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Wyatt Earp Trial: 1881

A Mysterious Stage Coach Robbery

On March 15, 1881, several masked men attempted to hold up a stagecoach leaving Tombstone. The driver and a passenger were killed. Behan's posse included Wyatt and Morgan Earp and their friend, Doc Holliday. Some people said the hunters were hunting themselves. Doc Holliday had been seen shortly after the robbery, riding furiously away from the scene. Further, Holliday was a close friend of Bill Leonard, one of three men identified by Luther King, who held the outlaws' horses. King did not identify Holliday, but as the ferocious little dentist was in the posse, he may not have thought that wise. Later, Big Nose Kate Elder, Holliday's mistress, told the sheriff that Doc had killed both of the holdup victims. When she sobered up, she recanted.

The holdup triggered a deterioration of relations between the cowboys and Wyatt Earp's clique. Leonard and the two others identified by King, Harry Head and Jim Crane, were all known rustlers. But with an election coming up, Earp did not want to sever his ties with the cowboy faction. He went to Ike Clanton and Frank McLaury, members of the faction, with a proposition.

"I told them that I wanted the glory of capturing Leonard, Head and Crane," Earp testified later. "And if I could do it, it would help make the race for sheriff at the next election. I told them… I would give them all of the reward and would never let anyone know where I got the information."

Ike Clanton agreed, Virgil Earp later testified. Clanton agreed even though it would mean the death of his friends, testifying that Earp told him he had to kill the robbers.

"He said his business was such that he could not afford to capture them. He would have to kill them or else leave the county." According to Clanton, Wyatt and Morgan Earp were inside men in the robbery, while Holliday was one of the gunmen.

As it turned out, Leonard, Head, and Crane were all killed by other people shortly after Clanton agreed to help Wyatt.

Wyatt Earp went to Ike Clanton with another proposition. He suggested that Clanton and his friends stage a fake coach robbery. The Earp brothers and Holliday would come on the scene and scare away the "robbers." Nobody would be hurt, and Wyatt Earp would have added luster for his political campaign. Clanton was far from sure that nobody would be hurt. He refused. After Clanton's rejection of Earp's second proposition, hostility between the two men and their close associates increased tremendously.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882Wyatt Earp Trial: 1881 - A Mysterious Stage Coach Robbery, Trouble Brewing, Shootout, The Hearing, Aftermath, Suggestions For Further Reading