I know what Virgil Earp was thinking when he was accosted that August of 1880 in Charleston, Arizona. In response to a challenge by 5 foot 3 inch tall Tom and 5 foot 4 inch tall Frank McLaury, the 6 foot tall Deputy Federal Marshal Earp assured them he had nothing to do with the notice published in the Tombstone Epitaph accusing them of stealing 6 army mules. Despite this Frank warned Marshal Earp, "If I thought you did, I would make you fight right here". Virgil knew the McLaury's threats had worked against previous lawmen. But Virgil was different. He quietly assured Frank that if an arrest warrant was ever issued against either McLaury, "No compromise would be made on my part." The elder McLaury asserted that he would never be taken alive. Calmly, Virgil asked, "Frank, you are not looking for a quarrel, are you?"
Virgil Walter Earp (above) was 37 years old that summer of 1880 with no history of panic. He had returned to Illinois after 3 years Civil War service to find his wife and daughter dead from fever, and her family moved away. After a decade of wandering the American west he fell in love again, with the small feisty 31 year old Alvira "Allie" Sullivan. Virgil referred to her as being "not much bigger than and as sweet as pickle". Three years later Virgil became a stagecoach guard in Precott, Arizona. And there, in October of 1877, unbidden, Virgil backed up U.S. Marshal "Little Bill" Standifer in a shoot out, killing one of the attackers. A month later Virgil was elected town sheriff, and a year after that he was appointed Deputy Federal Marshal, assigned to clean up the troublesome "Cow Boys" in and around Tombstone. He immediately wrote his 4 brothers of the financial opportunities the silver strike offered.
Virgil was not the first Earp to become a lawman. His younger brother, 32 year old (in 1880) Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp (above) had been a deputy sheriff in Dodge City, Kansas , but that was only part time. Wyatt's preferred occupation was the profitable dealing of faro (see last photo in essay). The slight odds favoring the faro dealer could be improved by lightening fast play that disguised crooked shuffles and bottom dealing. Cheating was so common that "Hoyle's Rules of Games" warned it's readers that not a single honest faro game could be found in the United States. And Wyatt Earp was one of the "best" faro dealers in the west.
The Earps gambled on Tombstone, going "all in" on 1 December 1879, when Virgil and Allie, Wyatt and his common-law wife, 30 year old Celia Ann "Mattie" Blaylock, 39 year old James Cooksdy Earp and his "beautiful brunette", 40 year old Nellie "Bessie" Catchim, all arrived by carriage and wagon from the territorial capital of Prescott. Six months later 28 year old Morgan Seth Earp (above) and his wife, the arthritic Louisa Alice Houston, would arrive, along with the Earps' friend and business partner, the temperamental and tubercular John Henry "Doc" Holliday with his Hungarian born common-law wife Mary Katherine "Big Nose Kate" Horony-Cummings.
Which brings up the unpleasant reality of the Earp's world. All the brothers and Holliday based their financial stability on whore houses, as property owners or bouncers from Illinois to Iowa to Kansas to Dakota and Arizona territories. And all the Earp wives - except Virgil's sweet pickle Allie and Wyatt's first wife who died in Iowa - worked as prostitutes, often even after they were married.
Because the trade could be conducted with little capital investment - a tent or the back of a wagon could suffice - time and again after a financial setback, the women working as "soiled doves" provided the funds the family needed to survive. The sixth and final Earp brother, 25 year old Baxter Warren Earp, would not arrive in Tombstone for another year.
Tombstone, had matured in the two years since the silver strike. Los Angeles widow and freelance newspaper woman, Clara Spalding Brown, also arrived in Tombstone that June of 1880 and reported to the San Diego Union, it was, "an embryo city of canvas, frame and adobe...full of activity." New arrival rancher John Pleasant Gray was disappointed. "I looked in vain for any guns or so-called gunmen. I learned later that it was one of the town’s first ordinances that no guns were to be permitted in any public place, and Tombstone was always a quiet, safe town for the man who minded his own business.”
John Clum, editor of the Tombstone Epitaph, first published on 1 May, 1880, wrote that he could recall, "...only one deadly street battle and one lynching during the entire 50 years of Tombstone’s existence." That bloody street battle was, of course, the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral.
Tombstone's most respectable street was named, ironically, after Arizona's 5th and largely absentee Territorial Governor - the handsome, arrogant, dashing and vapid John Charles Fremont (above). In 1848 he had been the famous pathfinder to California, and the first Republican candidate for President in 1856. His wife, the beguiling Jesse Benton Fremont, was twice as smart and four times as ambitious as her husband. But her avidity, his cupidity and the financial panic of 1873 wiped out their fortune. Jesse kept a roof over their heads by writing magazine articles, but by 1878 the privileged couple were destitute. Taking pity, Republican President Rutherford B. Hays replaced the popular and efficient Arizona Territorial Governor John Philo Hoyt with the 65 year old fatuous and frivolous John C. Fremont.
Fremont (above) didn't even show up in Arizona for 5 months. And then he only stayed long enough to be sworn in, sign bills legalizing gambling and creating a state lottery, measures already passed by the 12 man Territorial Council - whose members were approved by the Republican leaning railroad and mining companies - and the 24 members of the Territorial House of Representatives , elected by the mostly ex-southern Democratic voters. Then, in 1879, after arraigning for his paychecks to be forwarded, Fremont and Jesse returned to their mansion on Staten Island, New York.
That left Republican officials in Arizona, on their own. In 1880, Republican appointed U.S. Deputy Marshall Robert Paul (above) ran for Pima County Sheriff, against Democrat Charlie Shibell. The votes from Tombstone and Charleston gave Paul a sizable lead. But his supporters cautioned, "Wait for the returns from San Simon", where "Ike" Clanton and Johnny Ringo were the election inspectors. Out of 12 registered voters in San Simon, 103 voted for Shibell, and only 1 for Paul. The Democrats never even tried to explain where the extra 90 voters had come from. The county election officials quickly awarded Shibell the office. It took 2 years of legal wrangling for that fraudulent election to be overturned, but it illustrated the political battle lines. Ranchers (rustlers), small businessmen and women tended to be Democrats, while the federal power structure, mine owners and managers and railroad officers, tended to be Republicans.
That was why the McLaury brothers felt comfortable in August of 1880, with threatening a Federal Marshall. Sneering at Virgil Earp's question about picking a fight, Frank McLaury told the Marshall that they had intended on killing him. But satisfied with his explanation, they bid Virgil Earp a good day. Watching the two "Cowboys" turn their backs and walk away, Virgil made a vow to never enter Charleston alone again. And to someday, settle the score with the McLaurys.