A True West reader asked me the other day, “Wyatt Earp murdered at least three people when he wasn’t a lawman. In fact Arizona had a warrant out for him and Doc Holliday. Why is he considered a great man today?”
I think the best way to understand Wyatt’s action is to get inside his head. Here’s the situation. The five Earp’s were a close-knit band of brothers. In less than three months the two brothers he was closest to were victims of back-shooting assassins. One was crippled for life and the other one murdered. In both instances eyewitnesses identified the shooters but both times their friends came forward, provided alibi’s and the killers walked, even boasting about it.
Following the Gunfight Behind the OK Corral, the county sheriff, wanted to see the Earp’s and Doc Holliday tried for murder lied on the stand during the Wells Spicer Hearings. The sheriff was openly friendly with the Cow-Boys and allowed known outlaws to join his posse. A local judge told Wyatt that he’d never get a conviction on a Cow-Boy in Cochise County. And lastly, U.S. Marshal, Crawley P. Dake had appointed Wyatt as Deputy U.S. Marshal during his vendetta so he was a lawman right after the assassination attempt on Virgil in late December.
Taking all these things into consideration, how is one going to get justice for the cold-blooded murder of one brother and the maiming of another. Throughout the history of the United States whenever the law is unable or unwilling to provide justice, citizens have taken the law into their own hands. And that’s exactly what Wyatt did.