Old West lawman Wyatt Earp is best-known as the central figure in the gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona in October 1881. That event and the larger-than-life figure of Earp have withstood the test of time as 21st century Americans continue to memorialize with wispy romanticism this nation’s history of cowboys and the lawless Old West.
When Glen Marshall arrives in 1907 Wichita, Kansas in my story Wichita Snake, he takes shelter from a local crime syndicate in a rest home called Earp’s Haven. No such place would have carried Earp’s name without his participation in the shootout at the OK Corral some 26 years previously. He managed to get his name attached to a fictional rest home in my story in particular because, approximately five years before he and his team faced down the Clanton brothers and Billy Claiborne in Tombstone, he spent a year in Wichita as a law officer.
Wyatt Earp Arrives in Wichita, Kansas
Wyatt Earp arrived in Wichita in 1875 from Peoria, Illinois, bearing a colorful and sad past. He had been arrested for stealing a horse but managed to escape jail and punishment. His first wife also died of typhoid, pregnant, less than a year following their wedding.
Earp’s arrival in Wichita also coincided with the city’s growing prominence as a railroad terminus for cattle drives up from Texas. Cowboys who had spent days or weeks driving their herds over the plains could now relax with money in hand and the satisfaction of work well done. That generally meant getting drunk and raising hell.
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Into this world, Wyatt Earp was hired as deputy city marshal and he was, according to the local Wichita Beacon newspaper, both competent and fearless in carrying out his responsibilities. The year or so that Earp spent in this role did not earn him lasting fame (the Beacon would occasionally spell his surname “Erp”), but it did kick off a career which would, ultimately, transform him into the historic personage of the fearless lawman.
Wyatt Earp: One Year As a Lawman
Earp’s year as a deputy city marshal was marked by, in addition to keeping the peace among inebriated, cattle-driving cowboys and drovers, documented instances of honesty and cold courage. Evidence that has helped historians separate fact from legend regarding Wyatt Earp’s role comes from documentation in the Beacon. Such evidence suggests, perhaps unsurprisingly in those days of the Wild West, that lawmen had a kind of public stature.
In one reported incident, Earp hauled a fallen, inebriated stranger to the “cooler” to sober up. During processing, the deputy marshal discovered $500 in the man’s possession. To Earp, who made either $60 or $100 monthly depending on various sources, this would have represented a significant amount of money and, perhaps a sore temptation. But, as the Beacon got a hold of the story, the paper stated: ”[the drunken stranger] may congratulate himself that his lines…were cast in such a pleasant place as Wichita as there are but a few other places where that $500 bankroll would have been heard from”.
An additional incident involved Earp calling for a piano to be repossessed for failure of payment. This piano, which had been purchased for a local brothel, became a sore spot among a group of cattle drovers who relaxed there and had to raise funds or face its removal. Soon after, approximately 50 drovers in nearby Delano, which at the time was a bit on the rough side and known for hell-raising beyond what Wichita typically saw or liked to see, planned to invade the town, carouse, drink all night and cause a lot of trouble. As they approached the bridge into Wichita, they faced a long line of concerned law officers and citizens at the center of whom stood the stalwart Wyatt Earp.
Of course, no one is perfect, and even the competent, appreciated and respected Wyatt Earp had his embarrassing moments, which the Wichita Beacon was equally happy to report. In one well-publicized incident in January 1876, the single-action revolver in Earp’s possession somehow managed to slip from its holster, hit the ground and discharge. The shot narrowly missed Earp, piercing his coat before blowing through the ceiling. It’s the kind of incident that would make for slapstick in modern times but back in the 19th century, such incidents could happen and did, in fact, for one of the Old West’s most legendary gunslingers.
Politics Interferes with Policing
In the end, politics and not incompetence ended Wyatt Earp’s tenure in Wichita, Kansas. In March and April 1876, Earp’s boss, city marshal Mike Meagher was campaigning to retain his position against Bill Smith. In addition to being a political opponent of Earp, Smith nevertheless added fuel to the fire by badmouthing Earp and accusing him of attempting to use his position to hire his brothers as law officers. That was too much for Earp who resorted to fisticuffs. Meagher was forced to fire Earp and, though he won the subsequent election and attempted to have his former deputy reinstated, the city council could not conclusively agree that doing so was a good idea.
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Wyatt Earp’s first job as a law enforcement officer in Wichita, Kansas had come to an end. He soon moved on to Dodge City where, in addition to ultimately getting back into “keeping the peace”, he spent some time running a brothel with his brother, James.
Wyatt Earp and Wichita Snake
As mentioned above and as known to many Americans, Wyatt Earp’s legend was made some years later in Tombstone, Arizona. But his time in Wichita overlapped with the city’s first exciting economic boom, spurred by the cattle trade. By the time Glen Marshall of Wichita Snake arrives, the city was on the cusp of yet another economic renaissance, this one driven by manufacturing and agriculture. The local Chamber of Commerce, of which the fictional Old Smokey Jones is a member of the welcoming committee, was founded in 1901. The open plains of Kansas also appealed to some historic pioneers from the dawning age of aviation.
Glen’s stay in Wichita is cut short by unexpected trouble involving a crime boss and the revelation of who killed his wife. But, at least for his one night in town, he enjoyed the safety and hospitality of Earp’s Haven, a resting house named after the city’s most historic and well-known lawman.