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This Week in Illinois History: Birth of Wyatt Earp, the Peoria Bummer (March 19, 1848)

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Wyatt Earp in 1869, around the time he got into his first gunfight outside a brothel in Beardstown, Illinois.

On March 19, 1848, legendary Western lawman Wyatt Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois. He was the fifth of ten children. The family moved to Iowa just a couple years later and eventually to California. Earp, who described himself as perpetually restless and reckless, worked odd jobs throughout the West. Despite his reputation as a courageous lawman, many knew Wyatt Earp as a quick-tempered drunk, a thief, a swindler, a con artist and a pimp.

In 1869, 21-year-old Earp returned to Monmouth to visit relatives. While looking for work in Beardstown, Illinois, Earp got in a fight inside a brothel with Tom Piner. In his first of many gunfights, Earp shot Piner in the hip.

Earp became a constable in Lamar, Missouri, but he was arrested for stealing horses. He broke out of jail and fled to Peoria, where he worked as a pimp and bouncer in his brother’s brothel. After multiple arrests, Earp found work on a floating brothel running on the Illinois River between Beardstown and Peoria. The local paper described him as the “Peoria Bummer,” a term for a habitual criminal, a drain on public resources.

Around 1873, Earp left Illinois for good. He headed to Wichita, Kansas, to work in another brother’s brothel. In Wichita, legendary career in Western law enforcement really began, though he moved regularly and was dogged by accusations of nepotism, corruption and using his position for personal gain, including murdering his enemies.

Many of Earp’s detractors claimed that he and his brothers were no better than the outlaws they hunted. But Earp outlived his critics, took his story to Hollywood in the 1920s, and shaped his own legend. He died in 1929 at the age of 80.

Earp’s birthplace in Monmouth still stands as a monument to this complicated Old West lawman.

Clint Cargile is the host of This Week in Illinois History and the creator and host of the podcast Drinkin’ with Lincoln.
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