12/13/12 - wyatt earp and whorehouses

In today's encore excerpt - Wyatt Earp, the legendary lawman most famous for the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Arizona, grew up in the mid-1800s in places as diverse as Illinois, Missouri and California. His father, like so many others, unsuccessfully sought fortune and esteem in the new American West. As a young man, Wyatt alternately served as a lawman and ran afoul of the law for crimes such as theft and working in a bordello:

"On September 7, 1872, a police boat on the Illinois River intercepted a vessel that served as a floating casino and bordello. The Peoria Daily National Democrat reported on the seven men and six women taken into custody:

Some of the women are said to be good looking, but all appear to be terribly depraved. John Walton, the skipper of the boat, and Wyatt Earp, the Peoria bummer, were each fined $43.15. . . . Sarah Earp, alias Sally Heckell, calls herself the wife of Wyatt.

"Sally Heckell was probably the teen-aged daughter of bordello operator Jane Haspel—the last names are similar, and frontier newspapers were notoriously inaccurate in their identifications. Jane had a child named Sarah, and probably brought the girl into the family business. In the summer and fall of 1872, Wyatt Earp was twenty-three and certainly not ready to give up women despite the loss of his [first] wife a year earlier. Upper-class men, even on the frontier, would not have stooped to any kind of an open relationship with a young prostitute, but Wyatt wasn't in any sense upper-class. Women in the West were scarce. You took what you could get, and since Wyatt was working in brothels it was natural that his possible selections were mostly limited to the women he met there. ...

"Wyatt had been in Peoria long enough to develop a bad reputation. Being described as a 'bummer' in the local press had considerable negative connotations. Bummers were worse than tramps; they were men of poor character who were also chronic lawbreakers. Communities were well rid of them when they moved on. Wyatt did, but it's important to place his problems in Peoria, Van Buren, and Lamar in perspective. Wyatt broke jail in Van Buren and fled from theft charges in Lamar. In Peoria, he not only worked in whorehouses, he kept coming back to the job after being arrested, fined, and even serving a short jail term. But many men on the frontier had youthful brushes with the law. Skimming small sums of public money was almost expected of lawmen and tax collectors in small Western communities. It was an unwritten perk. Horse theft was a serious crime, but rarely to the 'string 'em up' extent popularized in dime novels. Though most frontier men didn't work in bordellos, many of them at least visited. One of the attractions of the West was that it was possible to make mistakes, and, in moving on, move beyond them.

"[Three years later in Wichita, Kansas, marshal Mike Meagher hired Wyatt as a deputy]. Meagher probably didn't know about Wyatt's recent problems with the law in Missouri, Arkansas, and Illinois, but if he did he would not have cared. Few frontier lawmen had clean records; the idea was that men who'd broken laws themselves would understand best how to prevent others from doing the same. Wyatt's salary was $60 a month, plus another dollar or two for each arrest he made. That sounds more lucrative than it really was. Wichita deputies only arrested Texas drovers as a last resort. The drovers couldn't spend their money from a cell.

"New deputy Earp spent most of his time performing menial tasks. He functioned as the Wichita Animal Control Department, collecting dead animals from city streets. Deputy Earp enforced building codes, checking chimneys and repairing wooden slat sidewalks. He collected licensing fees, disguised as fines to gratify the town's religious element, from saloonkeepers and whorehouse madams like his sister-in-law Bessie. Despite Wyatt later telling John Flood that he was 'in charge of the mounted police in Wichita'—Wichita had no mounted police, unless the marshal or a deputy happened to be on horseback—he was a flunky. But he was a flunky with a badge, and that was a start. And, soon, Wyatt had his own reputation around town. When Texans had to be subdued but not arrested, he cooled them down with whacks on the head with the barrel of his gun. 'Buffaloing' was a routine tactic for frontier lawmen, and Wyatt excelled."


Jeff Guinn


The Last Gunfight


Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2011 by 24Words, LLC


30-31, 35-36
barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment