It raged during the fall and winter of 1880-81, and if the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday had lost it, they’d have had no choice but to clear out of Tombstone, Arizona Territory. The blood feud with the Sheriff John Behan–Cowboy faction would never have happened. No O.K. Corral. No Vendetta. No The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp TV series starring Hugh O’Brian.
The rivals in Tombstone’s ‘Gamblers’ War’ were the ‘Slopers,’ sporting men who had operated on the Pacific Coast, in and around San Francisco and the mining camps of the Sierra Nevadas — Aurora, Bodie, Virginia City — and the ‘Easterners,’ men who in the 1870s had run the faro layouts, keno rooms and poker games at the end of the cattle trails in Kansas, the beginning of the trails in Texas and points in between. The Earps and Holliday were prominent Easterners.
Each side had kept to its own territory and formed its own cliques, the massive barrier of the Continental Divide minimizing contact between them — until 1879. That’s when the home turf of each was playing out and the neutral ground of Arizona Territory and its newly minted riches beckoned. Once the run on silver was in full gallop, the Slopers and the Easterners soon collided in Tombstone. Gambling parlors sprang up first in tent saloons, then in jacals, adobes and, finally, board-and-brick edifices of several stories and towering pretensions. By June 1880, Tombstone was ready, indeed was clamoring, for an elegant gambling den in which it could see its prosperity, both real and anticipated, mirrored. Jim Vizina and Ben Cook, mining men and entrepreneurs, owned a substantial structure at the corner of Fifth and Allen streets in Tombstone and agreed to lease the premises to Milton E. Joyce and Co., a California concern. Joyce was to run a bar and restaurant he named the Oriental, while a consortium that included portly San Franciscan Lou Rickabaugh and the one-time partner in Dodge City’s Long Branch Saloon, Bill Harris, took possession of the adjoining gambling parlor.
The Oriental was all the brand-spanking-new town with lofty dreams could have hoped for. On July 22, 1880, The Tombstone Daily Epitaph told its readers:
Last evening the portals were thrown open and the public permitted to gaze upon the most elegantly furnished saloon this side of the Golden Gate. Twenty-eight burners suspended in neat chandeliers afforded an illumination of ample brilliancy and the bright rays reflected from the many colored crystals in the bar sparkled like a December icing in the sunshine. The saloon comprises two apartments. To the right of the main entrance is the bar, beautifully carved, finished in white and gilt and capped with a handsomely polished top. In the rear of this stand a brace of sideboards….They were made for the Baldwin Hotel, of San Francisco….The back apartment is covered with a brilliant body brussels [sic] carpet and suitably furnished after the style of a grand club room, with conveniences for the wily dealers in polished ivory….Tombstone has taken the lead and [to] Messrs. Joyce and Co. our congratulations.
In a land where men were intoxicated with the prospect of limitless wealth, and suckers galore were eager to spend their silver on a spree, this was a franchise worth having — fighting for if need be.
Rickabaugh, Harris and partners began dealing pasteboards and raking in loose change on July 21, 1880. At this point, there is no indication the Earp brothers were more than casual players in the Oriental. For the time being they were placing their bets elsewhere, most heavily in mining properties. In addition, James Earp was tending bar at Vogan & Flynn’s saloon, Virgil serving as deputy U.S. marshal when needed, Wyatt riding shotgun for Wells Fargo for a few months until he became deputy sheriff of Pima County on July 27, 1880, and handed his express messenger job over to brother Morgan.
For his part, Doc Holliday was still residing in the territorial capital of Prescott, rooming with future acting-governor John J. Gosper. When the Earp caravan pulled out of Prescott for Tombstone in November 1879, Holliday chose to remain behind, preferring to let the brothers scout out the new town while he stayed with a sure thing in the bustling center of government, instructing initiates in the mysteries of the faro box and collecting a handsome fee for his expertise. Since by 1880 the one-time dentist was making his living almost exclusively at the green felt tables, it was a sensible choice.
The Slopers were quick to size up the opportunities in Tombstone. Their leader was John E. Tyler, a 40-year-old Texan. Before deciding to exploit the silver boom in Arizona Territory, he had spent time in San Francisco, and a killing blotted his record there. A petition circulated at the Oriental on August 18, 1880, less than a month after it opened, bore his name along with the signatures of such dubious characters as Pete Spencer, Andrew Ames and Andy McCauly.
Direct evidence as to where Tyler and Holliday first crossed paths is lacking, but a compelling possibility is at the San Augustin Festival in Tucson during late August and early September 1880. A Tucson paper, the Arizona Star, reported on August 27, 1880, that J.E. Tyler of Tombstone had registered at the Palace Hotel the previous day, and August 27 marked the grand opening of the festival. It was a magnet for gamblers from far and wide. Wyatt Earp’s old chum John Shanssey, formerly a saloon owner in Fort Griffin, Texas, had taken the train in from San Francisco 10 days earlier, and John Behan, a gambler as well as a lawman and perpetual office-seeker, signed in with his son at the Palace on September 12.
Holliday was verifiably in Tombstone on September 27, and if he had decided to travel south from Prescott in August, there is small chance he would have neglected to stop over in the ‘Old Pueblo,’ particularly since the San Augustin Festival drew large crowds throughout its duration, one local paper reporting, ‘It is hardly possible to make a step in the gambling room in which there seems to be an attraction to all classes of society.’ And if Doc needed further incentive to make Tucson his destination, Virgil and Wyatt Earp rode up from Tombstone on separate occasions, Virgil en route to visit his parents in California and Wyatt in his capacity as deputy sheriff, ferrying a prisoner to district court. Given the proclivities of the brothers, it is safe to assume they would have made a pasear or two through the gambling enclosure before leaving town.
The festival came to an end on September 16, and Tyler was back in Tombstone by September 23, as the Epitaph of the 24th attests: ‘An altercation occurred at Vogan & Flynn’s saloon [where Jim Earp tended bar] yesterday between Tony Kraker and Johnny Tyler, two well-known sporting men during which a weapon, or weapons, were drawn. Friends interfered and further hostilities were prevented.’ Kraker was a known associate of the Earps, a trusted comrade — so trusted, in fact, he would be delegated to bring them $1,000 the day of the gunfight with Curly Bill Brocious at Iron Springs in March 1882.
Another flare-up followed within a few weeks, this time not in a rather modest locale such as Vogan & Flynn’s, but in one more palatial and profitable. The Daily Epitaph on October 12, 1880, related the following incident: ‘About 12:30 on Sunday night [October 10] a shooting affray took place at the Oriental saloon…between M.E. Joyce, one of the proprietors and a man named Doc Holliday….’ What brought this about, the article further describes: ‘During the early evening, Holliday had an altercation with Johnny Tyler which boded a shooting scrape. Shortly before the shooting referred to occurred, Holliday and Joyce [Tyler?] came into the Oriental. Joyce went to Tyler and told him to leave the saloon, as he didn’t want trouble. Tyler complied and Joyce made the same request to Holliday. Holliday demurred and Joyce and he got into an altercation.’
The upshot of Holliday’s demurral was that Joyce threw him bodily out of the saloon. Holliday returned shortly with a gun (a policeman — probably either City Marshal Fred White or officer James Bennett — had disarmed him when he’d kicked up a fuss with Joyce), and he and the proprietor exchanged shots before Joyce, a bear of a man, threw himself on Holliday and beat him bloody. One of Holliday’s shots struck Joyce in the hand, so severely wounding it that amputation was considered, while another passed through the big toe of William Crownover Parker, Joyce’s 19-year-old partner. Several of Holliday’s biographers have seized on this encounter to exemplify Doc’s courage or mock Tyler’s cowardice. One of them offers an apocryphal tale of Holliday offering to fight and Tyler, ‘deathly pale,’ bolting through the front door. Another refers to Tyler’s ‘public shaming.’ However, primary sources suggest each man was willing to bring the fight to a head. After both were disarmed, Tyler simply walked out of the saloon. Perhaps he was trying to curry favor with Joyce or saw no point doing battle without a weapon. At any rate, it would appear he did not leave because he felt himself outnumbered. The roster of witnesses summoned to Holliday’s October 12 hearing on a charge of attempted murder — Joyce, John Behan, Harry Woods, [West?] Fuller — presents a group who would prove no particular friends to the Earps or those who stood beside them.
On October 10, 1880, Wyatt Earp had no interest in the Oriental gambling concession. After failing to recover stolen Army mules as a member of Lieutenant Joseph Hurst’s posse on July 25, 1880, Wyatt had ridden back to Tombstone and, on July 27, obtained a deputy sheriff’s commission from Pima County Sheriff Charles Shibell, who happened to have come down from Tucson on business. The sheriff needed to increase the police presence in the area, and Wyatt certainly was a solid choice, given the backing of his brother Virgil, a ‘deputy U.S. marshal.’
Wyatt became one of two deputies patrolling the vast tract of southwest Pima County, but soon after Wyatt received his commission, the other deputy, Newton J. Babcock, was confined to his room with an extended siege of illness. Reports in the local press make it clear that Wyatt was kept busy attending to legal duties from late July to early November 1880. It was only after he had thrown his support to Robert Paul, the Republican candidate and Shibell’s opponent in the general election, that Wyatt resigned his deputy sheriff’s position on November 9, 1880. That done, he continued to prospect, staking claims to mines and water rights, but now he had time to look to other avenues of enterprise as well.
The gamblers who owned the lucrative concession at the Oriental — Lou Rickabaugh, Bill Harris, Dick Clark, and possibly Charles H. Dunlap — had thrown in their lot with the Easterners, even though Rickabaugh and Clark had come to Tombstone from San Francisco. In fact, the relationships in this turf war were far from simple. The Daily Epitaph on October 20, 1880, stated that John Tyler was running a faro game at Danner & Owens Hall, situated across the street from the Oriental, and the Daily Nugget of October 22 identified the owners of the gambling tables at Danner & Owens as Charlie Smith and Robert J. Winders. These two were certainly in competition with Rickabaugh, et al., but Smith and Winders were also close friends of the Earps and Holliday. James Earp had tended bar for ‘Uncle Bob’ Winders in Fort Worth during the late 1870s, and Winders himself was a partner of the Earp brothers in several mining ventures.
Rickabaugh’s partner, Bill Harris, was an old-time saloon man from Dodge City and well acquainted with Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. Holliday may well have turned up in Tombstone by September 1880, not to reunite with the Earps but at the behest of Harris, to act as an enforcer and fend off Tyler and his troublemakers. This possibility becomes more likely since Luke Short, another former Dodge City gambler handy with a six-gun, arrived in Tombstone at about the same time as Holliday, late fall or early winter of 1880, and not, as generally believed, with Bat Masterson in February 1881.
As 1880 wound down, Harris may have imported at least two gunmen to protect his interest. This could explain the nature of the initial altercation between Holliday and Tyler on October 10, which took place outside the Oriental but only came to a head when the two met face to face inside the saloon: Tyler had defied Holliday’s warning to steer clear of Harris and Rickabaugh, to cease and desist from intimidating them and their patrons. But even the formidable duo of Holliday and Short failed to drive off the Slopers, at least according to Wyatt Earp’s account. Events forced him to intervene.
Misled by an article published in the San Francisco Examiner on August 2, 1896, in which Wyatt (his words penned by a staff writer) describes how Lou Rickabaugh offered him a partnership in the Oriental gaming tables after he’d been working for Wells Fargo as a shotgun messenger for eight months, some writers have dated Wyatt’s entry into the gamblers’ fray as August 1880. However, Wells Fargo payroll records do not show Wyatt as a paid employee until June 1880. Eight months later would be early in 1881. And it was during January and February that the Citizens League, a vigilante organization, held secret meetings to discuss how to halt excess violence in Tombstone.
Earp biographer Stuart Lake has Rickabaugh tell Wyatt he hired him because he was impressed by how Wyatt handled ‘that lynch mob.’ To Rickabaugh’s practiced eye, Wyatt Earp was just the man to strong-arm a gang trying to cut into the take at the Oriental. In speaking of ‘that lynch mob,’ Rickabaugh could only have been referring to the Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce affair of January 14, 1881, in which Wyatt and other citizens helped local lawmen protect a young gambler from a vengeful throng after he had shot and killed a mining engineer in nearby Charleston. And when Wyatt accepted Rickabaugh’s proposition in Lake’s version, it was after Bat Masterson had arrived in Tombstone, since Rickabaugh mentioned that Short, Harris and Masterson had filled him in on Wyatt’s prowess. Masterson did not leave Dodge City for Tombstone until February 8, 1881.
The showdown came shortly thereafter. John Tyler made a bold play to take over the Oriental by jabbing his six-shooter at Lou Rickabaugh as the stocky faro dealer sat behind a pile of chips. Wyatt Earp was on the spot in a flash and, clamping down on Tyler’s ear, dragged the surprised gunman out the front door of the saloon and deposited him in the dusty street, while Holliday kept Tyler’s henchmen lined up at the bar, staring down the barrel of a nickel-plated Colt revolver. Throughout his life, Wyatt was handy with his mitts, and it would be completely in character for him to prefer manhandling Tyler to shooting his lights out.
The Earp-Tyler encounter must have occurred sometime in mid-February 1881, and within days of it a veteran gunman named Charles Storms rode into Tombstone from El Paso. On February 25, he and Luke Short tangled inside the Oriental. Bat Masterson stepped in and persuaded Storms to return to his room at the San Jose House. All seemed calm, but later in the day Storms reappeared and met Short outside the saloon to settle their differences. Short beat Storms to the draw and put a bullet through his heart. Indefatigable diarist George Parsons dashed to the scene:
Quite peaceable times lately, but today the monotony was broken by the shooting of Chas. Storms by Luke Short. Shots — the first two were so deliberate I didn’t think anything much was out of the way, but at next shot I seized hat and ran out into the street just in time to see Storms die — shot through the heart. Both gamblers. L.S. running game at the Oriental. Trouble brewing during night and morning and S probable aggressor through [sic] very drunk. He was game to the last and after being shot through the heart by a desperate effort steadying revolver with both hands fired — four shots in all….Short very unconcerned after shooting–probably a case of kill or be killed…the faro games went on right as though nothing had happened….
The Short-Storms affair appears to have been no more than a drunken brawl with a fatal outcome. But the National Police Gazette of July 21, 1883, gives the story a different color. Reporting on the latter-day ‘Dodge City War,’ which saw Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson team up to secure Luke Short the right to run a saloon in their old Kansas stomping grounds, the Gazette said, ‘The main factor in the affair was Luke Short, a Texan, well known as one of the most fearless men in the Lone Star state. He fought a duel some years ago in Tombstone, Arizona with one Storms, the fighter of the ‘Slopers,’ who had been imported to kill him. Storms himself, however, was killed in the duel, and Short became the ‘cock of the walk.’ ‘
In February 1881, the Tombstone papers did not mention Storms being a hired gun, but they may not have been in the know or else did not wish to scare off potential capitalists with the gory details of a gang war raging in town. The National Police Gazette correspondent in Dodge City was attorney Harry Gryden, a man with connections to Masterson, Earp and Short, and no doubt they filled him in on what Storms was really doing at the Oriental.
Although Storms may have drunk to excess the day of his death, it was perhaps to give him the courage necessary to do what the Slopers — John Tyler’s gang — had called him up from El Paso for: rid them of Luke Short, Rickabaugh’s protector. The Gazette version — that Storms was a hired killer — would make sense, since he arrived in Tombstone so soon after Tyler’s expulsion from the Oriental. Facing a phalanx of Short, Earp and Holliday, recently reinforced by Masterson and Dan Tipton, Tyler and the rest of the Slopers must have felt desperate measures were called for. But their plan backfired — the death of Storms writing finis to their dreams of controlling the Oriental.
Whether Wyatt Earp profited right away from his side’s victory is not certain, however. There is some evidence that Milt Joyce took control of the gambling rooms after Storms was killed. Parsons recorded on March 1, 1881, that Joyce had shut down the games following another shooting, in the a.m., and went on to describe the Oriental as ‘a regular slaughter house now.’ Possibly closing the saloon would have been enough to put the games out of business. Neither of the duelists on March 1, ‘One-Arm’ Kelly and [Alfred?] McAllister, had an obvious affiliation with the Slopers or the Easterners. Kelly may have been a member of a third gang, led by Big Ed Burns. A chronic hell-raiser, Burns had fled Leadville, Colo., on April 6, 1880, one jump ahead of a noose, after igniting an election-eve fracas that unleashed pandemonium in that silver camp. He subsequently gathered up a gang of rounders, thugs and confidence men and took over the railway depot of Benson, north of Tombstone. He and his cohorts appear to have been out solely for themselves, though one newspaper report does identify Morgan Earp as Burns’ associate.
Milt Joyce gave up his lease on the Oriental saloon in July 1881, when Vizina and Cook rebuilt the structure following a disastrous fire that ravaged downtown. From July 1881 to January 1882, Lou Rickabaugh was in complete control, and Wyatt Earp continued to collect his quarter interest in the games, free of outside interference.
John Tyler remained in Tombstone until at least late May 1881, when the Tucson Daily Citizen printed a dispatch telling of the highest-stakes poker game yet seen in the camp. The players, according to the newspaper, included Tyler, Napa Nick, Dick Clark and a man named Frees (possibly Frederick ‘Fritz’ Bode, a suspect in the murder of Morgan Earp in March 1882). That flourish is the Sloper chief’s last recorded gesture in Arizona. When next he turns up, it is almost a year later in Leadville, still plying his trade as a faro dealer and still nursing a grudge against Doc Holliday.
This article was written by Roger Jay and originally appeared in the October 2004 issue of Wild West.
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