The life of lawman Wyatt Earp has become so bathed in myth and exaggeration in the last century that research is more like sifting through sugar to find salt.
That’s actually fitting; when it comes to the Wyatt Earp, his Hoosier nemesis William “Curly Bill” Brocius, and most iconic figures of the American West, everything needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
There is no doubting that when these two men met each other–for the last time–at an old lumber camp in the mountains of southeastern Arizona, they only had eyes and aim for one another.
Wyatt Earp and Curly Bill were not that different, which is likely why each excelled in their chosen professions as lawman and criminal. Wyatt had dabbled in criminal enterprises in his youth and remained a problem gambler his entire life.
Curly Bill had left his wife and three children at their Crawfordsville farm to fight in the Civil War but didn’t return until 1869, four years after it ended and a year after his wife had remarried.
Wyatt abandoned his common law wife Mattie Blaylock to court “entertainer” Sadie Marcus. Heartbroken, Mattie returned to prostitution and died from opium addiction.
Curly Bill Brocius had an infamous sadistic streak. Accounts of his misdeeds were both popular newspaper fodder for the day…and mostly true. He forced a priest to dance by shooting his feet. He made an entire family of Mexicans strip naked and dance. He even shot and killed one of his own men for interrupting a poker game.
Acting as a deputy in Wichita and Dodge City, Wyatt Earp earned bonuses for arrests and was accused of arresting people without justification. He developed an uncanny talent for buffaloing drunks, which meant cracking the base of their skulls with the steel barrel of his two-and-a-half pound Colt Single Action Army. Like the arrests, he often buffaloed people without cause as well.
These brutal men lived in a brutal time, but the events leading up to the showdown in the Arizona mountains would have brutalized anyone.
Wyatt arrived in Tombstone with his brothers and their families to get away from years spent marshaling, but in a short time their luck and their funds ran dry. He leveraged his reputation for a lucrative job as a deputy sheriff, tax assessor and tax collector.
Since tax collectors in the West often took a commission on monies collected, Wyatt Earp was raking in over $40,000 a year (about $1 million in 2018). This long-sought peace and prosperity, his American Dream, didn’t last.
Fred White, the town marshal of Tombstone, sauntered into the streets of Tombstone late one evening to quiet Curly Bill and his fellow Cowboys, a notorious gang of the American West. The drunken men were hooting and hollering and shooting at the Moon. Curly Bill handed his pistol to White, but the .45 discharged, tunneling through Fred White’s groin.
Wyatt Earp was the first on the scene and immediately buffaloed Curly Bill, dropping him to the ground. The other members of the Cowboy gang insisted their leader be freed, but Wyatt remained cool, even when they started shooting at him. Curly Bill was arrested, but Fred White testified before dying that it had been an accident. Curly Bill went free, seething with humiliation over Wyatt cracking his skull to subdue him.
The Cowboys tried and failed to murder Wyatt and his brothers in the most famous event of in Wild West history, the Gunfight at the OK Corral. When this straight-up gunfight didn’t work, the Cowboys turned to ordinary assassination…on Curly Bill’s order.
Two Cowboys opened fire on Virgil Earp as he passed through town, unloading two shotguns into him. Shot peppered his arm and back, shattering and permanently crippling his arm.
Virgil miraculously survived the attempt but, two months later, Wyatt’s youngest brother Morgan Earp was shot in the back while playing pool, the bullet cracking his spine and tearing through his organs. He bled out quickly.
Thus began the Earp Vendetta Ride, an incident reenacted in a thousand forms and with a thousand names in movies, television and books. Lawman puts on guns one last time to avenge family. Only this one really happened.