Tombstone History Archives
Chronicles of Tombstone's TurbulEnt Years
Interview with Virgil Earp - 2
An Interview With Virgil W. Earp
Annotated by Robert F. Palmquist
This article appeared in Real West Magazine, in the January 1982 issue.
This was the first time this interview had appeared in print since May 28, 1882
Few episodes in frontier history have attracted so much attention from historians and the media, or generated so much controversy, as the Earp-Clanton feud in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881-1882. During the vendetta, San Francisco newspapers ran extensive accounts of the clashes between the Earp brothers - James, Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan, and Warren - and the “Cow-boys,” led by “Curly Bill” Brocius, Ike Clanton, and John Ringo. At the close of the feud, Virgil W. Earp (1843-1905), seriously wounded by Cow-boy shotguns, came to San Francisco for medical treatment. A reporter for the San Francisco Examiner met him on a Southern Pacific train on May 25, 1882. “His face, voice and manner were prepossessing,” the reporter wrote in the preface to his interview with Virgil, which the Examiner published on May 27. “He is close to six feet in height, of medium build, chestnut hair, sandy mustache, light eyebrows, quiet, blue eyes and frank expression. He wore a wide-brimmed, slate-colored slouch hat, pants of a brown and white stripe, and a blue diagonal coat and vest, both the latter with bullet holes in them, bearing testimony of a recent fight when he was shot in the back, the bullet coming out of the front of his vest. His left arm was carried in a sling, also a memento of his last fight, when he received a bullet in his arm, since causing the loss of about six inches of bone which crippled him for life. The wounded arm is the cause of his visit to this city, where he seeks surgical aid in hope of so far recovering its use that he may be able to dress himself unaided.” The interview Earp gave on the train that day was reprinted in Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star on May 30, and appears on pp.101-115 of Earp authority Al Turner’s The Earps Talk (Creative Publishing Co., 1980), along with Al’s thorough annotations. On May 27, Virgil Earp gave the Examiner a second interview, which appeared in the paper’s May 28 edition. This interview contains Virgil’s account of the Earps’ first brush with the Clantons and McLaurys, over some stolen army mules. It includes his story of the pursuit of the Benson stage robbers in March 1881, and of the abortive deal the Earps made with the Clantons and McLaurys for the capture of the holdup men, a deal which led directly to the so-called “O. K. Corral” fight. And it provides a unique view from inside the Southern Pacific train in Tucson on the night of March 20, 1882, when Wyatt Earp and his posse killed Frank Stilwell, suspected as one of Morgan Earp’s murderers. So far as I know, the publication by Real West of this interview is the first since the Examiner ran it under the headline, “Arizona Affairs,” on May 28, 1882.
I went from Prescott to Tombstone as Deputy United States Marshal. (Virgil Earp lived in Prescott from July 1877 to November 1879, and held several law enforcement jobs there. He was appointed Deputy United States Marshal on November 27, 1879, by the United States Marshal for Arizona, C.P. Dake.) The first trouble I had with the cowboys was when they stole a band of government mules from Camp Ruckner (Rucker). It was telegraphed from Charleston that the party was there with the mules. I found the party consisted of the McLaury boys, Billy Clanton and Pony Deal. They left before and my posse got into Charleston, and we learned from a cowboy named Dave Estell (Estes) that they had gone to the Mclaury ranch. The mules were branded U.S. and the thieves were changing the brand to D.8. When we got to the ranch we found the brand and also found one of their partners, a man named Frank Patterson, and Captain Hearst (Hurst) of Charleston, who accompanied the posse with four soldiers, comprised with Patterson, the latter stipulating that he would cause the surrender of the mules if no arrests were made. He stated that bloodshed was sure to follow if the pursuit were continued, and fearing his friends would be killed, promised to deliver the mules back in Charleston the next day. This compromise was made. We went back to Tombstone, Captain Hearst stopping at Charleston to wait for the mules. He waited two days, and on the second day the McLaurys, Clanton and Patterson rode in and laughed at him, saying they had offered to compromise only to get clear of the Earp party. The mules were never returned. (”Capt. Hearst” was Joseph H. Hurst [1838-1896], stationed at Camp Rucker in the Chiricahua Mountains. On July 25, 1880, Hurst and his soldiers trailed some mules stolen from Rucker to the ranch on Babocomari Creek, north west of Tombstone, belonging to Frank and Tom McLaury. The soldiers were accompanied by Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp and a posse consisting of his brothers Wyatt and Morgan and Marshall Williams. This was the first Earp cowboy encounter. Both Virgil and Wyatt Earp reported threats by the McLaury brothers over the affair.) Hearst had caused the printing and posting of some handbills in Tombstone, describing the stolen mules and mentioning the thieves by name. Billy Clanton and both the McLaurys came to me and asked if I had anything to do with advertising them that way. I told them no. (Hurst’s handbill appeared in the Tombstone Epitaph on July 30, 1880. See the copy accompanying this article.)
Frank McLaury then spoke up and said: “If I thought you did I would make you fight right here. If you ever follow us as close as you did then you will have to fight anyway.” I answered that if ever any warrant for his arrest were put into my hands I would endeavor to catch him, and no compromise would be made on my part to let him go. He replied that I would have to fight, that I would never take him alive. I said, “Frank, you are not looking for a quarrel, are you?” And he said he had only come in to find out if I had anything to do with the notices, and if I had, to kill me, but they were satisfied that I had not. Soon after that my brother Wyatt went to work for Wells Fargo, as shotgun messenger, on the road between Tombstone and Benson. (In fact, Wyatt had just resigned as shotgun guard to take a job as Deputy Sheriff of Pima County.) He worked several months when Morgan took his place. Morg was in six or seven months succeeded by Warren, altogether about a year and a half during which time no box was lost or any trouble experienced. As soon as my brother quit the cowboys began robbing the stages. At the time Bud Philpot the driver was killed there were four cowboys. Billy Leonard, Jimmy Crane, Harry Head and a man named King were the robbers. (On March 15, 1881, the stage from Contention City to Benson was attacked near Drew’s Station. The driver, Eli “Bud” Philpot, and passenger Peter Roerig were killed. Shotgun guard Bob Paul drove the stage to safety.) That night Bob Paul telegraphed to me that the stage had been robbed, and one passenger killed, and wanted me to meet him at Drew’s where the robbery was made. I got Wyatt and Morgan and Bat Masterson, ex-Sheriff of Fort (Ford) County, Kansas, to go with me. The night was so dark we could not follow the trail and had to lie there until daylight, when Sheriff Behan came down. (John H. Behan. first Sheriff of Cochise County, had beaten out Wyatt Earp for the Sheriff's appointment from Arizona Governor John C. Fremont. Wyatt eventually won the affections of Behan’s mistress, Josephine Sarah Marcus, who became the third Mrs. Wyatt Earp. At the time the Benson holdup occurred, however, the Earps and Behan were still on rather friendly terms.) Twenty-five or thirty men offered their services to pursue, and he told them all he wanted was the Earp boys and Bob Paul. We agreed to go and stay in pursuit as long as he thought it best to follow them. We struck the trail, followed their footprints for three days and caught King. He told us who the rest of the party was. Behan went back to Tombstone with King and we followed the rest for six days longer before we could get to a place to telegraph for advice. We telegraphed to Behan for fresh horses, as ours were played out with their nine days’ work, and Behan met us where we expected to get the horses but he did not bring them. That night Bob Paul’s horse laid down and died. Wyatt’s and Masterson’s horses were so used up they were left at the ranch and the boys had to hoof it in eighteen miles to Tombstone. During this time, Hume, Wells Fargo and Company 5 detective, had come to work up the case. (This was the celebrated James B. Hume [1823-1904]. who was in Tombstone to investigate the double murder for the express company and to post Wells Fargo’s reward for the killers.) Wyatt told him that there were about 75 cowboys in town, who would try to release King. Hume got Wyatt to go with him to the Sheriffs office to notify them, and they asked as a favor of the Under Sheriff (Harry Woods) to put King in irons. He promised to do so, and fifteen minutes afterward King escaped, going on a horse that was tied back of the Sheriffs office. After Behan met us we followed the trail for nine days more, the last five days being without a mouthful to eat and the last two days being without water. The horses were played out, and we had to give up the chase and return. (The posse returned to Tombstone on April 1,1881.) Behan brought in a bill against the county for $796.84. We supposed it was to pay expenses for the whole party, but he rendered it as a private account. I went before the Supervisors and they said Behan must vouch for us. This he refused to do, saying he had not deputized us. Everybody but myself and brothers were paid, and we did not get a cent until Wells Fargo found it out and paid us for our time. From that time our troubles commenced, and the cowboys plotted to kill us. (This must have been a hot rumor in Tombstone at the height of the feud. In a much-ridiculed passage, John P. Clum, Tombstone’s mayor and an ally of the Earps, notes that it was reported that the cowboys had drawn up a “Death List” which had “been prepared with most spectacular and dramatic ceremonials, enacted at midnight within the recesses of a deep canyon, during which the names of the ‘elect’ had been written in blood drawn from the veins of a murderer.” - Clum, It All Happened In Tombstone. Adds Clum: “We did not believe all we heard.”)
The fight of the 26th of October last was the first one, where Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury were killed. Ike Clanton moved his stock onto the ranch of Billy Leonard, in Cloverdale (New Mexico), thinking that Leonard would not dare stay in the country after robbing the stage. Soon afterward Leonard drove up to the ranch and told Clanton that he must buy the ranch or move off. Clanton assented, choosing to buy, saying he would come over to town and get some money; he came over and hunted up Wyatt and myself. He told me he could fix up a job to get Leonard to come over to the McLaury ranch where we could capture him, and agreed to furnish evidence to convict him, so his ranch would be left for Clanton. His excuse to get Leonard to McLaury’s was that the paymaster was going to Bisbee, and they would waylay him. The Clantons and McLaurys were to get Wells Fargo’s reward of sixteen hundred dollars each if they captured and convicted Leonard and his party. They went to the ranch, but Leonard and Crane went into New Mexico, where they were lulled by cowboys. Clanton still holds Leonard’s ranch. Clanton and McLaury came to us, and said they heard we had revealed the contract to catch Leonard, and said they could not live in the country an hour if Leonard’s friends learned that they had plotted against him. This was on the night of October 25th. They got drunk, and on the morning of the 26th were still drinking. Ike Clanton swore that he would kill the first Earp he met. He had a six shooter and a Henry rifle. Several friends warned us, and I went up the street and found him armed, as reported. I grabbed his Henry rifle and took it away. I knocked him down with it, disarmed him, arrested him and had him fined. Then he went after his brother Bill and the McLaurys. They came in armed with Winchesters and six shooters and rode down to Sheriff Behan’s livery stable. They began to make threats, saying they would wipe the Earps out that day. Behan warned me, and asked what I would do. I answered them that I would disarm them as soon as they came out of his corral, and asked him to go with me. (The Cowboys eventually left Dunbar and Behan’s Dexter Livery, crossed Allen Street, then moved west to Fly’s Photography Studio. “Doc” Holliday roomed at Fly’s, and it is likely that Ike Clanton, with whom Holliday had “had words” the night before, was seeking the dentist there. Virgil made the remark to Behan about arresting the Clanton party when they came out of the corral into the street since It was illegal to carry firearms on the city streets.) He refused on the ground that if he went, he would have to fight, but said he would persuade them to disarm. This was all I asked. He was unsuccessful. They said they had come to fight, and would not go away without it. I then went to my brothers Wyatt, and Morgan, and Doc Holliday, and asked them to help me disarm the party. At this time I was Chief of Police, Wyatt was Deputy United States Marshal, and Morgan was an officer under me. (It is unclear when Wyatt Earp became a Deputy United States Marshal in Tombstone. Al Turner writes in The Earps Talk that “Wyatt wasn’t made a full time Deputy United States Marshal until his brother Virgil was seriously wounded on the night of December 28, 1881.” Interestingly enough, his brother Virgil says his younger brother was a federal officer on October 26, 1881, the day of the “O. K. Gunfight.” And an October 14,1881, Epitaph item reported that cowboy Frank Stilwell had been arrested the day before “by Wyatt Earp, US. Deputy Marshal.” It is unlikely that the paper was confusing Wyatt with Virgil here, since the article’s next sentence reads that “simultaneous with Stillwell’s arrest, City Marshal [Virgil] Earp arrested Peter Spencer.”) Behan was talking to the cowboys when we went down. When we got within forty or fifty feet of them Behan saw us and left them, coming to us and saying, “For God’s sake don’t go near them. You will be murdered.” I said, “Johnny. I am going to disarm that party.” He said, “I have disarmed them.” I said then I would go down and notify them that they must not carry arms on the street or I would have to arrest them and have them fined. I supposed Behan had disarmed them and I did not know different until I had got within five feet of them. I demanded their arms and they drew them and commenced firing. We returned fire. There were about 35 shots fired in a minute. When the fight was over Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury were killed, and Doc Holliday, Morgan and myself were wounded. We were arrested on a warrant sworn out by Billy the Kid, a cowboy, then under indictment for a murder committed at Charleston. (This of course was not the “Billy the Kid” of New Mexico fame, but was a cowboy named William Claiborne, who had fled when the firing started.) We stood a tedious trial of thirty days. The cowboys had about ten thousand dollars, and employed some of the best attorneys in the Territory to prosecute us. We were acquitted. When Morgan and I got well, reports came in that we would be assassinated at the first opportunity. On the 29th of December last I stepped out of the Oriental Saloon to go to the hotel, when three double-barreled shotguns were turned loose on me from about sixty feet. I was shot in the back and in the left arm. On the 18th of March, Morgan was in a billiard hall playing billiards. He had just stepped back to let his companion play when Frank Stillwell and a half-breed named Indian Charlie and Peter Spence fired through the door, hitting Morgan in the back, breaking it, and killing him. After killing Morgan they went down to Spence’s and talked and laughed over it. (This, as it turned out, was a mistake, since Mrs. Spencer overheard them, and identified them as the killers before a coroner’s jury. She was moved to do so when her husband beat her up.) On the next day we sent Morg to Colton (California, the Earp’s family home) to be buried, and on the 20th I followed. On the road between Tombstone and Contention we were notified by parties in Tombstone that Ike Clanton, Frank Stilwell, Billy Miller and another cowboy were watching every train coming through to kill us. They all had shotguns tied under their overcoats. Wyatt, Warren, Doc Holliday, John Johnson, and Sherman McMasters concluded to see me through at Tucson. Almost the first men we met on the platform there were Stillwell and his fiends, armed to the teeth.
They fell back into the crowd as soon as they saw I had an escort, and the boys took me to the hotel to supper. The put me on the train and I have not seen any of them since. While waiting for the train to move out a passenger notified me that some men were lying on a flatcar near the engine. Just then the train moved out and immediately the firing commenced. The result of the shooting was the death of Stillwell, who was found on the track the next morning. They said our boys killed him. (Virgil was being evasive here, probably to shield his brothers from being charged with the killing. He knew that his brothers Wyatt and Warren, along with the friends he had listed as his “escort,” had caught Stilwell and riddled him with buckshot and bullets, then left we his corpse in the Tucson railroad yard.) One thing is certain, if I had been without an escort they would have killed me. I had to be lifted in and out of the car. I had not been out of bed before for nearly three months. From that time I know only what I have read, except that Wyatt wrote to me, and writing of the killing of Curly Bill in the Whetstone Mountains, about ten or twelve miles from Tombstone, said, “I killed Curly Bill, without a doubt.” Curly Bill was the man who killed Fred White, the first City Marshal of Tombstone. (The encounter between Wyatt Earp and Curly Bill Brocius occurred March 24, 1882, at Mescal, or Iron Springs, in the Whetstones. There, as Doc Holliday put it “Wyatt Earp turned loose with a shotgun and killed Curly Bill.”) I heard that my brothers were arrested in Denver, and telegraphed there to learn the truth. I afterwards got word from Wyatt that he had not been within 500 miles of Denver. He also said that if he could get out on bonds he would at once surrender, but did not want to lie in jail for six months, awaiting trial, and that he would return at the first sitting of the court, anyway. This is the main story of all the troubles in Tombstone. There are many incidental affairs which have added to them, but they are of more local than general interest. I will go back to Tombstone as soon as I am able to dress myself. (Virgil did not in fact return to Tombstone until 1887. While there, he rode on a posse after train robbers with old friends Fred Dodge and “Hairlip Charlie” Smith. He astounded one of the possemen by allowing his boneless left arm to flop about while he crossed an open stretch on horseback. Virgil Earp died October 19, 1905, in Goldfield, Nevada.)