By Schenectady Sheriff Harry C. Buffardi© 1998. The History of the Office of Sheriff was published and copyrighted in 1998 by Schenectady County Sheriff Harry C. Buffardi.
No other lawman of the Old West has inspired more legends than the soft-spoken and nerveless Wyatt Earp. Unlike most of his peers, Earp survived countless gun battles and physical encounters with outlaws because of his extraordinary patience and resolute manner. He was not noted as a quick-draw and while gunslingers quickly drew their weapons against him and fired wildly, Earp would take careful aim as the bullets whizzed by him. His aim was true and his purpose was to out-survive the outlaws. Though he was involved in occasional shoot-outs, he was most noted for hitting violators over the head with his pistol to affect an arrest. . . .
The Earp family was of Scottish descent and dated back to pre-revolutionary Virginia. Wyatt's parents, Nicholas and Virginia settled in Hartford, Kentucky. They produced seven children. Wyatt was named after his father's commander during the Mexican-American War, Colonel Wyatt Berry Stapp. The Earps moved to Iowa in 1850 and established a large farm. It was here that the Earp boys learned to respect the law. . . .
Wyatt Earp was accounted with some impressive heroics in Ellsworth, Kansas. It was here that [his] legend began. Ellsworth was the railhead where huge herds of cattle, driven from Texas, were shipped East to the slaughter houses of Chicago. The town was wild with drunken cowboys spending their pay, shooting up the town. Two of these violent cowboys were Billy and Ben Thompson, both lethal gunmen. . . . On August 15, 1873, both Thompsons were drunk and started several arguments with two gamblers and exchanged shots with [them] in one of the local saloons. Billy Thompson, a homicidal maniac and hopeless alcoholic, inexplicably turned his gun on Sheriff Chauncey B. Whitney, a friend of the Thompsons, who had been drinking with them at the saloon. Billy emptied both barrels of a shotgun, killing him on the spot. Ben Thompson ushered his drunken brother outside, put him on a horse and sent him out of town. . . .
The Mayor went to the town marshal and his deputies for help. The lawmen were frozen in terror and refused to go after Thompson. According to the legend, the Mayor ripped off the badge from the shirt of the marshal and asked if anyone had the nerve to arrest Thompson. Wyatt Earp stepped forward and strapped on two six-shooters before facing Thompson. . . . Earp calmly [talked] Thompson into custody without further incident. Thompson was fined $25 for disturbing the peace and released. Billy Thompson would later be returned to Ellsworth where he would be acquitted of the homicide. Earp turn[ed] down the marshal position . . . .
Wyatt turns up in Wichita, Kansas in 1874, affixed with a reputation of fearlessness over the Thompson incident. His exploits earned him a deputy marshal job there. He he would face a continuous throng of gunslingers looking to make a name for themselves. Incident after incident occurred in which Wyatt would face-down, out-shoot, or out-punch badmen and drag them off to the local jail. . . .
Wyatt Earp's exploits in Wichita cannot go without noting his wild side, particularly when it came to supporting his friends. A fellow deputy marshal decided to run for the top marshal position against Wyatt's friend and boss. One night the candidate made some particularly unkind remarks about the incumbent marshal who was favored by Wyatt. Earp ordered the man to keep quite or to step outside where the issue could be settled fist-to-cuffs style. Foolishly the drunken co-worker of Wyatts went out into the street to decide the argument. After Wyatt beat the man senseless he continued to hit the unconscious man, repeatedly punching his lifeless opponent, to teach him a lesson. A complaint was filed against Earp for his brutish behavior. The town council terminated his employment with the city and fined him $30 for assault. Wyatt was disgusted at being punished for defending the honor of his superior and left Wichita for Dodge City . . . which was dubbed the "Gomorrah of the Plains". . . .
Quickly recruited to the marshal force of Dodge City, Wyatt soon had full authority to hire all the deputies. Wyatt chose his brothers Morgan and Virgil Earp, Bat and Jim Masterson, Joe Mason, and Neal Brown as the assistants to try and tame the wild town. To encourage enforcement, the city added a $2.50 bonus for each arrest to the arresting officer's salary, thereby, making law enforcement in Dodge a lucrative occupation. Sometime during the height of the cattle season a writer named Ned Buntline visited the marshal's office in search of material for his dime novels. He was so impressed with the lawmen of Dodge that he presented Wyatt and two of his deputies with custom-made Colt Specials. Ned gave similar guns to members of the Ford County sheriff's office that was headquartered in Dodge.
Buntline had the name "Ned" carved into the walnut butt plates of the weapons. Originally the weapons had sixteen inch barrels and came complete with detachable shoulder stocks and hand tooled scabbards. Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson cut down the barrels of the pistols to meet their personal specifications for drawing capability, but not too short to subtract from the weapon's impact potential to smash down upon the head of unruly offenders. Wyatt kept his buntline at twelve inches and kept it strapped down to his right thigh in a display of awesome potential. Combined with his fearless reputation, the mere sight of the ominous hand gun was a deterrent in many bad situations. . . .
But by the fall of 1876, Wyatt Earp had become weary of his deputy marshal job in Dodge and sought other ventures. He mined for gold, he gambled heavily, and he continuously sought undertakings in saloons. Occasionally he worked as an armed guard for various Western expresses and railroads. His reputation as a community policeman in Kansas made him the sensible choice as a deputy federal marshal in Tombstone, Arizona where he was working as a deputy sheriff in Pima County.
By 1880, Tombstone, Arizona had become a thriving mining town of two thousand located in Pima County. . . . Few days passed without a shooting or a killing, and Deputy Sheriff Earp spent much of his time policing this single community within his county jurisdiction. . . .
The best known of the cowboy element was the Clanton clan. They were a large ranching family of outlaws, led by N.C. "Old Man" Clanton and his sons Peter, Joseph Isaac or "Ike", Phinias or "Phin", and Billy. Associated with the Clantons were the McLaury (or McClowery) brothers, Frank and Tom. The Clantons and the McLaurys were friendly with a William Graham and Johnny Ringgold or Johnny Ringo, as his legend came to be known. Hollywood sagas identify Johnny Ringo as an educated cowboy, who was as proficient in citing the classics as he was with a gun. In reality, Johnny Ringo was an alcoholic with severe homicidal tendencies who drifted from town to town as a hired gunslinger. Cochise County Sheriff John H. Behan took up with the local gang and was reportedly on their payroll to overlook illegal activities. Behan, along with his crooked deputies, looked the other way while the Clanton-McLaury gang rustled cattle, held-up stagecoaches, and parcelled out spoils to the corrupt sheriff.
Sheriff Behan of Cochise County was a political rival of Sheriff Charles Shibell of Pima County. This rivalry included Wyatt who was in the employ of Shibell as a deputy sheriff. Added to this was a constant rift between the Clanton-McLaury gang and the Earp element. Also in Tombstone at this time were Wyatt's brothers and close friends: William Barclay "Bat" Masterson, John Henry, and John H."Doc" Holliday; a consumptive dentist turned gambler and gunslinger. The town was not big enough for the Earp faction and the cowboy element, and constant friction between the two groups existed. Doc Holliday openly showed his contempt for Sheriff Behan and one day in the Oriental Saloon he accused Behan of cheating in a faro game. Holliday taunted the corrupt sheriff in front of a jeering crowd. From that day on, Behan vowed revenge against not only Holliday, but Holliday's closest ally, Wyatt Earp.
In March of 1881, the Kinnear Company stagecoach leaving Tombstone was robbed and the driver and one passenger were killed. Wyatt Earp put together a posse made up of his brothers Morgan and Virgil, "Buckskin Frank" Leslie, Bat Masterson, and others. They managed to track down a small-time thief named Luther King, who confessed to a minor complicity in the crime but named associates of the Clanton-McLaury gang as the perpetrators. Earp turned King over to Sheriff Behan for holding while he and the posse continued to track the outlaws. Failing to trace the killers, Earp and the posse returned to Tombstone only to discover that the prisoner King had escaped from Behan's jail. Most reports of the incident indicated that King merely walked out of an unlocked door while Behan looked the other way. When Wyatt Earp accused Behan of allowing the prisoner to escape, the sheriff then claimed that Doc Holliday, Wyatt's good friend, was the one responsible for robbing the stage.
It is important here to say a few words about Doc Holliday. Holliday was from every account except Wyatt's, a mean and savage man. Many have described him as the coldest-blooded killer of the Wild West era. He was born in Georgia and was tubercular at birth. After he killed two black men in Georgia he fled to Texas. He killed another man in Dallas, which required him again to flee to Fort Richardson. There he killed a soldier and again went on the run. In Denver he shot another man, and sometime after skipping town from that shooting he met Wyatt Earp. The two were to form a friendship and bond of loyalty that would endure through their lifetimes. Wyatt later told his biographer that Doc's violent side was merely an expression of his personality, and that:
"With all his shortcomings and his undeniably poor disposition, I found him a loyal friend and good company"
The events that occurred between the Earp faction and the Clanton-McLaury faction would eventually result in the most enduring legend about Wyatt Earp. The gunfight at the O.K. Corral has become an icon of the Wild West. On October 26, 1881, the Clanton brothers and the McLaury brothers went to the O.K. Corral to pick up their horses and ride out of town. Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, along with Doc Holliday went to the corral to confront the gang. Sheriff Behan tried to interfere but was brushed aside. While the gang was in the corral, shooting started. In the end Billy Clanton was dead as was Frank and Tom McLaury. Ike Clanton and Billy Clairborne ran for their lives. Morgan Earp was struck by a bullet in the left shoulder and Virgil took a round to the leg. Doc Holliday was creased by a bullet across his back. As the smoke from the guns settled only Wyatt remained standing in the corral, unharmed by the gun battle. The fight lasted only a few minutes, yet some thirty to fifty shots were fired by both sides. Stories and whole books would be written about this most famous of all Wild West gunfights. Because of this high noon gun brawl, the memory of Wyatt Earp would be forever linked to the image of courage and dedication to law enforcement.
The Earp worshipers have described the slayings as a triumph of law and order against the evil of outlaws. As a result, Virgil Earp was discharged from his position as city marshal. Wyatt and Doc were charged with murder, but would eventually be cleared. Doc Holliday, Wyatt's loyal friend lived only a few more years after the renowned O.K. Corral gunfight. Racked with consumption he was taken to a sanatorium by Wyatt where the deadly dentist died in bed. On his side were his six-guns and his shotgun laid on the bed with him. Wyatt traveled around nomadically after the gunfight and lived to the age of eighty. His last words to his biographer were:
"The greatest consolation I have in growing old is the hope that after I'm gone they'll grant me the peaceful obscurity I haven't been able to get in life".
Many have claimed the events surrounding Wyatt Earp are enhanced or embellished. In fact or in fiction, he was the greatest lawman in the history of the Wild West and revisionist historians have failed to change this image.