Early Life & American Civil War
Virgil Walter Earp was born on July 18, 1843, in Hartford, Kentucky, US. He was the second son of Nicholas Porter Earp and his second wife, Virginia Ann Cooksey.
During his stay in Pella, Iowa, in February 1860, Virgil eloped with Magdalena C "Ellen" Rysdam, a Dutch immigrant. Initially, they kept their marriage a secret. Their parents disapproved of the marriage later. Their daughter, Nellie Jane, was born in 1862.
Meanwhile, Virgil was enlisted in the ‘Union Army’ on July 26, 1861. On September 21, 1862, he was deputed to the ‘Illinois Volunteer Infantry’ for 3 years.
On August 21, 1863, he was sent to the ‘83rd Illinois Infantry.’ A minor offense on Virgil’s part led him to be court-martialed. He was given a punishment of 2 weeks’ pay deduction.
He was on active duty during summer of 1863, when Ellen was falsely informed by her father that Virgil had been killed in Tennessee. Ellen was then married off to a Dutch man named John Van Rossum, and the two relocated to the Oregon Territory. On June 26, 1865, Virgil was released from the military. He went searching for his wife and daughter but in vain. He started working at a local farm and later joined the Earp family in California.
He relocated with the Earp family to Lamar, Missouri, in 1868. On August 28, 1870, he married Rosella Dragoo.
In 1874, he met Alvira "Allie" Sullivan from Florence, Nebraska. Although the two never married each other, they stayed together for good. Virgil did several odd jobs later in life. Thus, he worked as a mailman, a sawmill sawyer, a stagecoach driver, a farmer, a peace officer, and a prospector. According to Allie, Virgil worked as a deputy town marshal along with his younger brother, Wyatt, during his stay with the latter in Dodge City, Kansas, in 1877. However, this has not been validated by any record.
In July 1877, Virgil and Allie relocated to Prescott, where he became a saw-mill owner. He then accepted an offer to work as a driver for a local freight company named ‘Patterson, Caldwell & Levally.’ During his tenure in Arizona, he got introduced to the secretary of the Arizona Territory, John J Gosper, and struck up a friendship with the newly appointed US marshal, Crawley Dake. Virgil became Prescott's nightwatchman in 1878. He became a constable in November that year.
Continue Reading Below
Deputy US Marshal
On November 27, 1879, he was made the deputy US marshal for the Tombstone District of Pima County by Dake. The latter assigned him the work of resolving the ongoing problems with a loosely associated group of outlaws known as the ‘Cowboys.’
On December 1, 1879, Virgil, Wyatt, and their brother, Jim, arrived in Tombstone along with their respective families.
Virgil became Tombstone’s acting town marshal on October 30, 1880, after ‘Cowboy’ “Curly Bill” Brocius accidentally killed town marshal Fred White. The following year, Virgil was made the permanent city marshal by Tombstone mayor John Clum.
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral & Aftermath
An ordinance was enacted by the ‘City Council’ in Tombstone in April 1881, in order to curb crime in the city. According to it, no one could carry a deadly weapon in Tombstone, and after entering the town, one was bound to deposit any weapon in possession at a livery or a saloon.
For several months, the ‘Cowboys’ made repeated death threats to the Earps for the latter’s interference in their illegal activities. Virgil was informed by citizens that the ‘Cowboys’ had entered the town and were carrying arms in total violation of the ordinance.
On October 26, 1881, Virgil resolved to enforce the ordinance. Accompanied by deputy Morgan Earp and temporary deputies Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, he went to disarm ‘Cowboys’ Billy Claiborne, Billy and Ike Clanton, and Frank and Tom McLaury. This resulted in a 30-second shootout between the two groups at around 3pm that day. Around 30 shots were fired during the gunfight.
Considered the most famous shootout in the history of the American Wild West, the shootout, contrary to its name, ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,’ actually happened on Fremont Street, in a narrow lot outside the photographic studio of CS Fly. Fly was a witness to the gunfight that left Virgil and Holliday injured, killed Billy Clanton and both the McLaury brothers. Ike, who claimed that he was unarmed, fled the scene with Wes Fuller and Billy Claiborne.
Murder charges were filed by Ike against the Earps and Doc Holliday, on October 30, 1881. In the next 30 days, Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer heard several witnesses in an unusual preliminary hearing and concluded that there was no basis for a trial and that Virgil and the other lawmen were performing their duties and had acted within the law. Thus, the Earps were freed from jail.
The shootout became known to the American public after the bestselling and largely fictional biography of Wyatt Earp, ‘Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal’ (1931), written by Stuart N Lake, was published. The book is now regarded as a "highly imaginative" and "largely fictional” biography of Wyatt that depicts him as a fearless lawman in the American Old West, although he actually had little, if any, legal authority during the shootout. The book was adapted into films such as ‘My Darling Clementine’ (1946) and ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’ (1957). The shootout eventually became known by the name of the 1957 film that became a hit and earned two ‘Academy Award’ nominations.
Continue Reading Below
The conflict, however, did not end with the shootout. On December 28, 1881, at around 11:30pm, while Virgil was walking from the ‘Oriental Saloon’ to his room at the ‘Cosmopolitan Hotel,’ where the Earps had shifted their families after the shootout, he was shot from the second floor of what is now known as the ‘Longhorn Restaurant.’ The ambush shattered his left arm and left him permanently maimed. While Virgil was recuperating from his wounds, on March 18, the following year, Morgan Earp was killed by a ‘Cowboy.’ However, alibis provided by other ‘Cowboys’ led the suspects in both the cases to get acquitted of their respective charges.
Escorted by Wyatt, Warren Earp, "Turkey Creek" Jack Johnson, Doc Holliday, and Sherman McMaster, Virgil and Allie started for Tucson on March 20, 1882. Wyatt and the men were well-armed, as they had learned that Ike and his acquaintances were already in Tucson to kill Virgil. The men managed to help the couple board a train from Tucson to California. As the train began moving out of the city, gunfire was heard. The couple and James reached the Earp family home in Colton, California, with Morgan's body.
Meanwhile, Wyatt, now a deputy US marshal in Cochise County, came to the conclusion that he could not trust the court for justice and resolved to handle things in his own way. He formed a federal posse, including Warren Earp, to kill the ones they thought were responsible for Morgan’s murder and Virgil’s ambush.
The deadly search by Wyatt and his federal posse, known as the ‘Earp Vendetta Ride,’ led to the killing of Frank Stilwell while the latter was waiting in Tucson station to kill Virgil. The group also killed Florentino Cruz, “Curly Bill” Brocius, and Johnny Barnes. Arrest warrants were issued by the ‘Tucson Justice of the Peace’ for five men of the Earp party, including Wyatt, who were suspected of killing Stilwell. However, they rode out of the Arizona Territory for good on April 15, 1882, and headed for the New Mexico Territory.
Later Life & Death
It took Virgil around 2 years to recover from his injuries. He was hired by the ‘Southern Pacific Railroad’ for guarding its tracks in the ‘Colton Crossing,’ located in Colton, California, a site that witnessed one of the most intense frog wars in the history of railroad construction. It resulted in a personal confrontation between Virgil and California Governor Robert Waterman.
In 1886, Virgil launched a private detective agency but abandoned it after he became the village constable in July that year.
On July 11, 1887, he became the first city marshal of Colton after it was declared a city. He got re-elected in 1888. He resigned from his position in 1888 and relocated with Allie, first to San Bernardino and then to Vanderbilt, California, in 1893. There, he ran a saloon and a meeting hall, known as the ‘Earp's Hall.’ He also contested in, but lost, the election for the town constable in 1894.
To his astonishment, in 1898, Virgil received a letter from a “Mrs. Levi Law,” who was later found to be his only daughter, Nellie, with his first wife, Ellen. He traveled to Portland, Oregon, and reunited with his first wife and daughter. He was overjoyed to find that he had three grandchildren.
Virgil and Allie relocated to Goldfield, Nevada, in 1904, where they joined Wyatt. Virgil was made the deputy sheriff for Esmeralda County, Nevada. He died on October 19, 1905, after suffering from pneumonia for 6 months.
Allie sent the remains of Virgil to Portland, Oregon, at his daughter’s request. He was interred in the ‘River View Cemetery.’