Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The U. S. Marshals: The Long Arm of the Law

The Tombstone Myth

Wyatt Earp 1881 (AP)
Wyatt Earp 1881 (AP)

On the afternoon of October 26, 1881, Wyatt Earp and two of his brothers armed themselves and went over to the O. K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. A lifelong friend and skilled gunslinger, Doc Holliday, joined them. Altogether, there were four of them preparing to confront four rough men who were reputedly part of a dangerous group of cattle rustlers known as The Cowboys.

Recently, the films Tombstone and Wyatt Earp explored the life and times of this famous man, continuing the heroic tradition that has made him almost an archetype of the American West and making the gunfight a central event inspired by courage and determination. Wyatt's self-confidence and heroism were depicted in both films, but there was more to the story than simply killing some bad guys to make the town a better place to live. In fact, Wyatt Earp's entire stint with law enforcement lasted only about six years, starting in 1875. During that time, he befriended Bat Masterson, another man destined to become a Marshal, but he also abused the star.

What many people don't know is that Wyatt's own father was a U.S. Provost Marshal in Iowa, so he had a strong role model in law enforcement, but that didn't stop him from getting into trouble. Wyatt himself, according to Old West historians, was once jailed for stealing horses and he jumped bail, so he was never tried. Yet the Wild West needed men of skill and confidence to keep things in order, so despite being an outlaw he served as a deputy sheriff and a federal Deputy Marshal in such towns as Wichita and Dodge City.

The Earp brothers came to the lawless town of Tombstone in 1879 to get rich from silver mining. Virgil Earp became a Deputy Marshal and then served locally as the town Marshal, while Morgan Earp worked for the police. They were asked to go after the Cowboys, who robbed stagecoaches and disturbed the tenuous peace between Mexico and the U.S. by going over the border at night to rustle cattle and kill Mexicans. Yet even when a Marshal arrested one of these men, prejudiced juries generally did not convict anyone for crimes against a Mexican, so those in law enforcement quickly realized the futility. In fact, the Cowboys even murdered two Deputy Marshals, so going after them was clearly a dangerous and thankless job.

During this time, says Frederick Calhoun in The Lawmen, Wyatt decided that he wanted to be sheriff of Cochise County, which meant getting paid large fees for collecting taxes. It also meant animosity between him and Sheriff Johnny Behan, who wanted to keep the job. Wyatt not only went after Behan's job but also his common-law wife, Josephine, and a feud soon developed between the Earp brothers and the sheriff who had befriended the Clanton clanbelieved to be part of the Cowboys.

The Cowboys grew in strength, number, and violent incidents, and in January of 1881, they killed 40 Mexicans across the border. The Mexicans retaliated, and there were more deaths on both sides of the border, including Old Man Clanton, the clan leader. Finally the Mexican government complained and the Marshal in Prescott, AZ, Crowley Dake, asked the local Deputy Marshal, Virgil Earp, to arrest the Cowboys. Since there were over 100 of them, it was no easy task, and Virgil had signed on to collect fees and hand out warrants, not chase down outlaws. He wasn't interested.

Doc Holliday 1881 (AP)
Doc Holliday 1881 (AP)

Yet somehow Dake got the idea that the gunfight at the O.K. Corral was part of Virgil's effort to follow orders. It seems that Virgil had deputized Wyatt, Morgan and Doc Holliday to go with him to confront the Clantons. That gave it the appearance of "official business." Yet as Calhoun reports, it was anything but.

Earlier that day, October 26, there was an argument between Wyatt and Ike Clanton over the betrayal of a confidence. For the reward money, Wyatt had asked for Ike's assistance in identifying the perpetrators of a robbery, but Ike had decided not to help. They agreed to say nothing to anyone about the conversation, but word got around and Ike felt betrayed. So did Wyatt. He hit Ike with a pistol and then Virgil arrested him for disturbing the peace. Ike was released and found his brother, Billy, along with the McLaury bothers, Frank and Tom. While saddling his horse to leave town, he complained to Sheriff Behan. All four were preparing to leave.

That was when Virgil deputized Morgan, Wyatt, and Doc, and together they approached the vacant lot next to the infamous corral. Virgil used his authority as the town Marshal to charge them with bringing handguns into the city limits, which was against the town law. Without even checking to see if they were armed, Wyatt opened fire. In fact, two of the men were unarmed and thus were gunned down in cold blood right in front of Sheriff Behan. Wyatt later claimed that Frank McLaury went for his gun first, so Wyatt killed him in self-defense. Then Doc fired at Tom McLaury, hitting him in the gut, while Ike ran for cover. Virgil and Morgan both shot at Billy.

Frank went after his horse as he held his wound closed, while Tom collapsed and died against a telephone pole.

Morgan took a shot in the shoulder from Billy, and Morgan shot at Frank, shattering the top of his skull.

Billy fired at Doc, hitting his gun holster and bruising his leg. Billy then fired at Virgil and hit him in the leg. Wyatt and Virgil shot back, killing Billy.

The entire fight lasted less than a minute. Wyatt, who had shot first, was the only one to escape unscathed. Three men were dead, three wounded, and the Cowboys continued their plunder as if nothing had ever happened. That's probably because the gunfight had been personal, not business.

According to historian Bob Katz, the Tombstone city fathers considered the gunfight an outright homicide and Virgil was terminated as a Marshal. Not long afterward, he was ambushed, losing the use of his arm, so Wyatt asked for a commission from Marshal Dake as a Deputy Marshal. He got it, as well as money, to go after the Cowboys. Instead, he went after the men who had attacked Virgil. It didn't much matter to him whether they were part of the notorious gang.

Then when unknown gunmen assassinated Morgan Earp in a pool hall two months later, Wyatt and another brother, Warren, along with Doc Holliday, formed a posse and went after the three suspects, gunning them down. They had no evidence, only their suspicions. Their aim was not justice but revenge. Or, as Doc Holliday says of Wyatt in Tombstone, "It's not revenge he's after. It's a reckoning." To avoid being arrested for these murders, Wyatt then fled from Arizona to Colorado with Josephine.

Under McKinley's presidency, as reported in some accounts, Wyatt Earp was invited to become a U.S. Marshal, but he declined the honor and went to Alaska to set up a business. He apparently did better with mining than he did with upholding the law.

Once the Wild West was gone after the 1800s, local law enforcement began to control jurisdictions and the Marshals lost their public prominence; in the early 1900s Hoover created the FBI, and his forceful personality made it into a major agency. Now its name has more influence and force, so the FBI gets more funds and recognition than the Marshals. Nevertheless, the heroic Old West Marshal is part of American history and culture.

"As far as I'm concerned," says former U.S. Marshals Roger Ray, "John Wayne is the U.S. Marshals."

Ray has participated in every facet of the Marshals' role, from prisoner transport to witness protection to asset seizure. Let's get a closer look at his career.

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