A lawman, a lawyer and a junior high
It’s unlikely that Wyatt Earp, the gruff frontier lawman, and Johnnie Cochran, the smooth-talking defense attorney, would have been friends had they lived in the same era.
In a way, they’ve even been on opposite sides in death — in a matter involving a school in midtown Los Angeles.
In the 1990s there was a movement to rename Mount Vernon Junior High after Earp because it occupied the site of the gunfighter’s last residence at 4004 W. 17th St.
“I like the sound of ‘Wyatt Earp Junior High,’” City Councilman Nate Holden said at the time.
He learned about the gunfighter’s L.A. past from a council aide who once wrote for a television series about the Old West.
Earp and his wife Sadie, often low on funds, had begun renting a modest cottage in Los Angeles each summer in the early 1900s, partly because they had relatives in the area. In the winter they would head to Nevada, where he tended to his mining interests.
Earp evidently embraced being an Angeleno. In his late 60s, he learned to drive a car and was the victim of a road-rage attack. His wife said that on a trip through the desert, he was forced to shoot a bull that wouldn’t stop head-butting the car.
Earp even did a bit of freelance crime-fighting, biographer Casey Tefertiller writes.
There were stories that he secretly helped out the Los Angeles Police Department by slipping into Mexico to capture suspects.
“He was afraid of nothing,” said onetime lawman Arthur King, who said he accompanied Earp into Mexico. “When he’d get angry, the corner of his right eye would twitch just a little,” King recounted in Tefertiller’s book.
Closer to home, Earp was hired to quell a run on an L.A. bank. He showed up with bank bags filled with what he said were gold pieces worth a million dollars, Tefertiller wrote. The angry depositors dispersed, unaware the pieces were just iron discs.
At least once in Los Angeles, Earp required the use of a defense attorney himself. A lifelong gambler, he was arrested in 1911, at the age of 62, for participating in a crooked faro game at the Auditorium Hotel near Pershing Square.
Earp claimed he was an innocent bystander. True or not, the police, who had been tipped off, mistakenly broke up the game before it began (and before any defrauding could occur). Charges against Earp were dropped.
In the late 1920s, his health declined. One of his last appearances in public, his wife said, was to vote in the 1928 presidential election.
A lifelong Republican, Earp voted for the Democrat, Al Smith, because Smith wanted to repeal Prohibition. Earp was not opposed to having an occasional drink.
On Jan. 13, 1929, at age 80, he died at his residence, near the intersection of Crenshaw and Washington boulevards.
Little did he know that in the ensuing years his life would be recounted in numerous books and movies.
But Holden’s proposal in 1994 to rename Mount Vernon Junior High after Earp drew opposition.
One teacher pointed out that “there’s a lot of history to this name. When the school opened, it was an exact replica of [George] Washington’s home, Mount Vernon.” The school was redesigned after the 1971 Sylmar earthquake.
One L.A. Unified School District staffer even quipped that the gunfighter’s last name might sound like indigestion to some people. “It would go in the books as ‘Earp, Wyatt Middle School,’” she cautioned. “Maybe they should rethink this one.”
The proposal fell through.
Whether the old gunfighter would have cared is uncertain. He is said to have rarely spoken of his part in the 1881 gunfight at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Ariz.
A recent special edition of the Tombstone Epitaph, now in its 130th year of publication, points out that Earp grew “weary” of public acclaim and longed for “undisturbed obscurity.”
Mount Vernon, however, did eventually see its name changed.
In 2006, it became Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School in honor of the attorney who was best known for his successful defense of murder defendant O.J. Simpson.
Cochran, who died in 2005, had attended Mount Vernon, where he was a member of the debating team.
Also renamed was 17th Street, which is now Johnnie Cochran Vista.
But folks still seek out Earp’s last residence.
“We always get tourists coming down this street, usually from the Midwest,” said Scott Schmerelson, the principal of Cochran. “I tell them, ‘I know what you are looking for.’ ‘How do you know?’ they ask. I say, ‘Who else comes here with a camera?’”
The school was even visited by an Earp aficionado from Switzerland. “He was a policeman,” Schmerelson said.
The principal added that when the school was built, Earp’s house was moved across the street, where it sits today.
It’s painted a bright green. For a while, Schmerelson said, it was pink, a color that might have caused Earp’s right eye to twitch, just a little.