Tombstone History Archives

 Chronicles of Tombstone's TurbulEnt Years

The Gospel According to Waters


by S. J. Reidhead




Alvira Sullivan and Josephine Sarah Marcus had several things in common. They were married to Earp brothers. At a young age, both women were making their way on the dangerous, exciting Western frontier. They were both stubborn. Childless and widowed, they ended their lives relying on the charity and good will of their extended family, fighting to preserve the good names of their husbands.


Josephine Marcus was the daughter of a wealthy San Francisco merchant. She grew up willful, spoiled, and completely indulged. Through the auspices of Glenn Boyer, much has been written about Josie. Of all the members of the extended Earp family, more is known about Josie than the others, thanks to the Cason manuscript.


Much of what we know about Alvira Sullivan comes from Frank Water's book, The Earp Brothers of Tombstone. Waters' version of the Earp story is quite negative. In it, he turns the Earp brothers into murderous thieves who cheated their way across the West. Because the book is blatantly anti-Earp, it rarely comes under the scrutiny reserved for Stuart Lake's heroic tome, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal.


Frank Waters came to know Allie Earp in San Bernardino, California. Virgil's destitute widow was living with a niece, Hildreth Halliwell, at the time. Waters' mother and sister Naomi lived next door to Halliwell. The women would visit back and forth across the yard and over the clothesline. The acquaintance was friendly enough for Waters to stop over and visit Allie whenever he visited his mother.


Over a period of several years, Waters would drop by to visit with Allie, and probe her for information about her past. Soon he began writing things down, telling the elderly woman that he wanted to write the story of her life.


Allie was pleased with the situation. In early 1930's Wyatt's story became a nation-wide best-seller, quickly becoming a movie starring Randolph Scott. Josie was reaping the rewards of Wyatt's fame. Not only did she have nice clothes and some money to spend, she was also courted by Hollywood's elite who wanted to know more about her husband. It was only right and proper for Virgil to receive the same attention. After all, Frank Waters was a famous writer. He was the one who should tell Virgil's story.


According to 1860 census records, Alvira, was the fourth of six or eight Sullivan children. She was born in 1851. Her father, John Sullivan was a farm laborer who disappeared during the Civil War, not long after his 1862 enlistment. "...I heard Mother say he was a terrible restless man. Gettin' a piece of land and when it was all cleared of trees and the brush burnt off and had a nice cabin in it and corn and pumpkins planted, he'd sell it, move off and begin all over again."


Her mother, Jane died not long after her husband's enlistment. Allie was about eleven at the time. Her siblings were split up, given to various people who would take care of them. Allie was given to a family named McGath. Her life story had much in common with Cinderella, without the Fairy God Mother. She was forced to wait on the children of the family, becoming little more than an unpaid servant. She had been there less than a year when she ran away. After being an unpaid servant for several other families, she found discovered the location of her older sister, Melissa, and moved to Council Bluffs, Omaha.


"There I was, waiting' on tables at the Planters House in Council Bluffs when I first saw him. It was early in the evenin' before most customers came in, and I had just sat down with all the other girls and some chambermaids to have our supper first. I don't know why I remember him comin' in the door so plain. He was tall, just over six feet, and had a red mustache." Allie Sullivan's life was about to change, forever.


Virgil Earp was employed at the time as a stage driver. According to Allie, the two were married about a year after they first met, sometime in 1873 or 1874. No record exist to support Allie's assertion that they were ever married. According to his pension records, Virgil never considered he and Allie legally married.


Allie and Virgil lived a relatively quiet life, moving several times, until they settle in Prescott, Arizona. Here Virgil held his first formal law enforcement position, appointed in 1878. In November, he was elected Sheriff of Yavapai County. Among the local politicians with whom he would associate was a man named Johnny Behan.


On September 9, 1879, Wyatt Earp resigned his position as the Assistant Marshal of Dodge City. He planned to move to Las Vegas, New Mexico and go into business with Doc Holiday. By the time Wyatt reached Las Vegas, he discovered Doc had already left, so he went to Prescott, to join his brother, Virgil. He arrived in Prescott on November 1.


Much to Allie's dismay the Earp brothers decided to move on to Tombstone. On November 27, 1879 Virgil took the oath of office as a Deputy U. S. Marshal.


Frank Waters made much of the way the Earp brothers packed their combined belongings, deciding just what items they should keep. Typical of men, they decided why on earth would three rolling pins be needed, when just one would do. Never mind they would be purchasing two additional ones later on when they were in Tombstone. In the final revisions of his book, Waters states that Mattie intervened to keep Allie's sewing machine. The original version tells a different story.


The sewing machine was precious to Allie, a gift from Virgil.... "I'm sorry Allie. But you've got to leave it behind," said Virgil. "You know there ain't any room."...


...Allie walked quietly from the wagons, sat down beside the machine. "All right, Virg. Leave it behind. I'll stay."


...Then Wyatt spoke up, "Oh, we can get it in someplace." And then under his breath, in a whisper, "but I don't know where."


Until that moment, Allie wasn't quite sure if she liked Wyatt. From then on, though, it was a different story.


In Tombstone, the Earp wives lived the quiet and sheltered lives of upper middle class Victorian women. One day Allie and Mattie decided to go out on the town. "Good women didn't go anyplace. Me and Mattie, Wyatt's wife, wanted to go down and peek into in the nice hotels and restaurants. So, on a terrible hot morning when the men was away, we went and had a good time lookin'. Then we met a friend who gave us a sip of all different kinds of wines, some real fine. We got home and in bed all right, and everything would have been jim-dandy but Wyatt and Virge came home for dinner for the first time during that hot spell. All I remember is waking up and seeing Virge sittin' by the bed stiff as a poker and Mattie spillin' the coffee Wyatt was makin' her drink. I just said, 'Mattie. Let 'er go and come on to bed,' and went back to sleep."


The original version of the story ends here. In Waters' final draft, he adds the following passage, ..."Wyatt was standin' beside him, mad as a hornet's nest, and shoutin' at Mattie somethin' dreadful.


"'I told you to keep out of town and not to show your face on the streets. I told you!' he kept shoutin'. I was still dizzy and spillin' the coffee. So I just said, 'Mattie, let 'er go and come to sleep!' and rolled over and went back to sleep.


"But next mornin' I remembered Wyatt's shoutin' and it made me mad. Him not wantin' his own wife to show her face on the streets! As if he was shamed of her and didn't want people to know he was married. It still makes me mad."


Perhaps the only people in Tombstone who were unaware of the trouble brewing between the Earps and the Clantons were the four Earp wives. "We women just sat to home, mostly. We had some fine dresses, but we never went anywhere's much. And we never had a whole bunch of friends.


"So...Mattie...Lou...and myself, never realized what things were comin' to. The men didn't talk much about it at home for fear of scarin' us I guess. But Virg was nervous about things. He just didn't like the way they was pannin' out. And Wyatt was so mean and crusty there was no bein' around him. So we three women kept harborin' our own spiteful little grudge against him and plannin' on how to play a prank on him to get even.


..."The reason why we had a grudge was that Wyatt was a crank on readin' newspapers....He used to take five newspapers regular." Allie goes on to mention the women were involved in a serial. They would argue over who would read the papers first. Wyatt would win. In order to antagonize the women, he would..."Sit down on them and never let us have even one till several evenings later when he was finished with all five."


The Earp family changed forever, on October 26, 1881. Allie and Lou, Morgan's wife, were sewing. Mattie had shampooed her hair, and had put it up in rollers. "The noise was awful it was so close -- just a couple of short blocks up the street. Lou laid her hands in her lap and bent her head. I jumped up and ran out the door. Nothin' could ever keep me from Virge when I thought he was in danger. Mattie was outdoors. Her hair was done up in curlers and she was ashamed to have people see them so she ran back inside the house.


"...The butcher's wife as I ran past caught me by the arm and slapped a sunbonnet on my head it was so bright and warm out."


On December 28, Virgil Earp was ambushed by several gunmen including Ike Clanton and Frank Stillwell. Dr. George Goodfellow worked well into the night, trying to save his left arm. At one point, Virgil uttered the now famous, "I've still got one good arm left to hug you with."


As a result of the ambush, Morgan prevailed on his wife Louise, to take the train to Colton, California and spend some time with his parents. Louise was quite frail, and Morgan feared for her health. She was at the Earp's home when word came that Morgan was dead. According to sister-in-law Adelia, "She just fell to the floor and sobbed and sobbed."


Warren Earp, the youngest brother, escorted Louise to Tombstone, then remained with Wyatt when Louise, Virgil, and Allie escorted Morgan's body back to Colton. When the train reached Tucson, "Frank Stillwell was lying on a flatcar in the freight yard and shot at them. Aunt Allie and Uncle Virg were sitting on one seat, Wyatt facing them. The bullet went between them. She said you could feel the air of the bullet as it passed them. Uncle Wyatt asked her if she could manage it by herself."


Wyatt immediately went after Stillwell. "She (Allie) had Uncle Virg's six-shooter strapped around her waist in what she called a dolman coat. She sat next to Uncle Virg's right hand so he could draw the gun if it were necessary. He couldn't wear it. She came on into San Bernardino wearing the gun."


After a long convalescence which included trips to specialists in San Francisco, Allie and her crippled husband returned to Colton. Virgil was an Earp. The Earp men were never far from politics. In 1884 he was a delegate to the San Bernardino County Republican Convention. In 1886, he was elected constable of Colton.


Sometime during this period of time, Allie wanted a new sewing machine. Virgil said she had no need for one, and refused to give her the money for a cute little number that caught her eye. "There was an old Indian who would come around the house and beg. He asked Aunt Allie for money. She said she would give him some if he did exactly what she told him to do...She gave him Uncle Virg's long silk duster, high silk hat and cane...he went to Grandpa Earp's office and sat there all day. When Uncle Virg came home he said, 'Well, Al, you gave my good clothes to Indian Joe.' 'Yes, now will you buy me a sewing machine?' 'Nope, now I need to buy myself some more new clothes.' That afternoon she went down and bought a machine and charged it to him."


The decade spent in Colton were some of the best of Allie's life. The description of her husband's 'opera' clothes speak of the life-style they were living. Not only did Virgil have a prominent position within the community, but so did her father-in-law. The Virgil Earps were settled. They had a steady income. When Virgil said she did not need a sewing machine, he was telling her he could afford to purchase her clothes. She needn't stay home and make them herself.


Little Alvira Sullivan, who never weighed more than 80 pounds in her life, was now a leading lady in town. The Earps obviously went "out." In all likelihood she had someone to help her with the housework or do her cooking. Most women in her position during that time period, did. Then, in 1891, things changed.


Virgil began to have problems with an old war injury. His crippled arm was bothering him. He resigned his position as constable and decided to become a sporting man, like his brother, Wyatt. For a time he and Allie lived the good life in San Luis Obispo, but grew bored. He returned to San Bernardino and worked as a saloon keeper.


They spent the next ten years roaming the desert, doing a little unsuccessful prospecting. The good times were over. In 1899 Virgil's daughter, Janie Law, read an article about her father, who was thought to be long dead. He was living in Prescott. They corresponded. She was planning to travel to Arizona to meet him, but became quite ill with pneumonia. According to the Portland Morning Oregonian "Her father hastened to her bedside." There "He is now enjoying a very pleasant visit with her and his two grandchildren."


The Nevada mining fields beckoned. In 1904 the Virgil Earps arrived in Goldfield. Not long after his arrival, Virgil was accepted a position as deputy sheriff of Esmeralda County. According to the Tonopah Sun, brother Wyatt and his wife were due for a visit sometime in early February. It would be the last time Wyatt would ever see his brother. Several months later, on April 6, 1905, Wyatt and Josie filed claim for the Happy Day mine.


Hildreth Holliwell tells a different story. When Wyatt and Josie came for they visit, they wanted Allie and Virg to go out prospecting with them. "Allie said Uncle Virg was to put up the money, that Wyatt had none then and they would split it. They went prospecting at the little town of Earp. Aunt Allie said Wyatt and Sadie went out and looked around, said there was nothing out there. They proceeded to pack up. I don't know whether they went any place else. They staked some claims out there. They call it the Happy Day Group."


A few months later, on October 19, 1905, Virgil Earp died of pneumonia. To make matters worse, Janie Law hurried down to Goldfield from Portland and claimed his body, taking him back to Portland to be buried.


Devastated and broke, Allie went back to the Oklahoma to live with her sister. She did a little nursing, but never had much money other than a small monthly stipend of fifty or sixty dollars. When her nieces and nephews moved to California, she went with them, living as a dependent until her death just a few days short of her hundredth birthday. She was buried on November 17, 1947, having outlived all the major players in the Tombstone story.


As a little old lady, Allie became known as "Aunt Allie" to everyone who knew her. She had a fondness for tequila and tamales. Family and friends say she was one of the kindest people who ever lived. Frank Waters was one of the people who took advantage of that kindness.


"Allie was very good to him. She gave him all this first hand information. Then he told so many lies...My aunt told him she would sue him if he proceeded to publish what he did...his manuscript was such a bunch of lies...He waited until after his death."


In 1949 Frank Waters deposited his manuscript, Tombstone Travesty, with the Arizona Historical Society, with the understanding it would be placed in their files for reference. To legitimize his manuscript he writes, "I have in my files at home a signed statement from Mrs. Virgil Earp giving me sole right to her autobiographical material and attesting to its veracity. No such affidavit is necessary..." His campaign to blacken the name of Wyatt Earp had begun.


An excellent example of his intense dislike of Wyatt surfaces in a letter to R. N. Mullin. "The late Mrs. Virgil Earp gave me a full picture of their family life in Tombstone. Outstanding was the family's view of Wyatt as an inveterate publicity-seeker. Psychologically he was an exhibitionist, and this is the jutting fact of his character."


The manuscript would have remained anonymous if the author had not decided to cash in on the "Wyatt Earp craze" of the late 1950's. "The time is psychologically ripe for this book to make a big splash indeed. It is the first time that a member of the Earp family has revealed what actually happened...".


His intense hatred of Earp was enough for his publisher, Clarkson N. Potter to caution, "There is only one difficulty that I can see in advance and I assume that it can be resolved, and this is that you and any publisher that handles the book must be able to establish beyond a doubt the accuracy and authenticity of the material."


Waters assures Potter of his accurate notes, after all, he spent six months in Arizona researching the book. And, "...You can talk with the proprietors of the Rose Tree Inn, Tombstone, where Wyatt, his third Wife, Josephine Sarah Marcus, and Lake stayed. They can give you full information on her dictatorial editing and writing of Lake's book." Along with the affidavit allegedly signed by Allie Earp, giving Waters sole rights to her life story, he claims to have a large collection of source notes.


Why did Frank Waters deceive a sweet little old lady like Allie Earp? What drove him to take advantage of her kind, generous nature? Why did Waters dislike the Earp brothers so strongly? His dislike was shared by both his mother and sister, Naomi.


In an undated letter to her brother, Naomi tells of her meeting with Josie at Allie's home. "Mrs. Wyatt Earp has just left. She is a very nice looking, short, aristocratic woman...She is whole-hearted in believing him a wonderful man and as long as he can't fight for his own name, she won't stand to have him slandered. She is honest and straightforward in her attitude of being a persecuted widow...


"...Don't think mamma and I were a couple of suckers for big talk....I know it sounds fishy, but Mrs. Wyatt Earp doesn't really know like you do. You are right, but no wonder it is having a tough time. Too much against the truth."


Author's Note: I would like to draw a conclusion here and add a caution. Several years ago, one of the great Earp historians told me the only place for The Earp Brothers of Tombstone was a trash can. After reading Waters' notes and original manuscript I am afraid I must agree. I find it increasingly difficult to accept much of what Frank Waters has written as the truth.


Waters, a venerable expert on Native American culture, had a grudge against the Earps. I want to know what it was. I've been through his papers and letters. I find remarkable the fact that he saved only letters which agreed with his opinion of Wyatt. If one goes through the letters to both Lake and Burns, the files are full of complementary notes from people who knew Wyatt and his brothers. No such letters exist in the Waters papers. Only fan letters from people like Alice Benson Durard appear in his files.


There are only two conclusions to draw from Waters' work. First, he had a pathological hatred of Wyatt Earp and his brothers. Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, he was in it for the money. Like the tabloid writers of today, he wanted to cash into a big story for a quick buck.


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