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When Wyatt Earp was the 'Peoria Bummer'

Wyatt Earp, age 21, in 1869 or 1870.
Wikipedia / Public domain
Wyatt Earp, age 21, in a photograph taken in 1869 or 1870.

Before lawman Wyatt Earp was involved in the famous Wild West gunfight at the OK Corral, he was a common troublemaker in Peoria.

Born in 1848 in Monmouth, Earp grew up in western Illinois and Iowa. A couple years after his first gunfight in Beardstown, Earp was arrested in Missouri.

"Wyatt ran into trouble with the law out west," said Dr. Victoria Loberg, author of the book Peoria's Bad Habits: From Wyatt Earp Through the Woodruff Years.

Loberg said there are a few different versions of Earp's arrest. Some say he was arrested for misappropriating money while serving as town marshal in Lamar, Mo. Another tale claims he was jailed for stealing horses.

In any event, Earp escaped jail in 1871 and ended up in Peoria, where his brother Virgil was working as a bartender at the time.

Earp soon became an infamous character in Peoria. He lived in Jane Haspel's brothel at Washington and Hamilton in what was then the city's red light district.

"He was a ne'er-do-well, actually" said Loberg. "And they had bad things to say about him in the local newspaper. They called him a 'bummer,' which is essentially another term for vagrant."

Earp and his brother Morgan were arrested multiple times in Peoria for "keeping and being found in a house of ill fame."

"During another arrest, they didn't pay the fine. And so they had to go to jail. And the newspapers really played that up, that he had to spend time in the calaboose, and so forth," said Loberg.

Eventually, the Earp brothers returned to Missouri for their sister's 11th birthday party, extravagant presents in tow.

"Where did they get the money, if they didn't have the money to pay the fine in Peoria? So one story was, 'Oh, we've been out hunting buffalo. And some historians think that was just a cover for the time they spent in jail in Peoria," said Loberg.

Earp went back to Peoria after a while, where he was arrested on a keelboat believed to be operating as a floating brothel on the Illinois River.

"They (the police) raid the boat. And people, those trying to escape, didn't make it. They were all captured," said Loberg, noting that Earp was caught in the company of a woman.

After paying his fines following that arrest, Earp left Peoria for good. But Loberg said he would continue to get caught up in similar escapades throughout much of the rest of his life.

"No one understands the whole image of Earp is based on the 1950s TV show 'Life and Times of Wyatt Earp,' played by the very handsome Hugh O'Brien. And the song says 'brave, courageous and bold; long may his story be told.' Not so much," said Loberg.

To learn more about Loberg's book or to purchase a copy, Peoria's Bad Habis: From Wyatt Earp Through the Woodruff Years," email her.

Tim is the News Director at WCBU Peoria Public Radio.