9 Fascinating Facts About Virgil Earp, Noble Lawman
Wyatt Earp may be lionized for his role in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, but Virgil Earp was the Chief of Police in Tombstone at the time of the fight, and he served the town admirably.
When Stuart Lake’s Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal was published in 1931, it solidified Wyatt’s mythical status as one of the last true lawmen of the frontier. Wyatt had died on January 13, 1929, so he didn’t live to see the success of the book, though his common-law wife of more than 40 years, Josephine Marcus Earp, did.
Though she grumbled about some of the book’s finer details — she wanted a sanitized, unsullied story that didn’t actually exist — the person who might’ve argued the book’s title was Virgil Earp, who had died in 1905.
The reason? At the time of the gunfight, Virgil was Tombstone’s Chief of Police, or City Marshal, and was also a deputy U.S. marshal, a federal position he had held since arriving in Tombstone in late 1879. Leading up to the O.K. Corral showdown, he deputized Wyatt, Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday for help, as he often did during his tenure in Tombstone.
History would eventually place Wyatt on a pedestal, for better or worse, but in Tombstone, in October 1881, Virgil was the man in charge — the actual frontier marshal.
In fact, it wasn’t until after the attempted assassination of Virgil in December 1881 that Wyatt Earp would be appointed a deputy U.S. marshal in Tombstone, a designation he found useful in his Vendetta Ride after Morgan’s murder in March 1882.
Because he died in 1905, some 23 years before Wyatt passed away, Virgil didn’t quite make it to that strange time in history when the reality of life in the West gave way to Hollywood mythmaking that would forever fictionalize the frontier.
Wyatt lived in Los Angeles and hobnobbed with actors like Tom Mix and William S. Hart, and with Josephine’s insistence, made at least some attempt to profit off his stories — just as his friend Bat Masterson had with Famous Gun Fighters of the Western Frontier.
Virgil, in his final years, made no attempt to capitalize on his personal history, perhaps one of many reasons he doesn’t get the same recognition as his younger brother. But he held various law positions throughout Arizona and California dutifully, and deserves credit where it’s due — regardless of his brother’s elevated reputation.
“We should remember that in spite of all the Tombstone controversy, the city was a relatively safe place under the ironclad hand of City Marshal Virgil Earp,” wrote Don Chaput in Virgil Earp: Western Peace Officer.
Here are 9 facts about Virgil Earp and his life as an honorable lawman, stagecoach driver, saloonkeeper, gambler, miner and entrepreneur in the West.
1. Virgil’s first wife moved away when she was told he had died.
Virgil Walter Earp was born on July 18, 1843 to Nicholas Earp and Virginia Ann Cooksey. He was the second of what would eventually be five Earp sons — the “Fighting Earps,” as they came to be known — and spent most of his early life on small farms and rural land in the Midwest.
Nicholas wasn’t the type to settle in one place for too long, so the young family bounced around the Midwest, spending time in Monmouth, Illinois, where Wyatt was born in 1848, and Pella, Iowa, where Morgan, Warren, Virginia Ann, and Adelia were born. Pella was a busy time for Nicholas and Virginia, if you catch my drift.
As a teenager in Pella, Virgil did odd jobs around the farm, attended some classes at Central College, and began courting a Netherlands-born immigrant named Magdalena “Ellen” Rysdam. Against the wishes of both families, Virgil and Ellen eloped on September 21, 1861 as bright-eyed teenagers.
They wasted no time consummating the marriage, and little Nellie Jane was born the following year — some records say in January, which would’ve made for a fun shotgun elopement, while others claim she was born in the summer.
In any case, this wasn’t a great time for a strapping lad like Virgil to be starting a frontier family: the Civil War, which began before the couple eloped, was well-underway, and in July 1862, Virgil left his newborn child and wife to join the 83rd Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry in Monmouth.
Virgil’s absence didn’t change the Rysdams’ views on their marriage, and after a few unsuccessful attempts to talk Ellen into legally divorcing Virgil, her parents eventually told Ellen the young man had died after suffering a serious war injury.
Some reports claim Nicholas was complacent in the deceit, as he thought Virgil was too young to marry. Whoever the conspirators were, by 1864, the Rysdam family had left Pella for Washington Territory, where Ellen remarried another non-Dutch dude in 1867. Her parents were probably thrilled (again).
When Virgil mustered out in the summer of 1865, he had served his regiment honorably for three years, participated in several skirmishes, like the Battle of Dover in Tennessee, and was decidedly not dead.
By then, however, Ellen and her family were over 1,500 miles away, and he made no effort to track them down, possibly considering what kind of terrible in-laws he’d have to live with if he reunited with Ellen. So he moved on, though Ellen and Nellie Jane would come back into his life more than 30 years later.
Related read: Is Tombstone a True Story? Here’s What’s Accurate (and Not)
2. Virgil probably met Johnny Behan before their conflict in Tombstone.
After the Civil War, it’s not clear exactly where Virgil went, though he claimed to have headed to California, where Nicholas and some of his kin, including Wyatt and Morgan, landed in late 1864 after a long overland journey from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Author Don Chaput points to evidence that Virgil started his stagecoach driving career in the 1860s, perhaps after learning some of the craft in the war.
As he was wont to do, Nicholas eventually packed up and left California for the Midwest, and some of the Earp boys tagged along until Wyoming, where Virgil and Wyatt got jobs grading for Union Pacific, one of two companies that would complete the Transcontinental Railroad in May 1869.
By the following year, Virgil was settled in Lamar, Missouri, helping Nicholas with his small local business and the family farm. Virgil remarried, to the exotic-sounding Rosilla Draggoo, but apparently it didn’t work out: it’s not clear if “she died, ran away, was kidnapped, abandoned” or befell some other frontier fate, wrote Chaput.
In the 1870s, Virgil met Alvira Sullivan, an orphaned, first-generation American born to Irish immigrants, in Council Bluffs. It was your classic rom-com setup: she was a waitress at Planters House (what I take to be a frontier IHOP), he was the stoic stagecoach driver who — once you cracked his exterior — was really just a big ol’ teddy bear. With a nice mustache.
By 1874, Allie and Virgil were common-law man and wife, and within a few years they were ready to head back west with Nicholas, who must’ve really enjoyed moving cross-country every few years. On their way west, the Earp wagon train stopped in Dodge City to see Wyatt; Virgil may have helped his brother with peacekeeping duties there for a time, but there’s no formal record of it.
In the summer of 1877, the Earp crew made it to Arizona — really a terrible time to arrive there, speaking as a former Phoenician — and Virgil and Allie discovered their love of Prescott, a blossoming mining town in central Arizona. The climate was mild, the economic opportunities were solid and the couple easily found jobs. Allie performed housekeeping duties for a rancher and his wife outside of town, and Virgil helped the rancher deliver mail in the Prescott area.
Eventually, the Earps moved to an abandoned sawmill west of Prescott, where Virgil occasionally harvested lumber for local merchants and the army stationed at nearby Whipple Barracks. But he was more interested in beginning his peacekeeping career, which took an encouraging turn in October 1877, just a few months after settling in Prescott.
One night, two drunkards caused a stir in downtown Prescott, “taking pot shots at a dog” and generally causing mayhem. When a constable tried to reign them in, the outlaws took off on horseback through town, drawing the attention of Virgil Earp, who was chillin’, conveniently enough, with U.S. Marshal William Standefer, and Ed Bowers, Yavapai County sheriff.
Bowers deputized Earp on the spot and the three headed out to wrangle in the two criminals, who had stopped at one end of town. The lawmen surrounded them, and Virgil Earp showed off, perhaps for the first time publicly, his savvy shooting skills.
With his Winchester rifle, Virgil helped make quick work of the outlaws, wrote Chaput.
“When the carnage was over, Tallos lay dead by a fence, with eight bullet and buckshot wounds, and Wilson was fading fast, with a hole in his head, a cigarette still between his lips.”
Virgil’s shooting performance, coupled with his size and Civil War background, made him an ideal stagecoach driver, and he spent some time in Prescott driving coaches between smaller mining camps and settlements in the area, like Tip Top and Black Canyon. It was during this time he met U.S. Marshal Crawley P. Dake, who would play an important role in the Earps’ time in Tombstone.
In Prescott, Virgil would work as a nightwatchman and constable, essentially starting at the bottom of the peacekeeping ladder and working his way up over time. He performed his duties well, seeing few major incidents, and on November 27, 1879, Dake appointed Virgil a deputy U.S. marshal in Yavapai County.
In general, the Earps enjoyed their time in Prescott, and later, Allie would recall the town as their favorite place to live. In fact, she didn’t want to leave their home when the Earp boys floated the idea of heading down south to settle in Tombstone at the end of 1879.
Another key figure in Tombstone’s saga also lived in the Prescott area before relocating: Mr. John Harris Behan. Behan had arrived from the Midwest in the 1860s, and quickly became for local Democrats “an inveterate office seeker, a back-slapper,” explained Chaput. He shook hands, kissed babies and served in the territorial legislature after spending some time as an undersheriff, then sheriff, of Yavapai County.
Behan pursued various political, mining and business opportunities in the Prescott area for years, but in 1880, he was defeated in an election for county recorder, probably to an embarrassing degree: “he was practically drummed out of the local political scene by his Democratic colleagues,” wrote Chaput.
Licking his wounds, Behan headed down to Tombstone in the fall of 1880. As conflicts between the Earps and the “cowboys” of southern Arizona escalated over the next year, Behan displayed his allegiance to local ranchers, rustlers and Democrats, and was in direct conflict with the Earps before and after the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Although there’s no record of Virgil and Behan chumming it up in Prescott, it was a relatively small town and both men held local positions that would’ve made it likely they would’ve run into each other from time to time.
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3. Despite Wyatt Earp’s reputation, Virgil was the Earp brother with a badge in Tombstone.
When the Earp wagons rolled into Tombstone in December 1879, Wyatt’s plan was to start a stage line in the area, and Virgil was ready to pursue his duties as a deputy U.S. marshal.
Although Dake appointed Virgil in Yavapai County, the appointment was updated to reflect his tenure in Pima County, which at the time contained Tombstone. Virgil took on federal duties, leaving most law enforcement to Tombstone’s local sheriff and marshal.
Wyatt served some time as a Wells, Fargo shotgun messenger, and in October 1880 he was assigned a deputy sheriff by Pima County sheriff Charlie Shibell. That same month, notorious cowboy Curly Bill Brocius killed — allegedly by accident — Tombstone marshal Fred White.
When White passed away the next day, Virgil was named an assistant marshal, a temporary position he held until mid-November, when he was defeated in a special election by Ben Sippy, “a do-nothing, harmless, pleasant fellow,” Chaput described.
Though his peacekeeping abilities far outweighed Sippy’s, Virgil learned a frontier lesson not for the last time: that town politics and party lines often meant more than actual policing skill and experience.
In January 1881, another election was held and again Virgil lost to Sippy, pretty much a lame duck assistant marshal who wouldn’t interfere with rustling shenanigans in the area.
The next month, Cochise County was officially created from Pima County, and Johnny Behan became Cochise’s first sheriff, defeating Wyatt and going back on a deal to make him deputy sheriff.
Over the next few months, Virgil would deputize Wyatt and Morgan as needed, but he remained the sole Earp brother who continually worked for the law. In the summer of 1881, after it was clear Ben Sippy wasn’t the man for the job, Sippy was given a leave of absence and Virgil was named Tombstone’s Chief of Police.
When the gunfight at the O.K. Corral occurred in October 1881, Virgil was a deputy U.S. marshal and Tombstone City Marshal, and had deputized Wyatt, Morgan and Doc Holliday for assistance in dealing with the cowboys escalating threats.
Related read: 8 Wells Fargo Stagecoach History Facts You Might Not Know
4. Virgil likely wanted to avoid the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
The night before the gunfight, Virgil played poker with Johnny Behan, Tom McLaury and a drunken Ike Clanton, who earlier had gotten into a heated argument with Doc Holliday at the Alhambra Saloon.
It’s difficult to image Wyatt or Doc Holliday sitting down to play cards with their enemies the night before the infamous showdown, but Virgil was able to maintain a level of civility the other Earps didn’t — or couldn’t.
Virgil may have wanted to keep a closer eye on Ike, or smooth things over after the Alhambra shouting match, but he also wasn’t naïve: reports claim the marshal kept his revolver at the ready during the entire poker game.
In the morning, Ike was still raving and threatening the Earps and Holliday, forcing Virgil to buffalo and arrest Ike, then confiscate his weapons per Tombstone’s in-town firearms ordinance. When he was released and his paltry fine paid, Ike joined up with Billy Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, and it wasn’t clear if they were leaving town or planning something else entirely.
What was clear: the cowboys, likely led by the notorious loudmouth Ike, were still making vocal and specific threats to the Earps, and the town wasn’t feeling it.
“Some members asked Virgil to disarm the cowboys before violence erupted,” wrote Chaput. “Virgil decided to let the cowboys have their ‘mouth,’ and leave town.”
Eventually, the tension hit a tipping point and Virgil was forced to confront the cowboys, bringing Wyatt, Morgan and Doc on their infamous walk through town.
On the way, they ran into Behan, who the Earps believed claimed he had disarmed the cowboys.
“Virgil Earp carried the walking stick in his left hand with his right on the pistol jammed into his pants, but when he took Behan’s comment to mean the cowboys had already been disarmed, he switched hands, placing the walking stick in his right. He also shoved his gun to his left hip.”Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, Casey Tefertiller
With the cane in his shooting hand, Virgil and his deputies approached the cowboys in an empty lot near C.S. Fly’s boardinghouse. There are plenty of contradictory reports of what happened next, but many claim Virgil yelled to the cowboys to “throw up” their hands, and later, “I don’t want that,” though it’s not clear if he was speaking to the cowboys or his own deputies.
Whatever the order of shots fired and from which side, it’s clear that Virgil didn’t expect or prefer to have the gunfight. When the shooting broke out, he had to quickly adjust the cane to his left hand, pull his revolver and fire with his right — not the way you want to start a close-range gunfight with rustlers who spent the afternoon threatening your life.
As Don Chaput wrote, Virgil was “the most prudent of the four” lawmen, having the accountability of the law on his side, and a less volatile temperament than his brothers and Doc Holliday.
When the fight ended, Tom, Frank and Billy lay in the streets dying, and Ike Clanton had turned and fled, having been disarmed earlier in the day. Virgil was shot through the calf, Morgan was shot through the shoulder, Doc was grazed by a bullet and Wyatt stood unharmed.
In the days and legal proceedings following the fight, cases would be made for and against the Earps’ actions that day. Anti-Earp sentiments, shared by many of the town’s ranchers and Democrats, claimed the Earps clearly killed unarmed men in the streets, while pro-Earp factions believed the shootings to be justifiable considering Ike Clanton’s threats from the night and morning before the fight.
Virgil’s actions before and during the gunfight point to him being one of the more level-headed combatants involved, and the shootout was likely the result of hair-trigger tensions between the men, with Billy Clanton and Wyatt allegedly being the first to fire at nearly the same time.
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5. Virgil was ambushed and crippled several months after the gunfight.
It didn’t take long for the cowboys to exact their revenge on the Earps and their associates, including The Tombstone Epitaph editor John Clum, who praised the Earps’ decisive actions against the Clanton and McLaury brothers. Shortly after the fight, Ike Clanton filed murder charges against the Earps and Holliday, and a trial before Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer began in November.
After the monthlong trial (summarized well by Casey Tefertiller’s Wyatt Earp), Spicer declared that although it wasn’t the smartest move in the world to deputize Doc, Wyatt and Morgan at the time, Virgil still acted within the bounds of the law and in the interest of public safety. The Earps were off the hook.
But they had even bigger targets on their backs now, and on December 28, 1881, less than a month after the murder trial ended, Virgil was ambushed when he left the Oriental Saloon just before midnight. Three shotgun shots were fired, and moments later, three shadowy figures ran behind the buildings on Fifth Street.
Ike Clanton’s hat was found at the scene of the shooting, a “burned-out building across” from the Oriental, but his cowboy colleagues provided what were probably phony alibis, and none of the rustlers were ever found guilty of the ambush. It wasn’t clear if Clanton was directly involved in the shooting, but rumors spread about him and other cowboys, like Frank Stilwell and Pony Diehl, participating to some degree.
The ambush didn’t kill Virgil, but it came damn close. One of the shots shattered part of his upper left arm, and doctors initially considered removing the limb altogether. Instead, they opted for surgery, removing some five to six inches of bone and permanently crippling the deputy marshal’s left arm. When Allie was understandably concerned with his condition, Virgil — ever the optimist — insisted he still had “one arm left to hug you with,” according to the journals of George Whitwell Parsons.
Virgil spent the next few months slowly recovering, though rumors of his death made the rounds. While Wyatt was putting together posses to catch Virgil’s would-be assassins, Virgil recuperated in the Cosmopolitan, where the Earps holed up with security to prevent more revenge shootings.
Just a few months after Virgil’s ambush, Morgan Earp was shot and killed while he played pool in Campbell and Hatch’s saloon on the night of March 18. Once again, shadowy figures left the scene quickly and no one was apprehended. The ambush of both brothers spurred Wyatt to action, and his vendetta mission quickly followed.
With their lives even more at risk, the Earp wives and Virgil made plans to head back to Colton, California, where Nicholas and Virginia Ann lived. The Earps got word that Frank Stilwell and other cowboys planned on ambushing Virgil at the train station in Tucson, so Wyatt — still operating as a deputy U.S. marshal — put together a posse including Warren Earp, Doc Holliday, Sherm McMaster and John Johnson. In Tucson, they got to Stilwell before he could make a move, and Wyatt executed the cowboy at close range just days after Morgan’s murder.
“With one shotgun blast in a train yard, the once judicious and temperate lawman had turned killer. By Wyatt Earp’s own admission, he shot a man begging for his life. The cowtown marshal who took pride in avoiding bloodshed had become what he once despised: a life-taker.”Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend
From there, the paths — and legends — of Virgil and Wyatt diverged. Virgil went west to recover, and Wyatt pursued the cowboys in what became one of the most controversial sagas of American West history.
Related read: The Wives of Wyatt Earp, from Aurilla Sutherland to Sadie Marcus
6. Virgil laid low after Tombstone, but still found plenty of frontier adventure.
It would take years and more surgery before Virgil was fully recovered from his injuries in Tombstone, but by 1886, he was ready to pursue his next ventures in California. That summer, he was appointed the constable of Colton, a small railroad town some 60 miles east of Los Angeles, where his father was a Justice of the Peace.
Virgil effectively handled the small town’s peacekeeping duties — usually dealing with railroad tramps and saloon rowdiness — and in 1887 was named the City Marshal, his first time holding such a position in more than five years. He was reelected in 1888, but in March of the following year, Virgil resigned from his position, ready to move on to his next chapter.
“No ten-page letter exists which explains why Virgil Earp resigned as city marshal, but he was most likely bored,” wrote Chaput.
Virgil and Allie spent some time around southern California, pursuing business and gambling ventures in nearby San Bernardino, and well as San Luis Obispo. In April 1893, frontier life again called Virgil and Allie, and they headed northeast to Vanderbilt, a small mining town near the California-Nevada state line.
Virgil’s timing in Vanderbilt was ideal: he built the town’s only two-story building, the aptly named Earp’s Hall, and hosted just about any community event that went on, including “church services and court proceedings,” as well as dancing and gambling. He became a popular figure in town, but when he ran for constable in 1894, he was defeated by local Democrats, again proving that party loyalty trumped experience and ability.
The Vandy bonanza didn’t last long, and by the end of 1894, Virgil sold off his popular saloon. The Earps eventually ended up back in Prescott, the place they loved in the late 1870s, and Virgil took up various mining ventures in the area. In late 1896, Virgil was crushed in a mine he operated, dislocating his hip and suffering other injuries. He would eventually return to the mines after recovering, but his days in Prescott were slower.
He and Allie spent their time in nearby Kirkland Valley, then headed into Prescott for the winters. Much like Wyatt and Josephine in southern California, the couple found a semi-nomadic, seasonal lifestyle that gave them room to roam and some semblance of security. In Prescott, Virgil was treated “like a local sage,” and he was occasionally appointed as a special officer for duties in town.
His days after Tombstone were much less volatile, but Virgil remained steadfast in his duties to any position he held, and gained the respect of the communities he and Allie joined over the years.
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7. Virgil reunited with his long-lost daughter toward the end of his life.
In late 1898, Virgil and Allie received a surprise letter from Portland, Oregon.
In Frank Waters’ The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, Allie described the letter as “the big story:”
“‘Virge got a letter. It was from a young lady in Oregon. She asked if he was the Virgil Earp who was marshal in Tombstone, and if he had known a girl named Ellen back in Pella, Iowa, long ago before he had gone to the Civil War.'”
The young lady turned out to be Jane, Virgil’s daughter with Ellen Rysdam. Jane had tracked down Virgil after following his newspaper mentions over the years, and wanted to confirm her long-lost father’s identity.
In early 1899,
they submitted their 23andMe kits and confirmed their DNA match, Virgil and Allie traveled to Portland for a reunion more than 30 years in the making. They met up with Ellen, Jane, and Jane’s husband, Levi Law, definitely the coolest named of the bunch. The reunion lasted a few emotional days, and according to Allie’s account in The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, Jane would later visit them in Arizona several times.
Virgil and Jane’s reunion may have been short-lived, but it was meaningful. When Virgil died in 1905, Allie shipped his remains north to Portland, where he was buried at River View Cemetery on the Willamette River. Ellen and Jane would both be laid to rest there, in 1910 and 1930 respectively.
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8. Allie would outlive Virgil by 42 years and became a source for a controversial Earp book.
In 1903, Goldfield, Nevada became one of the last big mining boomtowns on the frontier circuit, and in familiar Earp fashion, Virgil and Wyatt were interested in joining the fray.
Virgil and Allie arrived in 1904, and since he was late to the saloon-building party, Virgil took a position in 1905 as deputy sheriff of Esmeralda County, where Goldfield sprouted up. He was also named a “Special Officer” for the National Club, a fancy way of saying “Virgil Earp, the feared city marshal of Tombstone, was acting as a bouncer in a mining camp saloon,” wrote Chaput.
But Virgil would do little bouncing or much else in Goldfield. That year, he would catch pneumonia and never fully recover. He died on October 19, 1905. The Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner and other small regional papers covered the deputy marshal’s passing with kind words.
“A great many harsh things have been said and written about the “Earp gang,” but nevertheless, it is a fact that a more charitable man never lived than Virgil Earp, especially when he had the means to render assistance. Every desperate act ever known to have been committed by him was clothed with the authority of the law, and he was ever known to avoid personal encounters except when invested with legal authority and in the discharge of his duty.”Arizona Weekly Journal-Miner
The Bisbee Daily Review, on the other hand, recalled that Virgil “belonged to the noted Earp gang which was a terror to the peaceable citizens of Tombstone during the early history of that now quiet and orderly town.” Good times.
Allie eventually moved back to California, visiting Earp family in San Bernardino and Colton, and living in Los Angeles, where Wyatt and Josephine also lived for a time. When Wyatt died in 1929, Allie and Josephine both lived in L.A. and met up occasionally to swap stories and recollections of Tombstone.
Josephine had worked with writer Stuart Lake to complete Wyatt’s biography, and in the 1930s, Allie began talking with writer Frank Waters about her own book, an account that would confirm Waters’ opinion of “Wyatt Earp as a publicity-seeking exhibitionist, the ringleader of the criminal Earp Brothers gang,” wrote Ann Kirschner in Lady at the O.K. Corral.
Josephine tried to halt the project, as she had with other Earp books and movies, and eventually, Allie also scrapped the book after seeing an early manuscript that she thought was a “pack of lies.” The sisters-in-law didn’t get along well — Allie blamed Josephine when Wyatt abandoned his Tombstone wife Mattie Blaylock — but they were both ready to put Waters’ overly dramatized account to bed.
Allie threatened to sue Waters if he published the manuscript, so he waited until the 1960s to do so, after Allie had died in 1947. The Earp Brothers of Tombstone was a popular anti-Earp read, but like accounts from Stuart Lake and Walter Noble Burns, it was a mix of fact and fiction, and it wasn’t clear what information came from Allie, and what was Waters’ own partisan historical commentary.
Today, Waters’ book remains a lively but biased and speculative look at the Earps’ time in Tombstone.
Related read: Tombstone vs. Wyatt Earp: 7 Differences in the Dueling Movies
9. Virgil was a respected lawman, but he didn’t always find success at the polls.
For all his peacekeeping experience, Virgil Earp had a relatively lackluster election record. In the late 1870s, he nabbed jobs as a nightwatchman and constable in Prescott, but in his first elections in Tombstone, he was defeated twice by Ben Sippy.
It wasn’t until Sippy left town in June 1881 that Tombstone officials appointed Virgil as Chief of Police, a position he held until the end of October, when he was suspended after the gunfight. He reigned in much of the town’s shenanigans that summer, to be sure, but it was a short-lived campaign.
In Colton, he was elected as constable, then marshal, but when he tried his luck in Vanderbilt, town politics again ran against the Republican candidate. In 1900, Virgil considered running for Yavapai County sheriff, a position once held by Johnny Behan, but removed his name from consideration, perhaps due to his ailing health.
When Virgil was appointed a deputy sheriff in Goldfield in 1905, the position was mostly honorary, and he didn’t see much action in the streets of the hustling mining town.
More often than not, Virgil’s spotty election record was the result of territory politics, where Democratic southerners often dominated the political landscape in remote frontier towns that relied on ranching.
But when it came time to enforce the law in rambunctious boomtowns like Tombstone, all politics aside, city officials were hard-pressed to find a better candidate for marshal than Virgil Earp, perhaps the most judicious of those famous Fighting Earps.
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Sources & Further Reading
- Virgil Earp: Western Peace Officer, Don Chaput
- Tombstone, A.T.: A History of Early Mining, Milling, and Mayhem, Wm. Shillingberg
- Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends, Allen Barra
- Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, Casey Tefertiller
- The Earp Brothers of Tombstone: The Story of Mrs. Virgil Earp, Frank Waters
- The Earps’ Last Frontier: Wyatt and Virgil Earp in the Nevada Mining Camps 1902-1905, Jeffery M. Kintop
- Lady at the O.K. Corral, Ann Kirschner
- Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride from Hell, Tom Clavin
- The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral – And How It Changed the American West, Jeff Guinn
- Ride the Devil’s Herd: Wyatt Earp’s Epic Battle Against the West’s Biggest Outlaw Gang, John Boessenecker
- A Wyatt Earp Anthology: Long May His Story Be Told, Roy B. Young
D.T. Christensen was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, and now lives with his wife and kids in Massachusetts. His favorite American West topics include Arizona history, the Apache and Yavapai Wars, and the Transcontinental Railroad. When not reading or writing about history, he enjoys traveling and exploring the outdoors at Territory Supply.