By Brad Courtney & Ron Williams
Few realize Virgil Earp’s law-enforcement career began in Prescott following an incident on Whiskey Row, although when Virgil and wife Allie originally arrived in 1877, he delivered mail, drove a wagon, and reputedly ran a saw mill below Thumb Butte.
On October 17, 1877, Colonel William McCall was in Jackson & Tompkins’ Saloon when two men—George Wilson and Robert Tullos—walked in and headed for McCall. One jabbed a pistol in his back while the other whispered threats.
Eight years earlier, Wilson had murdered Robert Broaddus, sheriff of Montague County, Texas. Now in Prescott, Wilson spotted McCall and knew he was aware of his crime.
Somehow, McCall escaped, bolting straight to C.F. Cate, Justice of the Peace. Cate issued an arrest warrant and gave it to village Constable Frank Murray, who strode over to Jackson & Tompkins’ with McCall.
Meanwhile, the two soused no-goods stepped outside and took a potshot at a dog. When Murray arrived, Wilson and Tullos believed they were being held accountable for that. Both pulled pistols, quickly mounted and galloped south down Montezuma Street, shooting left and right.
Constable Murray gathered a posse of three men nearby, one being Yavapai County Sheriff Ed Bowers, who, with Murray, pursued on horseback. The other was Wiley Standefer, U.S. Marshal. He and McCall jumped aboard a horse-drawn carriage.
The third was Virgil Earp, so little-known in Prescott the Miner called him “Mr. Earb.” Virgil, never an official lawman, had his Winchester rifle and was promptly deputized. However, with no horse and room for only two on the carriage, he had to keep up on foot!
Wilson and Tullos were expected to be far up the trail by now, but instead, they stopped near the southern edge of town and dismounted with pistols drawn. Standefer and McCall, leading the posse, rode by the fugitives until one shouted, “Don’t run over us, you s— of a b—!” The two posse members halted and turned their pistols on the outlaws, while Murray and Bowers did the same. Earp quickly caught up and shouldered his Winchester. The criminals opened fire.
Bullets and buckshot came from three directions. Wilson fell immediately when a bullet penetrated his skull, hanging on two days before passing. Tullos died instantly after being shot eight times, largely by Virgil’s Winchester.
This episode proved Virgil was a man who could be counted on. He was soon appointed Prescott’s night watchman and later elected constable.
Virgil was joined in Prescott in 1879 by younger brother Wyatt, “Doc” Holliday, and “Big Nose” Kate Horony. Before leaving Prescott for Tombstone, Virgil was appointed deputy U.S. marshal of Pima County, ensuring he would have clout in Tombstone.
Within six months of arriving in Tombstone, Wyatt was appointed Pima County deputy sheriff. When Tombstone Marshal Fred White was killed in October 1880, Virgil was appointed interim marshal. In a special election in November, Virgil lost to Ben Sippy. The regular election was held two months later. Virgil again lost to Sippy.
However, when Sippy fled town in June 1881, leaving unpaid debts and unbalanced books, Virgil was again appointed interim marshal, holding that office until removed because of the O.K. Corral gunfight. The gunfight and subsequent “Vendetta Ride” ended Wyatt’s peace officer career. Virgil’s, on the other hand, continued another 20 years.
After recovering from injuries sustained in Tombstone, Virgil was elected constable of Colton, California, in 1886. Later, he was elected Colton’s first city marshal and re-elected in 1888.
Virgil left Colton in 1888 and drifted around the west, returning to Prescott in 1895, where he worked as special constable. Despite having the use of only one arm, Virgil was nominated as Republican candidate for Yavapai County sheriff but declined.
Virgil left Yavapai County in 1903. Within a year, he and Allie settled in Goldfield, Nevada, where he worked as Esmerelda County deputy sheriff until he contracted pneumonia and died at age 62. Although Wyatt was a lawman for only 11 years, Virgil worked as a peace officer, in one capacity or another, for 27 years.
Join Prescott Constable Ron Williams and author/historian Brad Courtney for the low down and in-depth stories when they present “Virgil Earp: Toughest of the Earps!” on May 18 at 2 p.m. in the Lawlor Building at the Sharlot Hall Museum.
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