Gunslinger in the Avenues

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Gunslinger in the Avenues

by Woody LaBounty

The San Francisco Call caricatures Wyatt Earp after his controversial refereeing of a title fight in 1896. - San Francisco Call

Wyatt Earp, the gunslinging icon of O.K. Corral fame, once called San Francisco his favorite city, and lived here with his wife in the 1890s.

In 1896, the city directory listed his residence as 514A Seventh Avenue in the Richmond District. His occupation showed as "horseman."

While it's true that Earp managed horses in the Bay Area, the directory listing could have easily referred to the amount of time Earp spent at the Ingleside Racetrack. Always a gambler, the now-legendary marshal from Tombstone became a heavy drinker in San Francisco, and, true-to-form, an object of controversy.

Good Year/Bad Year

In the summer of 1896, Earp prepared a memoir of his six-shooter days. A ghostwriter pumped up the lurid prose and Earp's friend William Randolph Hearst, ran it in the San Francisco Examiner. The retold tales of Tombstone, Arizona, made Wyatt a celebrity again in the big city.

Wyatt Earp House - 514 Seventh Avenue -

The new notoriety put the former lawman in an odd position at the end of the year. Wyatt Earp was recruited to referee a boxing match, of all things. Not just any match, either, but the world championship between Tom Sharkey and Bob Fitzsimmons. The National Athletic Club believed there could be no better judge than "the bravest fighter, squarest gambler, best friend and worst enemy ever known on the frontier."

Earp stepped into the ring that night, and then stepped into one uproar after another. First, a police captain, noticing a bulge in the referee's pocket, disarmed the old lawman of a Colt revolver. What kind of fight had Earp expected? Then Earp ended the bout in the eighth round when Sharkey went down, apparently the victim of a blow to the groin. Earp called it a foul on Fitzsimmons, awarded the championship to Sharkey and the fur began to fly.

Had Sharkey faked being hit in the groin? A poll of fifty-four eyewitnesses by the Examiner had twenty-eight saying no foul, seventeen saying yes, and nine shrugging their shoulders.

The San Francisco Call couldn't decide if Wyatt Earp was a dupe, a bought man, or merely blind. In the end, they settled for rehashing Earp's history, recasting him as a coward, cheater, and frontier "bad man." The papers featured cartoons and caricatures of Earp as a buffoon.

From hailed hero to local joke in one year, Earp and his wife took off for Alaska in 1897. But he did return to the Bay Area. When he died in Los Angeles in 1929, his remains were interred by his wife in the Jewish section of the Hills of Eternity Cemetery in Colma, California.

Sources: Casey Tefertiller, Wyatt Earp, The Life Behind the Legend, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997) and Jerry Flamm, Hometown San Francisco, (San Francisco: Scottwall Associates, 1994).

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Page updated 7 January 2017.