THE EASTERN EARPS

THE BALTIMORE SUN

To lovers of Wild West folklore, he's Wyatt Earp - lawman, saloonkeeper, gambler, quick-triggered centerpiece of the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral.

To Charles Earp Jr. of Catonsville and Pamela Earp Young of Ellicott City, he's cousin Wyatt.

That the man who almost single-handedly defines the Wild West would have a couple of relatives in Maryland - and that those relatives would meet by coincidence - is perhaps not as far afield as it might seem.

As it turns out, the Earp clan got its start in the United States when Thomas Earp Jr. of Ireland came to the Baltimore area in the 17th century as an indentured servant.

Young, director of marketing at Erickson Health, met Earp several weeks ago when he was recovering from a medical condition at the rehabilitation center at Charlestown Retirement Community, where he has lived for four years and which is owned by Erickson.

"The best part for me is that I've located an Earp cousin who is such an interesting octogenarian," said Young of her relative, who is 88. "He's done so much research on the Earp family, and he connected me to a history that my brother and I have talked about all our lives."

Their meeting has given Earp, the last living member of his family line, an opportunity to share history with a nearby relative.

The man who earned a history degree from the Johns Hopkins University in 1938 has been tracking Wyatt Earp's background for more than 50 years, which has given him a sense of familiarity: Charles Earp refers to his distant cousin on a first-name basis and tells Wyatt's story the way older relatives pass down family history to the younger generation.

"Wyatt was born in Monmouth, Ill., and the family migrated to Iowa during the Civil War period," he said. "He tried to enlist, but he was only 13 years old and it happened that his father was the recruiting officer, so as soon as he saw Wyatt show up, he took him by the scruff of his neck and took him home. So he stayed on the family farm during the war."

While tracing Earp genealogy, he discovered that the family's American history dates to July 6, 1674, when indentured servant Thomas Earp Jr. came to Anne Arundel County from Ireland. He is buried in St. Anne's Parish in Annapolis.

And although Wyatt Earp was born in Illinois in 1848 and spent most of his life west of the Mississippi River, his great grandfather Philip was born in 1755 in Frederick County.

A shared history

Charles Earp shared his genealogical information with Young, who had grown up hearing stories about her family's connection to Wyatt Earp.

Her sole proof had been her family's genealogy handwritten in a Bible that had been passed down for generations.

Earp helped Young trace the names in the Bible all the way down to her father - former Washington-area radio announcer and off-Broadway actor Shelton Earp Jr.

"Growing up, my father always told us that we were related to Wyatt Earp and that his grandfather said he was first cousins to Wyatt Earp," Young said. "I didn't have any confirmation until now."

Imagine naming among your kinfolk an historical icon, someone whose fame has grown to mythical proportions and who helped spawn the country's fascination with cowboys, frontiersmen and gun-blazing confrontations in saloons of two-horse towns.

Young and Earp are grateful that the stories they heard as youngsters turned out to be true - particularly at a time when there is renewed interest in Wyatt Earp.

Charles Earp can remember when his cousin's legend had all but disappeared from the American landscape, only to be revived repeatedly by Hollywood: first with the television series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which starred Hugh O'Brian and debuted Sept. 6, 1955 (making it the first TV Western geared to adults, beating Gunsmoke by four days), and more recently with the 1993 movie Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell as Earp, and the 1994 film Wyatt Earp, which starred Kevin Costner.

"My name used to be hard to catch or to spell," said Earp, "but since Wyatt's name came to fame again due to the movies, the minute I say my name's Earp ... the standard question is, 'Are you related to Wyatt?' and they're surprised when I say, 'Yes.'"

Charles Earp is among several family members who have traced the family history. His research helped two Earp descendents - Irmalee Earp Williams of Bumpass, Va., and Sharron Spencer of Grapevine, Texas - during their 10 years of tracing family history.

Their efforts led to the 2000 book The Earp Family in America.

Williams said their findings were confirmed by archivists. "We gotten a lot of our family lines," she said, "but it's almost impossible to get all of them."

Still, she and Spencer culled enough background on their famous cousin to dedicate a chapter to him.

Our Cousin: Wyatt Earp tells of a free spirit whose father taught him and his siblings to be disciplined and tough.

Earp married three times, lived an itinerant life and left no direct descendents: Earp's first wife, Urilla, was pregnant when she died of typhoid fever shortly before their first wedding anniversary. He and his second wife, Mattie, never had children and subsequently separated. She died of a laudanum overdose. While he and his third wife, Josephine, had two children, they both died in infancy.

He earned a reputation for poise and decisiveness under pressure. During his tenure as marshal in Dodge City, Kan., the Ford County (Kansas) Globe called Earp "The most efficient officer Dodge has ever had." He drew praise from the townspeople for his handling of rowdy cowboys; at a time when confrontations often ended in gunfire, Earp instead subdued the mavericks with a blow to the head from the butt of his pistol.

Wyatt Earp earned his greatest fame in Tombstone, Ariz., site of the OK Corral gunfight in which he, two of his brothers and Doc Holliday faced off against four members of the infamous Clanton gang Oct. 26, 1881. The gunfight lasted 30 seconds.

Three members of the Clanton gang were killed and Ike Clanton fled during the fight, while Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded.

The next day, the Tombstone Nugget newspaper included in its account of the showdown: "Wyatt Earp stood and fired in rapid succession, as cool as a cucumber and was not hit. Doc Holliday was as calm as at target practice, and fired rapidly."

"Wyatt Earp was an ordinary man, much like the people who settled the West, but he was placed in precarious situations," said Ben Traywick, Tombstone's official historian.

"Wyatt Earp was an excellent lawman," he said, "until the law didn't function as it should."

The aftermath

While the Earps and Holliday were hailed around the country as heroes, rumors spread that they fired on unarmed men. Traywick said that the Earp brothers and Holliday were brought before a justice of the peace to determine whether there was enough evidence to submit the issue to a grand jury. The verdict: not enough evidence.

Earp was clearly not a man to cross and would take justice into his own hands. After a gang of men murdered Morgan and left Virgil partially paralyzed in an ambush, Earp rounded up a posse, deputized them and the group gunned down three of the accused perpetrators.

He was charged with murdering the men who attacked his brothers and fled to Colorado.

Said Charles Earp: "The governor of Colorado would not extradite him [to face murder charges] so he was free, but he was never able to go to Arizona again."

Wyatt Earp lived in Nevada, Idaho and Alaska before settling in California, where he took jobs such as mining, prospecting, gambling and refereeing (boxing).

When he ultimately moved to Los Angeles, he and Josephine, became part of the Hollywood in-crowd.

Earp died Jan. 13, 1929, at 80. His death certificate lists his cause of death as chronic cystitis.

"One of the little-known things about Wyatt is that he is buried in a Jewish cemetery," Charles Earp said. "His third wife was Jewish, and though I don't think he ever embraced any faith, when he died she buried him in a family plot [in Colma, California]."

Though he spent most of his career in human resources, Charles Earp has always been immersed in history. In 1938, he spent three days at the 75th reunion of the battle of Gettysburg and interviewed soldiers who took part.

The more he has learned about his distant cousin, the more he has embraced the good and the bad of Wyatt's legacy. "Wyatt was a very controversial character," Earp said. "He was either a villain or a hero, depending on who you heard the story from.

"I naturally am very partial to him," added Earp, "and I tend to support him when there are discussions or arguments about whether he wore a white hat or a black hat. I'm forced to admit he was probably somewhere in between; he was not exactly the hero that Hugh O'Brian used to depict."

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