Virgil Earp – Upholding the Law of the West


Virgil Earp

Virgil Earp

“Virgil Earp was known as one of the most daring and adventurous of Western pioneers and he was known from North to South on the Pacific Coast as one of the great-hearted men who helped to build the West.”

– The Oregonian, October 30, 1905.

Though living a life of as much adventure as did his younger brother, Wyatt, Virgil Earp never obtained the same kind of fame, perhaps due to Wyatt’s better skills at self-publicity.

Virgil Walter Earp was born on July 18, 1843 in Hartford, Kentucky, the second son of Nicholas Earp and Virginia Ann Cooksey. By the time Virgil was 17 years-old, his family was living in Pella, Iowa, where he eloped with a Dutch immigrant by the name of Magdalena C. “Ellen” Rysdam on September 21, 1861. Though her parents severely disapproved of her choice in a husband, the pair remained together. When the Civil War broke out, 18 year-old Virgil enlisted in the Union Army, eventually serving with the 83rd Illinois Infantry from July 26, 1862-June 24, 1865.

Virgil and Ellen had a baby girl on January 7, 1862, naming her Nellie Jane Earp. It was the only known child that Virgil would have in his lifetime. He went off to war when she was only two weeks old.

While Virgil was off fighting the war, Ellen received word in the summer of 1863, that Virgil had been killed. Soon after, she remarried a man named John Van Rossem and the couple, along with Virgil’s daughter, Nellie, moved to Oregon Territory.

Alas, when Virgil was discharged from the army on June 26, 1865, he arrived back in Pella to find his wife and daughter gone. In the meantime, the rest of his family had moved westward to San Bernardino California. A year later, he joined them in Calfiornia. Though he had probably learned where Ellen and his daughter had gone, he evidently did not go looking for them.

In 1866, Virgil was working with younger brother Wyatt, as a freighter-teamster between Wilmington and Prescott, Arizona. Later, the pair also worked on railroad construction in Wyoming.

In 1868, the Earps returned to the Midwest, settling in Lamar, Missouri, where Virgil helped his father Nicholas farm and operate a grocery store. While there, Virgil took a second wife named Rosella Dragoo on August 28, 1870. But, Virgil was obviously having no luck in the love department as the marriage lasted just three years.

Shortly afterwards, Virgil left Lamar, settling in Council Bluffs, Iowa for a short time. There he met a waitress named Alvira “Allie” Sullivan. Though some say they married in 1874 in Los Angeles, Calfiornia, others surmise that they never made it official. In any case, Virgil would spend the rest of his life with her.

Over the years, Virgil would most often work as a lawman, but also held a number of other jobs, including farming, prospecting, driving a stagecoach, rail construction, and working at a sawmill.

Dodge City, Kansas 1876

Dodge City, Kansas 1876

In 1877, Virgil was in Dodge City, Kansas along with brother, Wyatt. However, no records indicate that he ever worked as a lawman there. From Dodge City, he and his wife moved on to Prescott, Arizona, were he worked in a sawmill. However, in October, 1877, he was deputized by Yavapai County Sheriff, Ed Bowers during a gunfight in the street. Fighting robbers who were trying to make off with their loot, Virgil shot one of them twice through the head with a Winchester Rifle. The next year, he served as a night watchman in Prescott for a couple of months before becoming a constable.

On November 27, 1879, Virgil was appointed as a U.S. Deputy Marshal for Arizona Territory and traveled from Prescott to Tombstone, along with brother Wyatt. Less than a year later, on October 30, 1880, Virgil became the acting town marshal after Fred White was shot and killed by outlaw and gunman Curly Bill Brocius.

He continued to hold his federal law enforcement position, as well as the marshal’s appointment. However, it wouldn’t be for long, as elections were held just two weeks later for the “open” marshal slot. Virgil was narrowly defeated by Ben Sippy.

The next year, on June 6, 1881, Virgil would find himself appointed as acting city marshal again when Ben Sippy requested a temporary leave of absence. During his appointment, Tombstone was devastated by a fire on June 22nd and Virgil was left to help manage the issues. Less than a week later, the City of Tombstone discovered $3,000 in financial improprieties in the marshal’s office. Ben Sippy, who had known financial problems, was then permanently replaced by Virgil, on appointment of Tombstone Mayor John Clum.

Re-creation of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

Re-creation of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

Later that year, on October 26th, Tombstone and the Earps would become famous for the well publicized Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. When Virgil, temporarily deputizing brothers, Wyatt and Morgan, and Doc Holliday, went to disarm the McLaurys and Billy Clanton, all hell broke loose resulting in the most famous gunfight of the Old West. The affair made Wyatt a legend, but it was actually Virgil who was the most experienced. Up to that point, Wyatt had only been in one gunfight, Morgan in none, while Virgil had years of lawman experience plus that of the Civil War. When the smoke cleared, Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton were dead. Virgil Earp took a shot to the leg and Morgan suffered a shoulder wound.

Sheriff John Behan arrested Virgil Earp, Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday for murder of Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury and Frank McLaury. Three days later, the city council suspended Virgil, pending the outcome of the shooting investigation. After a trial, all of the members of the Earp faction were found to have acted within the law.

Over the next few months, the Earps struggled to retain control over Tombstone, as word was spreading that the Cowboy faction would take their revenge on the Earps for the killings. For safety, Virgil moved to the Cosmopolitan Hotel. A couple of months later, on December 28th, when Virgil was walking from the Oriental Saloon to the hotel, he was ambushed. Shots were fired from the second story of a building across Allen Street, hitting the Crystal Palace Saloon and the Eagle Brewery, breaking windows and narrowly missing customers. Virgil was hit in the back and left arm by buckshot. Though his arm would be permanently crippled, he would survive. The shooters were never positively identified. Though Ike Clanton’s hat was found at the shooting site, one of his friends gave him an alibi and no arrests were made.

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