If I say "Gunfight at the OK Corral" who do you think of? Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and "Doc" Holliday, I'll bet. Three men who were legends in their own lifetimes. Recently, I finished reading Black Hats, a delightful fantasy in which Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson head to New York City to help out the son of their own pal, “Doc” Holliday. It’s fiction, of course, but there are many facts woven into that delightful narrative, and that made me think: How much do we really know about these three men whose names are synonymous with the Old West, with courage, honor, and death? We’re all familiar with the gunfight at the OK Corral, and the many movies and TV series about them, but what are the actual facts about their lives? Checking in with Wikipedia, here are some things I found.

WYATT BERRY STAPP EARP (1848-1929):

The man who would become the marshal of Deadwood was born in Monmouth, Illinois, and named for his father’s commanding officer in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Wyatt had a half-brother and sister and five full siblings. In 1865, he got his first job as a driver for Phineas Banning’s Stage Line in Imperial California. In 1869, he had his initial employment in law enforcement when his father became constable of Lamar, Missouri. In 1870, at the age of 22, he married Urilla Sutherland only to have her die ten months later in childbirth. From 1875 onward, he appears in various court cases and newspaper articles as the arresting officer in Wichita and Dodge City. In 1877, he left Kansas for Texas and in a saloon in Ft Griffin, Texas, met a young gambler named “Doc” Holliday. Wyatt and his brothers moved to Tombstone in 1979 and the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral occurred in 1881. The Earps and “Doc” Holliday were tried twice for murder in that case but acquitted both times but the deaths began a vendetta which would cost Morgan his life and severely wound Virgil.

Though he never again had a legal marriage, Wyatt wasn’t immune to women’s charms. In the West at that time, common-law marriage was the norm and he was noted as having “cohabited” with several prostitutes during his sojourns in various states. While Wyatt was living in San Francisco with Josie Marcus, his previous common-law wife, a former prostitute and laudanum addict died of what was considered an overdose. Wyatt settled down with Josie who remained with him for the next 46 years. During that time, he participated in the Gold Rush, wrote his memoirs, and became friends with many movie stars, including a young extra named John Wayne, who would model his own screen persona after Wyatt.

Wyatt died of prostate cancer in 1929. William S. Hart and Tom Mix were pallbearers at his funeral. He was cremated; his ashes buried in a Jewish cemetery because Josie was Jewish.

Nineteen actors have portrayed Wyatt Earp in the movies and on television.

BARTHOLOMEW MASTERSON (1853-1921):

“Bat” Masterson was born in Quebec, Canada and early on changed his name to “William Barclay Masterson” because he hated the name “Bartholomew.” He had seven siblings. The family moved from Canada and finally settled in Kansas. Bat was a buffalo hunter and army scout before his first gunfight in Sweetwater, Texas. In 1877, he moved to Dodge City where his brothers were lawmen and eventually became a deputy for Wyatt Earp. Later, he was sheriff of Ford County, Kansas, South Pueblo, Colorado, and marshal of Trinidad, Colorado. For several years in between, he earned a living as a gambler before visiting his old friend Wyatt in Tombstone and becoming involved in the infamous gunfight. In 1891, he purchased the Palace Variety Theater in Denver and married actress Emma Walters. He also managed the Denver Exchange Club. He began writing for George’s Weekly, a sporting newspaper, and opened the Olympic Athletic Club to promote boxing.

In 1902, Bat arrived in New York City where he was appointed deputy marshal of South New York by President Teddy Roosevelt until 1912. During this time, he would purchase old pistols in pawnshops, carve notches into their handgrips, and sell them as his own to suckers eager to own a “piece of the Old West.”


Bat died of a heart attack while working on a column for the New York Daily Telegraph, for whom he was a sportswriter. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Nine actors have portrayed Bat Masterson and he has been featured in Dell Comics.

“DOC” HOLLIDAY (1851-1887):

John Henry Holliday was born in Griffin, Georgia and grew up in Valdosta. In 1872, he received a dental degree from Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery and opened a practice in Atlanta. He was related to writer Margaret Mitchell, who is said to have based the character of Ashley Wilkes on her tall, blond cousin. “Doc’s” mother died of tuberculosis when he was 14 and in 1872, he was also diagnosed with the disease which he is believed to have contracted from her. Given only a few months to live, he moved to the Southwest because of the warmer, drier climate, opening a dental office in Dallas. Finding no patients who wanted a tubercular dentist, he began to gamble instead. Subsequently, he lived in Cheyenne, Denver, and Deadwood, where a hot temper, the drinking he used to control his cough, and a fatalistic attitude as to whether he survived or not, contributed to his gaining a reputation as a gunfighter. In 1877, he saved Wyatt Earp’s life in a gunfight in Dodge City and the following year, Wyatt returned the favor and a friendship was born.


Perhaps not as popular with the ladies because of his ill health and temper, “Doc” had a long-term relationship with Mary Katherine Hornoy, also known as Big Nose Kate.

Because of his friendship with the Earps, “Doc” was also present during the OK gunfight and was tried with them and acquitted or the subsequent deaths. Big Nose Kate reported that after the killings he went to his room and wept. Now dependent on whiskey and laudanum to control his symptoms, “Doc” spent the rest of his life in Colorado, dying at the Glenwood Hotel in Glenwood Springs, at the age of 36. He was buried the same day in Linwood Cemetery.

Twenty-one actors have portrayed “Doc” Holliday on the screen and TV.

Violent when necessary, peaceful when force wasn't needed, these were men who adjusted to the times in which they lived, coming into the Twentieth Century as different people from those they were in the Nineteenth; only one of them died with his boots on and he was sitting at his desk, when it happened.

Quotes:

“There are those who argue that everything breaks even in this old dump of a world of ours. I suppose these ginks who argue that way hold that because the rich man gets ice in the summer and the poor man gets it in the winter things are breaking even for both. Maybe so, but I'll swear I can't see it that way.” (These are Bat Masterson's last recorded words, taken from the article he was writing and found in his typewriter after he died.)

“No man can have a more loyal friend than Wyatt Earp, nor a more dangerous enemy.”
Bat Masterson (paraphrasing of a sentence possibly referring to Sulla, a Roman general in 83 BC.)

“Doc was a dentist, not a lawman or an assassin, whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman, whom disease had made a frontier vagabond; a philosopher, whom life had made a caustic wit; a long lean ash-blond fellow nearly dead with consumption, and at the same time the most skillful gambler and the nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun that I ever knew.” Wyatt Earp, quoted in John Myers’ book Doc Holliday.

(Source of this blog and quotes are from articles on these subjects to be found on the Wikipedia website.)

10 comments

  1. Scarlet Pumpernickel // April 4, 2010 at 1:50 PM  

    Great post. We can always count on you to give us interesting history lessons. It's a good thing I wasn't around in Doc Holliday's time, I'd have loved him regardless. These men were real hero material and our kids today don't know about them. That is so sad. Thanks for sharing this with us today Toni.

  2. Mary Marvella // April 4, 2010 at 2:37 PM  

    Good job, Toni! Men like those were a big part of our history. True bad boys to the core!

  3. Nightingale // April 4, 2010 at 3:41 PM  

    I loved the movie Tombstone, have seen it several times. It's interesting to know more about the real men behind the legends.

  4. Toni V.S. // April 4, 2010 at 5:19 PM  

    I come up with all kinds of weird thoughts when I read history, such as: It's interesting that none of the three left any children to carry on their names. That would make an interesting study: the correlation between being a famous man in a dangerous profession and the production of offspring. Do you suppose a free-style, danger-tinged life affects fertility? Certainly none of them were at a loss for having females around and appear to have been relatively faithful. Just a thought. :))

  5. Scarlet Pumpernickel // April 4, 2010 at 8:32 PM  

    Toni that sounds like an interesting study for a heroine to take up and the hero could be out to disprove her hypothesis!

  6. Mary Marvella // April 4, 2010 at 8:37 PM  

    Maybe a book about the kid no one knew about?

  7. Mary Ricksen // April 4, 2010 at 9:22 PM  

    I loved this Linda! We joke about The James Gang and Doc Holiday, and the Duke, etc. on the AR&T site. What fun to hear the histories of these men. Great stuff! If I have choose a place of excitement. Darn the wild, wild, west, is still exciting!!

  8. Barbara Monajem // April 5, 2010 at 7:54 AM  

    Fun stuff, Toni!

  9. Judy // April 5, 2010 at 9:20 AM  

    Fascinating, Toni! thanks for such an interesting blog. Loved that John Wayne actually based in film persona on one of these tough men. Funny how we think of them as heroes. How would we consider them today? Just a thought...

  10. Joanne // April 5, 2010 at 3:07 PM  

    Interesting information about Wyatt Earp. Even more interesting that John Wayne modeled his acting around Wyatt's persona.