job. On this day in 1876, a Wichita commission decided that Wyatt’s violent behavior was unacceptable and did not rehire him as a police officer. As the town newspaper conceded, “It is but justice to Earp to say he has made an excellent officer,” but the young lawman had to learn to control his passions and play the political game.
After losing his job in Wichita, Wyatt immediately moved to Dodge City, where he found work on the police force. A few years later he joined several of his brothers in the booming mining town of Tombstone, Arizona. Unfortunately, wherever Wyatt traveled, trouble seemed to follow. In 1881, the controversial gun battle at the O.K. Corral again raised questions about Wyatt’s fidelity to the rule of law. Many claimed Wyatt helped kill Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury at the O.K. Corral not for legitimate law enforcement reasons, but because of a personal feud between the Earp brothers and the Clanton-McLaury clans. Although exonerated by a local Justice of the Peace, Wyatt was soon after involved in several other questionable murders, and he was eventually forced to flee Tombstone.
Wyatt Earp seemed unable to control his passions or play the political game, though his propensity for solving problems with bloodshed waned as he grew older. He spent the next five decades of a long and interesting life wandering around the West, dabbling in mostly unsuccessful business ventures in gold, silver, and oil. He eventually settled in Los Angeles where he died in 1929 at the age of 80.