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Virgil Walter Earp

Virgil Walter Earp (July 8, 1843 – October 19, 1905, aged 62) was one of the men involved in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in the Arizona Territory of the United States. He spent his life in law enforcement, although it is his younger brother Wyatt Earp, who spent most of his life as a gambler, who is better known in popular history as a western lawman.

Early life[]

Virgil Earp was born in Hartford, Kentucky, the second son of Nicholas Earp and Virginia Ann Cooksey.

In February 1860, while living in Pella, Iowa, 16 year-old Virgil eloped with Dutch immigrant Magdalena C. "Ellen" Rysdam (November 25, 1842 in Utrecht, Netherlands–May 3, 1910 in Cornelius, Oregon). They remained together for a year in spite of her parents' (Gerrit Rysdam and Magdalena Catrina Van Velzen) disapproval of her choice.

On September 21, 1861, 18-year-old Virgil enlisted in the Union Army during the Civil War, serving with the 83rd Illinois Infantry from July 26, 1862 to June 24, 1865. His older brother James had previously enlisted, but returned home after being badly wounded during a battle near Fredericktown, Missouri, in late 1861. Virgil's half-brother, Newton, also enlisted with the Union and served throughout the war. Virgil's enlistment was to become the last time Virgil and Ellen met each other as husband and wife. The marriage resulted in the birth of the only known child of Virgil, Nellie Jane Earp (January 7, 1862–June 17, 1930). Virgil left for the Civil War when his baby daughter was just two weeks old.

In the summer of 1863, Ellen was told incorrectly that Virgil had died. She left Pella with her parents and daughter. She had moved to Oregon Territory, and had remarried twice by the time she and their daughter next met Virgil, in 1899, 37 years after they had seen each other last. There is a report that Virgil had not known he had a daughter, but this appears to be an inference from his earlier enlistment date, which is not the same as the time he left for service.

Earp received his discharge from the military on June 26, 1865, and he travelled home. Finding his wife and family had left Pella, Earp decided to head to California to meet up with the rest of the Earps. He married his second wife, Rosella Dragoo (born in France in 1853), on August 28, 1870 in Lamar, Missouri. Nothing is recorded about the outcome of the marriage, although it is apparent that it was not successful as Earp married for a third time in 1874. Alvira "Allie" Packingham Sullivan, born in Florence, Nebraska in 1849 was Virgil's third wife, although no official record of the marriage has ever been found.

During his life Virgil worked at many jobs. Farming, rail construction in Wyoming, stagecoach driver, a sawmill sawyer in Prescott, Arizona Territory, mailman, and later in life, prospector. A tight-knit family, the Earps generally kept close contact with one another, and often trailed along together to different living locations.

Virgil spent some time in Dodge City, Kansas in 1877 with his younger brother Wyatt, though it is not certain if Virgil ever held any law enforcement position there. From Dodge City, Virgil and his wife moved to Prescott, then the capital of Arizona Territory. There, in October 1877, Virgil Earp was deputized by Yavapai County, Arizona Sheriff Ed Bowers during a street gunfight. During the fight, Virgil killed one of the robbers, by shooting him twice through the head with a Winchester rifle. In 1878, Virgil served in Prescott as a village night watchman for a couple of months, and was later elected as a constable in Prescott.


Virgil was appointed Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Arizona Territory on November 27, 1879, just before he traveled with his brother Wyatt to Tombstone from Prescott. Evidently Virgil was intended to represent federal law in that part of the territory (Tombstone was then only a small town and mining camp of a few hundred people).

On October 30, 1880, Virgil became acting town-marshal of Tombstone, after town marshal Fred White was shot and killed by outlaw and gunman "Curly Bill" Brocius. Virgil was not present at the White shooting, and Brocius was actually arrested by deputy marshal Wyatt Earp, assisted by his younger brother Morgan Earp. With the town marshal appointment, Virgil held both a federal law enforcement position, as well as the top local law enforcement position for the town of Tombstone. Virgil, however, held the latter job for less than two weeks before being replaced by Ben Sippy in a special election in which Virgil was narrowly defeated. Sippy won re-election when Tombstone became an incorporated city in January, 1881. Virgil chose not to run against Sippy in this second election.

At the time of his election, however, Ben Sippy was known to be in financial trouble. When he requested a two-week leave of absence on June 6, 1881, the city council appointed Virgil to act as temporary city marshal in his place. When the center section of Tombstone was devastated by a fire on June 22, Sippy had not yet returned. Some looting took place in the aftermath of the fire, and Virgil was left to enforce the law. Finally, on June 28, when Sippy was still absent from Tombstone and about $3,000 of bad debt and financial improprieties were discovered in his office, Virgil was appointed by Tombstone Mayor John Clum as a permanent replacement for the city marshal's post.

As city marshal it was Virgil's job to enforce local ordinances such as those against carrying open or concealed weapons in town. Although history and Hollywood have painted the picture of Virgil introducing that law, he did not, as it was already in place when he took office. It was Virgil's attempt (along with new deputy Morgan Earp and temporarily deputized citizens Wyatt Earp and John "Doc" Holliday) to disarm Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton; leading to the fight and deaths near the O.K. Corral.

Facts of the gunfight, wounds received, and legal ramifications[]

Although the gunfight made Wyatt Earp a legend, and historically it is Wyatt who is remembered as being the strongest and most experienced of the Earp faction going into the fight, this is incorrect. Although Wyatt had served in Wichita, Kansas and Dodge City as a lawman previously, Virgil was the more experienced in life and death situations. His years of Army service during the Civil War had given him more experience than any of the other participants that took part in the fight that day, especially his two younger brothers. In addition to this, he had served as a lawman off and on since the war.

Before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Wyatt had been in only one shootout and Morgan had never been in any gun battles. Billy Claiborne had also been in one gunfight prior to the shootout, and was the only member of the Clanton faction involved that had prior gunfighting experience (not counting the Skeleton Canyon massacre, in which the McLaurys and Clantons took part). Doc Holliday, despite his reputation, had no documented gunfights to his credit, other than a couple of drunken brawls, and only his own tales of fights with unnamed men he claimed to have shot.

During the gunfight, Virgil Earp was shot in the calf of the leg (he thought by Billy Clanton). Three days after the O.K. Corral gunfight, the city council suspended Virgil as police chief, pending outcome of the shooting investigations. Virgil was eventually exonerated of wrongdoing, but his reputation suffered thereafter.

Assassination attempt[]

In the late evening of December 28, 1881, as Virgil was walking from the Oriental Saloon to his room at the Cosmopolitan Hotel (where he was staying for protection from threats), he was ambushed on Allen Street. The assailant(s) were never positively identified, but were usually assumed to be family or confederates of the men who died at the O.K. Corral shootout. Ike Clanton's hat was found at the assassin's nest, but Clanton was later given an alibi by friends. The other main suspects were Phin Clanton and Pony Diehl.

The assailant(s) fired from the second story of a building across Allen street, an office which was empty due to construction. Reports of five or six shotgun blasts were later given, and upwards of twenty buckshot pellets penetrated the Crystal Palace Saloon and the Eagle Brewery behind Virgil's position, breaking windows and narrowly missing patrons. About the same number of buckshot pellets hit Virgil, though he did not fall and was hit primarily in the back and his left arm. His injured arm would be permanently crippled as a result of the surgical removal of five and-a-half inches of his shattered humerus during the immediate treatment of the wound. While being examined by his doctors, the severely wounded Virgil managed to tell his wife, "Nevermind, I've got one arm left to hug you with." On learning of Virgil's wounds, which he initially thought were fatal, territorial U.S. Marshal Crawley P. Dake gave Virgil's Deputy U.S. Marshal position to Wyatt.

On March 20, 1882, two days after Virgil's younger brother Morgan Earp was killed in another ambush by unknown assailants, the still-recovering Virgil and his wife Allie left Tombstone to stay with Virgil's parents in Colton, California. Virgil left Tombstone the day after Morgan's body was sent to Colton with brother James Earp. Virgil was escorted for protection by twenty men to Contention City, Arizona Territory, near the railhead in Benson. After five remaining bodyguards had stabled their horses in Contention, Virgil and Alle and their guards drove a wagon to Benson and boarded the train to Tucson.

Wyatt Earp and Warren Earp, Doc Holliday, Sherman McMasters, and Turkey Creek Jack Johnson were the five remaining bodyguards. Virgil had spent January and February in bed, and had just been starting to get out on the street in Tombstone, the week before Morgan's killing. He would later state that he had to be carried up the steps, when the party got to the train. His wife Allie had to wear his pistol belt during the journey, so the weapon would be available to Virgil if he needed it.

After nightfall, as Virgil's train was pulling out of Tucson on its way to California, Virgil's bodyguards killed Frank Stilwell on the tracks near the train station. While all were later indicted for the shooting, none were brought to trial, having fled the territory. Wyatt much later in his life said Stilwell and Ike Clanton had been waiting near the train to kill Virgil. Clanton admitted he and Stilwell had known Virgil and the rest had been coming to Tucson, but would be quoted as saying he thought they were coming to try to kill him along with Stilwell. Why Stilwell would go to the train yard knowing this, was not explained by Ike.

Later life and death[]

After receiving his injuries in Tombstone, Virgil spent the next two years recovering at his parent's home in Colton, California. Despite the use of only one arm, Virgil was hired by the Southern Pacific Railroad to guard the tracks in Colton's famous "battle of the crossing." Here Virgil Earp attempted to stop the California Southern Railroad as subsidiary of Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe from installing a crossing to enter California over the SP tracks in Colton. Governor Waterman deputized a posse from San Bernardino who rode down and placed the crossing, ending the SP's monopoly in California.

In 1884 Virgil's father, Nicholas Porter Earp was elected justice of the peace. Two years later, Virgil Earp opened a private detective agency, which by all accounts was abandoned in 1886, when he was elected village constable in July.

When Colton was incorporated as a city in July 1887, Virgil Earp was elected as Colton's first City Marshal. He reportedly earned a salary of $75 a month, and was re-elected to another term in 1888. Among other duties, he was reported to have cleared blocked sewers and kept track of the electric light bulbs (True West Magazine). Virgil and Allie's Colton home still stands at 528 West "H" Street.

The next year, Virgil resigned as city marshal and, with his wife, left Colton for San Bernardino. By 1893, he and his wife settled in the short-lived mining town Vanderbilt, California. According to his wife, he owned and operated the only two story building in town, a saloon and meeting hall used for public gatherings and even the town's church services known as Earp Hall. His business success in Vanderbilt, however, did not ensure him the election for town constable, which he lost in 1894.

In 1895, Virgil and Allie traveled to Colorado, meeting up with Virgil's brother Wyatt. This was short-lived however, as they soon moved back to Prescott, Arizona, where Virgil became involved in mining. Later, he moved south and began ranching in the Kirkland Valley. It was at this time, in 1898, that he received a letter from a Mrs. Levi Law. It turned out that this young woman was, in fact, Virgil Earp's daughter from his first marriage. The next year, encouraged by his wife, Virgil traveled to Portland, Oregon where he was reunited with his first wife, Ellen, and Daughter Nellie Jane (Law). His visit was documented in the April 22 edition of The Oregonian. Later that year, according to her letter to The Oregonian, Nellie Jane visited Virgil and Allie Earp at their home in Arizona. Virgil was nominated as a candidate for Yavapai County Sheriff in 1900, but pulled out of the election for health reasons.

By 1904, Earp had returned to Colton, where according to city records he unsuccessfully petitioned to repeal a temperance law that thwarted his ambitions of opening a saloon. Following this setback, he left California for the last time and moved to the booming town of Goldfield, Nevada, where he became a deputy sheriff for Esmeralda County. After suffering from pneumonia for six months, Virgil died on October 19, 1905.

At the request of his daughter, remarried as Nellie Jane Bohn, his remains were sent to Portland, Oregon and buried at River View Cemetery. After the death of her husband, "Allie" (Alvira "Allie" Packingham Sullivan Earp) moved back to California to be near Virgil's family, where she died in 1947. She is buried in San Bernardino, California.

See also[]

  • Wyatt Earp's family

External links[]

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