The wild west was a period of extraordinary and legendary figures, perhaps none more so than Wyatt Earp. From the criminal antics of Billy the Kid, the shooting skills of Annie Oakley, to the heroics of Wild Bill Hickok, there were many impressive people who achieved greatness in the western era.
Yet, among these figures, one lawman stands out for being one of the most famous and influential individuals of the wild west – Wyatt Earp.
Earp’s life was a rough and tumble one, a life of fighting against crime, doling out justice and making tough decisions. He would be one of the men who participated in the shootout at the O.K. Corral and put to rest three members of the Cochise County Cowboys.
Indeed, the man would become quite famous due to the variety of the activities that he was involved in. Not simply just a lawman, Earp was a gambler, a boxing referee and buffalo hunter, among a few other pursuits.
But for all of the upstanding acts of enforcing the law and keeping the peace, Wyatt had some skeletons in his closet, namely that he had once been thrown in jail — a jail that he then promptly escaped from.
In 1871, Wyatt Earp was having a rough time in his life while living in Missouri. His wife had died of typhoid fever two years ago, he had been sued for falsifying documents and he was suffering financially for it. To make matters worse, he and his two associates, Edward Kennedy and John Shown, were all arrested on the charges of stealing two horses.
According to the accusations by John Shown’s wife, Earp and Kennedy had gotten Shown rather drunk and then threatened him so he would join them in a horse theft escapade.
They were all arrested and thrown in jail, to await their hearing. Thanks to Shown’s wife, he was acquitted. But Earp and Kennedy were both indicted, meaning that they would have to await their trial.
At the time, the legal system was relatively corrupt. Deputy Marshals would often make arrests just so that they could charge the state for their services.
By arresting people on any charge, they would be garnering more fees for themselves, giving them incentives to make arrests when they weren’t necessary. The courts would eventually sort out the innocence of the arrestee, and the marshals would walk away richer. As awful as this might seem, it was a commonplace practice in the west at the time.
Wyatt Earp wasn’t looking forward to the idea of standing before a trial for his supposed crimes. Had he actually stolen horses or was this just another trumped-up charge by the deputy marshals to enrich them? Well, since at the time Wyatt Earp was a lawman, a justice of the peace, it seems rather out of character to participate in such a crime.
Yet at the same time, a lawsuit had led to him suffering financially and the horses were worth $100 each. Selling them would have quickly solved his financial problems.
It is equally possible that Earp was simply a victim of a corrupt justice system or that he had been the one to steal the horses himself. Either way, Wyatt wasn’t about to stick around and wait for a felony conviction to be handed out.
The penalty for horse theft at the time was about 5 years in prison.Wyatt had zero interest in spending the next five years of his life pounding rocks, so he decided to make a break for it.
The escape was rather daring, happening in broad daylight. The jail cell where he was being kept, along with ten other men, was on the second story of the jailhouse, giving them access to the roof.
So, he and a few of the other prisoners began to work together to pry open the roof and create ropes out of blankets. After some time, they were able to get access to the outside world and used the rope to lower themselves out of the jailhouse. All ten men escaped and they quickly went their separate ways.
Wyatt Earp would get out of town and then proceed to head to Illinois, far enough from the reaches of the law. He would continue his career, recovering from this mishap and eventually rising up to the ranks of deputy sheriff in Tombstone, Arizona and then participating in the famous O.K. Corral gunfight.
He would go on to become a towering figure of western history and the case of his horse theft would quickly be forgotten in favor of his more famous exploits.