Wyatt Earp has received far more attention than his older brother Virgil Walter Earp, yet Virgil also served as a frontier lawman, and was, in fact, the city marshal at the time of the so-called Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. Wyatt was acting as Virgil’s deputy on October 26, 1881, when the two brothers were joined by a third Earp, Morgan, and dentist-turned-gambler Doc Holliday for a dramatic walk to a vacant lot where the Clantons and McLaurys were waiting. Virgil was wounded that day, but it took a more serious gunshot wound two months later — during an ambush outside the Oriental Saloon — to knock Virgil out of the bloody Tombstone picture once and for all. Even though his left arm had been rendered useless, Virgil Earp would become a special railroad agent in southern California less than two years later and after that would serve as a lawman in Colton, California.
By 1890, his lawmen days were almost over, but not so his adventures. Like brother Wyatt, Virgil occupied his time with travel, gambling, fight promoting and mining. And just as Wyatt had a steadfast woman companion, Josephine Sarah (Sadie Marcus) Earp, from 1883 till his death in 1929, Virgil had his own constant companion, Alvira (‘Allie) Earp, from 1873 to his death in 1905, even though they may never have been formally married. Virgil had been married twice before, however, and one of his more interesting late-life adventures involved an 1899 reunion with his first ex-wife and daughter, neither of whom he had seen in 37 years.
Virgil Walter Earp, born on July 18, 1843, in Ohio County, Ky., was the second child (after James Cooksey, born on June 28, 1841) of Nicholas Earp and Nick’s second wife, Virginia Ann Cooksey Earp. The fourth child, Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp, wasn’t born until March 19, 1848, in Monmouth, Ill. Two other brothers followed, Morgan in 1851 and Warren in 1855. Nick Earp and his family were living in Pella, Iowa, when 17-year-old Virgil met Ellen Rysdam. Because the young couple’s parents opposed their marriage, Virgil and Ellen ran off to Knoxville, Iowa, to get secretly hitched on September 21, 1861. A child, Nellie Jane, was born in July 1862, just two weeks before Virgil enlisted in the Illinois Volunteer Infantry for three years. The next year, Ellen was told that her husband had died in the Civil War. She married John Van Rossem, and went off to start a new life in Washington Territory with her daughter and second husband.
By the time Virgil Earp was mustered out of the Army on June 24, 1865, the Earp family had moved to San Bernardino, Calif. Virgil joined them there one year later. He probably learned from friends where Ellen had gone, but he apparently did not go looking for her. Ellen continued to have bad luck with marriage. Her second husband soon died, and apparently John Van Rossem’s death was a real one. Ellen married Thomas Eaton in Walla Walla, Washington Territory, in 1867.
In 1868, Nicholas Earp took his family east again, eventually settling in Lamar, Mo., where Virgil helped him farm and operate a grocery store. On May 30, 1870, Virgil married again, this time to Rosilla Draggoo, who was about 10 years younger. Nick Earp was the justice of the peace who performed the marriage ceremony. Perhaps the bride’s parents objected again, because Rosilla Earp soon disappeared from the scene forever. Exactly what happened to her is uncertain.
Not long after that, Virgil Earp left Lamar, and in Council Bluffs, Iowa, in 1873, he met waitress Alvira (Allie) Sullivan. They hit it off so well that Earp must have forgotten all about wives Ellen and Rosilla…or maybe not entirely, if he never officially married Allie. In any case, Virgil and Allie would stick together come hell or high water right into the next century.
The couple lived a nomadic existence for many years. Exactly when and where Virgil first wore a badge is not certain. Don Chaput, the author of Virgil Earp: Western Peace Officer, raises the possibility that Virgil served briefly with brother Wyatt on the Wichita police force in the mid-1870s. Wyatt Earp is known to have joined the Dodge City police force after that and to have been appointed assistant marshal in the Kansas cow town in May 1876. Virgil Earp was also in Dodge City, but whether he ever served as a peace officer is debatable.
From Dodge, Virgil and Allie moved to Prescott, the territorial capital of Arizona. There, in October 1877, Virgil Earp was quickly deputized by Yavapai County Sheriff Ed Bowers during a street fight and helped several lawmen shoot down two hard cases. In 1878, Virgil served in Prescott as a village night watchman for a couple of months and was elected a constable. On November 27, 1879, he was appointed a U.S. deputy marshal in Arizona Territory. The next month he came to Tombstone. After the shooting death of the town’s marshal, Fred White, in October 1880 (see The Winding Trail of Curly Bill in the October 2001 Wild West), Virgil Earp was appointed acting marshal. He only served until November 12, when he lost a special election to Ben Sippy. After Tombstone achieved city status in January 1881, the incumbent Sippy defeated Virgil Earp in another election. But on June 6, 1881, Mayor John Clum appointed Earp city marshal after Sippy abandoned his badge.
Marshal Earp, who doubled as U.S. deputy marshal, was busy that summer arresting citizens for mostly minor offenses, but when he arrested Frank Stilwell and Pete Spence for stage robbery, bitterness between the so-called Cowboys and the Earp faction grew. Marshal Earp and his three deputies came out on top in the famous shootout that October — Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers were killed — but Virgil was suspended from his job, and then on December 28, three concealed men shot him down. It was unclear whether Virgil would survive his wounds. Ike Clanton, who had survived the O.K. Corral shootout by running away, was a suspect, as were Stilwell, Spence and John Ringo. Virgil did not die, but he lost the use of his left arm. After brother Morgan was gunned down on March 18, 1882, Wyatt made sure that Virgil, Allie and other family members accompanied Morgan’s coffin to Nicholas Earp’s home in Colton, Calif. At the train station in Tucson on March 20, the Earps spotted Stilwell and killed him.
Crippled Virgil could not help Wyatt seek further vengeance against the Cowboys in Arizona Territory, but in California the former marshal did not stay out of action for long. In 1883, there was a railroad fight in the Colton area, some 60 miles east of Los Angeles. The old Southern Pacific Railroad line was trying to hold back the upstart California Southern, a subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. Intent on connecting railroad-starved San Diego with the main line of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe tracks at Waterman Junction (later called Barstow), California Southern workers laid tracks north and east until they approached the Southern Pacific tracks in Colton that August. The older railroad company refused to allow the workers to cross their tracks.
At the planned crossing site, the Southern Pacific parked a locomotive and tender, which was only moved to allow passage of the company’s own trains. Southern Pacific officials kept an engineer in the cab along with a company-hired gunslinger — Virgil Earp. Armed with guns and a Tombstone reputation, special railroad agent Earp did his job well. Even after the courts ruled the crossing should be allowed, Earp kept the California Southern work crew at bay.
Colton citizens were loyal to the Southern Pacific, but over in San Bernardino, which had been bypassed earlier by the Southern Pacific line, folks became increasingly upset. They expected the California Southern line to put San Bernardino back on the map. Things reached a head on September 13 with an incident that was quickly dubbed the Battle of the Crossing. That morning, citizens on both sides began to gather — the ones from San Bernardino on the north and the ones from Colton on the south, with the Southern Pacific locomotive square in the middle. On both sides of the tracks, men carried picks, shovels, shotguns and revolvers. Virgil Earp paced the gangway between cab and tender with his face toward the San Bernardino mob and his six-shooter in hand.
Meanwhile, in San Bernardino, Governor Robert Waterman made it clear to San Bernardino County Sheriff J.B. Burkhart that there could be no more delay — the court order must be enforced. Burkhart promptly deputized 10 dependable men and escorted the governor to the crossing site in nearby Colton. Waterman made his way to the front of the San Bernardino mob and read the court order. The locomotive must be cleared away at once, the governor said, and if guard Virgil Earp made any move with his six-shooter, Burkhart and his deputies would open fire.
The charged atmosphere made the possibility of an intercommunity bloodbath seem likely — something even bloodier than that Tombstone shootout. Earp could also see that further resistance was hopeless. He holstered his six-shooter and ordered the engineer to move the locomotive. Whether or not Earp was following instructions from his Southern Pacific bosses is not known, but by not resisting the governor, sheriff and deputies, he made sure that the bloodless Battle of the Crossing did not turn into the Gunfight at the Colton Crossing.
Colton did become something of a railroad center, and Virgil and Allie settled down to urban living there. But Virgil was not just any old resident. People knew his name — Earp was virtually synonymous with frontier justice — and his reputation. Virgil’s father, Nick, a saloon owner, was elected justice of the peace for Colton in 1884, and Virgil began to take an interest in local politics.
According to author Don Chaput, Virgil Earp gambled a lot during these years, opened a detective agency briefly in 1886 and then was elected village constable in early July of that year. One year later, Colton was incorporated as a city. On July 11, 1887, according to the minutes of a board of supervisors meeting, V.W. Earp was elected the first city marshal with 109 votes to 61 votes for William Brown and just one for L.S. Abel. Earp’s term of office was one year at a salary of $75 per month. On April 8, 1888, Earp was re-elected city marshal for another one-year term.
Marshal Earp spent time collaring tramps, petty thieves and drunks. Records from various board of trustee meetings suggest that Virgil had many mundane duties and no staff to help him do them. When the lock on the jail needed replacing, he bought and installed the new one. When the sewer backed up, he did the digging to clear it. One note says, Bill submitted by V.W. Earp to Trustees for $4.25 for cost of nails and meals of prisoners. Another note says: The Marshal was instructed to keep watch of the electric lights and note their burning. He was also instructed to procure a ballot box to be used at the next election.
In March 1889, Virgil Earp resigned as city marshal and became a boxing matchmaker and gambling hall operator in the larger city of San Bernardino. In the spring of 1893 he ventured off to Vanderbilt, a gold mining camp in northeastern San Bernardino County. There, Virgil Earp opened Earp’s Hall, a two-story saloon that had a public hall upstairs for dances, prizefights, and church services on Sunday. Virgil was later described by Vanderbilt acquaintance J.O. Fisk as a cheerful and agreeable man….In appearance to me, he even looked kind of studious, but he always took part in the dances and get-togethers they had in those days. Fisk also described Virgil as a quiet man who wouldn’t talk much about himself, but who, despite his injured left arm, could handle cards, drinks and hard cases. Even though Virgil was well liked in Vanderbilt, he lost the election for constable in 1894.
Virgil and Allie were back in Colton by early 1895, but they did not stay long. Virgil had heard from brother Wyatt and was off to the mining town of Cripple Creek, Colo., that summer. Apparently there was not much profit to be found there, and in October, Virgil and Allie went back to Prescott, Arizona Territory, where they had lived in the late 1870s. Mining in the area seemed to be Virgil’s chief interest, but he was injured in a mining accident in the fall of 1896. He recovered and took up ranching in the Kirkland Valley, south of Prescott.
In the fall of 1898, Virgil Earp received a letter at his ranch from a 36-year-old Portland woman, Mrs. Levi Law. She had recently read an account of the 1881 street fight in Tombstone, and the newspaper article had also told of Virgil’s whereabouts. In the letter, Mrs. Law asked if he was the same Virgil Earp who had married Ellen Rysdam in Pella, Iowa, in 1861. If so, she informed him, then she was his daughter, Nellie Jane.
The news greatly excited Virgil Earp, and Allie, too. Virgil corresponded with his long-lost daughter, and she had intended to visit him in Arizona Territory that winter, before a sudden attack of pneumonia laid her low. Instead, Virgil went with Allie to meet her in Portland, Ore., in April 1899. Ellen, Virgil’s first wife, was also at the Portland station to greet them. He is now enjoying a very pleasant visit with her and his two grandchildren at her home, which is near that of Mrs. Eaton, in North Portland, the Oregonian reported on April 22, 1899. He will remain for several days more, before he starts on his journey home. Years have taken away the pain the meeting between the former husband and wife would once have caused, and the little visit has been a most happy one for all. The following winter, Nellie Jane visited Virgil and Allie in the Kirkland Valley.
On July 6, 1900, Johnny Boyett killed Warren Earp in a saloon in Willcox, Arizona Territory (see August 1998 Wild West), and at least one paper reported that Wyatt Earp was the last of the Earp brothers. Nellie Jane Law told the Oregonian of the mistake. There are three brothers and a sister living, the newspaper quoted Nellie Jane in a July 21, 1900 article. Wyatt Earp is in Nome City; Jim Earp is in San Francisco; and Virgil Earp, my father, is living in Kirkland, Ariz., where I saw him last winter. Their sister, Mrs. Adelia Edwards, is living in Redlands, Cal. While I was visiting my father last Winter, he told me that he had a letter from Warren that he intended to return to Arizona from San Francisco. My father said then, ‘If Warren ever dies he will be shot. He is too hasty, quick-tempered and too ready to pick a quarrel. Besides he will not let bygones be bygones, and on that account, I expect that he will meet a violent death.’ Virgil almost certainly did not track down Boyett to avenge Warren’s death.
Virgil Earp was nominated as the Republican candidate for sheriff of Yavapai County in 1900, but he soon withdrew. It is uncertain why he bowed out. The Earps spent time in both Arizona and California during the next few years.
Virgil might have spent his remaining days in Colton if not for the anti-saloon sentiment in the little California city. On June 29, 1904, he was one of four men to petition the city trustees to repeal the liquor ordinance that limited the number of saloons to one. They are, according to the Los Angeles Daily Times, Virgil Earp, of the notorious Earp boys, William Smith, a man named Teushman and John Button. The church workers have protests out against any changes in the ordinance which will either lower the license or make it possible for more saloons. The trustees voted on July 6 to repeal the ordinance and to grant one more high-priced liquor license. But they granted the license to barkeeper T.J. Tuschman (or Teushman). Left out in the cold, Virgil and Allie struck out for Goldfield, Nev., a new gold-mining camp not far from Tonopah, where brother Wyatt had run a saloon called The Northern and had served briefly as a U.S. deputy marshal.
Virgil found no new riches in Goldfield, but he did give in to the old law-enforcement urge. On January 26, 1905, he became a deputy sheriff in Esmeralda County. Goldfield, as mining towns went, wasn’t too wild, and Virgil was soon slowed down by pneumonia. It was hard to enforce the law from bed. Nine months later, on October 19, 1905, Virgil died. His remains were brought to Portland at the request of Nellie Jane (last name now Bohn; Louis D. Bohn was her second husband). Funeral services over the remains of Virgil Earp were held yesterday afternoon at Finley’s undertaking rooms and many of his friends paid their respects to the remains of the pioneer, the Oregonian reported on October 30. Virgil Earp was known as one of the most daring and adventurous of Western pioneers and he was known from North to South on the Pacific Coast as one of the great-hearted men who helped to build the West.
Virgil was buried at Portland’s Riverview Cemetery. Ellen Rysdam Earp Van Rossem Eaton died in 1910; Nellie Jane Earp Law Bohn died in 1930; and Alvira (Allie) Earp died in 1947. Maud Law Bertrand, the daughter of Nellie and granddaughter of Virgil, died in 1902 and is interred beside Virgil in Riverview. Maud’s husband, Alex Bertrand, didn’t die until 1956, at age 92, and he is also buried in the plot.
This article was written by Jan S. Paul and Gene Carlisle and originally appeared in the February 2002 issue of Wild West.
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