Wyatt Earp's second chance

Curtis Varnell, PhD.
Wyatt Earp, circa 1887.

The most popular movies and TV programs of the '50s and '60s involved stories of the Old West. The storyline usually involved the crooks in the black hats facing off against legendary good guys like Wild Bill Hickok, Bass Reeves or the Earp brothers. Sometimes the lines between good and bad were not as clear as we think.

Wyatt Earp was born in 1848 near Joplin, Mo. At an early age, Earp's young wife, Urilla, died and obviously it had a devastating effect on his life. Four months after her death, he had migrated into Indian Territory and was running with the wrong kind. On April 1, 1871, Jacob Owens, a deputy U.S. marshal issued the following warrant: "Wyatt S. Earp, Ed. Kennedy, and John Shown did feloniously and willfully steal two horses, each of a value of one-hundred dollars, the property and chattels of one William Keys!" Owens organized a posse and six days later took Earp and his accomplices as prisoners. Wyatt Earp a horse thief? The court record clearly shows that he was brought back to the Western District, which was then centered in Van Buren. Unable to make the $500 bail, Earp was thrown into jail and was facing up to five years in the federal penitentiary in Little Rock.

Earp and 10 other men were confined in the upper floor of the dilapidated Van Buren jailhouse. Of the cellmates, at least two were convicted murderers awaiting the hangman’s noose. The jail, about to be transferred over to Van Buren, was dark, dirty and in disrepair. Earp and his cellmates pried the rafters off one corner of the cell, entered the attic, and escaped by crawling through a vent and letting themselves to the ground using their bed blankets as ropes. On May 8, 1871, a writ was issued ordering them to appear in court and a week later they were convicted in absentia for horse theft. That warrant was never terminated because Wyatt left the country and took up with a group of buffalo hunters, one of whom was Bat Masterson. Within a few months, Earp joined the police force in Wichita, Kan., and then as deputy sheriff of Dodge City, Kan. His gambler apparel, long-barreled pistol, and willingness to use whatever means necessary to enforce peace soon made him legendary.

Masterson, Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers followed him to the wild frontier town of Tombstone, Ariz. Installed as town marshal, he began instilling peace in a community that catered to people of every vice known.

Recently, walking down the dusty streets of Tombstone, I visited the site of the best-known gunfight of the Old West – the shootout at the O.K. Corral. Masterson, Earp and his brothers faced off against an equal gang of outlaws; a fight ending in the death of three of the bad guys. Earp became the man of legend. The very picture of the ideal lawman who risked life and limb to protect the innocent and ensure peace in the community.

Little did we realize that the most noted lawman of the Old West still has a warrant for his arrest in Van Buren. How would his life have been different if he had gone to trial? We will never know; but we do know that he made the most of his second chance?