Wyatt Earp – Frontier Lawman

Frank McLaury

Frank McLaury

Then John Behan, the County Sheriff, appeared pronouncing, “Ike Clanton and his crew are on Fremont Street talking gun-talk.” Evidently, Ike Clanton, the two McLaurys, Billy Clanton and Billy Claiborne were meeting in a vacant lot planning to bushwhack Doc Holliday, who passed that way every morning.

Virgil, as Chief Marshal, agreed to go down there to break them up but contended that Behan should accompany him. Behan only laughed. “Hell, this is your fight, not mine.”

Tom McLaury

Tom McLaury

However, the cowboys were surprised when the Earps showed up and Doc was with them. As they made their way to the OK Corral, witnesses said that the three Earp brothers were all dressed in black with firm, mean grimaces on their faces while Doc was nattily clad in grey and was whistling. Where the two forces finally met was actually 90 yards down an alley from the OK Corral. The actual gunfight took place off Fremont Street between Fly’s Photo Gallery and Jersey’s Livery Stable. The Earps passed by the OK Corral, but cut through the alley where they found the troublemakers waiting at the other end.

“You are under arrest for attempting to disturb the peace,” Virgil announced. As the senior officer, he displayed only a non-threatening walking stick, having given his shotgun to Doc to carry. The rustlers tightened and Morgan and Doc simultaneously braced for action. “Hold on, I don’t want that!” cried Virgil.

What happened next was a blur, occurring in about 30 seconds. The shooting started when Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury cocked their pistols. It is not really known who fired the first shot, but Doc’s bullet was the first to hit home, tearing through Frank McLaury’s belly and sending McLaury’s own shot wild through Wyatt’s coat-tail. Billy Clanton fired at Virgil, but his shot also went astray when he was hit with Morgan’s shot through his rib cage.

Billy Claiborne ran as soon as shots were fired and was already out of sight. Ike Clanton, too, panicked and threw his gun down, pleading for his life. “Fight or get out like Claiborne!” Wyatt yelled and watched Ike desert his brother, Billy, as he ran towards the door of the photography shop. But, Ike then withdrew a hidden gun firing one more round towards Wyatt before disappearing. The sound distracted Morgan, enough so that Tom McLaury sent a bullet into Morgan’s shoulder. Doc instantly countered, blowing Tom away with blasts from both barrels of his shotgun. Desperately, wounded and dying, Billy Clanton fired blindly into the gun smoke encircling him, striking Virgil’s leg. Wyatt responded by sending several rounds into Billy.

Clanton and McLaury Brothers dead

Clanton and McLaury Brothers dead

Then it was silent and the townspeople ran from their homes and shops, wagons were to convey wounded Morgan and Virgil to their respective homes, and doctors followed.

The 30-second shootout left Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury dead. Virgil took a shot to the leg and Morgan suffered a shoulder wound. As Wyatt stood, still stunned, Sheriff Behan appeared advising him he was under arrest. The Earps and Doc Holliday were tried for murder but it was determined that the Earps acted within the law. Virgil was later terminated as marshal for his role in the homicides.

On March 18, 1882, the cowboy gang struck again while Morgan Earp was playing pool at Campbell and Hatch’s Saloon. A shot was fired from the darkness of the alley striking Morgan in the back. Morgan’s body was dressed in one of Doc Holliday’s suits and shipped to the parents in Colton, California for burial.

The entire Earp party, including Mattie, accompanied Morgan’s body. However, in Tucson, Wyatt, Warren and Doc Holliday hopped off the train in search of Frank Stillwell, who supposedly worked in the railroad yards. The train went on to California without them.

Spotting Stillwell, Wyatt chased him down the track, filling him full of bullet holes. A Coroner’s Jury named Wyatt and Warren Earp, Doc Holliday, and two other men named “Texas Jack” Johnson and Sherman McMasters, as those men who had killed Stillwell and warrants were issued for their arrest.

Morgan Earp

Morgan Earp

Earp sought vengeance on the men who shot Virgil and killed Morgan. Killing Stillwell was just his first step. Along with Doc Holliday, and others, Wyatt began what is known as the Earp Vendetta Ride. Wyatt heard that Pete Spence was at his wood camp in the Dragoons and on March 11, 1882, he and his men quickly headed out, finding not Pete Spence, but Florentino Cruz. The frightened Cruz named all the men who had murdered Morgan, himself included. Earp and his men filled Cruz with bullet holes. The Earp “posse” rode out once again and on March 24, 1882, they ran into Curly Bill Brocius and eight of his men near Iron Springs.  A gunfight ensued where Curly Bill was killed and Johnny Barnes received a wound from which he eventually died.

In just over a year, the Earp “posse” along with Doc Holliday eliminated “Old Man” Clanton, Billy Clanton, Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, Frank Stilwell, Indian Charlie, Dixie Gray, Florentino Cruz, Johnny Barnes, Jim Crane, Harry Head, Bill Leonard, Joe Hill, Luther King, Charley Snow, Billy Lang, Zwing Hunt, Billy Grounds and Hank Swilling. Pete Spence turned himself into the authorities where he could “hide” in the penitentiary.

In May 1882, Wyatt and Doc left Tombstone, swearing they would never return, but still vowing vengeance on Ringo, Clanton, Spence, and Swilling if they could ever find them. Riding their horses to Silver City, New Mexico, they sold them, rode a stage to Deming, and boarded a train for Colorado. Josie soon joined Wyatt in Denver where they were married.

Though Mattie had traveled with the Earps to California to Wyatt’s parents’ home, at some point she left them and ended up in Globe, Arizona where she lived a life of prostitution. She told her friends that her husband had destroyed her life when he deserted her. Tragically, she died of a laudanum overdose on July 3, 1888, in Pinal City, Arizona.

While in Colorado, Wyatt initially worked as a private investigator and as a driver for Wells Fargo. He and Josie also occasionally prospected in the mountains. Sometimes Bat Masterson would visit the couple and the pair would see Doc Holliday who had settled down in Leadville, Colorado when they could.

Wyatt and Josie Earp

Wyatt and Josie Earp

Wyatt and Josie returned to Dodge City, Kansas in 1883 for a time and then he took his new bride on a tour of Texas and northern Mexico before they made their way to California.

In the meantime, Doc Holliday’s health was badly deteriorating and he soon migrated from Leadville to Denver in the winter of 1885. Though he did not improve in Denver, he was able to see his old friend, Wyatt Earp in the late winter of 1886, where they met in the lobby of the Windsor Hotel. Sadie Marcus described the skeletal Holliday as having a continuous cough and standing on “unsteady legs.”

Holliday’s health continued to get worse. As a realist, Doc was not one to believe in miraculous cures, but hoping that the Yampah hot springs and sulfur vapors might improve his health, he headed for Glenwood Springs, Colorado in May 1887. Registering at the fashionable Hotel Glenwood, he grew steadily worse, spending his last 57 days in bed at the hotel and was delirious 14 of them.

On November 8, 1887, Doc awoke clear-eyed and asked for a glass of whiskey. It was given to him and he drank it down with enjoyment. Then, looking down at his bare feet he said, “This is funny”, and died. He always figured he would be killed with his boots on.

Spending several years in California, Wyatt and Josie spent time with the Earps in San Bernardino and Josie’s family in San Francisco. While in California, Wyatt acted as a referee in boxing matches, continued to gamble, and invested in real estate, saloons, and a racehorse

In 1897 the gold fever broke in Alaska and the couple headed to Nome where they opened a Saloon during the height of the gold rush. The pair also panned for their own gold throughout the Yukon and did very well. They returned to California in 1901 with an estimated $80,000. However, their stay was short-lived when they heard about the gold strike in Tonopah, Nevada.

Wyatt and Josephine Earp near their mining claim outside Vidal, California, 1906.

Wyatt and Josephine Earp near their mining claim outside Vidal, California, 1906.

Taking up prospecting in earnest, Wyatt staked several claims in the Mojave Desert, where he discovered several veins of gold. Near Vidal, California he discovered copper, where the spent winters in a small cottage.

Spending summers in Los Angeles, he befriended several early Hollywood actors and became an advisor for several Hollywood westerns during the silent movie days.

On January 13, 1929, Wyatt Earp died in Los Angeles at the age of 80 of prostate cancer. Cowboy actors Tom Mix and William S. Hart were among his pallbearers. Wyatt’s cremated ashes were buried in Josie’s family plot in Colma, California, just south of San Francisco. When Josie died in 1944, she was buried beside him.

As to the other Earp brothers, Virgil was taken to the family homestead in Colton, California where he recovered from his wounds suffered at the O.K. Corral. Later he prospected with his wife and, still later, was elected city marshal of Colton. He then returned to prospecting with his wife Allie and died of pneumonia in Goldfield, Nevada in 1905. Virgil is buried in the Riverview Cemetery in Portland, Oregon.

After helping Wyatt in tracking down the Morgan’s killers, Warren served as a stage driver and did some prospecting in Globe, Arizona. He then moved to Wilcox, Arizona and in 1900 got into a drunken fight with a cowboy named Johnny Boyet. Boyet shot and killed Warren, who was unarmed at the time. Boyet was acquitted on grounds of self-defense, the jury believing that even an Earp without a gun was more dangerous than most men with a gun in their hand. He is buried in the Wilcox Pioneer Cemetery in Wilcox, Arizona.

When Morgan was killed, James traveled with Virgil and the Earp women to Colton, California for Morgan’s burial. Later he lived in Shoshone County, Idaho before settling in permanently in California in 1890. James Earp died on January 25, 1926, and is buried in Mountain View Cemetery, in San Bernardino, California.


© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated September 2019


Dodge City Peace Commission

Dodge City Peace Commission

Also See:

Earp Vendetta Ride

The Earps Role in Tombstone

My Friend Wyatt Earp by Bat Masterson

Tombstone – The Town Too Tough to Die

Tales of the Shotgun-Messenger Service by Wyatt Eap

1 thought on “Wyatt Earp – Frontier Lawman”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *