Over the years, a lot of famous people have been born in Illinois: Ronald Reagan, Richard Pryor, Walt Disney, Cindy Crawford, Bill Murray, and Archbishop Fulton Sheen. But maybe the most surprising are the cowboys: Wild Bill Hickok and Wyatt Earp were Central Illinois natives.
Wyatt Earp’s birthplace is in Monmouth. There’s some dispute over where his exact birthplace is, there’s no disputing Earp’s fame.
Earp has been portrayed in about fifty movies and TV shows. Some of the actors who’ve portrayed him include Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, Burt Lancaster, James Garner (twice), Kevin Costner, and Kurt Russell. There was a Star Trek episode and even a TV movie called “I married Wyatt Earp” with MAria Osmond.
That legacy isn’t bad for a fellow who was an accused horse thief, and who – when arrested in Peoria in 1872 for running a house of prostitution – was referred to as the “Peoria Bummer”.
Wyatt’s only marriage to Urilla Southerland in 1870 ended when she and her unborn child died of typhus a year into the marriage.
After that, he was always on the move. Wyatt Earp is best known for the shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone on October 26, 1881. What’s less well-known is that the Earps and Doc Holliday were charged with murder afterward. Only after a 30-day hearing were charges dropped. Earp was charged with murder again after his “Vendetta Ride”, after the men who shot two of his brothers. Facing arrest, Earp headed for Colorado, where the Governor refused to extradite him.
By 1896, Wyatt was in California, and refereeing the heavyweight fight between Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey. Fitzimmons was winning when Earp ruled in favor of Sharkey, saying Fitzsimmons landed a low blow. There was a public outcry that Earp had fixed the fight.
Earp was in Southern California when the movie business began there. He became and unpaid advisor to director John Ford, telling how the Wild West was.
“He would get on the streetcar and come up to Universal Studios,” says Ford. “I didn’t know anything about the OK Corral and Wyatt described the fight fully.”
Wyatt Earp talked with a young movie prop man, a UCLA student named Marion Morrison. Years later, Morrison – now renamed John Wayne – recalled that as an actor he was imitating Wyatt Earp.
Wyatt Earp’s life was full of contradictions, but one thing the man from Monmouth left behind was the image of what the Old Wild West was like.