Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp
Wyatt Earp Trial: 1881
Wyatt Earp Trial: 1881
Defendants: Wyatt Earp, Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp, John "Doc" Holliday
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyer: Thomas Fitch
Chief Prosecutor: Lyttleton Price
Judge: Wells Spicer
Place: Tombstone, Arizona
Date of Trial: October 31-November 29, 1881
Verdict: Not guilty
SIGNIFICANCE: The month-long trial—actually a preliminary hearing—made possible an American legend. Nearly every American, and millions in foreign lands, knows about Wyatt Earp, the heroic marshal who brought law and order to a score of Kansas cow towns before wiping out a gang of savage rustlers in the shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Unfortunately, there is little truth in the legend. If this hearing were conducted under different circumstances, Earp would be remembered as just another shady, if not totally criminal, frontier gunslinger.
In Tombstone, Arizona, a mining town, "cowboy" was synonymous with "rustler." There were a lot of rustlers in surrounding Cochise County, and most of the cattlemen, if not actually thieves, were the rustlers' customers. Tombstone citizens, most of them Union sympathizers during the Civil War, blamed the "cowboys," largely Confederate sympathizers, for every crime. Tombstone citizens had been discussing a vigilance committee to rid the county of undesirables, meaning all the cowboys. The proposed leader of the committee was Wyatt Earp.
Earp was by his own account a hero who had tamed many cow towns in Kansas. Actually, he was a former horse thief and buffalo hunter who had been fired from the Wichita police force for corruption and literally run out of town. He came to Dodge City and got a job on its four-man police force. In Dodge, he spent most of his time gambling with cowboys flush with back pay from the cattle drives. When the cattle boom there ended, he and his brothers moved west to gamble with the silver miners. Earp told everyone about his gunfighting skills and secured a faro dealership in return for protecting the staff of Tombstone's Oriental Saloon soon after he arrived in 1876.
Wyatt and Morgan Earp worked for the Wells Fargo Stage Coach company, but Wyatt wanted to be sheriff of Cochise County. So, although Wyatt was the hero of the "law and order" faction in Tombstone, the Earps also tried to stay on good terms with the cowboys. That may be why, when a prominent rustler, Curly Bill Brocius, shot and killed City Marshal Fred White, Virgil Earp, deputy city marshal, swore it was an accident. It was a most improbable accident:for it to happen, White would have had to be reaching for a cocked revolver pointing at his chest. Coincidentally, White's "accidental" death made Virgil acting city marshal.
The incumbent sheriff, Johnny Behan, was Wyatt Earp's rival in love as well as politics. Wyatt had begun squiring around Behan's mistress, Josie Marcus, an actress and department store heiress. Earp kept his own common-law wife, Mattie, confined to their home.
A Mysterious Stage Coach Robbery
On March 15, 1881, several masked men attempted to hold up a stagecoach leaving Tombstone. The driver and a passenger were killed. Behan's posse included Wyatt and Morgan Earp and their friend, Doc Holliday. Some people said the hunters were hunting themselves. Doc Holliday had been seen shortly after the robbery, riding furiously away from the scene. Further, Holliday was a close friend of Bill Leonard, one of three men identified by Luther King, who held the outlaws' horses. King did not identify Holliday, but as the ferocious little dentist was in the posse, he may not have thought that wise. Later, Big Nose Kate Elder, Holliday's mistress, told the sheriff that Doc had killed both of the holdup victims. When she sobered up, she recanted.
The holdup triggered a deterioration of relations between the cowboys and Wyatt Earp's clique. Leonard and the two others identified by King, Harry Head and Jim Crane, were all known rustlers. But with an election coming up, Earp did not want to sever his ties with the cowboy faction. He went to Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury, members of the faction, with a proposition.
"I told them that I wanted the glory of capturing Leonard, Head and Crane," Earp testified later. "And if I could do it, it would help make the race for sheriff at the next election. I told them… I would give them all of the reward and would never let anyone know where I got the information."
Ike Clanton agreed, Virgil Earp later testified. Clanton agreed even though it would mean the death of his friends, testifying that Earp told him he had to kill the robbers.
"He said his business was such that he could not afford to capture them. He would have to kill them or else leave the county." According to Clanton, Wyatt and Morgan Earp were inside men in the robbery, while Holliday was one of the gunmen.
As it turned out, Leonard, Head, and Crane were all killed by other people shortly after Clanton agreed to help Wyatt.
Wyatt Earp went to Ike Clanton with another proposition. He suggested that Clanton and his friends stage a fake coach robbery. The Earp brothers and Holliday would come on the scene and scare away the "robbers." Nobody would be hurt, and Wyatt Earp would have added luster for his political campaign. Clanton was far from sure that nobody would be hurt. He refused. After Clanton's rejection of Earp's second proposition, hostility between the two men and their close associates increased tremendously.
On October 25, Ike Clanton and teenaged Tom McLaury came to Tombstone in a wagon. As the law required, both men checked their guns at a saloon designated as a check point. McLaury came to do business. Clanton came to drink. He was thoroughly potted when he saw Doc Holliday and Morgan Earp in a lunchroom. Holliday challenged him to fight. Clanton said he had checked his guns on entering town. He went outside; Wyatt and Morgan Earp joined Holliday in taunting him. Clanton stumbled off to drink some more. In the morning, Clanton, drunk out of his mind, picked up his guns, saying he was leaving town. He didn't leave. He went staggering through the streets, uttering threats against Holliday and the Earps. Virgil and Morgan Earp sneaked up behind him, bashed him on the head, took his guns and arrested him for carrying weapons.
A little later, Wyatt Earp saw Tom McLaury.
"Are you heeled or not?" Earp asked the teenager.
McLaury said he had no gun. Earp slapped his face, then hit him on the head with his revolver. McLaury went down. When he got up, Earp knocked him down again with the gun.
Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury arrived early in the afternoon to meet their brothers. They had come to help Tom McLaury get Ike Clanton into the wagon: they knew what Ike could be like after a night of drinking. Billy and Frank each had a revolver in a holster and a rifle in a saddle scabbard on his horse. As soon as they got Ike squared away, they'd be leaving, so they saw no need to check their weapons. When the four cowboys met, Sheriff Behan tried to take their guns. Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury said they had no guns. Tom's were still checked, and Ike's had been confiscated. Behan searched them to make sure. Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury were carrying guns openly, but they said they were just about to leave town.
Then Behan saw the Earps and Holliday. He knew the situation was about to explode. He stopped arguing with the cowboys. He ran up to Virgil and asked for time to disarm Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury. The Earps pushed past him.
When the cowboys and the "Earp Gang" were within a few feet of each other, shooting began. When it was over, Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury, and Billy Clanton were dead. Virgil Earp and Morgan Earp were seriously wounded, and Doc Holliday was slightly wounded. Wyatt Earp and Ike Clanton were unhurt.
A coroner's jury decided that the McLaurys and Billy Clanton had been killed by the Earps and Holliday, but it didn't assign blame. Ike Clanton swore the Earps and Holliday committed murder, so Behan arrested them. Virgil Earp was suspended as city marshal. Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer, a friend of Wyatt Earp, held a preliminary hearing to determine if the men should be tried.
Dozens of witnesses testified. Johnny Behan, who had observed the fight from an alley, testified that someone in the Earp party had fired first, hitting Billy Clanton just as Clanton was yelling, "Don't shoot me! I don't want to fight." He said Tom McLaury opened his coat and said he wasn't armed. Ike Clanton, also unarmed, ran into Fly's photographic studio after Holliday missed him with the shotgun, then ran out through Fly's back door and sought refuge in a Mexican dance hall.
Several witnesses who had no axe to grind corroborated Behan's testimony. Martha King was shopping when she heard one of the Earp party say, "Let them have it." She said Doc Holliday, whom she knew, replied, "All right." Then the shooting began. B. H. Fellehy said he overheard Virgil Earp tell Behan, "Those men have been making threats; I will not arrest them but will kill them on sight."
According to witnesses, Doc Holliday killed the unarmed Tom McLaury instantly with his shotgun, then missed Ike Clanton. At the same time, Morgan Earp shot Billy Clanton. Wyatt Earp then shot Frank McLaury, who staggered into the street and tried to get the rifle hanging on his horse. Billy Clanton, lying wounded, shot Virgil Earp in the leg. McLaury's horse ran away, so the cowboy drew his revolver. Morgan Earp shot him again, just as McLaury shot Holliday, now using a revolver instead of the shotgun. Billy Clanton then shot Morgan Earp in the shoulder, right before both Morgan and Wyatt Earp shot him again.
The defense presented a number of witnesses, but none who said the cowboys fired first. H. F. Sills said he saw four or five men, two of them armed, who said they were going to kill "the whole party of the Earps." Sills, a stranger in town, had to ask a bystander who the "Earps" were. Spicer allowed Wyatt Earp to read a prepared statement and did not allow cross-examination. 3
On November 29, Spicer found the Earp party not guilty. His opinion ignored most of the incriminating evidence. The fact that Ike Clanton, who had threatened the Earps, was not hurt, Spicer considered a "great fact, most prominent in the matter," showing that the "Earp Gang" was not bent on revenge.
Clanton was not injured, of course, because he could run fast and Doc Holliday was not as good with a shotgun as he was with a six-shooter. Spicer failed to note that the two armed cowboys had not used their rifles. If they had intended to murder "the whole party of the Earps," they could have mowed down their opponents before they got within pistol range.
On December 28, hidden gunmen tried to assassinate Virgil Earp. They didn't succeed, but they crippled the ex-marshal for life. Wyatt Earp gathered a posse of hard-cases and shot up Charlestown, a Cochise County town a short distance from Tombstone on the San Pedro River. Charlestown, rather than unfriendly Tombstone, was where the cowboys met to drink. On March 18, 1882, someone killed Morgan Earp by shooting him in the back as he was playing billiards.
Wyatt and his posse went out again and killed two men, one in Pima County. Pima County's sheriff swore out a murder warrant for Wyatt Earp. Earp disappeared. He reappeared in Trinidad, Colorado, where his friend, Bat Masterson, was city marshal.
Eventually, everyone forgot about the murders in Arizona. Wyatt Earp traveled all over the West, from Alaska to California, where he married Josie Marcus. (The deserted Mattie Earp had become a prostitute and later committed suicide.) Wyatt, who died in 1929, outlived most of his contemporaries and found writers who eagerly swallowed his tall tales.
An American legend was born.
Suggestions for Further Reading
Constable, George, ed. The Gunfighters. Time-Life Old West Series. New York: Time-Life Books, 1974.
Cunningham, Eugene. Thiggernometry. Caldwell, Idaho: Caxton Printers, 1989.
Drago, Harry Sinclair. Wild, WVoolly & Wricked. New York: Bramhall House, 1960.
Horan, James D. The Authentic Wild IVest: the Gunfighters. New York: Crown Publishing, 1977.
Horan, James D. The Authentic lVild IVest. The Lawmen. New York: Crown Publishing, 1980.
Marks, Paula Mitchell. And Die in the IVest. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.
Weir, William. WVritten with Lead. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1992.