Thursday, August 11, 2016

Wyatt Earp -- The Peoria Bummer

Wyatt Earp
Dear Friends,

A reader wrote to ask why Wyatt Earp was known as the "Peoria Bummer"?

As most of us know, the slang term "bummer" used today usually refers to "an unpleasant or disappointing experience." The term "bum" still means, as it did in the 1850s, "a loafer or vagrant."

During the Civil War, a "bummer" was a term used to describe marauding or foraging soldiers. Although armies on both sides often had rules against foraging or stealing from private residences, some soldiers often found ways to do so. And yes, back in the 19th Century, a "bummer" was also a term used for an orphan lamb that lives by robbing others of their mother's milk.

The Peoria Daily National Democrat reported in September of 1872:

Some of the women are said to be good looking, but all appear to be terribly depraved. John Walton, the skipper of the boat and Wyatt Earp, the Peoria Bummer, were each fined $43.15. Sarah Earp, alias Sally Heckell, calls herself the wife of Wyatt Earp.

With the The Peoria Daily National Democrat labeling Earp the "Peoria Bummer," the newspaper in essence included him in a class of what was called contemptible loafers who imposed themselves upon hard-working citizens. They were part of society's criminal element of chronic lawbreakers. Besides bummers, they were also known as crooks, brigands, desperadoes, con artist, pimps, outlaws, raiders, robbers, highwaymen, hooligans, men of "poor moral character." 

So why would The Peoria Daily National Democrat label Wyatt Earp, the "Peoria Bummer"? Well it had to do with the criminal element that he associated with, and the number of times he was arrested as a pimp.

Wyatt Earp had been arrested as a pimp aboard a floating brothel which supposedly he owned. The name of the floating whorehouse was the Beardstown Gunboat. He operated the prostitution barge with a woman named Sally Heckell who did in fact refer to herself as Wyatt Earp's wife.

So how did Wyatt Earp arrive at such a place? Well, in Lamar, Missouri, he replaced his father to become the local constable on November 17th, 1869. It is said that he had to put up $1000 bond for the position. But as with most law enforcement positions at the time, he probably figured that being a local constable would have money rolling in. 

On January 10th, 1870, Wyatt Earp married 20-year-old Urilla Sutherland. It is said that she was pregnant and about to deliver their first child when she suddenly died from typhoid fever. 

He was reelected as constable in November of 1870. But just four months later on March 14th, 1871, Barton County, Missouri, filed a lawsuit against Wyatt Earp. It was an effort to retrieve school funds that Wyatt Earp kept for himself instead of turning them over to the town. It was a habit that he would repeat later as a police officer.

Earp was in charge of collecting license fees for Lamar, which funded local schools, and he was accused of failing to turn in the school fund. Instead he pocketed the fees. Once he was identified as doing that, he was immediately fired as constable.

Then on March 31st, James Cromwell filed a lawsuit against Wyatt Earp, alleging that Earp had falsified court documents about the amount of money collected from Cromwell to satisfy a judgment. To make up the difference between what Earp turned in and what Cromwell was owed, the court seized a mowing machine which belonged to Cromwell. The court sold it for $38. Cromwell's suit claimed that Earp owed him $75, the estimated value of the machine.

Not waiting to appear in court, Wyatt Earp than left Missouri before the case could be settled. But it wasn't too long after leaving Missouri that he is arrested in modern day Oklahoma for stealing two horses. 

Yes, on March 28th, of that same year, 1871, Wyatt Earp, along with Edward Kennedy and John Shown were charged with stealing two horses, "each of the value of one hundred dollars" from William Keys while in the Indian Country. 

On April 6th, Deputy United States Marshal J. G. Owens arrested Wyatt Earp for stealing horses. Commissioner James Churchill arraigned Earp on April 14th, and set bail at $500. 

On May 15th, an indictment was issued against Wyatt Earp, Edward Kennedy, and John Shown. And right after the indictments came down, John Shown's wife Anna came forward to make the claim that Earp and Kennedy got her husband drunk and then threatened his life to persuade him to help them. 

On June 5th, Edward Kennedy was acquitted. But the case against Earp and Shown remained on the docket. Not waiting to appear in court, Wyatt Earp saw that he was looking at serious jail time so he climbed out through the roof and escaped from that jail. 

There are some Earp fans who call those years, his lost years. Even his own biographer Stuart Lake wrote that Wyatt Earp was hunting buffalo during the winter of 1871–72. But that's not true at all. 

Fact is Wyatt Earp was on the lamb and ended up in Peoria, Illinois, probably because Virgil was said to be working there as a saloon-keeper. And while the stories of being a shotgun messenger and buffalo hunter sound great, they aren't the truth. The truth is that after breaking out of that jail in modern day Oklahoma, Wyatt Earp began working as a pimp in the prostitution trade of Peoria. 

It was an occupation that got him arrested a number of times in the Peoria, Illinois, area during that period, and put him on the local Police "watch-list".

Police watch-lists were something used to help departments keep track of criminal types in their jurisdiction. A "watch-list" is a list of people that the police have reason to keep a particularly close eye on. It is usually a list of criminals, repeat offenders, and those known to associate with known criminals. 

Just as a point of trivia, Wyatt Earp would be on the police "watch lists" of almost every big city police department up and down the West Coast after his involvement in the fixed Fitzsimmons vs Sharkey Heavyweight Championship fight in San Francisco and again later during his senior years when he was arrested for running a swindle in Los Angeles.  

In Illinois, besides the police watch lists, Wyatt Earp could be found in the Peoria city directory during 1872 as a resident in the house of Jane Haspel who operated a whorehouse there. 

In February 24th, 1872, Peoria police raided Haspel's brothel and arrested Wyatt Earp, his brother Morgan, and one other man, and four prostitutes. The men were charged with "Keeping and being found in a house of ill-fame" and fined $20 plus court costs. On May 9th, Wyatt Earp and Morgan were again arrested for the same crime -- but this time they were arrested at the McClellan brothel. 

The Daily Transcript on May 11th, 1872, reported the following:

That hotbed of inequity, the McClellan Institute on Main Street near Water was pulled on Thursday night, and quite a number of inmates transient and otherwise were found therein. Wyat [sic] Earp and his brother Morgan Earp were each fined $44.55 and as they had not the money and would not work, they languished in the cold and silent calaboose.
(May 11, 1872)

In August of 1872, Wyatt Earp was detained by authorities in Henry, Illinois, and fined. Then a month later on September 10th, 1872, he was arrested as part of a raid which netted 13 people associated with prostitution in Peoria.

During that arrest, The Daily Transcript referred to Wyatt Earp as an "Old Offender." But it was The Peoria Daily National Democrat that labeled Wyatt Earp as the "Peoria Bummer."

And yes, because of the war on prostitution that was being waged in Peoria at the time, it's said that after Earp paid the $43.15 fine, the "Peoria Bummer" simply left the area.

Such is the story of Wyatt Earp, the Peoria Bummer

Tom Correa


  1. Never know this about him. I knew he wasn't all he has been cracked up to be, but this sheds more light on his character

  2. I know he went after and faced down some pretty bad dudes face to face from Dodge to Tombstone, including members of a large and prominent and politically connected gang that were stealing cattle in Mexico (and killing cattlemen and banditos over there), robbing and killing on the highways around Tombstone, etc. I know sometimes when young men were hired back then to be bouncers in places that featured prostitutes, they sometimes were loosely accused of being pimps by people that wanted to take them down a notch. At a relatively young age (late 20s), Earp went from the cow towns of Kansas to Tombstone and beyond and was never linked to any such behavior. Yes, he had a share of the Oriental Saloon in Tombstone and I'm pretty sure there were girls plying their trade in and around that establishment, and I'm sure he was security as well as a dealer. Was he a pimp? I don't think so.

    1. He was arrested multiple times for being a pimp. We know for fact that he was a horse thieve, a murderer who evaded the law after his vendetta, was known to be involved with fixing a Heavyweight Championship fight, and a known con artist on multiple police watch-lists. He was even known to be a claim jumper in Idaho. I'm just going with documentation, and certainly not Hollywood slant.

  3. My great-great grandfather was ambushed between Rock Island and McDonough, Illinois in 1878 by a highwayman. I don't know who he was, but after reading this it is safe to say he came through here.

  4. Probably the 'bummer' was slang from using a bum starter as a bouncer or protector of the 'girls'. It is easy to accuse Wyatt of being a pimp since of course that was the business he was associated with. Birds of a feather flock together. Also the vendetta would most likely make him a murderer but for the fact that most people that knew him at the time agreed that he was killing the people who had done him and his family wrong and all were guilty of murder or aiding and abetting murder. This was a time which can be used as a prime example that competition creates evil; but, who is most evil only God can determine that; Hence, while multiple bullets came in his direction with intent to do harm no bullet ever touched him.

    1. While that sounds great, the term bummer has nothing to do with a "bouncer or protector" of whores. It is a term used even today in the word "bum." It means "a loafer or vagrant."


Thank you for your comment.