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Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends

Overview

On October 26, 1881, Wyatt Earp, his two brothers, and Doc Holliday shot it out with a gang of cattle rustlers near the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. It was over in half a minute, but those thirty violent seconds turned the thirty-three-year-old Wyatt Earp into the stuff of legend.
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Overview

On October 26, 1881, Wyatt Earp, his two brothers, and Doc Holliday shot it out with a gang of cattle rustlers near the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. It was over in half a minute, but those thirty violent seconds turned the thirty-three-year-old Wyatt Earp into the stuff of legend.
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Editorial Reviews

Washington Post Book World

“Any future arguments will have to reckon with the evidence and explication that Allen Barra presents in this thoughtful, careful book.”

—Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World

New York Times Book Review

“Engaging, detailed and refreshingly pugnacious. . . . Barra’s well-researched, provocative study of the man and his legend offers us a welcome opportunity to consider what our several versions of Wyatt Earp tell us about ourselves."

—Richard E. Nicholls, New York Times Book Review

Booklist

“Barra, a sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal, does not attempt an intensive proof of the ''life behind the legend.'' Rather, he is concerned here with the process of myth making. He offers fascinating and provocative insights into how various individuals manipulated and twisted aspects of Earp's life for their own purpose. Earp, of course, was not naive and played no small part in creating his own legend.”

—Jay Freeman, Booklist

Chicago Tribune
“Barra is no garden variety deconstructionist. . . . [He] lines up the mythmaking process in his crosshairs.”—Chicago Tribune
Washington Post Book World - Jonathan Yardley
“Any future arguments will have to reckon with the evidence and explication that Allen Barra presents in this thoughtful, careful book.”—Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World
New York Times Book Review - Richard E. Nicholls
“Engaging, detailed and refreshingly pugnacious. . . . Barra’s well-researched, provocative study of the man and his legend offers us a welcome opportunity to consider what our several versions of Wyatt Earp tell us about ourselves."—Richard E. Nicholls, New York Times Book Review
Booklist - Jay Freeman
“Barra, a sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal, does not attempt an intensive proof of the 'life behind the legend.' Rather, he is concerned here with the process of myth making. He offers fascinating and provocative insights into how various individuals manipulated and twisted aspects of Earp's life for their own purpose. Earp, of course, was not naive and played no small part in creating his own legend.”—Jay Freeman, Booklist
Chicago Tribune

“Barra is no garden variety deconstructionist. . . . [He] lines up the mythmaking process in his crosshairs.”

Richard E. Nicholls
...[An] engaging, detailed and refreshingly pugnacious book....[Barra] attempts to recover the man behind the tales and to sort out the facts....[He] has done an admirable job of sorting through the many conflicting sources regarding Earp's career and the shootout....Barra offers a Wyatt Earp more complex in his motives [than many biographers depict him], but nonetheless deeply courageous...
The New York Times Book Review
Library Journal
Aleshire's portrait of Indian fighter Crook and Apache shaman Geronimo cost $30 when released in 2000, while Barra's no-nonsense biography of famous lawman Earp was previously available only in paperback. These solid hardcovers cost only $9.99. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Richard E. Nicholls
...[An] engaging, detailed and refreshingly pugnacious book....[Barra] attempts to recover the man behind the tales and to sort out the facts....[He] has done an admirable job of sorting through the many conflicting sources regarding Earp's career and the shootout....Barra offers a Wyatt Earp more complex in his motives [than many biographers depict him], but nonetheless deeply courageous...
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
A worthy attempt to prospect for facts amid the mists of myth and partisan hearsay long clouding the story of gambler and frontier marshal Earp, his brothers, friends, and foes, especially in the silver mining camp of Tombstone, Ariz. Barra, a Wall Street Journal sports columnist, finds Civil War passions lingering on as northern Republicans went west to establish business communities and dig for precious metals. They were looked upon by many cowboys and ranch owners from the recently vanquished South as Yankees, including the Earp brothers (from Illinois) and their friendsne.g., fiery, Georgia-born dead-shot dentist Doc Holliday, who joined the band of lawmen that tamed wild cow towns like Wichita and Dodge City before arriving in Tombstone itself. nThe entire frontier was a demimonde,n Barra notes. He describes Tombstone as a place controlled by those whond grown affluent through big-time cattle rustling and stage coach robberies (while approving a puppet sheriff and the local press). The outnumbered Earps and their allies met with their greatest challenge when confronting their entrenched opponents in that famed gunfight at the OK Corral; three of the outlaw ranchers were killed. The Earps were then made signal entries on the hit lists of their enemies, who bought the local press and used it to spread the notion that the Earps were rustlers and robbers. Barra cuts through most of the lies and lore, aided by his own research and the studies of credible historians (Utley and Nolan), to finally rate Earp as strong, brave, honorable, intelligentna loyal friend and a peacekeaeper, rather than just another compulsive gunfighter. In fact, he lived as a lawman on the frontier for only sixyears. His wife of nearly half a century, the Jewish actress Josephine Marcus, shared his later adventures in Hollywood and elsewhere. A thorough documentary revision of the Western genrens customary fantasy. (16 pages color and b&w photos, not seen)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780803220584
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 440
  • Sales rank: 1,383,357
  • Product dimensions: 8.96 (w) x 5.96 (h) x 0.92 (d)

Meet the Author

Allen Barra is a sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Village Voice, and the New York Sun and is the author of several books, including Clearing the Bases (available in a Bison Books edition), The Last Coach: A Life of Paul “Bear” Bryant, and the forthcoming Yogi Berra: Eternal Yankee.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Wyatt: The Odyssey


    If the story of Wyatt Earp is the story of the West, as Bat Masterson claimed, then the white two-story structure where Wyatt was born on March 19, 1848, is a disappointment. Tourists visiting the Wyatt Earp Birthplace Museum in Monmouth, Illinois, expect something more western. "People tell us, `We thought it would be more like a ranch or a log cabin'," a staff member explains. "One guy from England even expected mud walls. He felt the house didn't `symbolize' Wyatt Earp." But then, Wyatt never spent much time in houses.

    According to an early biographer, John Flood, many years after leaving home Wyatt became nostalgic for the house and returned to Illinois: "The dear old Monmouth was not the Monmouth as he had remembered it; everything had changed. The great, high fences that he had to climb up to look over when he was a boy seemed dwarfed and shrunken now ... the woods and fields were not the great, unexplored horizons that they used to be. The rivers and streams seemed narrow and diminutive, and the rolling hills had lost their enchantment." Wyatt's nostalgia for Illinois is unrecorded elsewhere, but the state did leave its stamp on him and his two older brothers. The most celebrated peace officers of the cattle town era--Wild Bill Hickok, the Earp brothers, the Masterson brothers--lived in Illinois as young men and grew up in the same pro-Union, Republican, progressive, antislavery atmosphere that spawned Abraham Lincoln. (Several other prominent lawmen were raised in neighboring states; the great Bill Tilghman, whom Wyatt and Bat Masterson would know in Dodge City, grew up in equally pro-Union Iowa.) The Earps had southern roots, and their father, Nicholas Porter Earp, remained a southerner at heart all his life, but three of Wyatt's brothers, including his half brother, Newton, would fight for the Union, and Wyatt would try to.

    Nick Earp, a wheat, corn, and tobacco farmer, storekeeper, constable, cooper, justice of the peace, wagon master, judge, and bootlegger, to name just a few of his occupations, was born in West Virginia in 1813, the son of Walter and Abigail Earp. Nicholas had eight brothers and sisters, and most of the Earps currently living in the United States can trace their ancestry back to this family or to a branch in Virginia and the Carolinas.

    The principal scholars of the Earp family tree, Mrs. Esther L. Irvine (whose research is in the Colton Public Library in Colton, California) and Effie Earp Cramer (whose materials are at the Wyatt Earp Birthplace Museum in Monmouth, Illinois), traced the American Earps from Anglo-Saxon/Celtic roots. Thomas Earp, born in Ireland and come to the new world from England in the early 1700s, is generally accepted as the first immigrant. In 1789 Josiah Earp became the first "Fighting Earp," enlisting in the Colonial Army in Maryland. Soon after the war Josiah became the first Earp with "itchy feet," moving through at least three other states before settling in Kentucky, which is where Wyatt's grandfather, Walter Earp, raised most of his children. In 1836 Walter's son Nicholas married a Kentucky girl, Abigail Storm, the daughter of a neighboring farmer. Within two years, Nicholas lost a daughter, Mariah Ann, and then Abigail herself to an unspecified illness.

    Left with a two-year-old son, Newton Jasper, to care for, Nicholas quickly sought and found a new wife. On July 30, 1840, he married Virginia Ann Cooksey, who would become the mother of the five full Earp brothers--James, Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan, and Warren--and three daughters--Martha and Virginia Ann, who died as children, and Adelia.

    The strange odyssey of Nicholas's life would cover nearly 8,000 miles by wagon and railroad over four decades. Soon after James (1841) and Virgil (1843) were born, he moved his family from Kentucky to Wyatt's birthplace in Monmouth, Illinois, a community of perhaps one thousand people. His brother, Lorenzo Dow Earp, had visited the growing town and written glowingly about it. Other family members went, too; Walter Earp was to be buried there after earning the honorary title of "judge" for being a notary public and performing wedding ceremonies. Life was good in Monmouth for all the Earps, especially Nicholas, who worked a small farm, kept a saloon, and also served as justice of the peace. In the Birthplace Museum there is record of his having been elected captain of a "big hunt"--presumably for bear--in the forests that surrounded the town. In his spare time, he discussed and argued politics.

    The Earps had scarcely settled in Monmouth when the news of the impending war with Mexico was the talk of the town square. Nicholas Earp led the cheers for Manifest Destiny, enlisting in a company of volunteer Monmouth dragoons captained by a man named Wyatt Berry Stapp. Captain Stapp thought well of Nicholas Earp and made him a third sergeant; Nicholas, after being shipped home in December 1847 (because of a leg injury from a mule kick), named his next child for his old company commander.

    A little more than a year after his return Nick was on the move again, this time leaving behind his father and brothers for Pella in Marion County, Iowa, where the U.S. government had granted Nicholas Earp 160 acres. For the next six years Nick farmed, repaired harnesses, and followed in his father's footsteps as a notary public and justice of the peace. He also acquired several additional pieces of land. And then, in 1856, for no apparent reason, he pulled up stakes yet again and moved to Illinois. In less than two years, he moved his family back to Pella. Between moves, Nick and Ginnie Ann had three more children, Morgan (born in 1851), Warren (1855), and Virginia Ann (1858). James and Virgil had now lived in seven homes.

    For the first and only time in his life, Nick Earp tried to become a full-time farmer. (But he would also be listed in the census as a cooper. Nick always seemed to be in preparation for whatever direction the economy might swing.) The urge didn't last long. None of the Earp men ever stuck with farming; Wyatt hated it the most. For him, the only redeeming feature of brutal, late-nineteenth-century farmwork was the time he got to spend around horses; learning to ride also meant the freedom to learn shooting and hunting. For a while, life was idyllic. Then, both of Wyatt's younger sisters died, most likely from one of the unnamed fevers that periodically swept through the region, and Nick reacted by moving again, buying a place back in Monmouth for the healthy sum of $2,000. Two years later, probably to evade several steep fines for bootlegging--a craft he presumably picked up in Kentucky--Nick moved his brood back again to Pella. The fines remain unpaid.

    During the family's second stay in Pella, the Civil War broke out. James and Virgil, and their half-brother Newton, enlisted in the Union army. Curiously, all three traveled to another district to sign up, even though Nick, a deputy provost marshal for his congressional district, could have sworn them in. The explanation was probably their political differences; the boys regarded themselves as Lincoln men, and Nick, though he disliked slavery, was vehemently opposed to Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. He hadn't enlisted in the war to take the Southwest from Mexico to give the federal government the power to take away a citizen's property (or punish him for making his own whiskey).

    Domineering as he was and would remain, Nick Earp stuck to his principle of encouraging his boys to think for themselves. Years later Wyatt would quote his father as saying: "`Religion is a matter which every man must settle for himself. Your mother and I tried to make you children understand your responsibilities, to yourselves and to others; beyond that we did not expect you to accomplish much.'" This stood for politics as well. There is no indication of animosity on Nick's part that all his sons chose to fight for the Union.

    All three young Earps achieved creditable war records--James was severely wounded and sent home in 1863, while Newton, in a second tour of duty, reached the rank of sergeant--marred only by Virgil's court-martial, probably for fighting, a minor offense that cost him half a month's pay and didn't interfere with an honorable discharge. Nick, back in Pella, recruited and drilled local companies.

    Wyatt, thirteen in 1861, stayed home, hoeing his father's corn, hating the task but producing, in the opinion of one neighbor, an excellent crop. One day he heard a bugle ring--possibly from a regiment his father was training--and determined that he, too, must be a part of it all. He ran away to the recruiting office at Ottumwa, a river port where Union soldiers were transported east--how he got to the town, a good half-day journey by wagon, isn't clear--and to his chagrin, he found his father waiting there. Wyatt was promptly hauled back to the farm for punishment. About to be switched, Wyatt took quick advantage when his father pushed a protesting Ginnie Ann aside. He rushed his father, shouting, "You can't hit my mother!" Nicholas, who had no intention of hitting anyone but Wyatt, was taken aback by his son's pluck and audacity and, stopping a moment to think things over, decided against the switching. This was the first of many stories that would collect around Wyatt's legend where he diverted trouble through a combination of fast thinking and fast action.

By the spring of 1864 the Earps once more were packed and ready to travel, this time to California, with a wagon train of less than a dozen families, and Nick leading the trek. Wyatt, at sixteen, would never have so settled a life again as the one he had left in Iowa. He had nothing but adventure on his mind, and soon he would get it. In Omaha, Wyatt was unsettled by the first gunfight he had ever witnessed (whether or not a man was killed is unclear). Many years later he told Stuart Lake of some hair-raising Indian clashes, in one of which our young hero fended off an Indian attack by stampeding several hundred horses and oxen into their ranks. What a small wagon train was doing with several hundred draught animals was not explained. The sudden appearance of so many horses and oxen must have startled the whites as much as the Indians.

    Somewhere in this fracas Wyatt took potshots at braves not much older than himself. So, in the space of a few weeks, sixteen-year-old Wyatt had been introduced to frontier violence. He had seen a man shot, and now he had taken a shot at a man himself. He also learned when not to shoot. One Earp historian relates a story Wyatt told to his nephew, Bill Miller, about a Paiute who had been hanging around the Earp campfire. Nicholas lost his temper and kicked him in the seat of his pants:

"I was expecting trouble," Wyatt said, "and got my gun as soon as we saw this Indian, who'd been hanging around begging and probably trying to steal and generally making a nuisance of himself. He wasn't the only one. I stood out of the way behind a wagon. He pulled a knife and Pa pulled a six-shooter and I would have shot him if he hadn't put his knife away and left. I had him covered and come close to shooting, except that Pa got in the way. If he'd have got Pa, I aimed to cut him down. I had a six-shooter in my belt and could have stood the ten others off. There wasn't a one of them with any sand if you stood up to them, but they all had mean tempers and they were all thieves."

This is an uncharitable view of Plains Indians, but most pioneers never saw them under other circumstances. Only a few years after the Earps' encounter, Mark Twain was to describe the first Indians he saw as "prideless beggars ... hungry, always hungry, and yet never refusing anything that a hog would eat, though often eating what a hog would decline." The white man's romanticizing of the Plains Indians would not begin for several decades.

    While on a stopover in Utah, young Wyatt supposedly met his first frontier legend, the most respected scout and mountain man of his day, Jim Bridger. Unfortunately, Lake's is the only account that places Bridger among the Earp party in that period, which probably means that Wyatt learned about hunting and fishing either from some other veteran mountain man or from his own father, who taught him to shoot game and handle draught animals. Nick Earp was a stern wagon master, which was needed on this trip since, like many pioneer parties, this one engaged in petty feuds and squabbles and constantly threatened to bog down or split up (and given the elder Earp's temper, it's likely he instigated more than a few incidents). Whatever Nicholas Earp's flaws as a community leader, he got the wagon train through without a single loss.

    By the end of the year, the Earps were in San Bernardino. "Around a table loaded with the fruits and sweetmeats of a southern clime," Flood wrote, "a family of five children and a father and a mother"--four children, actually, since James left the party before it arrived in California--"were seated at a feast of glorious thanksgiving in the little village of San Bernardino on Christmas Day of Eighteen Hundred and Sixty-Four. There were evidences of their recently having come through an ordeal. The men didn't show the effects, their skins were weathered and bronzed, but upon the countenances of the mother and her daughter there were still the signs of fatigue." One can only imagine what their reaction would have been if they had been told that before the next decade was out they'd be making the trip again.

* * *

"It had been anticipated," wrote Stuart Lake in one of Frontier Marshal's seminal mythmaking passages, "that Wyatt would continue the study of law in California, but the taste of life he had enjoyed during the covered wagon journey made him loathe to return to books ... by spring he had set his own mind definitely against any vocation that might hold him from adventuring." Lake got the last part right; the stuff about studying law was fiction. In San Bernardino Wyatt plowed his father's farm, a task he enjoyed no more in lush California than he had in arid Iowa, and waited for an opportunity to bolt. Finally, he and Nick had a falling out, more than likely resorting to their fists, and Wyatt was on his own.

    Work wasn't hard to find. By the end of the Civil War San Bernardino was a boomtown of more than two thousand, much larger than a pueblo down the road named Los Angeles. Prospectors, hunters, cattlemen, lumberjacks, soldiers, and freighters filled the streets; a husky teenager might have his pick from a variety of jobs. Wyatt liked the freighters best: They worked with horses and mules and they traveled. His first job offer came when a driver for the San Bernardino-Los Angeles line broke his leg: "Who'll take your place?" the owner asked the driver. "Get Nicholas Earp's boy Wyatt," the driver advised. "You've got bad horses and bad men to handle on that run and young Wyatt can do both." Wyatt had been a master of horses and wagons since the age of fourteen, but it's not likely that anyone with valuable freight to ship would entrust it to a seventeen year old, no matter what his reputation, especially on a route that covered sixty hard miles through mountain passes and desert. Although no records prove Wyatt ever drove a stage in California, Virgil, who was five years older, did drive for a Gen. Phineas Banning, one of southern California's early stage line operators. Virgil probably let Wyatt go along on some runs, which allowed Wyatt to later pad his resume with "Stage Driver."

    Carrying heavy freight was no easier work than farming, but at least you moved while you worked. Wyatt hauled freight, first in heavy wagons from San Bernardino to Salt Lake City, and then with Virgil over the same route for San Francisco-based freighter Charles Chrisman. He also signed on to grade the Union Pacific railroad line, which took him all the way to Julesburg, Colorado. By 1869, at age twenty-one, Wyatt had already traveled several thousand miles.

    He would have a long way to go before he would match his peripatetic father. Nick had now moved five times and lived in four states from Kentucky to California. In 1868, he took Ginnie Ann and the three children remaining at home--Morgan, Warren, and Adelia--and moved back to the Midwest. This time, they could take the train, or at least take it from Wyoming (where Wyatt and Virgil accompanied them to) all the way to Illinois. The strapping, six-foot-tall Earp brothers then found work as freighters and hunters of game for crews in the railroad camps. In their spare time they learned to gamble and fight and watch their backs. They also developed a lifelong interest in boxing.

    "Railway construction camps in the Wyoming of 1868," wrote Lake,

were populated by rough and boisterous fellows, but Wyatt Earp did not remember them as spontaneously wild or genuinely bad in comparison with cow camps and mining towns. They were strung across the state, at approximately twenty-mile intervals, with about two hundred men in each camp. Laborers, for the greater part, were veterans of the Civil War--from both armies--earning one to two dollars a day and board. They were a hard-driven, hardworking crowd inured to the hardest living, and they found their recreation in hard drinking and hard fighting. They carried guns at their work as protection against Indian attacks, but in settling differences among themselves usually laid weapons aside and fought with fists. Possibly war had provided a sufficiency of gunplay; at any rate, Wyatt could remember but one instance in which he saw railroad workers choose pistols to settle a quarrel.

Boxing in the railroad camps was governed by London Prize Ring rules, though governed may not be an accurate term, as there was little in London Prize Ring that wasn't allowed. Butting, eye gouging, hair pulling, ear biting, rabbit punching, and tripping were all common, though spitting was frowned upon. A Dodge City Times account of a bare knuckles bout staged while Wyatt was assistant marshal, though somewhat exaggerated, gives an idea of what went on at a match:

On last Tuesday morning the champion prizefight of Dodge City was indulged in by Messrs. Nelson Whitman and the noted Red Hanley, familiarly known as `the Red Bird from the South.... `During the forty-second round Red Hanley implored Norton [the referee] to take Nelson off for a little while till he could have time to put his right eye back where it belonged, set his jawbone, and have the ragged edge trimmed off his ears where they had been chewed the worst. This was against the rules of the ring so Norton declined, encouraging him to bear it as well as he could and squeal when he got enough. About the sixty-fourth round Red squealed unmistakably and Whitman was declared the winner. The only injury sustained by the loser in this fight were two ears chewed off, one eye busted and the other disabled, right cheek bone caved in, bridge of the nose broken, seven teeth knocked out, one jawbone mashed, one side of the tongue bit off, and several other unimportant fractures and bruises. Red retires from the ring in disgust.

The real job of referees like Wyatt wasn't so much to see that such fights were clean--what would constitute dirty?--as to simply keep the fighters fighting instead of wrestling and butting.

    At one match held near Cheyenne, Wyoming, on July 4, 1869, Mike Donovan, a seasoned pro, beat a young boxer named John Shanssey so badly that the latter retired from the ring. Donovan went on to become a well-known heavyweight; Shanssey was later to become mayor of Yuma, Arizona. Wyatt, acting as a bookie for the camp laborers, met both men before the bout. The meeting was to prove momentous for Wyatt. Years later, when Earp was in Fort Griffin, Texas, possibly in search of Dirty Dave Rudabaugh, Shanssey introduced him to a notorious dentist-turned-gambler named John "Doc" Holliday.

    There is no account of Wyatt stepping into the ring himself, but he must have learned something of the fistic arts in the camps. Thirty-five years later Bat Masterson would recall in his magazine profile of Wyatt that he:

never at any time in his career, resorted to the pistol excepting in such cases where such a course was absolutely necessary. Wyatt could scrap with his fists, and had often taken all the fight out of bad men, as they were called, with no other weapons than those provided by Nature. There were few men in the West who could whip Earp in a rough-and-tumble fight thirty years ago, and I suspect that he could give a tough youngster a hard tussle eight now, even if he is sixty-one years of age.

Given Wyatt's love for the rough-and-tumble life of the camps, it seems inexplicable that he would suddenly chuck it all away for a normal life in a settled town. From the Plains, Wyatt went to join Nicholas and Ginnie Ann in Lamar, Missouri. It was to be his only try at settling down in the eighty-one years of his life. Wyatt never talked about Lamar to John Flood or Stuart Lake or anyone. In fact, it wasn't until a couple of decades after Frontier Marshal was published that researchers even found out that the Earps had lived in Missouri. No one knows why Nick chose Lamar, though the 240 acres of property he had acquired not far from his brother's farm could well have been reason enough. That the family never spoke of Lamar is unsurprising--nothing of any consequence happened there. Except to Wyatt, and he had good reason to forget.

    It was in early 1870 in sleepy, settled Lamar that the most famous lawman of the American West actually got his first law appointment. The official title wasn't the familiar "marshal" or "sheriff" of frontier towns, but the more staid "constable." On September 24 of that same year Wyatt's half-brother, Newton, announced his candidacy when the position came up for election. This would later be cited as an example of Wyatt's opportunism, but in fact it was Newton who ran against Wyatt, who already had the job. There is no indication that either brother harbored ill feelings over the election; Newton would later name his son after Wyatt.

    Actually, Wyatt and Newton may have run against each other simply to keep the job in the family. Nick had already served a stint as town constable--that was in addition to running a small farm, operating a small grocery store and restaurant, and serving as a justice of the peace. With Nick as a justice and Wyatt as a policeman, the Earps had the law business--such as the law business was in Lamar, Missouri, in 1870--in their pocket. The voters were happy enough with the arrangement. "This is a good appointment," wrote someone in the Southwest Missourian when Wyatt first got the job, "and when our city dads get the machine in grinding order lawbreakers had better watch out." Possibly in anticipation of Wyatt's future reputation, lawbreakers such as Missouri's Jesse James and Cole Younger heeded the warning. No major crimes were committed in Lamar during the period--a good thing, since Barton County, where Lamar is located, didn't have a jail in 1870.

    Twenty-nine Missouri voters gave Wyatt Earp the only elective position he ever held, although, technically, he never held it because he never assumed office. In fact Wyatt may have won the election only because of a sympathy vote. Sometime in late 1869, he met a girl named Urilla Sutherland, the daughter of a Lamar hotel keeper named James Sutherland. More about who Urilla (or Rilla or Willa) Sutherland was and how Wyatt met her is not known. Local tradition says she was younger than Wyatt when they married, and Wyatt had just turned twenty-two. Her parents must have approved of the match; Nicholas, too, since he performed the ceremony. The couple purchased a lot on the outskirts of Lamar for $50. A little more than nine months later Wyatt would put it up for sale.

    Urilla Sutherland died, possibly of typhus but almost certainly while in childbirth. Shortly after the Earp brothers (Virgil and Wyatt and perhaps Newton, since James and Morgan were away and Warren too young) got into a brawl with Urilla's brothers, who apparently blamed Wyatt for their sister's death. Why they blamed Wyatt isn't clear. The logical reason would seem to be that they thought Urilla was too young to have married and believed her to have been seduced by the older Wyatt.

    The following year brought a minor court action involving $20 that Wyatt either stole or borrowed and failed to pay back (the court records aren't clear). The case was eventually dismissed, but Wyatt wasn't there to know about it. He was engaged--or appears to have been engaged--in perhaps the most serious clash with the law he would ever have.

    The known facts are that three men named Wyatt S. Earp, Edward Kennedy, and John Shown were charged, according to the document in the U.S. Federal Records, with stealing two horses each from one William Keys. Who Kennedy and Shown were is not known. John Shown's wife gave a statement that adds both color and confusion to the incident:

I know Wyatt S. Earp and Ed Kennedy. They got my husband drunk near Ft. Gibson, I.T. [Indian Territory] about the 28th of March 1871. They went and got Mr. Jim Keys' horses [apparently William Keys' brother], and put my husband on one and he led the other, and told him to ride 50 miles towards Kansas and then they would hitch the horses to a wagon, and he could ride. I went with these two men and met my husband 50 miles North of Ft. Gibson, and rode with these two men [Earp and Kennedy] in a hack. On meeting my husband they took the two horses out of the hack and put in the two he had. Earp drove on toward Kansas for three full nights. (We laid over days). About three o'clock of the third night James M. Keys overtook us. My husband John Shown said he could have the horses--the other left. Earp and Kennedy told Keys that my husband stole the horses. They also said that if Shown (my husband) turned state's evidence then they would kill him.

Earp and Shown made the $500 bail, which they subsequently skipped. Kennedy was acquitted on June 8, 1871, which means there had been a trial. The names of Wyatt Earp and John Shown were never again mentioned in connection with the case. What's the explanation? The most likely one is that Earp, Shown, and Kennedy were rank amateurs as horse thieves. Shown appears as the less guilty partner and he skipped; Kennedy appears as more guilty than Shown, but he was tried and acquitted. Kennedy's acquittal suggests that the statement by Shown's wife was self-serving nonsense; it's possible that she was even involved in whatever crime was attempted. There is no other apparent explanation for why she went along on the ride.

    If this was Wyatt Earp, our Wyatt Earp, then the horse theft episode left him at a crossroads. He was twenty-three with no family of his own and no profession. One career possibility was outlawing--he certainly had the skill with guns and horses to make a first-rate holdup man. Instead, he took up a profession where an enterprising young man could make a good deal of money the honest way if he applied himself and didn't mind days of scorching heat and choking dust, swarms of insects, occasional nights spent in rain and mud, the threat of Indians and stampedes, the unceasing roar of heavy rifles in his ears, and the all-pervading smell of gunsmoke, offal, and rotting carcasses.

For a couple of years after the death of his wife, Wyatt Earp was a loner; he would retain some of the qualities of a loner the rest of his life. There are no records or even hints of romantic involvements with women and not many of friendships with men. The one person who later recalled Wyatt at this age was Bat Masterson, who remembered him as "about twenty-six years old"--actually he was twenty-four--"and weighing in the neighborhood of 160 pounds, all of it muscle. He stood six feet in height, with light blue eyes, and a complexion bordering on the blond." Bat met Wyatt on the Plains where, like hundreds of other young men with no other hopes of employment, they killed buffalo.

    "I'll admit," Wyatt later said, "that in 1871 no buffalo hunter of my acquaintance--myself, least of all--planned his work as a crusade for civilization; but in a sense it was that. I went into the business to make money while enjoying life that appealed to me."

    Wyatt's fellow hunters were disgusted by his practice of assisting his hired man in butchering the animals. Hunters--those who could afford their own guns and ammunition and could hire someone to do the skinning--were supposed to be above such filthy work. Earp seemed to give butchering no second thought. By joining in the cutting, Wyatt, who had no capital, was able to kill and skin the twenty to twenty-five buffalo per day needed to make a profit and to keep expenses down by working with only one other man and one wagon. As for the danger of Indians or buffalo stampedes, Stuart Lake wrote: "The Indian hazard offered no great deterrent to a man of Wyatt's temperament than the possibility that he might be caught by the hoofs or horns of a stampeding buffalo herd. Face to face with either danger, he would do what he might."

    If we are to trust Lake, Wyatt also gave no thought to the proper weapon with which to hunt buffalo. The twelve-plus pound, .50 caliber Sharp rifle was, because of its power and range, the almost unanimous choice among buffalo hunters, "but notable among its drawbacks were the cost of ammunition and the fact that the rifle's accuracy was seriously affected by rapid fire." (The gun had to be watered down constantly to keep from overheating.) Wyatt, according to Lake, chose instead, "a breech-loading gun, with apparatus for reloading shells, and this, with a supply of powder, lead, and caps, was to constitute his hunting arsenal." Lake went on: "At any range under one hundred yards, he could score as accurately with his shotgun as any rifleman." Someone, probably Wyatt or Bat Masterson, was pulling Lake's leg. One hundred feet, not one hundred yards, would have been closer to the effective range of any shotgun available in the early 1870s, and even at one hundred feet the pellets from such a weapon would not have been able to do much more than annoy a buffalo. Wyatt must have shot buffalo, like everyone else, with a Sharp, and he made a good enough living at it to go out on several hunts.

    Earp made no extravagant claims for himself as a buffalo hunter but took notice of the prowess of his associates: "The known record kill from a single stand was held by Tom Nixon, a famous shot who made headquarters at Dodge. He downed one hundred and twenty animals without moving his rest-sticks, but he mined his Sharps rifle." And: "The best authenticated total for a season's kill was set by Billy Tilghman. He took thirty-three hundred hides between September 1 of one year and April 1 of the next; no buffalo hunter I know ever topped that score."

    Old West scholars will recognize "Billy" Tilghman as the future Bill Tilghman, regarded by many as the most efficient peace officer of the Plains states. Most of the great Kansas peace officers met on the buffalo-strewn plains--Masterson, Tilghman, Charlie Bassett, and Neal Brown were just four of the buffalo hunters who would one day comprise the most famous peacekeeping force of the cattle town era in Dodge City. There were also some future desperadoes in the buffalo camps, including Dutch Henry and Hendry Brown--Stuart Lake would later splice their names to Dutch Henry Brown, the villain played by Stephen McNally in the 1950 James Stewart movie Winchester '73 Among such men, Wyatt made an impression. Billy Dixon, who knew Wyatt in the camps, recalled to Bat Masterson that

Wyatt was a shy young man with few intimates. With casual acquaintances he seldom spoke unless spoken to. When he did say anything, it was to the point, without fear or favor, which wasn't relished by some; but that never bothered Wyatt. To those who knew him well he was a genial companion. He had the most even disposition I ever saw; I never knew him to lose his temper. He was more intelligent, better educated, and far better mannered than the majority of his associates, which probably did not help them to understand him. His reserve limited his friendships, but more than one stranger, down on his luck, has had firsthand evidence of Wyatt's generosity. I think his outstanding quality was the nicety with which he gauged the time and effort for every move. That, plus his absolute confidence in himself, gave him the edge over the run of men.

Bill Tilghman recalled something else: "In all the years during which I was intimately associated with Wyatt, as a buffalo hunter and a peace officer, I never knew him to take a drink of liquor."

    By 1872, it seems, the popular image of Wyatt Earp that remains today was already becoming fixed in people's minds. To those he regarded as friends, he awarded a fierce, familylike loyalty, strangers saw the calm confidence of a man not to be trifled with, a man Bat Masterson would later call "absolutely destitute of physical fear." Wyatt Earp was acquiring, in the parlance of his place and time, a reputation.

    At the beginning of 1873, Wyatt still had no clear idea of what profession he was going to follow, but he had a clear-headed vision of where the money was going. He could see the buffalo giving way to Texas cattle; six years later he would foresee the decline of the cattle towns and the rise of the mining camps. But for now, all roads were leading to Abilene, Caldwell, Ellsworth, Wichita, and a huge buffalo camp making the transition to cow town, Dodge City. Wyatt was twenty-five years old. He sold his buffalo gun and set out for Kansas.

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Table of Contents

Preface 1
Introduction 4
1 Wyatt: The Odyssey 19
2 "Bloody Kansas" - Wyatt Earp in Wichita 36
3 On to Dodge City 54
4 Tombstone: The Iliad 91
5 "Three Men Hurled into Eternity" - The Streetlight in Tombstone 139
6 Wyatt Earp on Trial 178
7 Wyatt Earp Unleashed: The Vendetta Ride 231
8 Putting Clothes on a Ghost: The Life and Legend of Doc Holliday 286
9 The Lion in Autumn 306
10 Hollywood Gunfighter 329
11 Print the Legend 375
12 Wyatt Redux 396
Bibliography 406
Index 413
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2000

    1000 HISTORICAL ERRORS = A DISASTER

    This book starts out well and then one discovers that there are more than just typos. There are over 1000 historical errors, as dates, events, sources. all it needed was a PROOFREADER, someone who knew the history of Wyatt Earp and Tombstone. Some of the errors are comical, as the 'streetlight' at the O. K. Corral. Others are ludicrous, as Doc Holliday re- loading his shotgun at the shootout. If the paperback had been corrected, this would have been a credible book. As it turned out, no corrections, so it is a historical disaster and major disappointment, except for the movie reviews, apparently written by some one else and quite entertaining. Fortunately the major source books on Wyatt Earp and Tombstone are now appearing so it is not necessary to rely on 'regurgitated' works as this. Just go to booksinprint and THERE THEY ARE! True and correct history at last!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 27, 2008

    Very interesting

    I am enjoying this book but it could use the services of a good editor as there are extensive errors (misspellings, missing words, typos, etc) and the author's thoughts come out jumbled. If the information were better organized it would be a much easier read. The material, however, is interesting and the author seems to have handled the facts fairly evenhandedly.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 4, 2001

    Earp in Fact and Fiction

    A major contribution to the growing cottage industry in Earpania, and a welcome antidote to the unnecessarily polarizing literature--hagiography vs. bio-pathology-- that continues to typify the field. Ploughs little new ground, but scours, sifts and separates the wheat from the chaff(in)of that already extant. The author not only did his homework, he succeeded in bringing his considerable critical intelligence to bear in an even-handed evaluation of his material. This is not a biography of the man, but an analysis and assessment of the mythmaking process that goes into the construction and maintenance of a legend. And because it is written in a fashion that is less scholarly than journalistic, it is immediately accessible to readers of every sort. Food for thought here, every morsel of it salutary. Congrats, Mr. Barra!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 13, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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