Saturday, April 26, 2014

Wyatt Earp

San Francisco, California    Visited June 2014

One of the interesting things about this hobby is that you learn how people wind up in places you never think they would.  Such is the case with the colorful and meandering life of western legend Wyatt Earp.  How did one of the great gunslingers of the Old West wind up buried in a Jewish Cemetery in San Francisco?

Wyatt and his mom
Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was born March 19 1848 in western Illinois to a farming family.  Wyatt’s father and brothers fought for the Union in the Civil War but Wyatt was too young to serve.  He tried to run away from home several times trying to enlist but was caught and sent back each time.  After the war the family moved to California where Earp began his rollicking career throughout the Old West.  By the age of 21, he had already done stints as a teamster, boxer, gambler and local lawman.  He was married in Missouri at 21 but his first wife died of a fever.  Shortly after this, he ran afoul of the law on various counts and struck out for the west, making his living along the way as a buffalo hunter and a lawman in Wichita and Dodge City. 

Wyatt Earp - Lawman
His wanderings eventually took him to Texas, where he gambled for a living.  It was at this time that he found himself surrounded by angry desperados – surviving the fight with the crucial help of John Henry (Doc) Holliday.   Eventually Wyatt’s brothers set on relocating to the new mining town of Tombstone, Arizona.  Wyatt and his common-law wife Mattie Blalock arrived in Tombstone along with Doc Holliday in November 1879.  His brother Virgil took up law enforcement in  the boomtown and Wyatt tried his hand at gambling and mining – ultimately settling in as a stagecoach guard.  

The Earp Brothers and Doc Holliday in the Tombstone days
Over the next two years, the Earps had several run-ins with local cowboys which  culminated in what has come to be known as the Gunfight at the OK Corral.  This  fight may be one of the most overblown events in American history.  It is usually depicted as an epic battle between a large gang of cowboys and an outnumbered quartet of dedicated lawmen.  What is true is that it occurred in Tombstone near to a fenced area known as the OK Corral – and it took place between the three Earps and Holliday and four members of the Clanton group.   

The two groups were about six feet apart when the shooting started.  About thirty shots were fired in the 30 seconds fight.  Three of the Clanton group were killed in the gunfight and Wyatt’s brothers were both wounded.  Wyatt was untouched.  They Earps were later cleared of murder charges because they had been temporarily deputized prior to the fight.  The Gunfight at the OK Corral was a minor historic footnote until dramatized and popularized by a 1931 Earp biography and subsequent movie depictions. 

For an interesting depiction of the gunfight check out this mashup of scenes from the 1993 movie "Tombstone" with Kurt Russell as Wyatt and the 1994 film "Wyatt Earp" with Kevin Costner in the title role:  Gunfight at the OK Corral 

Current photo of the losers of the Gunfight at the OK Coral

The gunfight didn’t end the Earps problems.  Further recriminations resulted in the assassination of Wyatt’s brother Morgan and Wyatt’s revenge killing of four cowboys).  Over the next several years Earp traversed the west, sometimes working for the law, sometimes running from it – to Kansas, Idaho, and El Paso before ultimately arriving in San Diego, CA during a real estate boom in 1887.  Earp purchased a number of properties which were turned into houses of gambling and ill repute. 

In the early 1890’s Wyatt moved with his third wife Josephine to San Francisco where he got involved in horse track racing and boxing.  He left San Fran for Alaska and the Klondike Gold Rush in 1903 and a couple of years later he followed gold fever to Nevada for the gold rush there.  At the age of 62 Earp moved to Los Angeles where he worked in a vague law enforcement role – essentially doing things that were illegal for the police to do.  By the 1920’s he had moved to Hollywood where he consulted on silent westerns. 

Wyatt in 1928 - about a year before he died

Eventually Wyatt and Josephine moved up to San Francisco where he lived out his final years in relative peace.  On January 13, 1929 Wyatt Earp died of cancer at the age of eighty years.  His funeral was a social event and two of his pallbearers were famous western film stars – William S. Hart and Tom Mix.  Josephine, who was Jewish, had Wyatt cremated and buried in Hills of Eternity – the Jewish cemetery in the Colma community just south of San Francisco.  Remarkably, in all his gunfights Wyatt Earp never suffered a gunshot wound.

Famous lawman Bat Masterson, a friend, described Wyatt Earp this way:

Wyatt with his friend and fellow western legend Bat Masterson

Wyatt Earp was one of the few men I personally knew in the West in the early days whom I regarded as absolutely destitute of physical fear. I have often remarked, and I am not alone in my conclusions, that what goes for courage in a man is generally fear of what others will think of him – in other words, personal bravery is largely made up of self-respect, egotism, and apprehension of the opinions of others. Wyatt Earp's daring and apparent recklessness in time of danger is wholly characteristic; personal fear doesn't enter into the equation, and when everything is said and done, I believe he values his own opinion of himself more than that of others, and it is his own good report he seeks to preserve.

I visited Wyatt Earp’s grave on my trip with my son Grant to California in June 2013.  While it’s kind of odd to see the western script on his grave marker it is probably apropos for a man whose legend was made in Tombstone. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi, Andy- That 1'st photo (top) is Not Wyatt Earp.. very definitely Not. Neither is that 4'th photo.. Truly Not The Earps -Nor Doc Holliday. Those 2 photos are Counterfeits! To see Original Tintypes of the Earp Brothers -& Doc Holliday -& many More, check-out Brownie's Photographic Car & Diner, on Facebook -Best Wishes -Blue!