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Prism Online - April 1996

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High-Strung Hustler

Prism Onlineby Nissa J. Crawford
Chrstopher Kennedy contributed to this report

While the gunfight at the O.K. Corral lasted only 30 seconds, left three dead, three wounded, and made him a legend, the rowdy career of Wyatt Earp didn't end in the streets of Tombstone.

Earp was a lawman skilled with a six-shooter, but he was also, by some accounts, a violent bully and a paranoid. Hollywood, in big screen films like "My Darling Clementine," "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," and, more recently, Kevin Costner's saccharine "Wyatt Earp," turned him into a hero-a champion of righteous violence.

"Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp
Brave Courageous and bold
Long live his fame and long live his glory
And long may his legend be told"

-From the the T.V. show, "The Legend of Wyatt Earp."

But films and television stressed Earp the gunslinger, ignoring the man who was first and foremost a capitalist. Wishing to forsake their checkered pasts, the Earp brothers came to Tombstone to become successful and respectable businessmen, according to Richard Brown's book "No Duty to Retreat." But the Earps were politically ambitious, and the town's business elite wanted gunslingers to protect their piece of Tombstone's pie-the occupation that made the Earps infamous. But after the political and personal feud that culminated in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt turned in his badge and left town to roam the West with Josephine Sarah Marcus, his companion until death.

Wyatt had launched his business career before the fight in Tombstone, where he and his brothers invested in real estate, silver mining and gambling. Wyatt was a top gambler and guard at The Oriental and, according to "The Book of the American West," held a one-quarter interest in the saloon, sometimes earning $1,000 a week.

After Tombstone, Earp prospected and gambled his way around Colorado gold fields, spent time in Dodge City with a fellow gambler, operated the White Elephant Saloon with his brother in Idaho, and traveled the Texas gambling circuit before settling in San Diego in 1885, according to "I Married Wyatt Earp: The Recollections of Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp," edited by Glenn G. Boyle. By 1888 he was worth $30,000. But Earp lost his shirt in speculative mining ventures and he and Marcus left for San Francisco. From 1890 to 1897, they lived at four different residences in the city: 145 Ellis St., 720 McAllister St., 514A Seventh Ave. and 1004 Golden Gate Ave.

Earp's marriage to Marcus, the daughter of a rich San Francisco merchant, increased his social standing, Brown writes. With Josephine on his arm he was introduced into upper middle class society. He hobnobbed with such notables as Elias Jackson "Lucky" Baldwin, a multimillionaire who owned the Santa Anita racetrack much frequented by Earp.

According to Dennis McLoughlin's "Wild and Woolly: An Encyclopedia of the Old West," Earp earned a formidable reputation as a sportsman as well as a gambler. He won his first race horse, Otto Rex, in a card game and owned a six-horse stable in San Francisco, according to Boyle. At Santa Rosa, Earp personally competed in and won a harness race. Earp's role in an infamous San Francisco boxing scandal, however, again cast doubt on his reputation.

In 1896, Earp was asked to referee the Sharkey-Fitzsimmons bout at the Mechanics' Pavilion. The purse was $10,000 and it was the first fight women were allowed to attend, writes James D. Horan in his trilogy "The Authentic Wild West." It was also the first time a referee had to be relieved of a weapon-Earp had come equipped with his revolver. The controversy occurred over Earp's call. After seven rounds it seemed obvious that Fitzsimmons should be the victor. Fitzsimmons had beaten Sharkey up and down the ring and in the eighth knocked him down with a powerful blow. But Earp proclaimed Sharkey the winner, calling Fitzsimmons' punch foul. Many believed Earp had fixed the fight.

Earp continued to promote boxing in Alaska, where he moved with his wife during the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897. He became part-owner of the profitable Dexter Saloon, where he staged boxing matches, according to William R. Hunt in his book "North of 53." They left Alaska to prospect gold in Nevada with Earp selling his shares in the Dexter for $85,000.

The couple moved to Los Angeles in 1906, spending summers in town and the rest of the year prospecting, mainly at their desert mine in Vidal, Calif., In 1911, Earp was arrested for his alleged involvement in a $2,500 bunco scam. Earp pled guilty though he said he wasn't involved. All charges were later dropped.

Earp later consulted for William S. Hart, an actor and film director who prided himself on the authenticity of his westerns and used men like Earp as consultants on the "real" Old West. Richard Slotkin, in his book "Gunfighter Nation," writes that Earp's boasting in Hollywood helped make O.K. Corral into a legend.

Earp died with his boots off at the age of 81 in Los Angeles. Although he never achieved his entrepreneurial dream, his time spent in Tombstone as a gunslinger has made him immortal. Earp lies next to Josephine in a Colma, Calif., cemetery.
-Christopher Kennedy contributed to this report.

"The Legend of Wyatt Earp," by Harry Warren, and Harold Adamson, copy by Four Jays Music.

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