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The Earps…The Kansas Years


November 27, 2021 by Pamela Nowak

Wyatt Earp and Mattie Blaylock spent 1873 through 1879 in Kansas. Early biographers did not mention Mattie’s existence and the Wyatt of legend was thought to have been a bachelor during this time.  It was during this time that Wyatt ventured into law enforcement though never to the extent myths celebrated. Mattie fluctuated from farm wife to prostitute to madam.

In 1873, the couple made their way to Peace (now Sterling), Kansas where they lived briefly with Wyatt’s step-brother Newton and his wife Nancy in Rice County. They soon rented a small farm and moved into their own place near Newton’s place. Wyatt’s sister Adelia reportedly told family that Wyatt held two leases. Biographer Stuart Lake had indicated Wyatt spent 1872-1873 hunting buffalo (now known to be a coverup for his illegal activities and arrests in Peoria, Illinois). There is no record of how Mattie and Wyatt viewed farm life though Mattie’s biographer, E.C. (Ted) Meyers maintains neither adapted well to it.  In any case, when brother James and his new wife Bessie settled in Wichita, Wyatt and Mattie joined them.

Wichita, Kansas was a small town until the Wichita and Southwestern Railroad came to town in 1869, The town doubled in size, then exploded when the Santa Fe Railroad ran a spur line through the area in 1872. With two railroads, the area became a terminus for cattle drives and would remain one for the next few years. With the cowboys and cattle buyers came saloons, gambling, prostitution, and crime. It was into that environment that Mattie (still called Celie at the time) Blaylock and Wyatt Earp arrived and settled in with James and Bessie Earp.

Just across the river from Wichita lay an openly lawless town called Delano. James and Bessie leased a house on Douglas Street not far from the bridge. Jim was bartender and manager at Keno Hall in Wichita and Wyatt set up a faro game either there or close by. Celie and Bessie settled into business at the house, operating a small brothel.

The brothel house at 12 Douglas Street in Wichita was not owned by the Earps but was leased from George Woods. Woods and his wife, Meg, and two women (Georgine Wood and Laura Smith) had operated the business prior to the Earps’ arrival. All three women were registered as “sporting women.” When the Earps arrived, Bessie recruited additional women, including Kate Elder, also known as Big Nose Kate—the nickname said to be a reference to her habit of sticking her nose into others’ business. The house became known as Bessie’s Whore House and the stable of women were taken in to pay fines on a regular basis, most listing “Earp” as their name, pursuant to the custom of taking the name of the madam or keeper of the brothel.

At the time, Wichita tolerated brothels—as long as the trade did not expand. It’s likely this is the reason Bessie and Celie took over an existing brothel. There was a regular pattern of fines with each brothel’s employees charged on a rotating basis.  Celie registered with local authorities in January 1874 and was recorded as “Sally” Earp. Celie paid fourteen fines while in Wichita.

As Bessie Earp and Celie/Mattie Blaylock operated from the brothel on Douglas Street, Wyatt was busy elsewhere. His name does not show up in the arrest records associated with the brothel and one assumes he learned a hard lesson in Peoria and recognized he was not an effective brothel keeper. There are no records indicating whether or not he was a silent partner. There are, however, ample records indicating he operated faro games and was hired as a seasonal employee of the police department.

Wichita, like most other cattle towns, fought most of its crime when cattle drives were active. In the winter months, there was no need for much law enforcement. City records and news accounts list Wyatt Earp as being hired by the police force each spring during the time the Earps lived in Wichita, except during Marshal Smith’s time in office (Smith and Earp were open enemies). Wyatt’s duties would have included maintaining the town’s boardwalks (repairs and sweeping) as well as keeping the downtown areas clean and tidy. Most of his work hours would have been evening and night when the saloons, gambling houses, and brothels were most busy. It’s likely he continued dealing cards on the nights he was not on duty.

Working on the police force seemed to be a good fit for Wyatt Earp. By all accounts (as evidenced by newspaper reports), he handled himself well and was respected. He was known for his even temper on the job—a temper that got out of hand when he was not working. Wyatt was arrested for a fight with Bill Smith (appointed city marshal in 1874). Smith did not hold with the prior marshal’s policy of routinely fining brothels and began a campaign to raid and shut down as many as possible. The justice of the peace and city attorney at the time agreed with him.

On June 3, 1874, the brothel on Douglas Street was raided. Deputies held warrants for the arrests of “Sallie and Betsey Earp”, who were charged with keeping a bawdy house. Under previous administrations, they would have been fined without even being taken into custody. This time, they were brought before the justice of the peace. The two pled guilty at their arraignment but the justice refused to accept the plea and held them for trial, setting a bond for their release. Prior to the trial, a phantom madam, one Mattie Bradford, had registered as the house’s madam and been referenced as the madam of the house multiple times during subsequent raids. She was never seen and the charges against “Sallie and Betsey” were ultimately released. Soon after, Celie began calling herself Mattie.

Not long after the trial, Wyatt was hired onto the police force for the 1875 season. The city had seen a rise in crime despite Smith’s heavy-handedness during his short term as marshal. Again, Wyatt was considered a valued employee and there were, coincidentally, no further raids on the Earp brothel. However, in April of 1876, Wyatt and Bill Smith argued publicly and Wyatt was arrested for the assault. He was fined and the city council voided his contract with the police force. His reputation plummeted and the Earps found themselves on the wrong side of public opinion.

Shortly after Wyatt Earp was fired from the Wichita police force, the Earps relocated to Dodge City. Like Wichita, Dodge City was a cattle town with all the associated crime and opportunity for the Earps. Wyatt secured seasonal work with the police force and gambled. There are no arrest records for Mattie, indicating she may have left the trade while living there. The two resided in Dodge City on and off for four years, with Wyatt working as a police officer during the spring and summer. During the off-season, Wyatt gambled in Texas and New Mexico. There is some evidence that Mattie accompanied him at least part of the time and the two sometimes wintered in Fort Worth with Jim and Bessie Earp. Bessie operated a brothel there and Jim managed a saloon. Some historians suggest Wyatt and Morgan Earp spent one winter in Deadwood cutting and selling wood but supporting documentation is scarce. Ted Meyers indicates Wyatt applied with both the Fort Worth and Las Vegas, New Mexico police forces but was never hired.

In either 1877 or 1878, while on the winter gambling circuit, Wyatt Earp met Doc Holliday in Fort Griffin, Texas. Doc was a dentist, gambler, and known hot-head who had taken up with Kate Elder (who had worked at the Earp brothel in Wichita). Doc and Kate later relocated briefly to Dodge City. It’s said that Doc and Wyatt became close friends after Doc helped defend Wyatt during an arrest incident in which Wyatt was in danger. At some point, Doc and Kate left Kansas for a better climate. Doc, who had tuberculosis, was not doing well on the western plains.

By late 1879, Wyatt and Mattie pulled up stakes and left Dodge City. One can only conjecture on whether it was because the town was becoming calm, whether Wyatt’s gambling debts had mounted, or if the two were lured by rumors of silver strikes near Tombstone. They headed west, where they would be joined by the other Earps and Doc Holliday.

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