Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Wyatt Earp: Knight With A Six-Shooter


"As we go to press, Hell is in session at Ellsworth."

Kansas State News, 1873.

With advent of the Union Pacific and Santa Fe railroads, trailherders from Texas rushed their longhorn cattle northward to market. The meat industry was prime and Kansas packers, buying their cattle for dinner tables across America, offered top prices for cattle, more so than anywhere else along the Chisholm Trail. Cattle camps sprung up around the rails, and those cattle camps blossomed like mushroom growth into towns. Ellsworth, Abilene, Hays City, Wichita, Newton, Dodge City clapboard front go-get-em-hell-bent-for-leather Gammorahs where cattlemen could sell their herds, then spend their money on whisky, wine, women and wonders of many kinds.

Wyatt Earp had heard the lusty tales about these places during a brief rest stop in Kansas City, which smoldered, feeling left out, as the last "civilized town" before the free-for-all frontier. Hanging out with fellow hide hunters in the towns Market Square, he acquainted many of the colorful characters whose names were already legendary among the Western cow towns; among these were golden-haired James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok, crusty Jack Gallagher and the theatrical William Frederick "Buffalo Bill" Cody.. From these men, sharpshooters all, he learned the fine art of handling a six-chamber revolver. Taking part in shooting contests, which were held regularly in the square, Wyatt earned the respect of men like Hickok who passed down tricks of the trade.

He practiced until he excelled in the straight-shoot and the border-draw. He especially liked the "feel" of the latest Colt .45. But, as he put it, "the most important lesson I learned from these proficient gunfighters was that the winner of a gunplay usually was the man who took his time."

When he crossed the Smoky Hill River into Ellsworth in 1873, he may have remembered the "rules of the gunman," but had no intention of employing them. Although Hickok had warned him that it would be naive to go westward without being properly armed, Wyatt didnt own a gun. All he hoped for was to find a peaceable job. But, only hours after hitching his horse in town he began to wonder if perhaps Hickok was right.

Ellsworth was mean, and it was ugly. The stench of the its manure-laden streets fell second to the odor of the unbathed saddle tramps who had just delivered 150,000 cattle from San Antonio to its freight yards. Adding to these smells were the blends of rot-gut whisky, tanning leather, kerosene and carved carcasses, a revolting combination. Gunfights were spontaneous, either over a hussy or a card game. Most of the iron-packers were intoxicated and unreasonable. Which is perhaps why the towns sheriff, C.B. Whitney, was nowhere to be seen during these brujajas.

Billy Thompson (Denver Public Library)
Billy Thompson
(Denver Public

The most boisterous spot in town was Brennans Saloon, off Ellsworth Square; its faro and poker tables buzzed 24 hours, bartenders tapped beer and poured whisky constantly. Pouty-lipped whores lingered at the bar before disappearing elsewhere with a dusty cowpoke. At the height of the trail season, brothers Ben and Bill Thompson showed up, following the herdsmen, to open their gambling concessions in town. Drinking establishments, like Brennans, welcomed these dealers and gave them a percentage of the house take for the trade they generated.

Both of the slick, mustachioed Thompsons were crooks; and they were killers. Wyatt had heard of them and, although sensing the gamblers urge many an evening, avoided their tables. But, most of the money-eager cowboys fell like turkeys in a turkey shoot before the Thompsons promise of a "square game".

Wyatt had been in town only short term when he found himself at odds with the brothers Thompson. Lingering in the shade of a verandah outside Brennans Saloon one afternoon, he became aware of loud epithets bouncing back and forth between two men inside the gin mill. From what he deduced, it sounded like a simple case of card-game larceny a four-flusher had cheated and was caught red-handed. He didnt pay much attention to the disturbance until Sheriff Whitney and two deputies appeared on the boardwalk and turned into the saloon. The shouting grew louder. Wyatt peeked in.

A cowboy was telling the sheriff that he had been bilked out of money by the fast hands of gambler Bill Thompson. Both the Thompsons denied it. But, when the lawman threatened to break up the game once and for all, Bill produced a double-barreled shotgun from below his chair and, at point-blank range, fired a volley into the sheriffs chest. Onlookers recoiled from splattering blood.

Horrified and dismayed, Wyatt watched the pair of deputies cower into the sidelines, then sulk out the side door without even the decency to take their bosss body off the floor. He watched stunned as Bill Thompson swaggered to his horse and cantered out of town, unmolested. Ben waved him goodbye, hallooing like a barn dance caller. "Ill give $1,000 to anyone who brings in the head of another lawman!" Ben told the crowd gathering around him, and, roaring at his own gall, ambled across the square.

It was more than Wyatt could take. "What kind of a town is this?" he snapped at the deputies who now stood meekly across the square. Between them, equally timid, was Mayor Jim Miller. Everyone wondered what the tall blonde stranger was up to when he borrowed a pair of six shooters from a nearby spectator, shoved them in his belt, and pursued Ben Thompsons footsteps. He caught up with him outside the Grand Central Hotel a block away.

"Come in peacefully," Wyatt suggested. "Or draw."

Thompson turned coolly towards the voice. His spontaneous grin sagged when he saw the determination in his confronters eyes and the sleek hunch of someone who knew the draw.

"Who the...Who are you? Do you know I have friends in this town?"

"Never mind that. Ease your guns down and you nor they will get hurt."

This boys too sharp, Thompson thought. am I! "Are you gunna make me, stranger?" bellowed Thompson, obligated to remain the tough guy in front of several dozen witnesses.

"Its up to you." Wyatt stepped closer, nose to nose. "Answer me or fight."

A moments pause; Thompson calculated; Wyatt braced.

"Oh, what the hell!" laughed the gambler, unbuckling his gun belt. "I dont feel like killing ya today." A Cheshire grin lit his face as he walked across the square for a night in the hoosegow. Despite his bravado, everyone knew that Thompson had been spooked.

The incident was the talk of the town. Impressed, Mayor Miller offered Wyatt the job as marshal to take Whitneys place. Wyatt, however, declined, replying that he had only done what any good citizen would have done in his place. He did not see himself as a peace officer.

Years later, after Ben Thompson turned lawman, he remarked to Bat Masterson that there was something about that Earp fellow that drew his respect that day in 1873. There was no reason for him to be afraid of Wyatt after all, he was a nobody at the time but, said Thompson, "it was just a hunch."