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Reign of the Rough-Scuff: Law and Lucre in Wichita

Originally published by Wild West magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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By the spring of 1874, the sight of Texas drovers milling about on Main Street, even a throng of them armed in defiance of local ordinance, was familiar to the residents of Wichita, Kansas. For the past two years, the town had fattened on the cattle trade, literally rising out of patches of sunflowers to build thoroughfares hopping with business, stockyards filled to overflowing and a branch line to freight this cash on the hoof to Kansas City and points east. To a town still struggling through a delicate infancy, the cowboys and their critters were a means of survival, and to almost every citizen, the more of them on the streets, the better.

One who had no cause to feel charitable toward the Texans, however, was Charles Sanders, a black man busy assisting the masons as they finished the facade of the Miller Building on the afternoon of May 27. Two or three nights before, apparently under the influence of liquor, he had quarreled with Charles Schultz, one of the drovers. Both had been arrested and fined. Their cases were dismissed, and they had parted ways, but if Sanders had glanced around the crowd suddenly pushing in on him and spied a face he recognized from that encounter, he must have felt uneasy.

He had no time to feel anything else but blinding pain. One of Schultz's pards, a hothead named Shorty Ramsey, stepped up to Sanders, brought his sidearm to bear in deadly earnest and drilled the unfortunate workman twice — first in the ear and then three inches below the nipple of the left breast — inflicting wounds that would soon prove fatal. The Wichita Eagle of May 28, described the ensuing commotion: 'Simultaneously with the shooting a dozen revolvers were pulled by bystanding Texans, and Ramsey mounted his horse and fled down Main Street out Douglas Avenue and across the bridge, followed by two or three hundred men, many of whom had revolvers in hand, but whether for protection of the fleeing fugitive or his capture seemed doubtful to us until we were told it was for the protection of the shooting party. The city marshal was standing close by, but seeing it was a preconcerted job, evidently, and being threatened with drawn weapons, Smith could do nothing.'

The marshal, William Smith, had been born in England, but was one of the pioneers who sank roots in the shifting soil along the banks of the Arkansas River when Wichita repeated the pattern of thousands of frontier towns, nourishing its growth as much on dream as on substance. Smith was sufficiently respected by his peers to be named the first marshal, in April 1871, though 'existing emergencies,' which necessitated his being out of town, brought about his resignation after a tenure of but two days. Still, he had served in one legal capacity or another since that time to the satisfaction of his constituents. His record of community service made it all the more disappointing, to some, that he chose to heed the advice of local merchants and compromise on this killing, allowing Ramsey to return to his camp on nearby Cowskin Creek, pack up his gear and make good his escape. The great cattle drives of the summer were on the horizon, and other shipping points such as Great Bend and Ellsworth could and would snatch prospective trade away if the drovers thought Wichita authorities were hostile to them. In sum, what was the life of a lowly laborer, and a black man at that, when weighed in the balance with civic prosperity?

Such is the story the records of this incident tell. But by chance there is another version of what happened that day, an insider's account. It appears in Stuart N. Lake's biography of the famed Wyatt Earp. Having arrived in Wichita two days before the shooting, Earp found himself that afternoon in the awkward position of being under arrest for having roughed up a hotel proprietor. Harvey W. 'Doc' Black had been beating a small chore boy when Earp and several men intervened, and Doc was soon flat on his back, the recipient of a left-right combination, one blow to each eye. Regaining his senses, he preferred charges, and Wyatt was placed in a temporary jail near the Douglas Avenue bridge. It was from this vantage point that he witnessed Ramsey fleeing on his horse and heard Marshal Smith telling the Texans who had covered the killer's escape that he would not molest them if they would put up their guns.

Thus far, the Earp account tallies with that of Marsh Murdock, editor of the Eagle. Murdock voiced harsh criticism of Smith's inaction, urging Mayor James G. Hope in print to reorganize his police department. A week later, the editor complained that some businessmen had berated him unjustly for his stance, despite his 'devotion to the best welfare and interests of Wichita.' Lake enlarged on this theme, adding a scene in which Mayor Hope makes an adjustment on the spot by offering Wyatt Earp the job of deputy marshal. Wyatt accepts only after hearing the mayor's assurance that he can make the town ordinances stick 'to the limit' against the lawless Texans.

The City Council reports are clear on one point: Earp was not on the payroll as a 'deputy marshal' (read patrolman) in Wichita until April 1875. However, he may well have enlisted as a member of the secret police. Murdock explained why he thought this paralegal group was necessary: 'We have a secret police force all sworn and armed…which was organized in view of an outrage committed this spring in broad daylight upon a principal street….' What he alluded to, of course, was Sanders' murder. The force numbered in excess of 100, among them, according to the Eagle of July 9, 1874, 'our best and most substantial citizens, many of whom were men of rank in the late war and who know how and dare to use arms when it comes to sustaining the majesty of the law.' Being underage, Wyatt did not serve in the Civil War, but as a new resident willing to shoulder arms, he would have been welcomed into the ranks.

The coldblooded killing proved that the drovers could present a mortal threat to Wichitans. But remarkably it is the single instance on record, either in the newspapers or municipal files, of the cattlemen being responsible for a citizen's death.

Another inside story drawn from the recollections of old-timers illustrates that Texans were not all of one breed. As Wyatt Earp's authorized biographer tells it, one Saturday afternoon in early summer 1874, Deputy Earp heard a call for aid from a fellow officer. Policeman Samuel Botts (mistakenly identified as Bill Potts) had attempted to disarm prominent cattleman Abel 'Shanghai' Pierce, who was carrying his .45-caliber hogleg in an open holster, contrary to the no-firearms law, and causing a disturbance to market-day traffic on Main Street. Botts lacked the nerve to put the drunken and obnoxious herdsman in his place. But Earp, coming on the scene, at once clamped down on Pierce's gunhand, disarming him in a stroke, and then picked up the 6-foot-4 scofflaw by the seat of his britches and hurled him into a saloon jampacked with his fellow cowhands. This rough treatment of their boss, however well deserved, incensed them, and as a result Earp had to face 40 six-shooters trained on him by the aroused Texans. Thanks to some neat maneuvering, he was able to get the drop on the entire gang with a shotgun and march them into police court, where, according to the recollections of fellow officer James Cairns, they were fined a total of $1,000.

A contemporary newspaper account verifies that this incident took place but weaves a somewhat different tale. Botts did come up against a man carrying a gun within the city limits, and he disarmed him, but then some 12 or 14 others drew their weapons on the policeman and prevented him from making an arrest. The police alarm, an iron triangle hung outside the courthouse at First and Main, clanged urgently, and in short order there appeared, not Deputy Earp alone, but 40 or 50 citizens armed with shotguns and Henry rifles — the secret police.

The Texans, now outnumbered and outgunned, sought refuge in a hotel, where they were surrounded and taken into custody, their leader stripped of his hardware by attorney Seth Tucker. The police judge's report for July 1874 identifies the men who were tried and sentenced, and the name of Abel Pierce is not among them. Pierce, who had worked on behalf of Wichita in securing cattle trade during 1873 and been paid $2,000 for his efforts, was not in town during the summer of 1874.

Rather, he had sold his services to Ellsworth, a rival shipping point, and was out on the Chisholm Trail steering herds toward his present employer. Those arrested were not cattlemen at all but members of an outlaw gang headed by 'Hurricane Bill' Martin. Seven of them paid $17 apiece for their transgressions. The figure of $1,000 referred not to fines — which would almost have exceeded the total for the month — but to the amount of the bond set for Hurricane Bill's release.

Stuart Lake's sources for the Wichita chapters of Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal — Wyatt himself, James Cairns, former city attorney Charles Hatton and newsman David Leahy — represented the opinions of respectable Wichitans 50 years after the fact. To each of them, Texans were unruly adolescents at best, deep-dyed villains at worst. But the merchants who ruled Wichita needed the cattlemen and their herds to survive in that precarious infancy of the town, 1871-76. City Council proceedings as early as May 3, 1871, recognized their importance in the following resolution: 'Moved and carried that a seal for the city be purchased bearing inscription City of Wichita Kansas. Sun rising on east side of seal, view of the two rivers [Arkansas and Little Arkansas] and land adjacent on the west side of the seal. Herd of Texas cattle moving east. Driver on horseback lassoing Steer near the center of seal.' There is no doubt the Texas cattle trade acted as a germinating force for the development of Wichita, and for a span of four years, the city did all in its power to aid and abet it. Petitions regularly went out to the ranches of the Lone Star State touting the advantages of the Arkansas Valley grazing land and the pleasant accommodations and easeful entertainment waiting at the end of the trail. Distinguished Texans such as James Bryden, Abel Pierce and Matt Shores were hired by the season to canter down to the Red River and below and lure the herds away from competing shipping points. Yet one should not lose sight of the purpose behind all this feverish activity; as one of Wichita's founding fathers stated bluntly, 'Texas cattlemen were the legitimate prey of all classes, from the highest to the lowest.'

The Panic of 1873 began in September, when major Eastern banking houses collapsed, and swept to the frontier. Wichita feared for its survival. One manifestation of this fear was a petition presented to the City Council by saloon owners on December 24, 1873, to reduce fees by one half, 'on account of the great financial crisis in our midst.' Since fees collected from saloons, theaters, gambling houses and brothels, along with fines from police court, footed up to the entire city income, it was no small matter for the saloon men to put forward this petition, much more for the council to entertain it.

The business community would not stand for an income or property tax, and so it was largely left to the sporting class to float the city expenses, including the salaries of the police force. Wichitans were well aware that saloons, gambling joints and bawdy houses were necessities equal to superior grazing land and shipping facilities in attracting Texas herds. In addition, a good many merchants — liquor dealers, clothiers, dry goods sellers — as well as bankers and attorneys coined a pretty penny dealing directly with the sports. At least one wide-awake capitalist, Jacob Karatofsky, had moved his store from Abilene to Ellsworth to Wichita, purveying ladies' fancy-dress goods that catered to the tastes of transient prostitutes.

Police Judge Edward B. Jewett's report for June 1874 listed fines of $514 paid by prostitutes in 53 cases and $100 by W.W. 'Whitey' Rupp to operate the keno hall — 65 percent of the total fines, the prostitutes themselves making up more than half the amount. This was during the cattle season when there were plenty of cowboys in town to fill the civic coffers on such charges as drunk and disorderly, assault and being found in a house of ill fame. In addition, during the month of July 1874, 29 liquor licenses were granted, resulting in a boon to the city of $673. A fair estimate is that prostitutes, saloon men and gamblers furnished about 80 percent of the municipal operating budget during the cattle-trade era. Unless the sporting men and women were piling up scads of money, they would not have been able to finance a city of 2,000 permanent residents and as many transients. During a period of several years, Wichita was a bonanza for the sports, not the least because they received official blessing to ply their trades.

It was up to the police to monitor the sports and make sure that they did not disrupt the social order established by the businessmen and their wives. But the officers labored under a serious handicap. The assistant marshal drew a monthly salary of $75, a patrolman $60, paid in city scrip. Though merchants were supposed to take scrip at par when the city first issued it in 1872, financial affairs had undergone a radical change by 1875. Greenbacks were pegged at $.85 against the gold dollar, and scrip would have fared no better, so that $75 would have figured out to $63.50 in purchasing power, at best, and $60 to $51 — barely a living wage. And while officers may have shared in the judge's fee of $2 per arrest, on the whole the increase in their take would have been marginal. This situation led to a certain give-and-take between the law and those operating on its fringes, the latter described by a contemporary traveler as 'the rough-scuff that hang on the borders of civilization and infest all our frontier towns.'

Wichita's last year of significant cattle trade was 1875, when only 22,500 head were shipped, compared to a high of 80,000 in 1872. Mayor Hope was defeated in a bid for reelection, and his successor, George Harris, came to office with a new city marshal, veteran lawman Mike Meagher (see related story, P. 12). Voter sentiment had shifted, and incumbent William Smith suffered a humiliating defeat, garnering only 65 out of 716 votes cast and finishing last in a three-man field, despite his long record of public service. Once confirmed, Meagher appointed John Behrens as his first assistant and Wyatt Earp as a patrolman. The new force took office in April 1875.

Earp and Behrens, who moonlighted as a roofer, had become bosom buddies. In October 1874, as private detectives hired out to a local carriage-maker, they tracked down an outfit that had skipped out on a bill for a wagon and forced the defaulters to pay up at the point of a gun. That winter, the two stood guard together over a disputed herd of cattle sequestered in Indian Territory. It was probably due to the influence of Behrens that Earp was placed on the force. Though each enjoyed his moments of glory during 1875 — almost at once Earp caught a wanted horse thief and later saved a drunk from losing his roll of $500 — their relations with the sports, in particular the prostitutes, were dubious.

Prostitutes were fined monthly. This was not an attempt to put them out of circulation but their contribution to the city treasury, the cost of doing business. Imposing the Vagrancy Act sufficed to banish them on the few occasions it was brought to bear, but ridding the town entirely or even widely of these'sisters of the white hood,' so-called from the style of sunbonnet they favored, would have discouraged the cattle trade — the very last thing merchants meant to do.

One of the prerogatives of the police force, along with duties such as repairing sidewalks and poisoning stray dogs, was to collect the monthly fines. This became a problem for John Behrens when the city treasurer disclosed that the officer had snaffled up $150 from a madam named Georgia Williams, yet had turned in only $60. According to existing records, from June 1874 to May 1875, when Behrens did not serve as her conduit to the treasury, Williams was fined for all but two months and paid $140. From May 1875 to April 1876, Behrens' term as assistant marshal, Williams was charged for only four months and paid only two of those fines, a total of $25. Police reports for June and July 1875 are missing, but presumably she paid, and Behrens turned in an additional $35 during that time.

The discrepancy between the two years is notable. Certainly the city treasurer thought so, as did some members of the council as well. Behrens is not listed on the city payroll for November 1875, in what may have been a disciplinary action, and on April 7, 1876, councilman James Fraker, complying with the program of the moral reform element in Wichita, presented an ordinance titled 'To abolish the office of assistant marshal and regulate the fees of certain officers therein named.' Later in the month, the Committee on Jail and Police recommended withholding Behrens' scrip until he gave an accounting of the missing monies. What followed was lengthy litigation and finally a compromise in October wherein Behrens, identified as ex-assistant marshal, was awarded $58.

His business association with prostitutes did not end there, however. During the heyday of the cattle trade, another madam, Mattie Wilson, had run a brothel called 'The Old Ozark Dollar' on Douglas Avenue, between Main and Water streets, the very heart of downtown. Under pressure from the reformers, this nuisance was shuttered in the late summer of 1876. That she did not long remain out of business is evident from a filing in the Sedgwick County District Court on August 12, 1876. In this, John Behrens implored the court to restrain Mattie Wilson from paying monies she earned at the Gold Rooms, one of the premier gambling houses in Wichita, to anyone but himself. It seems he'd come to realize that being a landlord and a legitimate rent collector was the surer route to riches.

The case of Wyatt Earp was a family affair. From January 1874 to May 1875, Bessie and Sallie Earp regularly paid the $10 monthly fines that were assessed of prostitutes. In June 1874, based on a complaint from one Samuel A. Martin, they were arrested and charged with keeping a bawdy house, the location of which turned out to be right behind Doc Black's hotel. It was, in fact, suspiciously reminiscent of the 'temporary jail' in which Wyatt said he was incarcerated the day of Charley Sanders' murder.

Bessie Earp was reputed to be the wife of Wyatt's brother James, who was employed as a bartender in several saloons during the two years he spent in Wichita. On a Civil War pension application, James claimed to have married a woman named Nellie Bartlett Ketchum, familiarly known as Bessie, in Illinois in April 1873. She was described as a 'beautiful brunette,' and she and James rolled into Wichita the first week of September 1873, having come from Ellsworth. She was 31 years old — James 33 — and it is improbable that she had no experience in the oldest profession.

Bessie's partner in crime, Sallie Earp, would also have had experience, in spades. Recent research makes it likely she was Sarah Haspel, from Peoria, Ill. (See "The Peoria Bummer': Wyatt Earp's Lost Year,' by Roger Jay, in the August 2003 Wild West.) Twenty years old in 1874, she had been an inmate of various brothels since at least age 15 and is known to have been arrested on three occasions prior to Wichita, twice in the company of Wyatt. Her acquaintance with him probably dated from as early as 1868, when evidence suggests he spent time in Peoria with his cousin Dow Earp and brother Virgil and there formed some sort of a relationship with a brothel-keeper he'd met that year while grading the Union Pacific track.It can hardly be a coincidence that the first full month Wyatt served on the Wichita police force, May 1875, Bessie, Sallie and other women using the name Earp stopped paying monthly fines. This seems to have been a professional courtesy extended to the newly fledged officer, overlooked by everyone in city government until Wyatt plunged himself into a mess of trouble.

The election of 1876 saw William Smith attempting to regain the position of city marshal. On the stump, Smith made it a point of attack that Marshal Meagher, if he were returned to office, would place Wyatt's brothers Morgan and Virgil on the force. Nepotism was not particularly frowned upon in Wichita, so why this should be a detriment is not clear, unless Smith was appealing to gathering reform sentiment and making a connection of the family to elements of vice, namely Bessie and Sallie's establishment. In this regard, it is worthy of note that Morgan Earp was arrested in the brothel of Ida May, the most infamous of Wichita's madams, some months before the election.

Whatever the provocation, Wyatt Earp went after Smith with 'fight on his brain,' as the Wichita Beacon of April 5, 1876, put it, charging into a room and pummeling Smith while he was holding a confab with Meagher. Wyatt was arrested for violation of the peace and fined $30, but even worse he was dismissed from the police force. While Earp stewed in political hot water, his accounts were scrutinized along with Behrens,' and he too was found to be in arrears. As with Behrens' pay, Wyatt's scrip was withheld until he made up the shortfall in fines collected. This he never did, leaving Wichita by mid-May, as the City Council decreed that the Vagrancy Act should be enforced to evict the entire Earp family.

By the close of the 1876 season, Wichita was no longer a cattle emporium. Grangers and their allies pressured the Kansas Legislature to move the so-called deadline to the west, placing the entire Arkansas River valley out of bounds to Texas cattle. Nor did Wichita need the herds any longer. An influx of farmers spread over the rich grazing land where the herds had roamed free, and Wichita became the mercantile hub for this new base of consumers. By and large, the gamblers, saloon men and prostitutes moved on to more verdant territory, many to the latest incarnation of the cattle town, Dodge City.

There, Wyatt Earp again became a lawman, adding to his laurels. Kate Elder, who had walked the streets of Wichita under the name Kate Earp, became a dance hall girl. There would be repeated the dynamic of merchants-cattlemen-lawmen-sporting class that had played out in Wichita, and once again, for a brief while, the prostitutes, gamblers, saloonmen and their hangers-on — the rough-scuff — would hold sway.



This article was written by Roger Jay and originally appeared in the October 2005 issue of Wild West.

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