The Return of Wyatt Earp

A planned museum will commemorate an 1882 murder that thrust Tucson into the national spotlight

Frank Stilwell got himself shot full of holes, literally perforated from head to toe, outside the railroad depot in downtown Tucson back in 1882.

Now, rationality should tell us that this Western gun opera--one of many from those wild days--no longer deserves remembrance, and it certainly shouldn't play a part in Tucson's Rio Nuevo Project to reinvigorate downtown.

But it does. Project managers, who've just completed a $7 million renovation of the old railroad depot on Toole Avenue, plan to recognize Stilwell's murder at a nearby railroad museum, slated to open in January 2005.

Seems strange, no? A cigar-chomping rodent barks off the wrong guy and gets shipped to the warmer precincts of hell. Why all the fuss?

The shooting was a huge deal when it happened, too. The Arizona Daily Star and the Arizona Citizen played the details throughout their pages, and many newspapers around the country followed suit, wondering what kind of jackal could perpetrate such an assassination.

Well, the jackal in question was a frontier drifter, buffalo hunter, prospector, gambler and cowtown marshal named Wyatt Earp.

Yes, the Wyatt Earp, who, for reasons too weird for the normal mind to grasp, has become an American icon, a towering figure of the West and a continuous moneymaker through books, movies and tourist destinations from Dodge City to our own Tombstone.

Which explains the quite rational interest--who would've guessed?--of Rio Nuevo's bosses.

"We've been excited about Wyatt Earp since we began working on this," says Kim McKay, depot project manager. "Everyone who saw the movie Tombstone remembers the scene where Earp shot Stilwell, but I don't think people realize it happened right here in Tucson. We think it can be a real tourist attraction."

As murders go, this was a gem, one of Tucson's best. It had dark plotting, the bitterest passions, blood revenge and names you couldn't make up, like Doc Holliday and Turkey Creek Jack Johnson.

The first acts of this oft-told drama played out in Tombstone, not Tucson.

They pitted the lawmen Earp brothers--mainly Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan--against a gang of cowboy-rustlers who terrorized the backcountry along the border, occasionally riding into Tombstone to scratch, spit, drink, avoid bathing and generally hurrah the town, with their atrocious manners and, occasionally, their pistols.

This mixing of the hard-eyed Earps, Yankee-Illinois-Republicans, against the saddle-sore cowboys, mostly Rebel-Texas-Democrats, formed the perfect trouble-cocktail.

It simmered throughout 1880 and well into 1881, the two sides trading threats and mean stares, the cowboys seeking to control Tombstone, thereby profiting from its corruption, the Earps determined to keep the town solid under the law.

The big boil-up came near the OK Corral on Oct. 26, 1881.

The resulting shootout left 19-year-old Billy Clanton on the ground, gut-shot and hollering for more cartridges; Tom McLaury with a big hole in his side, thanks to Holliday's shotgun; and Frank McLaury with a hole in his head big enough for the wind to whistle a song through. They all died.

Virgil was hit in the leg and Morgan in the shoulder, neither seriously. Holliday, an alcoholic and a lunger, felt a slug graze his pistol pocket, and figuring he'd played his last game of faro, hollered: "I'm shot right through!" (He didn't lose a drop of whatever kind of bug juice ran through his veins.) Only Wyatt wasn't hit.

Everyone knew the cowboy gang would avenge their dead, and they did so the night of Dec. 28, 1881.

Virgil was crossing the street in Tombstone when five ambushers let loose with highly charged shotguns, sending scraps of metal through his torso and left arm. A doctor removed 6 inches of bone from the wounded wing, limiting Virgil's use of it for the remainder of his life.

But the cowboys weren't done.

Two and a half months later, on Saturday, March 18, 1882, they shot pool-playing Morgan through the door of a Tombstone saloon, sending a bullet crashing into his spine. Wyatt, sitting nearby, narrowly escaped death himself when a second bullet hit the wall just above his head.

Naming the perps in the two cases turned out to be a snap.

In Virgil's case, eyewitnesses spotted five men running from the scene, including Billy Clanton's older brother, Ike, whose IQ probably didn't equal his hat size.

Speaking of Ike's hat, he left it behind when he bolted from the ambush perch, and in the Old West, they called that a clue.

The coroner's jury named Morgan's shooters, too, and Frank Stilwell--a livery stable operator, part-time sheriff's deputy and part-time stage robber--was a triggerman in both cases.

Wyatt already knew that, and he knew that Morgan's last wish wasn't to go to heaven, or leave a handsome corpse--it was for Wyatt to kill the man who plugged him.

"That's all I ask," Morgan whispered before dying.

Now committed to dispatching Stilwell, and certain that assassins were hunting his entire family, Wyatt convinced Virgil, still suffering from his ambush wounds, to return home to California.

While escorting Virgil to the train depot at Tucson, Wyatt and his federal posse got a tip that cowboy assassins were awaiting them there, shotguns tied under their coats.

They arrived here the night of March 21. Wyatt's party consisted of his youngest brother, Warren, plus Doc Holliday and loyal gun hands Texas Jack Vermillion and the aforementioned Turkey Creek Jack Johnson.

"Almost the first men we met on the platform there were Stilwell and his friends, armed to the teeth," Virgil told the San Francisco Examiner two months later. "They fell back into the crowd as soon as they saw I had an escort, and the boys took me to the hotel to supper."

Later, back on the train, Wyatt spotted Stilwell and Ike Clanton, armed with shotguns, lying on a flat gravel car and peeking into the window of the train in which Virgil sat with wife, Allie.

The would-be assassins had a clear shot at him inside the lighted car.

Moving quickly, Wyatt climbed down from the train on the opposite side, and, carrying his own shotgun, snuck around and approached Stilwell and Clanton.

They made good use of common sense and ran like swans. Ike had a history of last-second skidoos, including at the OK Corral, where he bolted as soon as the shooting started, and he made another getaway here.

But Stilwell's luck expired, and he was about to. He fell on the tracks with Wyatt right behind him.

In a story in the Denver Republican, published May 14, 1893, Wyatt said that Stilwell and Clanton shot at him during the chase. But that's almost certainly false, a retroactive effort to pretty up what was, by any reckoning, a merciless killing.

Listen to the anger in Wyatt's own account, also from the Denver Republican:

"I ran straight for Stilwell. It was he who killed my brother. What a coward he was! He couldn't shoot when I came near him. He stood there helpless and trembling for his life. As I rushed upon him he put out his hands and clutched at my shotgun. I let go both barrels, and he tumbled down dead and mangled at my feet.

"I started for Clanton then, he escaped behind a moving train of cars. When the train had passed, I could not find him."

The Star reported that "several shots were fired in rapid succession, a loud scream following the first shot, given, it is supposed, by Stilwell."

Wyatt might've fired both barrels, but not simultaneously. One load of buckshot hit Stilwell in the chest, another in the left leg.

And Wyatt wasn't alone. Other members of the posse joined the fun, as evidenced by the coroner's report.

For Wild West nuts, it makes cozy bedtime reading:

"One load of seven buckshot had entered the left breast and, ranging downward, had passed out the back. A bullet, evidently that of a pistol or rifle, had passed through the fleshy part of the left arm and entered the body just below the arm pit, and passing directly through, came out in a line of entrance under the right arm into which it lodged.

"Another load of 11 buckshot had shattered the left leg above the knee and one bullet had gone through and into the calf of the right leg, while still another bullet, evidently a downward shot entered the right leg above the knee passed through, and into the calf of the left leg.

"Death was evidently instantaneous although the expression of pain or fear on the face would seem to indicate that the man was aware of his danger, which he sought to avert with his left hand, as it was burnt and blackened with powder, that being the same charge which entered the breast, as was evident from the close proximity of the gun when it was fired."

Stilwell's body, his watch stolen, was discovered the next morning just west of the original depot, where the locomotive ramada stands today. In the words of Tucson diarist George Hand, he was "shot all over, the worst shot-up man that I ever saw."

Wyatt then ran up to the train window, Virgil sitting inside, and mouthed three words: "One for Morgan."

Not only had Wyatt gotten the vengeance he'd promised, but he saved Virgil's life as well. In his Examiner interview, Virgil said: "One thing is certain, if I had been without an escort they would have killed me."

Tucson reacted with horror to the killing. The Star--under the headline, "The Shadow of Tombstone's Bloody Feud Reaches Tucson"--led the way in condemning the Earp party.

In prose as purple as a summer violet, the Star raged: "The boldness of the act, right at the depot in a peaceable city, around and amid the bustle of visitors at the train, only adds to the offense, and the effrontery of these desperados ... is as provoking and outrageous to our citizens as it is damned in the sight of heaven."

The story of Wyatt morphing into a gunslinger went national, as well it should have. It was crackling good copy.

But soon it would get a whole lot better.

With a warrant out for his arrest, Wyatt and his posse returned to Tombstone, where Sheriff Johnny Behan tried to make him a guest in his jail. But Wyatt wouldn't allow it.

"The sheriff called on me to surrender, and I told him I would not do it," he told the Denver Republican in 1893. "He assembled a posse about the door of my room to take me in, but I walked through the men, and none of them offered to lay a hand upon me."

Wyatt still had some killing to do, and feared that if he languished in stir, Morgan's other murderers would get away.

Riding with his posse, Wyatt caught another of the mustache twirlers at a wood camp in the Dragoon Mountains.

By most accounts, Florentino Cruz, the lookout at Morgan's killing, got the Full Stilwell, the posse chasing him down and shooting him to death, possibly after hearing his confession, and not the kind that brought forgiveness, either.

In the Republican, Wyatt said simply that he found Cruz and "left him stretched in his tracks."

Wyatt also said, without providing details, that he found and killed the half-breed Apache Hank Swilling, another of the conspirators. But authorities never located a body, and historians can't be sure what in fact happened to Swilling.

A few days after the Cruz hunt, Wyatt's posse rode into a cowboy ambush at Iron Springs, outside Tombstone, where he single-handedly nailed two more men.

These included the appalling drunk, Curly Bill Brocius, who was left nearly in two pieces from Wyatt's shotgun, and one of Bill's confederates, Johnny Barnes, who died later of his wounds.

That brought Wyatt's count to four definite kills, and two possibles, if we count Swilling and Johnny Ringo, another baddie that some historians contend Wyatt dispatched later that summer.

America's newspapers, especially those in California, gave extensive coverage to Wyatt's savage vendetta, planting the seed of his legend, which, in the coming decades, would receive buckets of additional nourishment from biographers, newspaper hacks, saloon gossips, front-porch yakkers, television writers, moviemakers and so on.

It has grown like chickweed ever since, right up to some modern-day Tucsonans' belief that the Spanish Colonial Revival depot, remade with federal money, and the planned Southern Arizona Transportation Museum, will make downtown more of a tourist draw.

The museum will sit just west of the current depot in the old Southern Pacific records building, and have 1,000 square feet of exhibit space devoted mainly to railroad history.

But Howard Greenseth, vice president of Old Pueblo Trolley (a group partnering with the city on the project), says the museum will also include some recognition of the Earp-Stilwell dust-up, either in an exhibit inside the museum, or on the grounds outside.

The latter might mean life-size bronze statues of Wyatt and Doc by local sculptor Dan Bates.

"If an appropriate site can be found, we're all for the sculpture," says Greenseth. "Wherever I travel around the country and the world, when people hear I'm from Tucson, they want to talk about Tombstone, the OK Corral and Wyatt Earp. They bring it up themselves."

Does Wyatt deserve it? What a silly question. Of course he doesn't.

During a life of 80 years, which ended in Los Angeles in 1929, he never did much of anything except roam around, play cards, crack skulls in noisy cow-towns, play cards, shoot Tombstone's troublemakers, race ponies, rarely talk freely about anything, prospect for gold and silver, play cards, almost never laugh, roll dice, play cards and die poor, with--irony of ironies--two of Hollywood's biggest cowboy stars among his pallbearers.

All of which explains why academic historians usually turn up their noses when it comes to writing about Wyatt, and a darn good thing, too. Otherwise, they would've scribbled him into obscurity because--let's be honest--your average professor couldn't write an interesting suicide note.

No, his myth has been built primarily by the unschooled, the unhinged and the unwashed, who, while lacking a full set of teeth and marketable job skills, can still, when the smoke blows away, spot a damned good story.

Here's a brave and stalwart marshal who, in spite of a few hiccups of illegality in his life--stealing horses in Arkansas, for one--followed the true course, until he had to choose between loyalty to his brothers and loyalty to the law.

The choice was exactly that stark. As Wyatt told biographer Stuart Lake in the late 1920s, if he'd been willing to go outside the law earlier, Morgan would still be alive.

"It's a pretty high price to ask a man to pay for trying to shoot square," Wyatt said.

It's hard to argue the point. Every time Wyatt arrested one of the cowboy gang and brought them to court, they found friends to provide alibis and win their release.

It happened with Virgil's ambushers, and it happened with Morgan's killers, and it would've kept happening, because the cowboys weren't going to stop until the Earp boys were dead.

So Wyatt chose his brothers.

He stepped outside everything he'd stood for and became a black-hearted killer who wound up, in the early spring of 1882, galloping out of Arizona Territory, his so-called posse at his side, smacking his horse with his hat and hollering, "Yaahhh! ... Yaaahhhhh!" as other law-dogs tried without success to run the fallen marshal down.

Now that, professor, is a story.

Beware a pale rider, Tucson. Wyatt's coming back.