“San Diego was a wonderful new place to find out all about. Wyatt and I had some of our most wonderful times together there.”
— Josephine “Sadie” Earp
Wyatt Earp sits in the living room of his house on Third Avenue, smoking his pipe, recalling with amusement a poker game the previous night that he won with a bluff and a pair of threes. It is almost noon, but he has just finished his breakfast of biscuits with butter and strawberry preserves, and coffee. In the next room his wife Sadie is getting dressed to go out; a local businessman has promised to take the couple to see several choice lots for sale. Outside, a cover of low clouds is slowly retreating toward the ocean, leaving behind brilliant spring sunshine as it goes.
The Earps have been in San Diego for a month and are beginning to feel settled, even comfortable. When they first arrived they were besieged by the inevitable reporters—and stories about Tombstone and the shootout at the O.K. Corral simply won’t die. Wyatt discouraged most of the inquiries with a line he used often—“I reckon we could talk about something a little more cheerful than that” — but later threatened to do significant and lasting bodily harm to one reporter who came to his house to question him. The newspapermen want to praise him as a hero, the marshal who helped bring order to the lawless West, but they would be just as quick to paint him as a ruthless killer who shot innocent men if they could confirm the rumors about him that are currently circulating.
Earp shifts in his chair, tapping the contents of his pipe bowl out into a porcelain ashtray. He is thinking of the newspapermen now. They do not know, and in his lifetime never will, that being a lawman to him has been just another way of making money, good money. They do not know of his lifelong dream of being rich, or of the many enterprises he has tried with mixed success: hunting buffalo, hauling firewood, running saloons, prospecting for gold. Now he has come to the bustling little port of San Diego, where real estate prices are soaring because rail connections have been established to Los Angeles and San Bernardino. There is even talk of San Diego becoming the Santa Fe Railroad company’s main terminal on the Pacific Coast. It is the West s latest boom town, and Earp has come here for the same reason he has gone to other boom towns: to make a fortune. If that means buying and selling real estate, then that is what he will do.
Sadie comes into the living room dressed for the day. She is talkative, feeling excited about the prospects of buying land: he responds to her comments only occasionally, as usual, and when he does his words are blunt and to the point. As they leave the house they pass a coat rack with his gun belt hanging on it — the cartridge loops stuffed with shells, the eighteen-inch-long-barrel of his walnut-handled Bunt line .45 pointing toward the floor. The gun is still hanging there as Earp and his wife stroll down the front walk and turn onto Third Avenue. He does not anticipate needing it here.
Wyatt Earp and his wife Sadie moved to San Diego in 1887. In the aftermath of the so-called shootout at the O.K. Corral (which in fact took place in a yard next to the corral) in October, 1881, they left Tombstone, Arizona and traveled extensively around the West; San Francisco, Denver, San Antonio, and El Paso were among the places they visited. During their travels they lived off Wyatt’s savings and what he could make at gambling; from time to time he also worked for Wells Fargo as an undercover agent, seeking suspects in recent stage robberies. In 1887 the two of them were living with Earp’s parents in Colton, California (near San Bernardino), when Wyatt’s brother Virgil sent word from San Diego that a real-estate boom was developing in conjunction with the new railroad. Wyatt soon left Colton for San Diego; a few weeks later Sadie joined him after visiting her parents in San Francisco.
When he arrived in San Diego, Wyatt Earp was thirty-nine years old. He had already gained a reputation as a hard-drinking gunfighter who had tangled with some of the toughest outlaws in the West and won. But he was not a gunfighter, and he almost never drank. He was a gambler and had been a lawman in some of the rowdiest boom towns in the nation: Wichita and Dodge City, Kansas, and Tombstone. He had uncommon courage, and he knew how to draw and shoot a pistol quickly without making the mistake of hurrying too much. But in his long law-enforcement career — at various times he worked as a city marshal, a deputy U.S. marshal, and a stagecoach guard and undercover agent for Wells Fargo — he always preferred arresting gun-wielding cowboys without drawing his pistol, because he knew that that was an insult to them. Most of these guys fancied themselves infamous gunmen, vicious killers, and to be arrested without a struggle, without so much as even having a gun trained on them, was something they would have to live down for a long time to come. Earp understood that, and he wanted to insult them because he believed they were cowards and riffraff and that he was a better man than any of them. Confidence was not a quality he lacked.
He was just over six feet tall, a lean 158 pounds, and had russet-blond hair that was parted and swept back over his head. When he lived in San Diego, his long mustache flowed down across his cheeks and crept back along his jawline toward his ears —“like the overturned horns of a Texas steer,” one author described it. His eyes were deep-set and blue, and in most of the pictures that survive of him, he seems to be frowning slightly. But women found him handsome and well mannered, and often irresistible. Earp enjoyed the attention they gave him and carried on clandestine affairs after he was married.
Sadie was his third wife, or rather, the third woman he lived with. There is no record of their having been formally married, but they lived together for nearly fifty years. She was in her late twenties when they came to San Diego, brown-eyed, dark-haired, and beautiful, with a quick temper that was often triggered by trivial things. One Earp family friend, a lifelong bachelor, commented that the example of Sadie as a domestic partner persuaded him never to marry. But Sadie shared a love of travel and adventure with her common-law husband, and in spite of their occasional spats, they were deeply attached to one another.
(One secret they shared was the knowledge that Wyatt had left his second wife, Celia Ann Blaylock — whom he likewise never formally married — to live with Sadie in Tombstone. Eight years later Blaylock committed suicide, having said that Wyatt Earp “had ruined her life.”)
In San Diego the Earps lived at 946 Third Avenue in a house they probably rented rather than owned. (The site has since been taken over by the Central Savings Tower at Third and Broadway.) But Earp did purchase a considerable amount of property here, including the northwest corner at Ash and Columbia streets, now the John Hancock Building, as well as the northeast corner at Beech and Union streets, which is currently a small parking lot. In Hillcrest he owned an entire block along University Avenue between Fourth and Fifth avenues, and four lots at the intersection of First Avenue and Lewis Street (three houses and a small apartment building now stand at this intersection near the UCSD Medical Center).
In addition to his landholdings, Earp leased concessions for gambling from three local saloonkeepers. One of the casinos he operated was on Fourth Avenue between E and Broadway, where today a row of small, run-down shops — including a pawnshop, a bar, and a taco stand — faces Horton Plaza. Another was on the north side of E Street near Sixth Avenue, and the third was next to the St. James Hotel at 830 Sixth Avenue. Earp’s biographer, Stuart Lake, noted that Earp made the rounds in all these casinos and often personally worked as a dealer in the preferred games of faro, poker, and blackjack.
Not long after moving to San Diego, Earp was contacted by William Barclay “Bat” Masterson. Masterson had a somewhat soft, pudgy face and humorous eyes and looked as if he were always about to tell a joke. But he had a considerable background as a lawman and gunfighter; among other things, he had worked with Earp as a deputy marshal of Dodge City eleven years earlier. Masterson was employed as a deputy U.S. marshal when he came to San Diego, and he was on his way to Ensenada to pick up an army deserter who had been jailed there. He wanted his friend Earp to accompany him to Ensenada and back in case the deserter proved to be hard to manage. Earp agreed, but when he told Sadie about the trip, she complained bitterly. She had arrived only recently in San Diego after being separated from her man for several weeks, and she wasn’t eager to be apart from him again so soon.
In the end she went with him. They left the next morning from the steamship wharf, a long wooden wharf that snaked out into San Diego Bay at the foot of Fifth Avenue, where the Chart House restaurant now stands. The little steamship that carried them made the run to Ensenada, San Quintin, and back to San Diego three times a week. In her memoirs, Sadie Earp recalled that they reached Ensenada in the evening and took rooms in a small hotel run by an American. The next day she, her husband, and Masterson had a leisurely, satisfying lunch — even a hundred years ago the Mexican food in Ensenada was good — while they waited to catch the steamer back to San Diego that night.
Just before the steamer left, Masterson brought his prisoner aboard and shackled him to a steel berth in one of the cabins. Sadie and Wyatt retired to another cabin, and Sadie was nearly asleep when there was a loud knock on the door. It was the ship's purser, informing the Earps that they’d have to move to another cabin.
‘Por que?” inquired Wyatt, using his sketchy Spanish. But when the purser told him that an important Mexican general had come aboard and had been promised the Earp's cabin, Wyatt was a little less polite. “The hell you say!” he responded. “We paid for this cabin, and we’re staying right here!”
After arguing through the locked cabin door for a few minutes, the purser left. But he returned a few minutes later with the captain, a rather short man whom Sadie later described as a “pompous little pipsqueak.” The captain demanded that the Earps move out of their cabin; Wyatt refused. But the captain kept on shouting until Wyatt felt he had heard enough. Sadie described what followed in her memoirs:
“Wyatt’s reply was quiet and controlled, but his voice had a quality to it I had never heard before and would only hear a few times after.
“’If you don’t go away and leave us alone,' he said in slow, measured words, I’ll throw you overboard.’ ”
The captain soon left, muttering in Spanish. The rest of the night passed quietly, and when Sadie awoke the next morning, her husband was grinning. “We’re in San Diego,” he told her.
Wyatt Earp stares for a moment at the stranger in front of him, thanks him, and then calls to a dealer to take over for him at the blackjack table. He walks slowly to his private office in the Copper Queen Casino on Fourth Avenue, steps inside, and pulls the door shut behind him. Somewhere he finds a bottle of whiskey', and the bitter sting of the first swallow hits him like the memory of Celia.
News from Tombstone: Celia is dead. Not just dead, but killed herself, because of him. Good God, he thinks, what a miserable, sordid life I’ve led. What could have been in her mind those last few minutes? Why in the world.... The woman was always....
Earp hangs his head. He is unused to the whiskey and it goes quickly to his head, but that does not stop him from drinking it. As numbness spreads slowly through his body, his thoughts drift from Celia to Sadie and back to Celia and then to Tombstone, that tough, ugly little desert town that people will always associate him with. He recalls the stink of horseshit on the streets, the sweat and dust on the cheeks of burly miners as they stood at the bar of his Oriental Saloon on Saturday night, the comical young prostitutes trying so hard to be sexy. And as the alcohol works deeper and deeper into his brain, the images of Tombstone become more and more anguished: the long walk to the yard next to the O. K. Corral that October morning, where the guns of Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday would kill three men; the blood soaking through his brother Morgan’s black coat two months later as he lies dying on the floor of a saloon, his spine shattered by an assassin’s bullet; the terror in the eyes of Ike Clanton and Frank Stilwell as they realize it is Wyatt Earp who has come up behind them in the darkness, and that he is going to kill them for murdering his brother; Celia shouting at him for being gone so much, when the real issue is that they have tried so many times to get her pregnant, without success; Celia weeping and pleading with him as he loads his things into a wagon.
At ten o’clock he stands up abruptly, leaves the casino, and makes his way up Fifth Avenue toward Cedar Street. The wife of an army lieutenant whom Earp met the previous day told him he should drop by for a visit soon; he knows for a fact that her husband is in San Francisco. Earp finds the house without difficulty, sees that the lights are still on, knocks at the door. The woman is surprised at first but lets him in, won over by his polite, almost shy manner. Later that night in her bed he finds the only solace he ever will.
Sadie is still up when he returns home at 2:00 a.m., but he is too tired to talk and only smiles at her briefly as he takes off his clothes and falls heavily into bed. The next day he discovers a note that she has left him and picks it up knowing that she writes notes only when she is very' angry at him. “Wyatt,” it says, “I know about Celia. But we have talked about your late nights before. How am I supposed to feel? How? Give me the respect I deserve or there is no point in our going on.”
On the afternoon of May 6, 1888, Wyatt Earp got into a stagecoach and headed from downtown San Diego to the Mexican border near Tijuana. He was on his way to referee what had been advertised as “The Hundred-Round Fight” — a boxing match.
The event was originally scheduled to take place in San Diego, but its promoters were apparently too successful in stirring up hoopla about it. Local ministers and then the newspapers began to denounce the pagan practice of pugilism. So the promoters made arrangements to move the fight to Tijuana, where a man could use his knuckles to knock another man senseless and no one would get upset about it. Earp was chosen as referee for two reasons: one, he had seen more than his share of fights in the mining camps and boom towns of the West and had refereed quite a few of them; two, he had a reputation for honesty. At the time, a boxing referee was usually called upon to hold the purse, decide on a winner, and award the money, too, so honesty counted for a lot.
As the date for “The Hundred-Round Fight” neared, the promoters gave notice that there would not only be two fights but a bullfight and a cockfight as preliminaries to the main events. Then, a few days before the extravaganza was to take place, the commander of the Mexican army garrison in Tijuana — who was also in charge of the town — realized that his troops were going to be outnumbered by a crowd of whooping, drunken Americans. And he was shrewd enough to guess that a crowd of whooping, drunken Americans could get out of hand pretty quickly and that the melee that might result would not do the career of a Mexican army officer any good. So he decreed that the fights could take place in Mexico, but the spectators would have to stay in the U.S. That’s exactly what happened: the contests between men, bulls, and roosters took place in the bed of the Tijuana River while a crowd of some 3000 people looked on from behind a rope that was rigged up to mark the border.
The National City and Otay Railway had to put on extra cars to take fans from San Diego to the site of the fight, and the cars were full from early afternoon until nightfall. During one trip, a conductor apparently got into the spirit of the day and pulled an elderly man from his seat and began kicking him in the belly for what onlookers later said was either very slight provocation or no provocation at all. (After an account of the incident was published in the San Diego Union, the conductor was forced to take a three-month leave.)
The bullfight was described by those who saw it as mediocre, and the cockfight was said to be worse. In the first boxing match, Gus Brown and Spider Kennedy of San Francisco squared off amid a general chorus of boos; the fight had been advertised as bareknuckle, but these two pros wore skin-tight gloves, which resulted in a little less blood. Kennedy eventually broke his hand on Brown’s jaw, and Brown, a burlier, heavier man, knocked him down decisively in the sixth round.
The second match was between a local blacksmith named William McLaughlin and a longshoreman named James O’Neal. They were said to have a grudge against each other, and their hands were truly bare when they went at it. By the fourth round it was clear that McLaughlin was in trouble, and with one powerful blow O’Neal finally knocked him cold. Earp had no trouble selecting a winner; McLaughlin didn’t regain consciousness for five minutes. The crowd drifted away, Earp climbed back into his stage for the return trip to San Diego, and “The Hundred-Round Fight” was history. The next day the Union teased its readers with the information that one of its photographers had obtained a picture of some of the city’s most important businessmen and well-heeled young blue bloods at the fight “in company with some extremely interesting females.” The photo, if it existed, was never published.
Wyatt Earp sits in the darkened theater in downtown San Diego, watching the actors as they gesture on the stage in front of him. Sadie is sitting next to him, and next to her sit Wyatt's brother Virgil and his wife Allie. Ordinarily Earp is fond of Shakespeare, but the characters in this one — Hamlet — seem to him unnecessarily gloomy and overdrawn. Moreover, the play’s focus on this hapless Danish family and its peculiar son has got him thinking about his own desire to have a family, and in particular a son. It was a constant point of friction between him and Celia; it was one of the reasons he left her. And now Sadie has been unable to get pregnant, too, even though both of them are anxious to raise a family. Earp cannot bring himself to believe what Virgil ’s doctor once said, that it is the Earp men and not their women who are likely the problem. Yet Virgil and Allie are also childless after many years.
His mind wanders to Sadie and how well she seems to get along with his friend Elias “Lucky" Baldwin, a flashy entrepreneur who is notorious for his way with the ladies. Perhaps they are.... Hell no! Should he ask her about it, though? She'd be insulted, terribly insulted. Earp makes a mental note to keep an eye on the situation very closely. Damned if he's going to finally get a son and find out it isn’t his.
At intermission the Earps stand with the other spectators in the lobby. ‘ ‘Don’t much like that little prince fellow,“ Wyatt says in response to Allie's question about the play, and he feels Sadie stiffen next to him. He turns angrily to her, thinking: maybe it was a stupid thing to say; what of it? But she has already let the remark pass and is joking with Virgil about something else. Looking at her dark eyes and delicate mouth, Earp is suddenly filled with a feeling of admiration and love for her. She is a sport, better than most of the men he has known, and with a shock he realizes that Sadie has become the dearest thing in the world to him, and that no matter what happens he is going to spend the rest of his life with her.
One night Earp returned to the house on Third Avenue and told Sadie that a man “had sort of donated” a racehorse to him in a poker game. The horse's name was Otto Rex. Earp exercised and raced it at the old Pacific Beach Racetrack, which once stood on the west side of Interstate 5 near the mouth of Rose Canyon. The racetrack buildings, some of which were still standing in 1935, included a grandstand, a hotel, cottages, and stables. On Sundays, San Diego’s upper crust would ride the San Diego, Pacific Beach, and La Jolla Railway to the racetrack and spend the afternoon betting, swapping stories, and watching the races, in which the horses pulled rubber-tired buggies around an oval track. Wyatt Earp was in some of those races, his face completely expressionless — the way it was in card games — as he urged his horse on.
The Earps did not stay in San Diego long after Wyatt took up horse racing. The real-estate boom slowed and then collapsed when the Santa Fe Railroad moved its shops and general offices to Los Angeles in 1889, but by then the Earps were already traveling again, racing horses in such places as Santa Rosa, Napa, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Later, Earp owned stables in San Francisco and accompanied his horses on a racing circuit that included Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Kansas City. His animals didn’t always win, but when they did he would buy jewelry for Sadie, and she later recalled acquiring a bracelet adorned with rubies and a peacock brooch encrusted with diamonds as direct results of her husband's success at the track.
During these years Earp occasionally returned to San Diego and Escondido to race his horses or to referee a boxing match. But by 1896 he had sold nearly all of his property here, making little or no profit on any of it. He did receive a substantial amount from the eventual sale of his racing interests, and in 1897 he and Sadie sailed to Nome, Alaska to try to cash in on the gold rush there. The Earps returned to California in 1901 and prospected in the deserts of California, Nevada, and Arizona for several years until they struck a relatively rich vein of copper and gold on the west side of the Colorado River, near present-day Parker, Arizona. For almost twenty-five years they spent summers in Los Angeles and winters in a house they built on their desert claim site.
In 1929 Wyatt Earp died in a small, undistinguished cottage in Los Angeles. He was seventy-two. Sadie cradled his dead body in her arms until she was led away, and she was too distraught to attend the funeral. A few days later a close friend of Earp's wrote in a local newspaper: “If the writer could make his epitaph, it would read: Here lies a man.”