Inside the Arizona History Museum beside the University of Arizona campus, held in a glass display, is a cream handled Colt .45 revolver that museum officials say once belonged to Tombstone legend Wyatt Earp.
Not so fast, say some gun collectors and the pre-eminent historian of Tombstone history.
Laraine Daly Jones, collections manager at the museum, located at 949 E 2nd St., says the .45 caliber Colt Model 1873 Single-Action Army revolver once belonged to American West legend and lawman Wyatt Earp.
Others say there’s reason to be skeptical of its origin, simply because there are so many unknowns about his life.
“There are more lies told about Tombstone and guys like Doc Holliday, Curly Bill (William Brocius), Johnny Ringo, and Wyatt Earp than any other section of the country,” says longtime Tombstone historian Ben Traywick.
Traywick, who has studied Wyatt Earp for decades, is skeptical of this gun. He does not know what became of the gun that Earp used in the O.K. Corral gunfight in 1881. He does not believe Earp would have replaced the gun he used at the historic gunfight.
According to Neil B. Carmony, author of Lincoln Ellsworth, Wyatt Earp’s Most Ardent Fan, through the Quarterly of the National Association for Outlaw and Lawman History, the serial number of the museum gun proves it was manufactured in 1883. There is no record that Earp ever bought or used the gun. The date itself proves it could not be the gun used in the O.K. Corral shootout.
For Traywick, the timeline is more telling. He believes Earp would have only obtained the gun after leaving Tombstone in 1882. He left for Colorado with his wife and they eventually found themselves in San Diego in 1886. Jones says Earp likely owned it in the 1890s when he went up to Alaska to prospect gold.
Traywick says when Earp left Tombstone he would have had his O.K. Corral gun. “I acquaint myself with him. If I had a gun I liked, I wouldn’t trade it or buy another one.”
The only thing Traywick recalls about Earp’s guns after he left Tombstone is that Earp’s common-law wife, Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp, who travelled to Alaska with her husband, dropped one of Earp’s guns over the side of a boat.
Could Earp’s O.K. Corral gun be at the bottom of the Bering Sea? Possibly. If Earp obtained a new gun after this happened, the gun on display could be it. It’s also possible Earp purchased an additional gun after leaving Tombstone and before the Alaskan voyage.
Concerns also rise about Earp’s wife. After he died in 1929, she capitalized on his fame and began selling his memorabilia. Traywick says that according to one person who lived with her, she often purchased goods at pawnshops and re-sold them as once belonging to Earp. Others say she never did that.
There is evidence that Josephine took it upon herself to give Earp’s memorabilia to people such as novelists and biographers who in her view were sympathetic of her husband.
Jones says Ellsworth, one of Earp’s most loyal admirers, obtained the gun. Josephine wrote numerous letters to Ellsworth and in at least one letter she said she was going to give him one of Earp’s guns.
According to Carmony, the first two letters Josephine wrote to Ellsworth in October and November of 1936 likely referenced this same gun.
Ellsworth, at one point, purchased a ship to lead an exhibition to the Antarctic. He christened that ship the “Wyatt Earp.” Jones says her records show Ellsworth made the journey with the gun above his bed.
In 1987, Ellsworth’s widow gave the gun to the Arizona Historical Society.
Jones believes the gun did belong to Earp, although no hard evidence exists.
Traywick offers a different spin. He said Earp never talked much, so it should come as no surprise that the gun’s origin remains a mystery.
“I bet you Wyatt didn’t have another pistol other than the one he used at the O.K. Corral.”
Zachary Pleeter is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.