Around midnight, on March 18, 1882, Morgan Earp died in a card room at Campbell and Hatch’s saloon in Tombstone, Arizona. He was a few weeks shy of celebrating his 31st birthday. Despite tension mounting with the cowboys, he and his brother Wyatt had visited Schieffelin Hall to see a play called Stolen Kisses. Afterwards, Morgan and Wyatt visited Campbell and Hatch’s Saloon to play a game of billiards. Rifle shots were fired through a window of a door, at the back of the pool hall. Morgan was hit in the side and the back. He died an hour later from his injuries.
Legend states that before Morgan died, he whispered something in Wyatt’s ear. Wyatt would say later in his life that Morgan had asked him to get even with the men who had killed him. Wyatt in turn promised not to let his brother down. In a similar story, that was published in Stuart Lake’s Wyatt Earp biography, Frontier Marshal, Wyatt claimed that Morgan had always had an interest in life after death and that if one of the brothers was to die that they would let the other know what it was like. This story is depicted in the movie Tombstone when Morgan says to Wyatt, “Remember what I said about people seein’ a bright light before they die? It ain’t true. I can’t see a damn thing.”
The day after Morgan died, which was also Wyatt’s 34th birthday, Wyatt made arrangements to ship Morgan’s body back home to his parents’ home in Colton, California. His brother Virgil, still recovering from wounds from the cowboys’ assassination attempt the previous December, rode on the train, with his wife Allie sitting next to him. Since Virgil wasn’t strong enough to carry his own gun, Allie sat with the revolver on her lap.
Wyatt didn’t return to California on the train with Morgan’s body, but he did keep his word to Morgan. Wyatt, Doc Holliday, Dan Tipton, Turkey Creek Jack Johnson and Texas Jack Vermillion, set out to avenge Morgan’s death.
Excerpt from the novel: A Gentleman in Hell
“The deafening boom of a shotgun rang out in the alley. The glass panel on the side door shattered into thousands of pieces. Prospector lunged forward towards the door, barking and snarling. A second shot ran out. Everyone ran towards the door with their pistols drawn. The sound of footsteps echoed down the alley. Wyatt pushed his way outside. He ran out onto Allen Street with Dan Tipton following close behind. People from neighboring bars came out on the street to see where the shots had come from but there was no sign of the gunmen. Jim came out from the hotel and ran over to where Wyatt was standing.
“Are you okay?”
“Did you see them?”
“No I didn’t see nobody.”
“C’mon we all best get off the street. It might not be over yet.”
Jim, Dan and Wyatt went back to Campbell and Hatch’s. They picked their way across the shards of broken glass. In the far corner, George lay on the floor clutching his leg. Blood oozed through his pants and he rocked to ease the pain. On the floor beside the pool table was Morgan. He laid face down on his stomach, covered in blood and broken glass. Wyatt knelt down beside him and was relieved to hear him still breathing.
It seemed to take forever for Doctor Goodfellow to make it to the pool hall, despite him hearing the shots from across the street and running over as fast as he could. He pushed through the crowd of people who had gathered, to the back of the bar and knelt down beside Morgan. He slipped his fingers against Morgan’s wrist and counted his pulse.
“Is he still breathing?” said Wyatt.
“I think so. Help me lift him onto the couch in the poker room. There’s no point in him lying on his face like that.”
Morgan cried out as he was rolled over.
“It’s alright Morg, hold steady.”
“Okay let’s lift him.”
Morgan whimpered as they lifted him, broken glass pressed into his body.
“Please don’t. I can’t bare it.”
Wyatt and the doctor tried their best to be gentle but the pain registered in Morgan’s face. He was pale and quiet the while he was being carried. The men lowered him onto the fainting couch in the card room. Wyatt brushed broken glass from his hands. One of his fingers was bleeding but he didn’t care. Texas Jack moved the crowd back out on to the street. The door to the card room was closed and a strange quiet fell over everyone.
“That’s better, least now we can see you,” said the doctor.
Morgan’s blood flowed readily and it wasn’t long before the velvet fainting couch was covered in patches of red. The doctor studied the gunshot wounds and measured the depth of each one, making a note of the amounts of shrapnel. The largest was over four inches long and had cut cleanly through Morgan’s back. Doctor Goodfellow looked at the wound and shook his head sadly. He put his hand under Morgan’s leg and lifted the left and then the right in turn, flexing the knee and hip joints and letting each leg drop.
“Does it hurt when I do this?”
Morg shook his head. “I can’t feel a damned thing.”
The doctor opened his case and removed a syringe, loaded it with morphine and shot the substance into Morgan’s arm. He got up from his patient and closed the bag.
“What’s wrong, can’t you get the buckshot out?” said Wyatt.
“But there must be something you can do?”
“There’s nothing. I’m sorry Wyatt.”
“That’s it?” said Doc.
“I’ve done what I can. His spinal cord is shattered, it’s only a matter of time. I’m sorry.”
Morgan looked up at Wyatt with quivering lips. He tried to smile, “It’s funny, I never figured it would end like this. I guess this is the last game of pool I’ll ever play.”
Wyatt smiled at Morgan’s attempt at humor, but the light in his eyes soon vanished.
There was a knock at the door. Jim opened it and let his brother Virgil in. He walked unsteadily, his face was ashen and a blanket was wrapped around his shoulders. Allie supported him as well as she could for her small size, her arm barely reaching across his back. She led him over to Morgan and helped him sit down beside his brother.
Wyatt knelt down by the couch and clutched Morgan’s hand. His brother reached up and made his best attempt to hug him. Wyatt grabbed him and clutched him tightly.
“I’m going to miss you,” he said.
Morgan whispered into Wyatt’s ear and then dropped his grip. His arms grew limp and his hand loosened from Wyatt’s. His eyes closed and his face grew expressionless.
Wyatt grasped his brother’s hand.
“If I’d known this was to happen, I never would have come here.”
“It’s not your fault Wyatt,” said Virgil.
“I’ll never forgive myself for this. He was our little brother.”
The brothers stood next to Morgan’s body. From beyond the doors of the card room Prospector whined and yelped in a pitiful manner. He broke into a heartfelt session of baying and howling. A heavy feeling of disgust and desperation washed over Doc until the situation was unbearable to take. He walked out of the card room door without saying a word.
“Doc, where you going?” said Wyatt.
He walked on without turning back.
“Don’t go out there alone. Please Doc.”
Doc walked on ignoring Wyatt and sought out the shadows. He walked down every alley and every dark corner with his gun clenched in his hand. He climbed up the back steps to the room at the back of the Grand Hotel and banged on the door.
Wyatt chased after him.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m going to kill them for this. I’m going to find them and kill them.””