James Cooksey Earp (June 28, 1841 – January 25, 1926) was a lesser known older brother of Old West lawman Virgil Earp and lawman/gambler Wyatt Earp. Unlike his brothers, he was a saloon-keeper and was not present at the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881.
Civil War service
Earp was born in Hartford, Kentucky, and was reared in a tight-knit family environment. In 1861, at 19, he enlisted in the Union Army at the outbreak of the American Civil War, joining Company F, 17th Illinois Infantry in May, 1861. His brothers, Virgil and Newton Earp, also enlisted. His service was cut short when he was wounded in the shoulder, having lost the use of his left arm, in a battle near Fredericktown, Missouri, on October 31, 1861. He was discharged in March, 1863. Newton and Virgil served until the end of the war.
Life in the West
Following the war, James moved around quite frequently, an Earp family trait. He lived in Colton, California, Helena, Montana, Pineswell, Missouri, Birmingham and Newton, Kansas, before he wed the former prostitute, Nellie "Bessie" Ketchum, in April 1873.
For some time thereafter, he worked in a saloon in Wichita, Kansas, and then as a deputy marshal in Dodge City, Kansas, under Marshal Charlie Bassett, who had replaced Ed Masterson after Masterson's murder.
In December 1879, he and his wife moved to Tombstone in Pima County in southern Arizona, along with his brothers Wyatt and Virgil. His brothers Warren and Morgan and his wife Louisa joined them there in late 1880. The three younger brothers became involved in law enforcement in Tombstone, while James managed a saloon and worked in gambling houses.
He was not present at the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral on October 26, 1881. On December 28, 1881, his brother Virgil Earp was ambushed, shot three times with a shotgun. He survived, but only two months later on March 18, 1882, his brother Morgan Earp was assassinated in a billiard parlor.
The New Mexico and Arizona Railroad ended about 25 miles (40 km) away in Benson, Arizona. On Sunday, March 19, Wyatt and James Earp accompanied Morgan's body in a wagon to Benson, where it was loaded onto a freight train for immediate shipping to Colton. Morgan's wife was already in Colton, where she had traveled for safety before her husband was killed. James Earp and two or three close friends accompanied the body to California. Virgil and his wife Allie Earp followed the next day on a passenger train.
Wyatt Earp and James' youngest brother, Warren—with gambler Doc Holliday and gunmen Sherman McMaster, "Turkey Creek" Jack Johnson, and Texas Jack Vermillion—then hunted down those they held responsible for the attacks during the Earp Vendetta Ride.
Morgan was buried in Colton, California. James then lived for a short time in Shoshone County, Idaho, until settling permanently by 1890 in California.
James Earp died of natural causes in San Bernardino, California, on January 25, 1926. He is interred there at the Mountain View Cemetery.
In popular culture
In 1955, the actor John Smith, prior to his lead roles in Cimarron City and Laramie, played the part of James Earp in the film Wichita, starring Joel McCrea and Vera Miles.
In the 1957 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, it's the fictional assassination of Jimmy Earp (Martin Milner) that leads directly to the titular showdown.
In the 1994 film Wyatt Earp, Earp is depicted by David Andrews.
1. "The Nicholas Porter Earp Family". International Blacksheep Society of Genealogists (IBSSG).
2. "James Earp".
3. "Earp Brothers".
4. "Another Assassination Frank Stilwell Found Dead this Morning Being Another Chapter in the Earp-Clanton Tragedy". Tombstone, Arizona: The Tombstone Epitaph. March 27, 1882. p. 4.