Keith Collins, left, and his brother Brian display photographs of Wyatt… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
Sure, he's best known as the steely nerved Wild West lawman who faced down the bad guys at the O.K. Corral.
But Wyatt Earp may have had a soft and sentimental side too.
Brothers Keith and Brian Collins say they discovered Earp's personal photo album while picking through a Hesperia antique shop.
Inside the worn, leather-bound album were more than two dozen tiny tintype and carte de visite pictures showing Earp as a child, a teenager and a young adult, they say. They say the album also contains photos of his mother and pictures of two of his three wives.
Keith Collins, 50, of Sylmar, said the photos put a human face on Earp — whose life included stints as a shotgun-wielding stagecoach guard, a gambler, an investor in California mining and oil interests, a boxing match referee and a pimp as well as the deputy marshal of Tombstone, Ariz., where the legendary gunfight took place.
The brothers bought the photo album five months ago for $50.
"We split up to look for pictures in the store. We always do that," said Brian Collins, 40, of Victorville.
It was Keith Collins who said he recognized Earp in the tiny photographs. Back in Sylmar, the pair used a computer to compare the album's images with known photographs of the famous western figure.
Although it's possible to create realistic-looking reproductions of tintype and carte de visite images, the pair are convinced the album belonged to Earp. They have invited experts to inspect the pictures and verify their authenticity. However, that's not such an easy task.
"The problem is, nobody has seen pictures of Wyatt Earp as a kid. You can't compare them with anything," said Nicholas Cataldo, author of "The Earp Clan: The Southern California Years." "There are known pictures of Wyatt in his 20s and 30s and in some of them he doesn't look alike."
It's uncertain how the album came to be in Hesperia, although Earp's sister lived in Highland, 38 miles away, at the time of his death in Los Angeles. He died of kidney failure at 81 on Jan. 13, 1929. Earp lived at 4004 W. 17th St. in the Arlington Heights area, which is now the site of the Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. Middle School.
The Collins brothers' interest in old photos dates to their childhood, when their grandmother often pulled out family photo albums to entertain them, Keith Collins said.
The pair said they picked up their sleuthing skills from their late father, a Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy.
"Our father taught us analyze photographs by measuring and comparing facial features — the ears, nose and eyes," said Keith Collins. They also learned how to authenticate their finds by amassing evidence on dates, locations and other family members.
Raised in Lancaster, the brothers moved with their mother to Bishop after she and their father split up.
"Up there we'd go to abandoned places and pick up things that had been left behind. We took them to antique stores to sell. We had to feed ourselves," Keith Collins said.
They eventually decided to specialize in old photographs. These days, visits to yard sales, flea markets and thrift stores are their fulltime jobs.
Photography became commercially popular in the mid-19th century. Tintype photos were created by placing negative images against a blackened metal base; the carte de visite process used a paper print that was mounted on a piece of cardboard the size of a calling card.
The tintype and carte de visite pictures in the album are tiny — measuring about 2 inches by 3 inches, including their borders.
The photos, formal portraits taken by professional photographers, show subjects in their best clothes. The brothers say two of Earp's wives — Urilla Sutherland and Mattie Blaylock — are pictured. Missing is his third wife, Josephine "Sadie" Marcus, who was at his side when he died.
Also included are photos of Thomas Fitch, the lawyer who represented Earp in the judicial hearing after the 1881 gun battle at the O.K. Corral, and Calamity Jane, according to the brothers.
They speculate that Earp may have met frontierswoman Martha Jane Cannary in the Dakota Territory boomtown of Deadwood. Or Earp could have simply purchased the tintype: Calamity Jane sold them.
"Back then she was not a star, she was a hooker. But Calamity Jane was brilliant. She marketed herself by selling pictures of herself," Keith Collins said.
Historians in Deadwood, S.D., say Calamity Jane and Earp could have crossed paths in 1876.
"She was in and out of Deadwood quite a bit, and Wyatt Earp passed through Deadwood very briefly," said Arlette Hansen, curator and archivist at Deadwood's Adams Museum. "Or they may have met in Wyoming. It's surprising how easily people traveled back in those days."
The Collins brothers suggest that the album's photos could fetch $1 million if sold. But they intend to keep them and lease out the rights to them.
High-quality copies of the pictures have been made by the brothers' partner, Baret Lepejian of A&I Photographic and Digital Services of Hollywood. The originals are stored in acid-free sleeves in a bank safe deposit box.
The unknown seller, who acquired the album at an estate sale, apparently didn't know its contents. But at Hesperia's Carriage House Antiques, which hosted the consignment sale, there was rejoicing at the brothers' good fortune.
"We're happy someone found a treasure," said shop worker Chris Spurlock. "They don't always come back and tell us when that happens."