Wyatt Earp: A Leader among Gambling Men, Part 2
Friday, 31 August 2012
By Johnny Hughes
When Ike Clanton came into Tombstone very drunk, he and Doc Holiday had a verbal altercation. Later that night, there was a big all-night poker game at the Occidental Saloon. Doc 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 played poker until 6am. Ike made threats and challenges to the Earps and Doc. Four of the people in the upcoming gunfight were in the poker game that left three dead, one Clanton and two McLaurys. Morgan and Virgil were wounded. Doc was carrying a Wells Fargo shotgun, borrowed from the local office.
After the gunfight, Doc and Wyatt had a 28-day hearing to see if they’d be charged with murder. Wyatt did all the talking, since Doc's reputation and record kept him off the witness stand. They were cleared. However, after that, the Cowboys ambushed Virgil Earp as he left the Oriental Saloon, hitting his arm with a shotgun, and crippling him for life. A little later, Morgan Earp was assassinated while shooting pool. Wyatt was there.
The big gunfight near the OK Corral was national news in America, and the drama played out for days in newspapers. For most, Wyatt and his crew were seen as the true representatives of law and order. Actually, Virgil, a Deputy U.S. Marshal, deputised Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc right before they started walking to the corral.
Wyatt sold out of the Oriental and sent all the Earp family to California where his parents lived. Then he formed a posse known as the “Vendetta Ride”. Wyatt secured financial backing from Wells Fargo and had the posse all named US deputy marshals. His posse had up to eight men, including Doc Holliday, and the youngest brother, Warren Earp. They were all armed with pistols, rifles and Wells Fargo shotguns. In about a week, they killed three, maybe four men. Many newspapers turned against Wyatt. He and Doc were charged with murder and fled Arizona for Colorado.
Wyatt and his group fled to Trinidad, Colorado, where Bat Masterson was City Marshal and banked a faro game. Wyatt announced to the press he sought a pardon from the Arizona governor and that he planned to return to Tombstone and run for Sheriff, but no pardon came.
Wyatt was 34 when he left Tombstone. After 28 months, he was to say it was the worst time of his life. He went to San Francisco to court and win the heart of Josephine “Josie” Marcus, who had been the most beautiful woman in Tombstone and Sheriff Johnny Behan's fiancée. Wyatt and his beloved Josie were both adventuresome spirits, ready to head off to the next boom town, silver strike, gold strike or gambling opportunity. They were together 46 years.
Wyatt and Josie went to Fort Worth, Texas. Luke Short had the fanciest gambling joint there, the White Elephant. Bat Masterson said it was “one of the largest and costliest establishments of its kind in the whole Southwest”. In one celebrity poker game, Wyatt Earp, Luke Short, Bat Masterson and Long Haired Jim Courtright played. Bat sat in for $9,000. Later, Luke outdrew Courtright and killed the famed gunman right outside the door of the White Elephant. That was the second time Luke killed a man right outside the door of the fanciest gambling joint in a boom town.
In 1896 Wyatt was selected to be the referee of the heavyweight fight between Sharkey and Fitzsimmons in San Francisco. Wyatt was selected on the last day when the two sides could not agree and rumours of a fixed fight were flooding the nation. Wyatt had refereed a few bare-knuckle fights but never one with Marquis of Queensbury rules.
When Wyatt Earp entered the ring and removed his jacket, he had forgotten a big six-gun in his back pocket. A police officer confiscated it and Wyatt later paid a $50 fine. The arena, with 10,000 people, exploded with sustained laughter, given Wyatt's nationwide celebrity as a gunfighter.
Sharkey was the underdog and losing. He hit the mat in the eighth round holding his groin and moaning in pain. Wyatt ruled there was a low blow from Fitzsimmons and awarded the match to Sharkey on the foul.
In Nome, Alaska, in 1887, Wyatt owned a gambling joint with Josie's brother – The Dexter House. It was prosperous. Wyatt and Josie left Alaska in 1901 with $80,000 in winnings. There was another gold strike in Goldfield, Nevada, so Wyatt opened one more gambling house.
Back in Los Angeles, Wyatt won a trotting horse in a poker game, and got in that business, managing a string of racehorses. He had saloons and faro games and things were as usual.
In the 1920s, Wyatt Earp had one of his most interesting and certainly influential periods. In his seventies, Wyatt was still handsome, with an erect military bearing, steel-grey, close-cropped hair and a much shorter moustache. It was obvious he still had a charismatic power over others, and a very special fame. The next big boom was the movies. This was at the time of the big Western movies, and Wyatt became close friends with the biggest stars of all, Tom Mix and William S. Hart. Wyatt was a consultant for the movies, coaching them on the fast draw and being authentic. The big wheels in Hollywood played poker, and Wyatt played with them.
One of the men most impressed with Wyatt Earp was famed movie director John Ford. He met John Wayne who would later say he got his walk, talk and persona from Wyatt. Wayne said, “I knew him … I often thought of Wyatt Earp when I played a film character. There’s a guy that actually did what I'm trying to do.”
In Wyatt's final years, he and Josie lived in a one-room apartment and stayed broke because of her poker habit. She sold everything her family gave her to pump money for the backroom poker games of LA.
In his last two years, he had been working on an authorised biography with Stuart Lake. Josephine had editorial control over Lake’s book, and some stories are false. It makes Wyatt the perfect hero. However, few books have had more influence on television or the movies.
After Wyatt died, 55 movies followed over the years and he was portrayed by many famous actors. When the TV Western craze began in the 1950s, there were six series based on Wyatt Earp and his pals on at one time. Some ran for years. John Ford made My Darling Clementine with Henry Fonda about Wyatt, using Lake's book in 1946
Wyatt Earp died in 1929. He was 80. Josephine said his last words were, “Suppose. Suppose.” Wyatt Earp remained a dreamer until his very last breath.
Johnny Hughes' new book Famous Gamblers, Poker History, and Texas Stories is available from Amazon. Johnny is very generously donating 100 per cent of his book royalties to a veteran of Iraqi Freedom who has been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.