Wyatt Earp: A Leader among Gambling Men, Part 1
Monday, 30 July 2012
By Johnny Hughes
Wyatt Earp (1847-1929) was a professional gambler his whole adult life. The gunfight near the OK Corral, in 1881, has spawned countless books and 55 movies that make Earp a town-taming sheriff, the very symbol of law and order. Earp, however, only served as a lawman for brief periods and was a deputy marshal or deputy sheriff.
In April of 1875, Wyatt Earp was hired as a policeman in Wichita, Kansas. Huge herds of Texas longhorn cattle were driven to Kansas to ship on the railroads. The rowdy Texas cowboys were the natural enemy of the Kansas lawmen. They would get big drunk, called a “jollification”, and go shoot out lights and signs, and occasionally shoot into buildings. This was called “hurrahing the town” and it was common. In Wichita, Earp was praised in a few newspaper articles for suppressing the cowboys.
In 1878, Wyatt became an assistant marshal in Dodge City, Kansas. The famous gambler and gunfighters that lived there included Doc Holliday, Luke Short, Bat Masterson and Ben Thompson, the Celebrity Five. As lawmen, Earp and Masterson could be found in a fancy gambling joint at the poker or faro table.
It was here that Earp further developed his style. He would approach cowboys in the calmest manner, speaking softly. He usually had one of his brothers, or Masterson, standing nearby with a Wells Fargo shotgun. He’d put his hand on the cowboy’s pistol. If there was any resistance, he would whip them with his long-barrelled pistol.
Famous actor and comedian Eddie Foy spent a time in Dodge. While Foy was performing one night, a few cowboys started hurrahing the town. They fired bullets into the gambling joint while Foy was reciting a poem. Earp and a couple of others fired at the cowboys. One was hit and later died. This was the first man Wyatt Earp killed. It was written up in the National Police Gazette, with 1,000,000 weekly readers. Earp was 30.
Once, when Earp was trying to disarm a Texas cowboy outside the Long Branch Saloon, Doc Holliday was inside at a poker table. He saw one of the cowboys draw a gun through the window. Holliday ran out yelling “throw up your hands” and pointed a gun at the terrified cowboys. Holliday held up to 25 cowboys at gunpoint, may have shot one, and saved Wyatt’s life.
Doc Holliday's reputation was just plain frightening. Earp would speak and write of that often over the years. He wrote, “It was because of that episode that I became the friend of Doc Holliday ever after.” The story of these Old West gamblers is the story of their incredible loyalty to each other and the personal risks that loyalty would demand.
All of Earp’s candidates lost in the Dodge City elections and the bloom was off the rose of that boom town. He persuaded his brothers, Morgan, Virgil and James, to move to Tombstone, Arizona. On the way, he stopped in Las Vegas, New Mexico, to persuade Doc Holliday to come with them too. When they hooked up with Virgil, in Prescott, Arizona, Holliday found a juicy poker game and stayed eight months, beating it for $40,000. Then, at Earp’s urging, Holliday came to Tombstone.
Tombstone had a giant silver strike. It was 25 miles from the Mexican border and known nationally as a lawless region. A loose confederation called “the Cowboys” numbered around 100 men. They raided into Mexico stealing cattle and killing people. They stole cattle in the US also. Some robbed stagecoaches which made them enemies of the powerful Wells Fargo. Earp was a secret Wells Fargo detective, called a “private man”, and no stagecoach with an Earp aboard was ever robbed. The businessmen and silver miners were mostly Republican, as was Earp; the ranchers and cowboys mostly Democrats. There were two opposing newspapers in Tombstone, one that favoured Earp’s side, one against.
The Oriental Saloon was a fancy gambling joint, with thick carpet, a long, mirrored, mahogany bar, live music, and a big poker game. The establishment’s success had the opposition trying to disrupt business by sending some tough guys to scare folks off. Milt Joyce, one of the owners, cut a deal with Earp. He would give him 25 per cent of the gambling profits if he would provide security. He really did that. Earp hired Holliday as a dealer and sent to Dodge City for Luke Short and Bat Masterson, hiring them as dealers too. The fame of the dealers packed the joint.
Earp’s major rival was Sheriff Johnny Behan. Behan brought a beautiful Jewish actress, Josephine Marcus, from a rich San Francisco family to Tombstone as his fiancée. Earp was to later spend the last 46 years of his life with her.
The Earp’s troubles with the Clantons and McLaurys, the leaders of the Cowboys, were all mixed up with Wells Fargo. These men had large ranches where they fenced the stolen cattle. The confederation of the Cowboys was never as well-defined or organised as their enemies, including the Governor of Arizona and the President of the United States, thought. The Governor appealed for troops to combat the Cowboys. The President appealed to Congress to suspend the Posse Comitatus Act to allow the Army to pursue the Cowboys, but Congress refused. The Mexican Army invaded southern Arizona and killed five Cowboys, including Old Man Clanton, the father of Ike, Billy, and Phin Clanton. Some American newspapers cheered it.
When Ike Clanton came into Tombstone very drunk, he and Doc Holliday had a verbal altercation. Later that night, there was a big all-night poker game at the Occidental Saloon. Holliday played and left early after he and Ike traded barbs. Deputy US Marshal Virgil Earp, who was also Chief of Police, Sheriff Johnny Behan, Ike Clanton, and Tom McLaury carried on playing until 6am. Four of the players at that game were involved in the ensuing gunfight that left three people dead and became immortalised as the Gunfight at the OK Coral.
Johnny Hughes is the author of Texas Poker Wisdom which is available from all Amazons. His new book, FAMOUS GAMBLERS, POKER HISTORY, and TEXAS STORIES, will be published shortly.