So great is the shadow cast by Tombstone’s 1881 shootout at the OK Corral, it isn’t widely known that the law-enforcement career of Virgil Earp began in Prescott. Its launching point was a prominent saloon on Whiskey Row.
In 1877, the Jackson & Tompkins’ Saloon (where Arts Prescott Gallery sits today) was one of the top four saloons in Prescott. On October 17, Colonel William McCall—a Pennsylvanian who’d been brevetted General during the Civil War—was enjoying a game of billiards therein. That’s when two men—George Wilson (who was calling himself “Mr. Vaughn”) and Robert Tullos (aka John Tallos)—walked in and made a beeline for McCall. One jabbed a pistol in his back while the other whispered threats into the Colonel’s ear.
Why? Eight years previous, McCall had been spending time near the Texas/Oklahoma border. While there, he learned Wilson had murdered Robert Broaddus, the sheriff of Montague County, Texas. Most likely, McCall had played a part in the attempted apprehension of Wilson, who proved elusive. The murderer fled into Colorado before eventually journeying to Prescott. To his surprise, he spotted McCall there and knew he was aware of his crime.
Somehow, McCall escaped and fled the saloon. He bolted straight into the office of C.F. Cate, the Justice of the Peace. Cate issued an arrest warrant for “Mr. Vaughn” and “John Doe;” Tullos was actually a stranger to McCall. The warrant was given to village Marshal Frank Murray, who immediately strode over to Jackson & Tompkins’, followed by McCall.
Prior to their arrival, the two no-goods—clearly soused—stepped outside, and one took a potshot at a dog. When Murray arrived, that’s the offense for which Wilson and Tullos believed they were being held accountable. Both pulled their pistols, quickly mounted up and galloped their horses up Montezuma Street while shooting to the left and right, like a scene from a Western movie.
Murray gathered an all-star posse, but it took some time, giving the desperadoes an advantage.
Somewhere in town, three men were engaged in friendly conversation, apparently far enough away so as to be oblivious to what had just transpired. Two were high-ranking lawmen. One was Yavapai County Sheriff Ed Bowers, who, along with Murray, would pursue on horseback. The other was Wiley Standefer, U.S. Marshal. He and McCall jumped aboard a horse-drawn carriage.
The third was Virgil Earp, new to Prescott and so little-known the Miner called him “Mr. Earb.” Virgil had never been an official lawman, but was toting his Winchester rifle. He was promptly deputized. However, he presently had no horse, and there was room for only two on the carriage. He would have to keep up on foot!
Wilson and Tullos were expected to be far up the trail by now. How long would Virgil last? Fortunately, the chase wouldn’t be a heroic, Western movie-like affair, but more like an act from Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles. The outlaws, instead of distancing themselves, stopped near the upper edge of town and dismounted with pistols drawn, probably less than a mile from Whiskey Row.
Standefer and McCall, leading the posse and moving fast, rode right by the fugitives. Lucky break? Yes, until one of them shouted, “Don’t run over us, you s— of a b—!” The two posse members halted and turned their pistols on the outlaws while Murray and Bowers rode up and did the same. Earp quickly caught up, positioned himself in between and shouldered his Winchester. After hearing the demand to surrender, Wilson vociferously entreated God to have mercy on his “poor drunken, worthless” soul. The criminals opened fire.
Bullets and buckshot came from three directions. Wilson fell immediately when a bullet penetrated his skull. He hung on for two days before passing. Tullos died instantly after being shot eight times, almost all from Virgil’s Winchester rifle.
This episode proved Virgil was a man who could be counted on. He was soon appointed Prescott’s night watchman, and later elected constable. Late in 1879, younger brother Wyatt arrived in Prescott with Doc Holliday. Shortly after, Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan Earp - and eight months later Holliday - gathered in Tombstone. In 1881, in a 30-second gunfight, they shot their way into eternal fame.
“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at email@example.com for information.