The question of whether Wyatt Earp was a bona fi de U.S. marshal or an imposter has been asked many times and still is being asked by readers of True West and Frontier Times.
Just what are the facts that lie behind the mystery of the badge Earp wore while in Tombstone?
Some are of the opinion that doubt about Earp’s legal status grew out of Stuart N. Lake’s biography, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal. Although Lake may have gone astray on some of his material, he can hardly be blamed for the story that Earp was a fraud, legally at least. There are more than 20 books bearing copyright dates from 1907 to 1959, and somewhere in most of them will be found a hint that Earp’s status quo may have been in doubt. Only one, however, comes right out and says such was the case. The others make some mention of it but never go so far as to seriously question Wyatt’s legal status.
It is true that there is no record at the Department of Justice in Washington to show that Earp was ever a U.S. marshal. But that proves nothing. Back in the late seventies, U.S. marshals came and went, and how long each stayed on the job depended usually on how many politicians he knew. No accurate record of the appointments was kept until along toward the turn of the century when the business of selecting marshals was systematized.
One night last fall, I was reading Pat Jahns’ biography of Doc Holliday. In his book, Jahns quotes a telegram from Marshal Crawley P. Dake to Acting Attorney General S. F. Phillips. This telegram, while it calls no names, is quite evidently a short report on the 0.K. Corral fights and Dake speaks of “my deputies.” This could only have been a reference to the Earps.
After having read this, I wrote a letter to the Department of Justice to see if this telegram was authentic. The letter was referred to the National Archives for an answer. From a report written in 1941 by Frank D. McAllister, an employee of the National Archives, I began to comprehend the true picture.
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