Editor’s note: In the Westerners department of the February 2016 issue of Wild West, and published again in this post, is a photograph taken in Ellsworth, Kan., of a man author Cathleen Briley believes is Wyatt Earp. Have a look and decide for yourselves. She refers to the image as the “missing link to the ‘Wyatt Earp in Ellsworth’ story.” Here she explains why.Many have doubted the account of Wyatt Earp arresting Ben Thomson in Ellsworth, Kan., in 1873, and for good reason: There is no recorded proof of the event. Extensive research has not turned up any mention of it in the local newspapers at the time or in any later court records. Without something to back up the claim, the story was passed off as just a myth by many, but still feverishly defended by Earp loyalists. Wyatt was a constable in Lamar, Mo., for a short time in the spring of 1868, but arguably his first real taste of being a lawman didn’t occur until the spring of 1874 when he reached Wichita, Kan. As a result of the Ellsworth controversy, there was a gap in Wyatt Earp’s story, a lingering doubt about his truthfulness and a missing link, as it were.
But I can now fill that gap and dismiss any doubts, because I have the missing link. I can now prove that the event in Ellsworth, Kan., did happen and with the ultimate evidence possible: a photo of a decorated Wyatt Earp taken right in Ellsworth when and where it all happened.
Several different versions of the Thompson/Wyatt Earp/Ellsworth tale are out there, and they vary wildly. But the bare bones of it is as follows: Wyatt Earp happened upon Ellsworth in August 1873. Ellsworth was a railhead and a destination for Texas cattle. In 1870 the population was only about 450. But from time to time large groups of cowboys descended upon the dusty cow town, often drinking to excess, either celebrating, commiserating or just drinking because, well, that’s what cowboys did. The town saw its fair share of violence and mayhem as a result—so much so that Ellsworth was once called “the Wickedest Cattletown in Kansas.”
Regularly in the midst of problems were two brothers, Billy and Ben Thompson. On Aug. 15, 1873, Wyatt Earp may have heard the arguing going on between Ben Thompson and John Stirling about a card game in Brennan’s Saloon. Furious, Ben left the saloon to arm himself, and his drunken brother Billy joined him in the street. Then the yelling started between the brothers on one side of the argument and John “Happy Jack” Morco and John Stirling on the other. The ruckus drew the attention of Ellsworth County Sheriff Chauncey Belden Whitney and likely many others who were interested in the goings-on. When Whitney arrived, he assessed what was happening and tried to defuse the situation by inviting the Thompson brothers back into the bar for a friendly drink.
The men agreed but kept their arms, with Billy’s shotgun at the ready. When Happy Jack stepped into their path with two pistols, Ben aimed and fired but missed as Jack dove into a doorway for cover. Billy also took a shot, but his hit Sheriff Whitney, who had been—up until that moment in time—a good friend.
Whitney’s tombstone reveals that he died three days later from the shotgun blast. After Whitney’s death, Ben tried to persuade Billy to get out of town. Billy took that advice and had no trouble managing his getaway. That, to say the least, irritated Wyatt Earp.
That is where Ellsworth Mayor Jim Miller entered the drama. Miller ordered Ben Thompson to hand over his gun, but Thompson refused. And to make matters worse for Miller, armed reinforcements for Ben were arriving and congregating in the street. The lawmen standing there watching this whole series of events didn’t act, so Miller fired the lot of them. It was around this time that the mayor and Wyatt Earp made an agreement that Wyatt would arrest Ben Thompson. Despite the growing and intimidating crowd, Wyatt arrested Ben Thompson without incident.
Not surprising, Mayor Miller offered Earp a job, but Wyatt declined due to the low pay grade. But then, as we all know, Wyatt moved on to Wichita and became a lawman there.
Later in life Wyatt Earp would recount this story, and it appeared in print. But, as mentioned earlier, because of a lack of supporting evidence, the story has been discredited. It need not be disputed any longer. There is a photo of Wyatt Earp taken in Ellsworth, Kan., shortly after the event.
Wyatt is wearing an obvious adornment on his chest, and the pencil-written notation at the bottom on the back of the cabinet card says, “Mayor’s Honor Ribbon.” The Wyatt-Earp-in-Ellsworth photo is part of the author’s collection, and was previously part of the Phillips Collection. Also from the Phillips Collection is a photo of Whitney’s killer, Billy Thompson.
It wouldn’t be until three years later that Billy Thompson was caught in Texas and brought back to Kansas to stand trial for the shooting of Whitney. He was found not guilty.
Now that we have evidence of the 1873 Ellsworth event, we can reflect on the past. Established fans of Wyatt Earp who have firmly declared him a hero and/or the best lawman of the Old West can revel in the fact that, yes, Wyatt Earp did arrest Ben Thompson that day. And not only that, he was decorated and appreciated for it. Mayor Miller was so pleased with Earp’s actions that he likely convinced Wyatt to commemorate the occasion with a photograph, and Wyatt either reluctantly or otherwise agreed.
Those who have doubted Wyatt Earp’s recollections and words did have good reason, so don’t feel too bad about it. Skepticism can be healthy, and there was a lack of substantiation.
No matter what your feelings have been about Wyatt Earp, we now have to admit that he did a brave thing that day back in 1873. He could have looked the other way and minded his own business. He could have left town and dismissed the episode from his mind altogether. But he didn’t. It is probable Wyatt volunteered for the job of arresting Ben Thompson rather than being handpicked by Mayor Miller. After all, Wyatt was a newcomer to town and probably completely unknown in Ellsworth up to that point. Earp was still quite young and he hadn’t had time to develop a reputation in Ellsworth for anything, let alone law enforcement.
Logic would dictate Wyatt Earp did exactly what he claimed to do, and that was to volunteer to arrest Ben Thompson. But why? Likely because he was disgusted by the series of events and wanted to put a stop to it. Wyatt then went into law enforcement in Wichita. Did the event in Ellsworth spur his decision to go into policing? Well, that’s another debate, isn’t it?
For more visit Cathleen Briley’s website.