Chronicles of Tombstone's TurbulEnt Years
Tombstone History Archives
Wyatt Earp, Senior Citizen
by S. J. Reidhead
When Wyatt Earp rode out of Tombstone in March of 1882, he was 34 years old. Only twenty-eight months of his life had been spent in southern Arizona, but the events and consequences of his actions would follow him the rest of his life.
Immediately after his departure from Arizona, Wyatt, his youngest brother Warren, Doc Holliday, Luke Short, and the other members of his party rode to Silver City, New Mexico. There they went by train to Albuquerque, where they were met by Bat Masterson. After a few days in New Mexico, Masterson, a lawman in southern Colorado, escorted them north. The Earps and Holliday joined Masterson in Trinidad, Colorado where Masterson, a Deputy United States Marshall for the region, owned a saloon. Wyatt dealt faro for several weeks, then he, Warren, Holliday, and several others moved on to Gunnison, Colorado.
Sometime during the summer months of 1882, Wyatt received a letter from his common-law wife, Mattie Blaylock, who had been living with her in-laws in Colton, California. She wanted a divorce. She had fallen in love with a gambler from Arizona, who had asked her to marry him. Wyatt, did not believe in divorce. He refused to give her one. She deserted him, running away with the gambler, who would later abandon her in Arizona. There she began the downward spiral that lead to her death by alcohol and drug abuse in 1887.
Late in the summer of 1882, Earp and Holliday went their separate ways. Holliday headed for Pueblo, Colorado. Earp set out for San Francisco. After Mattie’s desertion, he was free to pursue his relationship with the love of his life, Josephine Sarah Marcus.
Early in 1883, he and Josie journeyed to Silverton, Colorado. Josie was young and lighthearted. She thought nothing of putting on men’s clothing and trekking through waist deep snow during a fierce, Rocky Mountain blizzard.
This was but the first of many rugged journeys Wyatt and Josie had during their 46 year relationship. Spoiled, selfish and willful; the darling of wealthy San Francisco parents, Josie’s spontaneous personality was the exact opposite of Wyatt’s serious, deliberate nature. Her complete lack of domestic skills suited the couple’s vagabond lifestyle. They never settled down; never raised a family; and in some respects, never did anything they did not want to do. On the surface, they spent nearly half a century at play.
Josie enjoyed flaunting convention, refusing to marry Wyatt until the late 1890’s. According to Raymond Nez, of western San Bernardino County, California, they were married aboard a yacht off the California coast. His grandparents witnessed the event.
In April of 1883, Bat Masterson journeyed to Silverton. This time he was the one who needed Wyatt’s help. Their mutual friend, Luke Short, was having trouble back in Dodge City. Wyatt and Josie travel to Kansas with Bat. They were joined by Doc Holliday and several of the gentlemen from Wyatt’s Tombstone posse. The much publicized incident became known as the Dodge City War.
1884 found Wyatt, Josie, Warren, James, and Bessie Earp in Eagle City, Idaho. Once again Wyatt was looking for gold. The Earp brothers purchased a huge circus tent and opened a saloon called The White Elephant. An advertisement on a local newspaper suggests gentlemen ‘come and see the elephant’.
While Wyatt was in Idaho he became involved in a shootout. On March 28, several feet of snow was still on the ground. Bill Buzzard, a miner of dubious reputation, was in the process of constructing a building, when one of Wyatt’s partners, Jack Enright, tried to stop the construction. Enright claimed the building was on part of his property. Eagle City was a hot bed of legal activities; claim jumping; and those who disregarded property lines. Buzzard was one of those individuals. A few words were exchanged. Buzzard reached for his Winchester and fired several shots at Enright. Friends and associates of both sides quickly took defensive positions between snowbanks and began shooting at one another. Kootanie County Deputy Sheriff Wyatt Earp, and Shoshone County Deputy, W. E. Hunt eventually put a stop to the affair.
The Spokane Falls Evening Review reported the incident. “The Earp brothers, James and Wyatt took a prominent part as peacemakers. With characteristic coolness, they stood where the bullets from both parties flew around them, joked the participants upon their poor marksmanship, and although they pronounced the affair a fine picnic, used their best endeavors to stop the shooting. After Mr. Hunt had disarmed the parties in the cabin, the Earps announced the fact to those outside, and told them to put up their guns.”
After Wyatt and Josie left the Coeur de Alene, they went to San Diego. There they remained for several years. Wyatt dabbled in real estate and spent his days as a sporting man about town. As San Diego’s real estate market crashed, the Earps moved to San Francisco.
Wyatt was in and out of Colorado several times in the late 1880’s. According to a local legend, in 1887, Wyatt stopped off in Leadville to pay a visit to Doc Holliday. When he saw Doc’s condition, he never left the railroad platform, instead, pulling his friend onto the same train and took him directly to the sanitarium in Glenwood Springs.
The Mirror, a newspaper in Monroe, Iowa picked up a wire story filed from Denver, not long after Holliday’s death in 1887. The title of the article He’s a Dude Now speaks volumes. The unnamed reporter, who interviewed Wyatt at Austin’s Exchange, goes into great detail, describing Wyatt’s appearance:
“Wyatt Earp, a man whose trigger finger had considerable to do in making the border history of the West, was in Denver for several days last week. He is tall and athletic. His eyes are blue and fringed with light lashes and set beneath blonde eyebrows. His hair, which was once as yellow as gold, is beginning to be stranded with white. A heavy, tawny mustache shades his firm mouth and sweeps below his strong, square chin. He wore… a neat gray tailor-made suit, immaculate linen and fashionable neckwear. With a Derby hat and a pair of tan shoes, he was a figure to catch a lady’s eye…”
Earp spent much of the next decade in San Francisco. While there, he became involved in the infamous Sharkey-Fitzsimmons fight. The fight, and Wyatt’s decision brought another round of unwanted publicity. On December 2, 1896, Wyatt Earp, appointed referee at the last minute, stepped into the ring and into a hotbed of bad publicity.
Robert Fitzsimmons, reigning Heavyweight Champion, was obviously winning the fight against Tom Sharkey, when, in the 8th Round, Fitzsimmons landed what referee Earp saw as an illegal blow. Earp declared the fight over and Sharkey the winner. The decision was one of the most controversial in boxing history. While half the panel of judges saw the blow and agreed with Earp, the other half was looking elsewhere and said they saw nothing.
For weeks, the fight was replayed in the local newspapers. The city of San Francisco was divided as to Earp’s character. Had he taken a bribe? Had he made a illegal call to end the fight? A century later, in the California Court of Historic Appeals, a panel of judges belatedly ruled in Wyatt Earp’s favor. His actions in the Sharkey-Fitzsimmons fight had been legal and justified.
Wyatt Earp soon felt the lure of gold. This time the great rush was in the frozen landscape of Alaska. By the summer of 1899 Wyatt and Josie arrived in Alaska. Wyatt opened the Drexel Saloon in Nome and prospered.
The one cloud in an otherwise happy period of his life was the murder of youngest Earp brother, Warren. On July 6, 1900 he was shot in a saloon in Wilcox, Arizona. According to one source, Wyatt and Josie were in Denver at the time. Both Wyatt and Virgil supposedly rushed to Cochise County to aveng e the death of yet another brother. A few weeks later, Wyatt and Josie went back to Alaska.
In 1901 Wyatt sold his interest in the Drexel Saloon. He and Josie left Alaska with the large fortune of $85,000 dollars in their pockets. They immediately used the money to outfit still another saloon, this one, the Northern, was located in Tonopah, Nevada, the heart of the most recent gold rush. Along with his saloon, Wyatt was a Deputy United States Marshal for the District of Nevada.
Virgil and Allie were also in Nevada, having arrived in Goldfield in 1904. Not long after arriving in the area, Virgil accepted a position as a deputy sheriff for Esmeralda County. On February 11, 1905 the Tonopah Sun announced his arrival.
“Verge Earp, a brother of Wyatt and one of the famous family of gunologists is acting as a deputy sheriff in the National Club, Goldfield. Verge is a mild looking individual and to the outward view presents none of the characteristics that have made the family a familiar one in the west…”
“Wyatt is expected in Goldfield shortly. He is coming overland from Los Angeles with his wife, dog and trusty rifle….In a recent letter to his brother…Wyatt asserted that he would “Never shoot at a man unless he tried to shoot at me first.”
Eight months later, on October 19, Virgil was dead. Never having fully recovered from the injuries he received in Tombstone, he died of pneumonia. James, Adelia, and half brother Newton were Wyatt’s only remaining siblings.
Wyatt had a lifetime of experience when it came to prospecting. He had a working knowledge of mining, geology, claims, and oil. The man had an uncanny knack for locating pockets of silver, gold, and copper. The lifetime he spent working as a lawman and dealing with legal matters taught him how to tie these claims up in long-term leases. The mines provided the couple with a very nice income for many years.
A natural prospector, the desert was the place where he was happiest. Wyatt Earp loved the West. He knew it intimately. He was part of its history and lore. The love of the West, and longing for the quiet solitude of the desert led he and Josie to spend a goodly part of the last two decades of his life in and around Parker, Arizona, along the Colorado River.
At first, the couple stayed in a hotel owned by Joe Bush and his wife. They would outfit a Studabaker wagon with camping equipment and head out into the Mojave Desert in Western San Bernardino County, where the Happy Day Mine was located.
Until 1939 and the new bridge, the only way to get from Parker, on the Arizona side of the Colorado River, to the little town of Drennen (now called Earp), was by ferry. One morning the Earps, i.e. Mrs. Earp, were having an argument. According to witnesses, Wyatt left the hotel with his newspaper in hand and walked the short block to the ferry. Josie leaned out the window of their hotel room and started shouting at him in frustration. She demanded he return and continue the argument. He never looked up from his paper. Old-timers say she could be heard on the other side of the river.
The Earps loved the Colorado River region. One year, Wyatt surprised his wife with her own little dream house in a small town called Calzona. Not long after the house had been completed, a flood destroyed most of the town. Wyatt organized the remaining homeowners, suggesting they relocated the community to Vidal. He hired someone to move the entire house, much to his wife’s pleasure.
While they were living in Vidal, a ‘bad man’ left the Los Angeles to Phoenix train and tried to rob Charles Bunnell’s store. Bunnell escaped, and quickly called for constable Jim Wilson.
Wilson immediately phoned Wyatt Earp. He needed backup. Vidal was so far removed from the San Bernardino’s sheriff office, the constable had no where else to turn.
Wyatt Earp, now Senior Citizen Earp, strolled into Bunnell’s store and introduced himself to the would-be robber and told the man to hand over his gun. The startled man, much younger than Earp, immediately surrendered. In a scene reminiscent of the ‘old days’, the former Dodge City lawman promptly grabbed the bad man by the collar and pushed him out the door. The constable had yet to arrive on the scene. Earp was in his early 70’s at the time.
The Earps had their little disagreements. Wyatt had a ramshackle little cabin in Drennan that he dearly loved. It was clapboard, the outside covered with tar paper and had roof made of palm fronds. Josie hated the place with a passion. When Wyatt wanted to spend time in his cabin, Josie would either retreat to her little house in Vidal or take a room at the hotel in Parker.
The one thing the aging Earp cherished most in life was his solitude. He wanted time to read and just think about life. His little shack was the perfect place to do both. It was also an excellent place to hold marathon poker games with Joe Bush and a few others from the area.
One of Wyatt’s closest friends in his later years was a retired railroad engineer named Charlie Welsh. According to his daughter, Grace Spolorori, the two men met back in Dodge City. Welsh had a farm in Needles, which is northwest of Parker. “The Earps would come to our place after they came off the desert.” When the Welsh family moved from Needles to Seventeenth Street in Los Angeles, the Earps quickly followed.
Both Wyatt and Josie adored young people and children. Josie’s nieces would frequently visit the couple during the winter months at their desert ‘camp’. Holidays were spent with the Walsh family.
Grace, now in her late 90’s, vividly remembers Wyatt and Josie. “He was always such a lovely man. A nice man. A polite man. He was very respectful to women. Of course he loved my mother and my sisters. he felt at home with us.”
Wyatt had a bad habit of giving nicknames to his friends. Early in their relationship Wyatt began calling his beloved ‘Sadie’. Blessed with a wicked sense of humor, Wyatt knew Josie detested the name ‘Sadie’. So, ‘Sadie’ she became. Grace became known as ‘Sister’.
As childless couples grow older, they sometimes attach themselves to a young person. Grace Walsh Spolodori was their young friend of choice. “They took me to San Diego with them. And I spent a part of the summer at Coronodo with them. I was a teenager when I went places with him.”
When Grace was 16, she stayed with the Earps at Coronodo. “A bunch of kids wanted me to go out with them. He said, ‘I don’t know if I should let you.’ Sadie said, ‘Oh, let her go’. I had to be back by 11:30 that evening. When I came back, he was outside looking for me, watching for me. ‘Oh, I’m so glad you’re home.’”
The tale continued. Evidently Wyatt and Josie argued the entire evening. Wyatt paced and walked up and down the sidewalk, worried about his young charge. Josie thought it was a big joke and accused him of remembering his days as a young man. “He was always very protective of me,” Grace added.
In many ways, the 1920’s in Los Angeles and its environs, including Hollywood, were ‘untamed’. People were still moving out to the Imperial Valley as settlers, trying to tame an inhospitable land. The entire area had something of the frontier spirit Wyatt Earp adored. Friends from his Dodge City and Tombstone days had moved to the region for its warm, sunny Southern California climate. It was a great place to retire and grow old.
As hard times hit the cattle industry, cowboys found themselves drawn to Hollywood and the film industry. It was the heyday of the silent film era. Stars like William S. Hart, and Tom Mix, were as enthralled with the idea of the West as was Wyatt Earp, who had fallen in love with the Hollywood Western. He was such a movie buff, it is safe to say, until his last illness in 1928, he never missed a new film, going from one end of the city of to another, just to see a new release.
A friendship between Earp, Mix, and Hart was inevitable. Director, John Ford was determined to make his films as authentic as possible. Wyatt Earp became the perfect technical source.
Earp had another good reason for haunting the back lots of Hollywood. He could always find a good poker game where the stakes were fairly high. According to legend, poker was a game he rarely lost. He could visit with his cronies; smoke a good cigar; and get away from Sadie for awhile.
A close friendship grew between Earp and Hart, leading to a decade long correspondence. In 1923 Earp became ill for the first time in his life. He was beginning to develop problems with his prostate that eventually lead to kidney failure. While he was ill, he began to ponder his mortality.
In a letter to Hart, he wrote, “I realize that I am not going to live to the age of Methuselah, and any wrong impression I want made right before I go away.”
“It does beat the band how the truth will be warped and misstated over a period of years.” Wyatt confessed, “It often amuses me to read the different versions of the early days in Tombstone, published in recent years.”
Earp rarely spoke of his days in Tombstone. According to Grace, “We weren’t allowed to mention it. It wasn’t a topic of conversation. He never allowed anything of the past to come up, even when the family was talking. He would always talk about the future. When reporters would come to talk to him, Sadie would run them away. She was a good guard.”
Writers did come to call. Walter Noble Burns wanted to write a biography of Wyatt, who refused. Instead, Wyatt tried to talk Burns into writing about Doc Holliday.
1926 was a difficult year for Wyatt. James died in January. His own health was rapidly failing. Writer, Adela Rogers St. John was introduced to him in August of that year. The first time they met, he was reading Hamlet that had, in his words, “More corpses than there was at the OK Corral, and with less reason.”
“I never had much schooling,” he told the writer. “I was just a boy along about the time my father pulled out west in a wagon train. We were short handed and on the way I had to stand my watch guarding the women and children and wagons. I never seemed to relish going back to school.”
Rogers St. John described the elderly Earp. “He was straight as a pine tree, tall and magnificently built. I knew he was nearly 80, but in spite of his snow white hair and mustache, he did not seem or look old. His greetings were warm and friendly. I stood in awe. Somehow, like a mountain, or desert, he reduced you to size.”
The writer and Tom Mix were two of the few people Earp would talk to about his days in Tombstone. The two younger people would often sit in his back yard and pump him for information about his past. The aging gunfighter was interested in her soul and her relationship with the Almighty. She would often find him sitting in his rocking chair, a kitten nearby, reading the Bible.
He and Tom Mix were making a list of things Wyatt was going to ask the Almighty when he arrived in heaven because, “The Good Lord owes me an explanation for the things that have happened in my life.” He wondered what it would be like to see his beloved brother, Morgan, again. Wyatt always remembered Morgan’s dying words, “I guess I’ll be seeing you in heaven.”
Wyatt and Josie lived in a small apartment near the Walsh family. Josie did very little housekeeping and very little cooking for Wyatt. The Walsh sisters constantly worried about the way Josie cared for her ailing husband. She never cooked for him. His meals were provided by Grace, her sisters, and her mother. According to Grace, Wyatt was lucky of Sadie stopped long enough to fix him a hot dog.
As Wyatt’s illness progressed, Grace tried to get the Earps to move in with their family on a permanent basis, but Wyatt refused. He was a very private person. “He was almost reclusive,” Grace said, “He wasn’t one to inflict himself on others. He was quite ill. Wyatt was so darn quiet, we didn’t know he was that sick.”
In January of 1928 Wyatt and Stuart Lake agreed that Lake would pen Wyatt’s biography. Lake became a frequent visitor, meeting Wyatt at the Walsh residence, where the two men would talk for hours. During that year, Wyatt’s health rapidly declined. Around Christmas, Newton died. Wyatt and his sister Adelia were now the only remaining siblings of the large Earp clan.
A few days before he died, Wyatt wrote to William S. Hart. “Only to move back ten years! That would be worth a world fortune. But it can’t be done now. I will have to be satisfied for the ten years that are ahead - and that’s a mighty lot. And, I can’t plan anymore to climb the hills and hit the drill. Just now it would seem great to be drowsing out in the sun instead of being right here on my back…”
Wyatt Earp died on the morning of January 13, 1929 almost 58 years to the day that his beloved bride and first wife, Urilla Sutherland Earp died back in Lamar, Missouri.
Grace and her sister, Alma helped arrange Wyatt Earp’s funeral. It was held at the Congregational Church on Wiltshire Boulevard. Following the funeral, “My sister and I went to the crematory. At that time two people had to go to the crematory with the casket. It was the custom. Alma and I had to look inside the window as the coffin was in the crematory and you could see the fire. Then the window blackened by fire. We left quickly.”
The Walsh sisters were furious with Josie. “She didn’t go to his funeral, even. She wasn’t that upset. She was peculiar. I don’t think she was that devastated when he died. The story is how she carried his ashes on her lap, all the way to San Francisco. Well, we all know she didn’t do that.”