His name was Earp, and he stood 6 feet 2 inches, with a sweeping mustache and a piercing stare. His imposing stature, skill with firearms, and far-reaching reputation as a lawman and gunfighter could calm a rowdy crowd and cause evildoers to quake. And by the end of the 19th century, his name was known throughout the country: Virgil W. Earp.
Thanks to Hollywood and the writings of several Western historians, younger sibling Wyatt has attained legendary status, while Virgil is generally relegated to the role of supportive older brother. Yet, during his adventure-filled lifetime, Virgil Earp was a true Man of the West—career lawman, gambler, rancher, prospector, speculator, entrepreneur. And he accomplished it all despite crippling gunshot wounds and mine cave-ins.
Virgil Walter Earp was born in Hartford, in Ohio County, Kentucky, in July 1843. His father, Nicholas, a frontier patriarch with an itchy foot, moved his large family so often that Virgil had lived in five different homes in Kentucky, Iowa and Illinois by his 15th birthday. Along the way, Virgil managed to acquire a decent common school education.
At 17, he became infatuated with Ellen Rysdam, a young girl living in Pella, Iowa’s Dutch community. Both families objected to the match—Nicholas Earp, because his son was too young, and Ellen’s father, because Virgil wasn’t Dutch. In September 1861, the pair eloped, and by the following summer, they had produced a daughter, Nellie Jane.
For reasons that remain vague, Virgil left home two weeks after his daughter’s birth and joined the Union Army. The Civil War was raging, and the young man enlisted for a three-year stint in the 83rd Illinois Volunteer Regiment. Ellen’s father took advantage of Virgil’s absence to inform his daughter that her husband had been killed in battle. Shortly thereafter, the Rysdam family, including Ellen and Nellie Jane, moved to Oregon. Once settled, Ellen—an unwitting bigamist—remarried. It would be 35 years before Virgil received word of his wife and daughter.
By the time of his discharge in 1865, Virgil had grown into a rugged and adventurous young man, with the whole of the raw Western frontier sprawling before him. He had inherited his peripatetic father’s wandering spirit as well as his conviction that something better always lay over the horizon. Over the next few years, Virgil roamed the West, working at various jobs—stagecoach driver in Nebraska, Arizona Territory and California; railroad grader for the Union Pacific in Wyoming Territory; freighter and sawmill operator in Arizona; and, according to his own account, peace officer in Wichita and Dodge City, Kansas.
At times, he would reconnect with his two closest siblings, Wyatt and young Morgan. The three brothers were fiercely devoted to each other. Physically, the resemblance was striking: Each stood over 6 feet and—with their auburn hair, light eyes and thick, drooping mustaches—were frequently mistaken for one another. Yet, they could not have possessed more distinct personalities.
Wyatt was miserly with his words, somber and stern, with a deadly temper—traits shared by the adulatory young Morgan. Virgil was, in the words of biographer Don Chaput, “smiling and pleasant … with a keen sense of humor, afraid of nothing, eager to help, and all-around good company, for campfire, fence mending, and chewing the fat … In gambling halls there [was] bound to be laughter, fair play, and a good time if he [was] present.” As a peace officer, he preferred to resolve volatile situations genially, but, states Chaput, “he was not averse to cracking skulls or using firearms if necessary.” Whereas Wyatt was quick to use his fists, adds chronicler Jeff Guinn, “instead of punching someone, [Virgil] would rather drink with him, or diffuse tension with a joke. But when pushed too far, he was just as tough as Wyatt.”
In his travels, Virgil met Alvira “Allie” Sullivan—a young woman as feisty and diminutive as he was big and amiable. The daughter of Irish immigrants, she was waiting tables in Council Bluffs, Iowa, when she and Virgil first saw each other. The attraction was immediate, and the two remained together until Virgil’s death 30 years later. Common-law marriages were accepted during these times, and as they traveled the West together, no one ever questioned the legitimacy of their relationship.
In 1877, they found themselves in Prescott, the capital of Arizona Territory. The city was built in the midst of a silver strike, and Virgil saw possibilities for advancement. He and Allie occupied an abandoned sawmill, which he put into operation, as well as taking on a freighting route to the mines. One October day, two desperadoes shot up the town and attempted to ride away, whereupon Virgil grabbed his rifle and joined the lawmen in pursuit. The culprits made a stand, and both died of gunshot wounds.
Virgil’s performance that day did not go unremarked. The Arizona Weekly Miner carried this comment in its next issue: “Earp, who appears to have been playing a lone hand with a Winchester rifle, was doing good service …”
Through a combination of grit and a winning personality, the affable Virgil had made a positive impression on the city officials, as well as the populace, and in the next election he won the constable’s position by a significant margin. Finally, through a combination of his salary, licensing and collecting fees, and the revenues from his business practices, Virgil was making a decent living, while maintaining the respect of the general public. Of all the places he lived throughout his life—and they were many—Prescott remained his favorite.
By this time, the brothers were scattered throughout the West. Wyatt was gambling and serving as assistant marshal in Dodge City, Kansas, while Morgan was living in Montana. No one knows who first suggested coming together and traveling to the silver-rich area of southeast Arizona. In November 1879, Wyatt, along with his consumptive, ill-tempered friend John H. “Doc” Holliday and their respective mates, swung by Prescott and convinced Virgil that the riches that had always eluded them awaited in the rawboned boomtown ominously dubbed Tombstone. Had he known what lay ahead for him, Virgil likely would have stayed in Prescott.
A Bad Decision
Tombstone was flourishing, and there was money to be had for those savvy enough to spot the right opportunities. Arriving in three wagons, the Earps immediately set about buying into mining claims in the hope of selling or leasing those that “showed color.” Their success over the coming months was negligible. Wealth and social prominence were again just beyond their reach. James, the eldest Earp brother, took a job in a saloon; Morgan had not yet arrived; and Wyatt preferred gambling and unemployment to another law enforcement position. Virgil, who had no problem seeing himself as a lawman, landed on his feet.
In Prescott, he had made the acquaintance of Crawley Dake, the U.S. marshal for Arizona Territory, and Dake had appointed Virgil a U.S. deputy marshal. When Tombstone’s incumbent city marshal took an unscheduled leave, taking with him some of the town’s money, Virgil was appointed as his replacement. He now wore two badges—one local, the other federal. Meanwhile, Wyatt, despite his earlier protestations, accepted an appointment as deputy sheriff in the hope that he could parlay it into the sheriff’s job, the most profitable public office in Tombstone.
Virgil was diligent in executing his duties. Unfortunately, there was an element in and around Tombstone calling themselves the Cowboys who indulged in cattle rustling and highway robbery. It did not take long for hard feelings to grow between the Cowboys and the so-called Earp Faction. By 1881, many saw the deteriorating situation as a feud between in-town and external opportunists, and chose to stay clear of it. The following year, however, in a San Francisco Daily Examiner interview, Virgil made his feelings clear:
“Concerning the fights between the cowboys and myself and brothers, it has been stated over and over again that there was an old feud between us and some of our enemies, and that we were fighting only to revenge personal wrongs and gratify personal hatred. All such statements are false. We went into Tombstone to do our duty as officers. To do that we were put in conflict with a band of desperadoes, and it resolved itself into a question of which side could first drive the other out of the country, or kill them in it.”
The trouble came to a head on a blustery Oct. 26, 1881. It was Virgil, not Wyatt, as the movies would have us believe, who initiated the so-called “walk-down” to a vacant lot near the OK Corral, wherein five of the Cowboys had gathered, wearing guns in violation of the city ordinance. One of them had been making threats against the Earps’ lives, and there had been altercations earlier in the day. Perhaps Virgil’s choice of Doc Holliday and brothers Morgan and Wyatt as his deputies was ill-advised, but these were the men whom he could trust absolutely in a life-or-death situation.
It is significant that when the two groups braced each other, Virgil was carrying a cane in his gun hand, indicating to the Cowboys that he was not a threat to them. He stated, “Throw up your hands, boys. I intend to disarm you.” And when one or more of the participants reached for his weapon, Virgil waved both arms, shouting, “Hold, I don’t want that!” Neither side was listening.
No one knows for certain who fired the first shot. As the firing commenced, Virgil switched hands, drew his pistol, and joined the melee. It was over in less than a minute. Three Cowboys lay dead or dying, Morgan was shot across the back, Doc was grazed, and Virgil lay on the ground, shot through the right calf. Wyatt alone was untouched.
Conflicting stories were told at the inquest and subsequent hearing, and for a brief moment, it appeared as though the Earps and Holliday would face capital charges and possibly the gallows. They were exonerated; however, although he still held his appointment as U.S. deputy marshal, Virgil was suspended from the city marshal’s position.
As his leg wound slowly healed, Virgil had no idea that the street fight was only the first of the catastrophic events that would soon affect the Earps and him specifically. At around midnight on Dec. 28, as Virgil walked the block from the Oriental Saloon to his hotel, three men hidden in the dark opened fire on him with shotguns. Buckshot tore through his thigh, back and left arm, and one charge ripped through his body. He staggered back toward the Oriental, where Wyatt and a handful of onlookers, alarmed at the sound of gunfire, met him and carried him to his room.
In addition to the seriousness of his other wounds, Virgil’s left arm was ruined, the elbow and bones above and below it shattered beyond repair. When the doctors suggested amputating the useless limb, Virgil refused. They subsequently removed some 6 inches of bone from what was left of his arm.
Meanwhile, Wyatt brought a friend of the Earps, George W. Parsons, into the room. Later that day, Parsons wrote in his journal of Virgil’s presence of mind:
“He was easy. Told him I was sorry for him. ‘It’s Hell, isn’t it!’ said he. His wife was troubled. ‘Never mind, I’ve got one arm left to hug you with,’ he said.”
For a time, it appeared the wounds would be mortal, but Virgil slowly began to recover. However, due to a well-executed P.R. campaign by their opponents, public opinion had begun to turn against the Earps, as the Cowboys stepped up their depredations. Then on March 18, 1882, a hidden gunman shot Morgan Earp in the back as he played billiards. A second shot narrowly missed Wyatt, who was seated against the wall. Morgan, the youngest of the three brothers, died within the hour.
A vengeful Wyatt, who had requested and received a U.S. deputy marshal’s commission from Crawley Dake, set off on what has been called his Vendetta Ride. A train carried Morgan’s body to Colton, California, where his parents had finally settled, and the next day, Virgil—still recovering and in tremendous pain—followed, Allie ever by his side. It was the last he would see of Tombstone.
Although his left arm would, as the doctors had predicted, prove a functionless appendage, it did not seriously impede Virgil’s activities. The following year, a heated railroad conflict broke out in the Colton area between the Southern Pacific and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. The Southern Pacific hired Virgil as a “special railroad agent”—essentially, a gunfighter—to ride beside the engineer and discourage interference from the rival line.
In 1887, after briefly running his own detective agency, Virgil was elected to a one-year term as Colton’s first city marshal by a vote of 109 to 61 and was re-elected the following year. Then, the old wanderlust took hold once again. Virgil turned in his badge, and he and Allie moved to the larger city of San Bernardino, where he ran a gambling hall. Four years later, they relocated to the nearby gold camp of Vanderbilt, where he opened Earp’s Hall, an impressive saloon and gambling den that also featured prizefights, dances and Sunday church services.
In a few years, the ever-restless couple sold their hall and home, and traveled from gold camp to gold camp, always looking for the big bonanza. Virgil was working a claim outside of Prescott in 1896 when the mine caved in, crushing his feet and ankles. When he recovered, he decided to give the ranching life a try, and bought a ranch in the Kirkland Valley, south of the city. It was a small operation, and he and Allie would spend the winters in Prescott, where Virgil served as a special deputy.
It was while living in the Kirkland Valley that Virgil received a letter from a woman living in Portland, Oregon. She had read an article about him (not surprisingly, relating to the OK Corral fight), and informed him that she was his daughter, Nellie Jane, now 36 and the mother of two children of her own.
Virgil was thrilled to hear from her, and he and Allie paid an extended visit to Nellie, his grandchildren and his first (and, technically, only) wife, Ellen. It proved a warm and satisfying time, and Nellie reciprocated, visiting her father the following winter. They remained in close contact until his death.
Virgil was not meant for ranching, and once again, he and Allie roamed the diggings of Arizona and California. In 1904, they landed in Goldfield, Nevada, site of one of the state’s biggest strikes. He arrived too late, however, and with too little money to become a force in the boomtown. So he did what he had always done when money grew tight: He wore a badge. In January 1905, Virgil took the oath for Esmeralda County deputy sheriff. At the same time, he accepted the job of “special officer” for the National Club, one of Goldfield’s more impressive saloons. The title notwithstanding, he was basically a glorified bouncer.
Virgil was now 62 and had suffered crippling gunshot wounds as well as several debilitating injuries that would have permanently disabled other men. Incredibly, he was still a powerful man, capable of ejecting troublemakers with little effort. One contemporary described him as a “quiet man who wouldn’t talk much about himself, but who, despite his injured left arm, could handle cards, drinks and hard cases.” Often, his presence was enough to quieten a troublemaker. It galled both him and Wyatt that their Tombstone reputation—usually impossibly inflated and sensationalized—followed them all their lives; nonetheless, it often served to curb trouble before it started.
In the fall of 1905, Virgil contracted pneumonia, and it proved fatal. As Allie later recalled, he looked up at her as she sat by his hospital bed, and said, “Light my cigar, and stay here and hold my hand.” Those were his last words. Virgil Walter Earp died on Oct. 19. Allie would not follow him for another 42 years.
At Nellie Jane’s request, Allie shipped Virgil’s remains to his daughter to be buried in Portland. In writing Virgil’s obituary, some newspapers couldn’t resist raking up their own distorted iterations of the past. Under the heading, “Virgil Earp, Gunfighter, Cashes In,” the Nevada State Journal wrote, “It speaks well for Goldfield that Mr. Earp was permitted to go hence with his boots off, and that he took no fellow citizen of that enterprising burg with him on his long voyage …”
Perhaps the most fitting epitaph, however, was written in the Oregonian of Oct. 30:
“Virgil Earp was known as one of the most daring and adventurous of Western pioneers and he was known from North to South on the Pacific Coast as one of the great-hearted men who helped to build the West.”
Illustrations by Jessica Patton