Friday, February 13, 2015

Wyatt Earp -- From Unknown To Notorious Desperado

Ever wonder exactly when Wyatt Earp became nationally known, and for what?

It is said that the violence that took place near the OK Corral in Tombstone Arizona in 1881 was a local story more than a national one, and had been mostly forgotten within just a few years. But there was one event in Wyatt Earp's life that transformed him from a nobody to an notorious badman.

It was an event which garnered him a reputation that was not how most see him today. It was a reputation that haunted him until he died simply because it was a story that was carried in newspapers around the country from big cities to small towns.

Some believe it was the relatively small skirmish at the OK Corral that made him famous, but that is not the case. And yes, there are those who say it was his relatively short time in law enforcement that made him a  name known throughout the land. Others have written to ask if it was his arrest for stealing a horse, or it was when he was a town Constable when he stole the local school money.

Some believe it was when he was a policeman and kept the fines he'd collected instead of turning the money over to the city as required. Some say he finally became famous when he was arrested by the Los Angeles Police for running a con-game in an attempt to bilk a man out of a quarter of a million dollars. Some have written me to ask if Wyatt Earp was ever famous while alive, thinking that he didn't really achieve fame until his biographer Stuart Lake published his memoirs -- the yarn that the gullible find true.

But no, none of that would propel him into the national spotlight more than what took place in 1896 when acting as a supposedly last minute choice as a referee in a World Heavyweight Companionship Prizefight.

That fight made Wyatt Earp infamous, but most folks today forget that. They also forget that it wasn't the sort of fame that he wanted to achieve. 

That fixed heavyweight championship prizefight in San Francisco in 1896 shot Wyatt Earp to notoriety and infamy the likes that tarnished his reputation at the time. Yes, newspapers from coast to coast carried the story of what took place at the obviously fixed event.

He settled in California after years adrift.

It's true. After the Tombstone killings, Earp was on the run and holed up in Gunnison, Colorado, and then Eagle City, Idaho.  And despite being “professional gamblers and bad men,” according to the Gunnison town sheriff, Earp ran a faro bank and, being always the con man, he actually tried to sell a fake gold brick, a rock painted yellow, to a German named Ritchie for $2,000.

Early in 1884, Wyatt arrived for the short-lived Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, gold rush. Still on the run from Arizona, Wyatt and Josie, along with his oldest brother James and his wife Bessie, and younger brother Warren arrived in Eagle City, Idaho. By April of 1885, he became a Shoshone County Deputy and soon used his badge to join a band of claim jumpers. About 10 years later, after the Fitzimmons-Sharkey fight, a reporter hunted up locals in Eagle City, Idaho, and learned that folks there accused Wyatt of being the brains behind lot-jumping and a real-estate fraud, further tarnishing his reputation.

It is said that Earp’s reputation was suspect from the time he left Tombstone in 1882. After he left, supposedly he returned to the seedy world of gambling and prostitution. It is said he became a man which most knew as a "rounder." That was an 1800s American term for a man who made the rounds of saloons, gambling halls, and brothels associating with the dregs of society. It was during this time that he also returned to Dodge City in 1886 at the request of Luke Short to help settle a dispute between Short and the Mayor. It was also a time when he moved from town to town, finally ending up in San Diego, California.

When Earp first settled in California in 1887, in San Diego, it is said he "speculated" in real estate, ran several gambling halls in the rough Stingaree district south of downtown, hustled faro, and he promoted bare-knuckle prizefights and horse races around the California border and into Tijuana. By 1891, it's said that Earp was an ageing con-man, virtually penniless. He and his common-law wife relocated to Santa Rosa where he found a job managing a stable which trained racehorses.

There, in 1896, his longtime association with gamblers, and his reputation in boxing and horse racing circles as a man willing to fix matches or races to win a bet, led to him being a last minute choice as the referee of a heavyweight championship prizefight at the Mechanics’ Pavilion in San Francisco. No, Wyatt Earp had never refereed a match of national prominence. He had until this time refereed fights under the older London Prize Ring Rules which allowed bare-knuckled brawling, as well as a broad range of fighting techniques including holding, biting, gouging, and even throwing of the opponent. This would be Earp's first match under the Marquess of Queensbury rules.

So why chose Earp? 

Well, it's said that fight promoters John D. Gibbs and J. J. Groom of the National Athletic Club were unable to find a referee that both sides could agree on -- and one that would go along with a fixed fight of that importance. One report says that the Hearst family, owners of the newspaper the San Francisco Examiner, had just hired Wyatt Earp to provide security for a few employees at different times.

Wyatt Earp always being the self-promoter that he was, it is said that the Hearst employees got an earful from Earp as to how he alone brought law and order to the every square inch of ground West of the Mississippi River all single-handedly. The Hearst family owned one of the major newspapers in the city, subsequently that August the fight the San Francisco Examiner ran three consecutive Sunday articles making Wyatt Earp sound menacing.

The Hearst family ghostwriter had intentionally made Earp sound 10 feet tall and bullet proof -- they figured it would deter would-be attackers from assault any one of those he was tasked with keeping safe. It's true. The ghostwritten series was written in the first-person, all making Earp virtually the sole reason law and order had come West. 

The San Francisco Examiner articles are said to have garnered Earp significant local attention, and was substantially exaggerated for effect -- something that I'm sure Earp would have loved because that was the way that he wanted others to see him. He wanted to be as big as Wild Bill Hickok and any publicity was great to that end. 

John Gibbs told The San Francisco Call that he met with Wyatt Earp in the Baldwin Hotel in San Francisco. "I knew that Wyatt Earp was a cool, clear-headed person of unimpeachable reputation, and one who would be perfectly fair to both fighters." And by the way, he knew this because of the articles that were written in the San Francisco Examiner.

Gibbs called Earp "the bravest fighter, squarest gambler, best friend and worst enemy ever known on the frontier." 

Of course, he obviously left out the fact that Earp had a reputation in sporting circles as a man who could be bought. 

And yes, I believe that like most in the fight game back then, Fitzsimmons' manager, knowing that his boxer was heavily favored to win, knew who was straight and who was crooked and rejected all of the names that Gibbs came up with. Yes, all the while suspecting that the fight had been fixed in Sharkey's favor. 

Since the Fitzsimmons side knew of Earp's entire reputation, they fought against the choice up to the very last minute. In fact the Fitzsimmons camp did not want Earp as referee, but with no alternative they finally yielded because 15,000 people had paid between $2 and $10 for tickets. As for his choice, Earp was a controversial choice right from the start of the bout. To get the spotlight on himself, he gained instant notoriety before the fight started when he entered the ring wearing a barely concealed pistol. 

San Francisco Police Captain Charles Whitman, who was watching the match from ringside, noticed the small hideout gun and immediately climbed into the ring to demand Earp hand over his pistol. It is said Earp first tried to deny that he had the small pistol, then finally gave it up. All quite the show.

After the crowd shouted for Earp to be searched for a second pistol, Whitman questioned Earp about a second hideout gun. To this Earp shook his head and softly said "no." With that Captain Williams, called out "Wyatt Earp's word is good with me!" Yes, it was a statement that Captain Whitman would regret making later in the fight. 

The Fixed Fight!

The Fitzsimmons vs Sharkey Heavyweight Championship boxing match was between Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey. Soon the fans' attention were on the fight as the two entered the ring, and yes, from the sound of the first bell, Bob Fitzsimmons was clearly in control of the match. With a $10,000 purse, a lot was on the line, and soon the fight took on the flavor of Pier 9 brawl. 

Bob Fitzsimmons was carrying the day with his superior technique, highlighted by his trademark left-hook-to-the-jaw and his trademark right-uppercut-to-the-solar-plexus combination. In the third round, one of those body punches supposedly strayed low, but Sharkey insisted he wasn't badly hurt and that the fight should continue. 

Then in the eighth round, Fitzsimmons supposedly landed a left hook squarely on the button of Sharkey's jaw and then a huge right from the floor to Sharkey's abdomen. Supposedly, Sharkey stumbled forward instead of back because Sharkey was supposedly struck in the groin. Then Sharkey collapsed on the mat.

After Fitzsimmons knocked Sharkey to the mat, almost immediately Wyatt Earp ruled that Fitzsimmons had hit Sharkey with a low blow when he was down. The uppercut was seen by spectators, while the below the belt hit was not. No one saw it other than Earp.

When questioned later, even Captain Whitman who was at ringside said he did not see the foul. Actually, according to reports, no one witnessed the purported foul except Earp. This was part of the fix. Earp declared the disqualification and gave the match to Tom Sharkey. Then before anyone knew it, Earp disappeared from the ring and arena as fast as he could get away. 

When Earp stopped the contest and awarded victory to the poleaxed Sharkey by way of disqualification, the pavilion erupted. Fitzsimmons' manager complained that Sharkey had been fouling all evening, questioned whether the low blow had even occurred and protested that his suspicions of a fix had been confirmed.

Sounding a lot like a lynch mob, the fans at the December 2nd, 1896, fight in San Francisco, California, went wild and booed Earp's decision. Soon, Wyatt Earp was no where to be found.


The Aftermath

It was the first heavyweight championship fight since James J. Corbett, the prior champion, had retired from boxing the year before in 1895. The fight may have been the most anticipated fight on American soil that year. And as a mattter of fact, the match was illegal under city law -- but civic and police officials who attended the match along with the public bet heavily in Fitzsimmons' favor.

Virtually no one agreed with Earp's ruling and Fitzsimmon's managers went to court to prevent Sharkey from obtaining the purse. The judge ruled that since the match was illegal, the court had no standing which allowed Sharkey to claim the prize. 

Earp was attacked and ridiculed publicly for his decision by the public and the popular press. Vilified for his actions and accepting a payoff to throw the match, the story about the fixed fight and Wyatt Earp's contested decision was reprinted in newspapers nationwide.

Yes, that was what made Wyatt Earp known throughout the nation. But as a crook, a notorious badman, a man not to be trusted. 

Until the Fitzsimmons vs Sharkey fight, Wyatt Earp had been a minor figure known regionally in California, Arizona, and Idaho. But as a result of the fight and ensuing scandal, his name became known from coast to coast in the worst possible way.

To make matters worse, remember that concealed weapon he carried in the ring, well just two days after the fight, on December 4th, 1896, Earp appeared in court to face a charge of carrying a concealed weapon. He explained that he always wore a gun as a precaution in the event he met someone he had sent to prison, and because he was carrying a large amount of cash. He paid a $50 fine for that infraction.

On December 8th, a Sheriff Deputy put a lien on two horses Wyatt Earp owned for $170.45 for a debt unpaid to J. G. Swinnerton of Stockton, California. Another lawsuit was filed on December 9th by J. H. Levenson of Tombstone, Arizona, who claimed Earp owed two unpaid notes totaling $1,110.79, which he skipped out on 19 years earlier by leaving Arizona. 

Believe it or not, even the San Francisco District Attorney threatened to convene a Grand Jury to look into charging Earp for his part in the fixed fight. And yes, an investigative panel was appointed by San Francisco City Mayor Washington Bartlett. They learned that the racehorses Earp was reputed to own in Santa Rosa were leased, and that he owed $2,121 to a loan company. They also received information that his "wife" Josephine Earp was a "degenerate horse player" and that she frequently took loans out against her jewelry. When asked in court if he had any property, Wyatt Earp replied, "Nothing, except the clothes on my back."

Yes, Wyatt Earp had become infamous. 

Over the months that followed the fight, local newspapers ran dozens of stories about the controversy and the two major local papers took sides. The San Francisco Examiner, owned by the Hearst family who employed Earp as part of their security had no further use for Earp, but they still sided him. After all, how could they not. They had run those articles about his sterling character -- and even if they now knew the truth -- they'd have even more egg on their face if they didn't side with him.

The San Francisco Call condemned Earp, and actually ran a number of extremely critical stories about him. Their paper ridiculed and scrutinized Earp for more than a month, while calling into question his honor and integrity, questioning his honesty, and thoroughly vilifying him, insisting he was either blind or a fool. The San Francisco Call also accused Earp of having a financial interest in the outcome. 

The stories in newspapers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego were reproduced nationwide and read by a public that for the most part hadn't known who Wyatt Earp was.  A reporter hunted up Bill Buzzard, a miner from Idaho who Earp had confronted in an Idaho claim jumping feud in 1884. Buzzard gave accused Wyatt of being the brains behind lot-jumping and a real-estate fraud, further tarnishing his reputation. And yes, that story was printed in the papers as well.

Wyatt Earp was parodied in editorial cartoon caricatures like the one below by newspapers across the United States.

According to one report, Earp's vanity made him take the job of referee in a fight that he was unqualified to referee. He saw refereeing such a high-profile bout as a chance to shine and boost his image. Instead, that image could not have taken a more negative hit.

Before the fight, Earp was a figure known regionally, but not nationally. That all changed on December 2nd, 1896, and in the worst possible way. Of course it didn't help him that just a few days after the fight, it was reported that besides a reported $1000 to referee the fight, it was reported that the Sharkey camp had paid Earp $2,500 to ensure his victory. But more than his fee and the payoff to fix the fight, it was reported that Wyatt Earp bet heavy on Sharkey to win and had too much at stake to let him lose. 

So how big was the Fitzsimmons-Sharkey Scandal?

To put it into perspective today, one can say it would be like finding out that the Super Bowl was fixed by crooked referees. Fact is that the Fitzsimmons-Sharkey Scandal was the biggest gambling scandal in championship sports for years until it was bypassed when the Chicago White Sox World Series Scandal where they threw the World Series in 1919 for money. 

The Fitzsimmons-Sharkey fight was unsurpassed in boxing until the infamous “long count” in the heavyweight championship fight between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey in 1927. And today, most don't remember the World Heavy Weight Boxing match that was fixed by people including none other than the now famous Wyatt Earp who was once "called as crooked as a dog's hind leg."

Today, Wyatt Earp is remember just how he had hoped we would -- as that pillar of virtue, brave, courageous and bold, the man who tamed the West single-handedly. Yes, it is all a con! 

Below is a Newspaper of the time.

DECEMBER 5, 1896:
THE EVENING NEWS
Detroit, Michigan

In the Sports Section:
BADMAN EARP















As for his badman reputation? 

After the fight, the Associated Press sent articles out of California, stories about Wyatt Earp the bad man from Arizona, the murderer, the outlaw who evaded justice in Arizona. Earp the crooked gambler, Earp the Badman, all were printed and reprinted in small-towns and big cities.

It is said that before the bout, the violence in Arizona in the early 1880s had been mostly forgotten. But after the fight, many of those big city and small town newspapers printed and reprinted stories of the infamous gunfight in which Earp, two of his brothers, and his friend Doc Holliday killed three cowboys.

Yes, the gunfight at the OK Corral was not a nationally known event. Wyatt Earp's culpability in the fixing of the Fitzsimmons vs Sharkey fight brought his involvement in the OK Corral to light. And yes, the same with the vigilante violence that followed. 

Newspapers printed how Earp’s brothers were shot and how later one was killed. They also covered how the three cowboys near the OK Corral were killed. And yes, papers also circulated stories of Wyatt Earp’s deeds as a gambler, a claim jumper, and con man.

And with that, the public learned about his trying to sell a painted brick as a gold brick, his claim-jumping in Idaho, his multiple arrests as a pimp, and his firings and checked past as law enforcement officer, a man who broke the law, hid behind his badge, and later evaded extradition back to Arizona to face murder charges regarding his involvement in killing Frank Stilwell. 

Wyatt Earp was exposed for what he was, and the image was not one Wyatt Earp wanted the public to have. Because the stigma of being a crook followed his movements, Earp left San Francisco shortly after the fight and only returned when he caught a boat to Alaska.

He left San Francisco area in 1897, and finally left California in 1899 for a few years while running a saloon in Nome, Alaska. But even there in the far North of Alaska, they were weary of the notorious Wyatt Earp. When the Earps arrived in Alaska, the U.S. Deputy Marshal there, along with a posse of local citizens deputized for the encounter, met Earp as his ship docked. The deputy marshal knew Earp as a "notorious desperado."

The deputy disarmed Earp and told him that he was not welcome in Juneau, at least that's according to Alaska State Troopers 50 Years of History.


Earp's Smith & Wesson pistol which was taken from him and left in Juneau, Alaska. It is on display behind the bar at the Red Dog Saloon in Juneau. Yes, I've seen it for myself. 

His reputation did not get a lot of help over the years as more information about his past and how the famous fight was fixed. Eight years after the fight, in 1905, Dr. B. Brookes Lee was arrested in Portland, Oregon. He was the treating physician at ringside during the fight. He had been accused of treating Sharkey to make it appear that he had been fouled by Fitzsimmons. 

Dr. Lee confessed stating, "I fixed Sharkey up to look as if he had been fouled. How? Well, that is something I do not care to reveal, but I will assert that it was done -- that is enough. There is no doubt that Fitzsimmons was entitled to the decision and did not foul Sharkey. I got $1,000 for my part in the affair."

After returning from Alaska, the Earps made the rounds of mining camps in Nevada. But his reputation as a someone notorious, someone to be watched put him on the radar of local law enforcement agencies up and down the West Coast. While there are fans of his who try to play down his reputation among law enforcement, even to the point of making up stories of his being an undercover officer for departments in Southern California. The hard truth is that he was on police "watch lists" no different than other criminal types in the day. 

In fact, that was so much so that in 1911, when in Southern California, the Los Angeles Police Department Bunco Squad actually arrested Earp that year for running a crooked card game.  Yes, that was when he attempted to cheat a man out of a quarter of a million dollars. It is said that as far as law enforcement was concerned at the time, his reputation as a con man and criminal was well founded.

Here is what was said in the Los Angeles Times, on July 25th, 1911 after his arrest:

"The charge of vagrancy against Wyatt Earp, Walter Scott, and Harry Dean whom J. Y. Peterson, a real estate man, complained had attempted to fleece him out of a large amount of money in a game of Faro Friday night, will be charged in Police court today to one of having conspired to conduct a gambling game. The fact that detectives broke into the Auditorium Hotel, 507 West 5th. where the game had been set up, and arrested the trio before operations had begun, prevents the placing of the more serious charge, conspiracy to defraud, against them. The charge of conspiracy as applied in the case against the three men is a misdemeanor and is to be disposed of in Police court. All the paraphernalia which was found in the room when the police broke in is in the hands of the police. It consists of a Faro layout, dealing box, a deck of cards which has in the center of each a small hole so the dealer can see at a glance if the second card down is odd or even, one hundred chips such as are used in the regulation faro game…”

The police broke up his attempt to defraud. Yes, Wyatt Earp was caught in the commission of a felony, And frankly, if it wasn't for poor evidence handling on the part of the police, he would have been charged with a felony. And yes, this was not the first time he was arrested. In fact, Wyatt Earp was arrested a total of 11 times in his life. Some say that in itself qualifies him to be considered a life-long habitual criminal. It certainly would classify him as such in today's world.

From Infamous to Famous

While some say that his attempt at making a big score in 1911 was his biggest scam, I say his biggest con job, even bigger than his trying to pass off a painted rock as gold, came in 1914 when he was living in Los Angeles and visited Paramount Studios. It was then that his skills as a con artist really shown through.

It was during his many visits to Hollywood, that he charmed Raoul Walsh and Charlie Chaplin, regaling them with made-up stories of the Old West, fictional accounts of a past that he only wished was his own. Through these tales, he established himself as an informal adviser on Westerns and became a close friend of the most prominent Western film star of the 1910s and early 1920s, William S. Hart.

William Surrey Hart was New York stage actor turned silent film actor, screenwriter, director and producer. He is remembered for having "imbued all of his characters with honor and integrity." After almost 30 years of acting on the stage in New York City, at the age of 49, Hart entered films in 1914 where after playing supporting roles in two short films he achieved stardom as the lead in feature films. Hart was particularly interested in making "realistic" western films. His films are noted for blending his Shakespearean theater stage experience in the United States and England with Western pros and costumes. And believe it or not, while I might find it hard to believe, it is said that William S. Hart went on to become one of the first great stars of the motion picture Western. 

Fascinated by the Old West, Hart is said to have actually acquired Billy the Kid's "six shooters" and was a friend of both Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. Hart met Masterson while living in New York City when Bat Masterson was a Sports Writer for a newspaper there.  

Hart encouraged Wyatt Earp to collect his stories and find a writer to put them into a memoir that could provide the basis for a film script. Earp took to the task enthusiastically, starting over from scratch three times with new writing partners when results proved unsatisfying to him.

In each new version of his life, he tweaked his accounts of something that he never did, editing out his missteps and embarrassments, neglecting to the truth of some things and completely not mentioning his 1911 arrest in Los Angeles and his arrests in the 1870s for horse theft and consorting with prostitutes. Instead, Wyatt Earp the con-artist came up with this fanciful tales of buffalo hunting, arresting Ben Thompson, taking on Clay Allison, standing up to lynch mobs, and saving the day.

Wyatt Earp, hoping to get Hart to turn his life into a movie, make some money and rewrite his history, modeled the "good guy" character he created in his memoir -- both tough and taciturn -- on Hart’s own screen persona. Yes, Earp was no fool. He wanted to flatter Hart into doing his memoir. So Earp cast himself as a lifelong proponent of law and order, a sort of avenging angel of justice, a man among men with a sterling character.

Earp’s as-told-to biography was published in 1931, two years after his death. "Frontier Marshal", the first film based on the book, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, was released in 1934. Screened and broadcast repeatedly, the film rooted Earp into the minds of Americans as being the best of the good guys..

Yes, that's Wyatt Earp's greatest con job! His great scam! His greatest swindle is rewriting his own life not for the folks back then -- but for us today.

Why do I say not for those who lived back then? Well, when Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp died in 1929 at the age of 80, he was well known for his decision in the title fight and not for his actions at the OK Corral gunfight. In fact, the Associated Press carried his obituary, and to the chagrin of his common-law wife Josephine Earp, yes to her absolute displeasure, newspapers gave Wyatt Earp a lot of ink to his officiating of the Fitzsimmons-Sharkey fight. 

Of course not all papers told the truth. Some papers described him as a "gunfighter, whose blazing six-shooters, were for most of his life allied with the side of law and order". 

The Review-Atlas, the local paper from his birthplace in Monmouth, Illinois, printed a story on page one about Wyatt's death on January 13th, 1929. It mentioned Earp's attempts to get into the movies but gave more attention to the Sharkey-Fitzsimmons scandal. And yes, after he died, newspapers in the 1930s contained references to "pulling an Earp", or "Earping the job", which served as shorthand for a crooked referee.

During his lifetime, Wyatt Earp was arrested for being a horse thief, a pimp, and a con artist. He was fired as a lawman a number of times for stealing fines and even school funds. And yes, though he was wanted for murder -- he evaded justice. From San Diego, California, to Nome, Alaska, he was on the criminal watch lists of police departments in multiple cities in at least six states -- even up to the day he died.

For these reasons, I don't understand the Hollywood "hero" thing. And yes, I can't help but wonder if the writer of the newspaper article above, and others who reported on Earp's shenanigans, lived long enough to see Hollywood and the media transform Wyatt Earp from factual badman to legendary hero? I bet it made a few people ill to watch a con artist and crook become famous for things he did not do. 

Tom Correa






2 comments:

  1. Very interesting things I did not know love it

    ReplyDelete
  2. I was told by a long time Anchorage resident that his family has passed down that Wyatt Earp worked Security for President Donald Trump's grandfather's saloon and hotel in Whitehorse, Canada during the Alaskan Gold Rush in Dawson. How cool would that be?

    ReplyDelete

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