Scott Dyke: Virgil Walter Earp — The real law in Tombstone

A photo of Virgil Earp after he left Tombstone. (Courtesy of Scott Dyke Photo Collection)

By Scott Dyke

History has granted Wyatt Earp a mantle of notoriety that places him among the pantheon of the West’s greatest lawmen.

Of course, history is often skewed.

Even Wyatt did not identify himself as a peace officer by trade. Rather, he would have appreciated being known as a entrepreneur. Except for a short term in his youth as Lamar, Missouri’s only constable, Wyatt was an appointed assistant while residing in the various mining camps and cow towns of the West.

In Tombstone, he held a deputy sheriff position for Pima County. (Cochise County had not yet been formed.) He would fill in as a “special policeman” for the town marshal (chief of police). It was a family affair and older brother Virgil was the boss.

Virgil Earp was born in Hartford, Kentucky on July 18, 1843. He was the second child of Nicholas and Virginia (Cooksey). Their first was James. Their third was Wyatt, followed by Morgan, Warren and Adelia.

The Earps moved around, a trait that the sons practiced their entire lives. Ol’ Nick took his family west, only to return to the eastern frontier of Illinois, Iowa and Missouri; and then back to California, namely San Bernardino. The three Earp brothers stayed on the frontier.

Virgil, like Wyatt, had three wives. The first came at age 18 when he secretly married Ellen Rysdam. Neither the bride nor the groom’s parents approved. That dilemma was solved when Virgil enlisted in the 83rd Illinois infantry and proceeded headlong into the Civil War.

While he was absent, poor Ellen got two bits of news: she was pregnant, and her parents informed her Virgil was killed. Apparently Nick and Virginia had no objections to this bit of problem solving. We will get back to Ellen later.

For his part, there was no record of Virgil’s reaction when he returned from the war. Off to California again, Wyatt and Virgil did some freighting, which took them to Montana, Wyoming and Arizona. The Earp clan moved back east again, to Lamar, Missouri where relatives prospered.

Back at the altar

In 1870, Virg took to the altar, this time with Rosella (Rozilla) Dragoo. She has become the unsolved mystery woman of the Earp boys. There is no record of her, other than the marriage.
Sometime in 1873, Virg hooked up with a waitress named Alvira Sullivan. She was hustling hash in a Council Bluff, Iowa restaurant. It was a bonding that would last his lifetime.

The Earp clan reassembled in Dodge in 1876. Virg and “Allie” moved on from Kansas, as Earps always do, and reached Prescott, Arizona. It was there that Virg made a name for himself.

He joined some men to bring a few outlaws to bay. It was Prescott’s most memorable shooting. In October 1877, two wanted men were spotted drinking in town. Two deputies confronted them and were shot at. Needing more help, Virg was deputized on the spot and a shoot-out ensued.

Virg did in a wanted murderer. The coroner’s report had George “Vaughn” Wilson receiving the fatal head shot and going down with a cigarette still clamped in his lips. (You gotta love western coroner reports.) Virgil’s coolness and pluck eventually led to an appointment as a deputy U.S. marshal.

Here is a good time in the story to correct a myth. It was Virgil, not Wyatt, that urged his brothers to come west and join him in the silver boom town called Tombstone. And they did, wives and all.

The idea was to start a freight/stage line, but that was abandoned when upon arrival they found plenty of competition. So they reverted to form and gained employment as guards and peace officers, while seeking gambling and bartending positions.

Jim, the oldest, ran a bar and gambling joint. Morgan, arriving later, took Wyatt’s job as a Wells Fargo guard. Wyatt ran faro games and served as a Pima County deputy sheriff. Virgil would become Tombstone’s chief of police.

Legendary gunfight

The three brothers, Virg, Wyatt and Morgan (Jim was a disabled war vet), marched into history on Oct. 26, 1881; the notable street fight that became known as the OK Corral shooting. Make no mistake, Virgil Earp was in charge. Virg was using Morgan as a “special deputy” when this occurred. He deputized Wyatt that morning and enlisted the aid of Doc Holliday. The latter addition proved to be a much-criticized act, as Doc was a provoker and an alcoholic.

In the aftermath, only two combatants escaped harm. Virg took a shot in the calf, Morgan was wounded, Doc was creased at his hip and the McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton became worm fodder in Boot Hill. Ike Clanton survived harm by using fleet feet, and Wyatt enhanced his reputation by suffering nary a scratch.

The later hearing eventually exonerated the Earp party. Virg testified from his bed. Much political heat ensued, mostly from the cowardly fear of residents that the Cow-Boys would attack the town in retaliation. Virgil was ousted as marshal.

In late December, the Cow-Boys showed their true colors; they ambushed Virg at night on Allen Street. This wound was serious. Doctors took out a portion of his arm bone. They wanted to amputate, but Virg declared he would rather be a two-armed corpse. He survived but never had use of his arm again.

After Morgan was back shot in March of 1882, Wyatt sent Virg and the wives on to Colton, California, where Nick was prospering. Virg and Allie traveled to San Francisco for medical treatment. It was in SF that the following newspaper account surfaced in July of ’82. Virgil Earp, “of Tombstone notoriety,” was arrested dealing faro.

Back to the friendly confines of Colton. He served as constable in Colton and also started a detective agency. He and father Nick were active in politics, Nick as a hard-core Democrat, Virg was a Republican. Virg got elected town marshal.

But, as always, wanderlust kicked in, one arm and all. He and Allie followed the mining camps. They settled in Vanderbilt for a while, putting up a bar and casino.
Toward trail’s end

The 1894 the Great Register of San Bernardino County listed Virgil as “six feet one inch, light complexion, light brown hair, blue grey eyes … left arm crippled.”

He ran for constable in Needles township but finished a distant third. Like so many mining districts in the West, this one had a short life. So, for Virg and Allie, it was time to move on to Colorado, then back to Arizona, then California again.

But the siren call of a strike in Nevada provided Virgil’s last quest. In 1904, Goldfield, Nevada was his final destination. Here Virg held a deputy sheriff commission and acted as a bouncer for a saloon. He contracted pneumonia and died in October 1905. His remains were shipped to Portland, Oregon for burial at the Riverview Cemetery. Odd, don’t you think?

Well, let’s revisit wife No. 1, Ellen. She remarried and moved to Oregon and had Virgil’s child, Nellie Jane. Nellie was the only known offspring of the Earp boys, and Virgil only found out in 1887. Wife No. 3, Allie, thought it best for his daughter to lay him to rest.

Allie would grieve for “my Virg” the rest of her life, and a long life it was as she died just short of her 100th birthday. She was as feisty as he was strong. Her Los Angeles funeral drew hundreds.
When it comes down to it, Virgil Earp was the premier lawman of a famous clan. Wyatt, by fate, got the books, the TV show, the movies and the glory. Sometimes, there is no accounting for history.

Next: The life and times of “Aunt Allie,” the toughest Earp.

 

Scott Dyke is a Wyatt Earp historian, Western lecturer, researcher, frequent guest on Voices of the West and writer. He can be contacted at scottdyke65@gmail.com. Article appeared at the Green Valley News and is republished here with the author’s permission.

 

 

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