Monday, June 29, 2015

Wyatt Earp Meets Doc Holliday: History in the Making

Sometimes an individual plays such a pivotal role in history that he quickly passes into myth and legend, and the basic data of his life are almost lost among the fables and tales told about him. Not only is this true of historical figures who lived many centuries ago, but it can happen in the case of a man who lived quite recently.

Wyatt Earp was born in 1848 in Monmouth, Illinois. He had five brothers, Morgan, Newton, Virgil, Warren, and James. He had two sisters named Adelia and Mariah Ann. In 1849/1850, the family moved to Pella, Iowa. Here the parents, Nicholas and Virginia, lived with their children for around a decade.

The Earp family was strongly attached to the Republican Party, and so the older sons fought for the North during the Civil War: Virgil, James, and Newton. Wyatt was too young to join the army, although he tried repeatedly.

By 1869, Wyatt had reached adulthood, become a lawman in Missouri, and married his wife Urilla. But Urilla died in 1870, leaving him broken-hearted.

For the next few years, Wyatt Earp had no steady home. He roamed through Arkansas, Kansas, South Dakota, and the “Indian Territory” (later known as ‘Oklahoma’). He prospected for gold, worked as a ‘bouncer’ or private security man, and eventually returned to working for law enforcement agencies. His career began to stabilize itself somewhat when he became a marshal in Dodge City, Kansas.

Interrupted by a stint of gold prospecting in South Dakota, Wyatt was marshal in Dodge City in 1876/1877 and in 1878/1879.

Contrary to the images of tough guy heroes in western movies, Wyatt habitually avoided alcohol.

While in his capacity as one of Dodge City’s marshals, Wyatt followed a criminal to a small town located near the army’s Fort Griffin, Texas. He knew a barkeeper in that town named John Shanssey. John introduced Wyatt to Doc Holliday. Wyatt and Doc would become friends and coworkers. Historian David Fisher writes:

John Shanssey also introduced Doc Holliday to deputy US marshall Wyatt Earp. Shanssey and Earp had met several years earlier, when the future lawman had refereed one of the future saloon man’s bouts. This time, Earp had come to “the Flats,” as the town near Fort Griffin was called, hunting a train robber named “Dirty Dave” Rudabaugh. Perhaps at Shanssey’s request, Doc told Earp what he knew: While playing cards with Rudabaugh a few days earlier, he’d heard the man say something about going back to Dodge City. Earp sent that information by telegraph to Dodge City’s assistant deputy, Bat Masterson, who eventually made the arrest. But that encounter marked the beginning of the more important relationship of Doc Holliday’s life.

Wyatt Earp’s life seemed to go from steady to haywire after the death of his wife. He moved from town to town, and from job to job.

Doc Holliday’s life was similarly unraveled by a diagnosis of tuberculosis. ‘Consumption,’ as TB was then often called, was almost a death sentence. Many patients died soon after diagnosis. Holliday was himself a medical practitioner, and understood well his prognosis. Like Wyatt, he began a nomadic life, and became known as a formidable gunfighter. The knowledge that he was likely to die soon from tuberculosis erased any fears he might have had in shootouts. His behavior in confronting criminals was courageous bordering on reckless.

Both Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday would outlive their gunfighting days and die of other causes.

But when they met and teamed up, they both were engaged in dangerous attempts to enforce justice.

Wyatt Earp was himself an ornery character. He’d been a boxer and a gambler; he’d worked on the railroads, as a constable, and as a horse thief. There were a lot men like him in the Old West, people who just flowed with the opportunities life presented to them. For the previous few years, he’d been working mostly as a strongman, keeping the peace in brothels. He’d moved to Wichita in ‘74 to keep the peace in his brother Virgil’s house of ill repute, while also working as a part-time peace officer for the city. When Earp first crossed paths with Doc Holliday in ‘77, he had recently been named Dodge City’s chief deputy marshall.

After Holliday met Earp at “the Flats,” Holliday and his girlfriend Kate followed Earp back to Dodge City.

Presumably, Earp welcomed the Doc and Kate, who found lodgings at Deacon Cox’s boarding house when they arrived in Dodge. If it wasn’t the roughest town in the West, it definitely was high on the list. As a letter that appeared in the Washington Evening Star complained, “Dodge City is a wicked little town. Its character is so clearly and egregiously bad that one might conclude … that it was marked for special Providential punishment.”

This was the beginning of a collegial relationship between Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Their most important, and most famous, work lie several years ahead of them, in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881, in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.