Virgil Earp: The Truth About Wyatt Earp's Brother

Most everybody knows Wyatt Earp. If you're old enough, or if you're a fan of TV reruns from the 1950s, you remember him as brave, courageous, and bold. Besides not being shot, Wyatt had the good fortune of being lionized by Teddy Roosevelt's press aide, Stuart Lake, in a book titled Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall. It's a stretch to call it a biography, but for the 1930s, it was a ripping good yarn. (Don't bother; it doesn't really hold up.)

Just as interesting, and maybe more so, is the story of Wyatt's older brother, Virgil. Isn't that just like a little brother? Scooting ahead, getting all the attention, leaving you to mutter, "Hey, I was there, too."

Virgil was the second child, born July 18, 1843 in Kentucky. He saw military service during the Civil War, though apparently it was more garrison duty than anything. He had married and fathered a daughter just before he joined up; during his military service, his wife was told he was dead. She moved westward and remarried. When Virgil returned, not from the dead, he apparently didn't look terribly hard before marrying again. That marriage didn't last long, but his next serious relationship, with Alvira (Allie) Sullivan, did –- they were together until his death. There's no evidence they ever married, but hey, it's just a piece of paper, right?

Often held up as paragons of frontier virtue, the sentinels of civilization standing tall against the forces of cowboy barbarity, the fact is both Virgil and Wyatt had rap sheets. Besides the usual mix of prostitution/illegal saloon/fighting/con games, Virgil was arrested and tried not once, but twice, on a charge of arson, in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He was convicted in January 1874, but an error forced a retrial; he was released in May. Later that year he was shot by a prostitute known as "Wild Madge." Seems like comedic understatement.

Virgil managed to stay out of Tombstone's Boot Hill Cemetery

It was Virgil who was serving as city marshal of Tombstone, a political appointment, at the time of the O.K. Corral dustup. He also doubled as a deputy United States Marshal. Boys will be boys, one thing led to another, and before you know it, on October 26, 1881, 30 shots in 30 seconds saw three cowboys perforated to the point of dead by Marshal Earp and his deputized accomplices: brothers Morgan and Wyatt, and a dentist named Holliday. Holliday was grazed on the hip and Morgan took one across his back, chipping a vertebra. Virgil was nailed in the calf. Wyatt emerged unscathed. Show-offy little brothers ...

In the "You shoot my friends? I shoot your friends" days that followed, Virgil's left arm was very nearly blown off by multiple loads of buckshot fired from a close-range ambush. He refused to let the doctor amputate, but the bones were destroyed and he lost the use of that arm for the rest of his life. (Some report that it actually flopped when he ran after a miscreant. Unnerving, at best.) He was off the team for brother Wyatt's Vendetta Ride, but went on to a career prospecting, guarding railroads, gambling, and even continuing in law enforcement, in various capacities, in California.

Probably the sweetest story about the man involves reconnecting with his first wife and daughter and, with Allie, traveling to meet them in Oregon in 1898. The daughter also visited them in California. And when Virgil died of pneumonia in 1905 (yes, Wyatt outlived him), he was buried in River View Cemetery, Portland.