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Law (and Wyatt Earp) in the Old West


December 4, 2021 by Pamela Nowak

It was during Wyatt and Mattie Earp’s time in Kansas that Wyatt first became involved in law enforcement. Most of the legends surrounding Wyatt portray him as a U.S. Marshall but he never held that position in any of the towns with which he was associated. Most of Wyatt’s positions in Kansas were either as a peace officer/police officer or as a deputy city marshal. Later, in Tombstone, he would serve as a deputy sheriff and sometimes as a deputy U.S. Marshal (short-term appointments to assist his brother Virgil).

The West had a variety of legal systems. At the top of the ladder, so to speak, was the U.S. Marshal. U.S. Marshals were responsible for arresting those suspected of federal crimes, such as robbery of stagecoaches that were carrying federal payroll funds or tracking down federal fugitives. If a federal bank robbery or robbery of funds en route to a federal bank occurred, it would be the U.S. Marshal who would track down the suspects. A U.S. Marshal would also be responsible for taking the federal census and distributing Presidential proclamations. The position would be salaried but could be without incident for weeks at a time and the position was an appointed one, with the appointment being made by the U.S. Attorney General. If a situation required a deputy, a U.S. Marshal could appoint one but the appointment was generally short term and in response to a specific need.

The most well-known fictional U.S. Marshal is likely Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke. In the TV series, Matt routinely patrols Dodge City, breaks up saloon fights, and tracks down suspects in the surrounding area. In truth, Dodge City had a City Marshal (what would today be called a police chief).

The second tier of law enforcement was the County Sheriff and deputies. A sheriff would be responsible for law enforcement throughout the county. If there were large cities, those cities would have their own city marshal to allow the sheriff to devote attention to the rural areas. County sheriffs were elected to office by the residents of the county. If a vacancy occurred during an elected term, county officials might appoint someone to fill the position or a deputy might take on the duties. Sometimes, a special election might be held in such cases. Often, poor pay for this role was supplemented by a percentage of taxes collected throughout the county. Usually, the county allowed the sheriff to retain ten percent as payment for collecting the funds.  Sheriffs typically spent time moving prisoners to the county jail, chasing down those on wanted posters (bounties helped supplement their poor salaries), and working second jobs.

Wyatt Earp learned from his father (who collected taxes as part of his job) that tax collection could be lucrative. A sheriff could easily skim extra from the tax revenue as long as he took care not to pocket too much. When Wyatt moved to Tombstone, it didn’t take him long to realize the highly productive mines in the county would bring in a lot of tax revenue with the sheriff’s percentage enough to make the man in the role wealthy. Johnny Behan didn’t miss that point, either. The competition between the two would be a contributing factor to the gunfight at the OK Corral.

In Texas, during the last quarter of the nineteenth century and beyond, lawmen might be members of the Texas Rangers. The concept of the Rangers was first pursued in 1823 when Stephen Austin sought permission from the Mexican government to employ ten men to protect new settlements in Texas (then a part of Mexico). The group was formally organized in 1835 with major responsibilities to be protection against hostile attacks from bandits, outlaws, and native tribes. Rangers were required to be good horseman and familiarity with tribal practices. The group became better established between 1836 and 1846 with periods of abolishment and reestablishment. During the Mexican War, the Rangers was restructured along military lines. They saw little action after the war but with the advent of the Civil War and the secession of Texas, they were reactivated. They were disbanded after the war ended. In 1874, Texas created six Ranger companies and one special force, expanding the Rangers to law and order duties as well as protection from hostiles.

City marshals were usually appointed by city councils but were occasionally elected positions. Smaller towns typically fell under the jurisdiction of county sheriffs. Cities or particularly lawless towns would have their own marshals. In some locales, by the late nineteenth century, the position was retitled to chief of police. The position was normally supported by deputy city marshals, assistant city marshals, peace officers, or police officers with the terminology unique to the city. These roles were often dull and pay was low. City law enforcement was usually responsible for collecting fines, issuing various city licenses, and maintaining public sidewalks/boardwalks and cleanliness/garbage removal. It would be usual for cattle towns to hire a number of seasonal peace officers to assist the marshal during the months when the city was busy but to keep only one (if that) officer through the winter months.

Wyatt Earp’s positions in Kansas were in seasonal peace-officer roles. At times, he was an assistant or deputy city marshal but he sometimes served as just a peace officer/policeman. He normally relied on a second income running a faro table/bouncing at saloons or gambled on his own to make money.

In towns where prostitution was active, city marshals and peace officers often found themselves on both sides of the law. In many cities, city councils required prostitutes and madams to register with the city, paying a monthly fee to maintain their status. In this way, cities collected profit, which was often cited as helping to support the law enforcement needed to control the practice. Such licenses were one way officers might skim, charging a bit extra to girls who didn’t know better. In other cases, an extra under-the-table charge might be paid to the city marshal by a madam in order to avoid fines or get a heads-up on when raids would occur. Sometimes, officers would favor certain brothels. In larger cities, this type of protection might also apply to other businesses.

As Celie/Mattie Blaylock became more experienced in prostitution, she and Wyatt learned that it was far better to have Wyatt serve as a peace officer than as a bouncer/brothel keeper/pimp. Not only was he not susceptible to fines but he could provide protection for his wife.

(There are a host of License for Prostitution photos on the internet that are signed by “Marshal Wyatt Earp.” Since Wyatt was never a marshal, these are likely fakes.)

Typically, law enforcement on the frontier was a career undertaken by those used to handling a gun or those familiar with the underside of life. Many of the noble lawmen portrayed in television, movies, and fiction were not representative of reality. Often, a marshal might be an ex-gunfighter or a sheriff might be a ruffian skilled in using the office for his own profit. Because of the low pay, high danger, dull day-to-day work, law enforcement was full of unscrupulous men rather than the noble lawmen of legend.

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