Often when I talk to officers and deputies about Stoic philosophy and how to apply Stoicism to their work and their personal lives, I will be asked questions about the police officers and lawmen who have come before us. Did any of them practice Stoicism or is there anything we can learn from their lives? My answer is always “yes.”
Today, I’d like to tell you about Wyatt Earp and the Tombstone Mob Incident. Although I don’t have any historical evidence that he was a practicing Stoic, I’m going to nominate him as an honorary member due to his expert application of Memento Mori, his emotional control, his calm under pressure, and his dedication to his duty. I’ll start by quickly defining the Stoic concept of Memento Mori, (for those new to all this Stoic stuff), then I’ll tell you the story of the Tombstone Mob.
Memento Mori is a Latin phrase that roughly translates to “remember that you will die.” It is a reminder of our own mortality and the impermanence of life. The practice of Memento Mori can help us live more intentionally and focus on what truly matters. It can also help us overcome fear and anxiety, and cultivate a greater appreciation for life.
The Tombstone Mob
Michael “Mike” O’Rourke AKA “Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce” was a petty gambler in Tombstone, Arizona. In January 1881, he became involved in a dispute with a prominent man in town, and O’Rourke shot the man dead in the street. O’Rourke was arrested, charged, and held pending trial.
The people of the town did not trust the justice system and wanted to lynch O’Rourke before he had a trial. The sworn lawmen in the town, including Wyatt Earp and his brother Virgil Earp, weren’t about to let the lynch mob have their way. The Earp brothers decided that they were outnumbered and should move O’Rourke to Tucson for safekeeping. They asked their friends, including Doc Holiday, for some help transporting the prisoner.
While moving O’Rourke from the jail to the transport wagon, Wyatt Earp and company were surrounded by the armed mob who demanded that they surrender O’Rourke to them immediately.
At this point, Wyatt Earp, with shotgun in hand, announced to the mob, “Stand back there and make passage. I am going to take this man to jail in Tucson.” The mob, which was led by mine operator Dick Gird, attempted to block the men from leaving with O’Rourke.
Wyatt Earp picked Gird (the mob leader) out of the crowd and told him that if they attacked, “You’ll probably kill me, but I’m going to take some of you with me.” Earp went on to promise Gird that he would be the first one to be shot and killed. Convinced that Wyatt Earp was not bluffing, Gird and the entire mob moved back and allowed the posse to pass with their prisoner.
“Given that all must die, it is better to die with distinction than to live long.” – Musonius Rufus
“If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
Wyatt Earp was willing to die for what he thought was right. In a moment of crisis, he thought clearly and made the bet that Gird and the mob were not willing to lay down their own lives in order to lynch a man. Earp was right and it saw him through the day. Wyatt Earp was not a Stoic in the sense that he studied Stoic philosophy, but he clearly understood and embodied some of Stoicism’s key points. I’m sure during his career in the Wild West, he must have thought many times about the fragility of life and his own death. During the Tombstone Mob incident, he put all this reflection to good use. His advice about being calm and deliberate under pressure is often quoted by gunfighters still today.
“Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything. In a gunfight… You need to take your time in a hurry.”
– Wyatt Earp
Epictetus spoke to the topic, and perhaps Earp and he were on the same page.
“A person’s master is the one who has power over that which is wished for or not wished for, so as to secure it or take it away. Therefore, anyone who wishes to be free should neither wish for anything nor avoid anything that depends on others; those who do not observe this rule will of necessity be the slaves of others.” – Epictetus
Earp quelled the mob because although they both had the ability to take each other’s lives, Earp was less attached to his own. I also believe that any town mob member probably had no doubt that the famous Wyatt Earp was more than capable of winning a gunfight.
Earp’s actions during the Tombstone Mob incident teach us that there is a benefit to Memento Mori beyond tranquility and the urgency to get busy living.
There is an undeniable power in being ready to die for what you believe in, and although it is counterintuitive, if you are ready to “die well,” you are more likely to live well.