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Outlaws | Vintage Photos

The Phillips Collection featuring

James Earp

By Cathleen Briley
Information is abundant. Thanks to the internet, it is easy to find out all you want about a historical figure's life if you are willing to put in the time and cross check for accuracy. In researching Old West figures, birth dates, death dates, life events, and brushes with the law are all quite available. And, should that historical figure have ever gotten into a gunfight, well then, you can find an abundance of details and often many colorful versions of the event to feed your cravings.

Because the Old West characters are long gone and we can't possibly ever know them, researchers have used their words and actions to try to establish a personality for them because, I guess, we tend to crave to truly know our heroes and villains. Most of the time, this is for portrayal purposes, and everyone who loves or loves to hate that personality will have an opinion about the portrayer's accuracy. But, should a historical figure be more obscure, it can be difficult to discern what that person was like just based on raw historical data.

The historical figure being featured in this article is James Earp. I've done a fair amount of research into James' life, and I have to admit that I was a little stumped about how to present him and make it entertaining. James is certainly not the most exciting of the Earp brothers. He didn't do what his brother's did. He didn't make a habit of being in law enforcement, he rarely handled a gun, he didn't get involved in gunfights, and he didn't make headlines. But, I will tell you what he did do.

James Cooksey Earp was born in June of 1841 while the Earp family was still living in Kentucky. The Earp family would move around the country a great deal, settling in Pella, Iowa for several years. It was while living in Pella that James enlisted to fight on the Union side in the Civil War. But, unlike the older Earp brothers who were also fighting, James' service was cut short. He was wounded in a battle near Fredericktown, Missouri, and he lost some of the use of his left arm as a result.

James joined his family as they traveled to California but split off from them and did some major traveling of his own. He was known to have been in Idaho City, Boise, Walla Walla, Cheyenne, Helena, Deer Lodge, Butte, Deadwood, Seattle, Salt Lake City, and Leadville, Colorado.

By 1872, James was in Peoria, Illinois where he was running a brothel with Bessie (Nellie "Bessie" Bartlett Catchim), who he would marry the following year. Bessie was born around 1841 in New York, and had two children from a previous relationship, Frank and Hattie (short for Harriett). It was at this point in his life that James became very predictable and there was a definite pattern to his choice of lifestyle.

James and Bessie moved to Wichita in 1874 where they were soon joined by James' brother Wyatt. Bessie would be fined by the court several times for being involved with prostitution. By 1876, James and Bessie were in Dodge City running another brothel. For a very short period of time, James worked as a deputy marshal under Charlie Bassett. But, during 1877-1878, James was again bartending, but this time in Fort Worth. By 1879, the Earp's were moving southwesterly and headed to Tombstone. James, yet again, worked as a bartender.

James was not involved with the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. When Morgan Earp was shot to death in March of 1882 in retaliation for that gunfight, James accompanied his brother's body on a train to Colton, California. Predictably, James then became a bartender in Colton.

For comparison purposes, the photo on the left is of James Earp courtesy of Wikipedia. The photo on the right (oval) is James Earp from the Phillips Collection:
James Earp
James Earp
In 1884, James and Bessie joined Wyatt and Josephine Earp in Eagle City, Idaho on another mining venture. By 1886, James and Bessie were in San Bernardino, California where Bessie would die just a year later. By 1888, James was again running a saloon. James Earp lived a long life, and died at the age of 85 in 1926 in California.

When I look into the eyes of James Earp, I don't see the determination that Wyatt Earp had, I don't see the confidence and steadfastness of Virgil Earp, and I don't see the spark and the twinkle of Morgan Earp. I see a different man altogether. Further, I've read about a man who was different from his brothers. Maybe I'm drawing too many conclusions, but I see a man who is more thoughtful. Yes, James has been portrayed in the movies as the happy-go-lucky bartender who not only allowed his wife to be involved in prostitution, but seemed to have promoted her lifestyle. Quite contrary to that persona, I see a man who may have been a little tortured. He must have suffered severely. He enlisted in May of 1861 in the Union Arm and was wounded in October of 1862 when a bullet entered his left shoulder and existed through his breastbone. His recovery time must have been lengthy, and I have to assume that the wounds and death that he witnessed during his fighting time and his recovery time before he went back home must have been horrific.

I might be seeing a more contemplative man when I look at James Earp because maybe he was tired of guns and bloodshed. Maybe he wanted a less stressful lifestyle. Maybe his focus was to be with Bessie, the woman he seemed to have loved dearly and accepted for just who she was. Maybe he didn't need or want any sort of spotlight. Maybe he just wanted to live his life his way. No, James didn't have a fiery personality to write about, but that was no failure of his, it was my failing not to see him as an individual. I was, in the beginnings of my research, disappointed because he didn't live up to my expectations of what it means to be an Earp. But, I was very wrong.

Mrs. Earp, The Wives and Lovers of the Earp Brothers, by Sherry Monahan, Twodot, Guilford, Connecticut, 2013.

James Earp. (2015, August 25). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:03, August 27, 2015, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=James_Earp&oldid=677712904

http://www.sbsun.com/social-affairs/20140721/james-earp-the-forgotten-one, September 18, 2015

Wyatt Earp, The Life Behind the Legend, by Casey Tefertiller, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997
© Cathleen Briley
October 10, 2015 Feature

The Phillips Collection :

Introduction | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10

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