Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life

Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life

by Andrew C. Isenberg

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Finalist for the 2014 Weber-Clements Book Prize for the Best Non-fiction Book on Southwestern America

In popular culture, Wyatt Earp is the hero of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, and a beacon of rough cowboy justice in the tumultuous American West. The subject of dozens of films, he has been invoked in battles against


Finalist for the 2014 Weber-Clements Book Prize for the Best Non-fiction Book on Southwestern America

In popular culture, Wyatt Earp is the hero of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, and a beacon of rough cowboy justice in the tumultuous American West. The subject of dozens of films, he has been invoked in battles against organized crime (in the 1930s), communism (in the 1950s), and al-Qaeda (after 2001).

Yet as the historian Andrew C. Isenberg reveals in Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life, the Hollywood Earp is largely a fiction—one created by none other than Earp himself. The lawman played on-screen by Henry Fonda and Burt Lancaster is stubbornly duty-bound; in actuality, Earp led a life of impulsive lawbreaking and shifting identities. When he wasn't wearing a badge, he was variously a thief, a brothel bouncer, a gambler, and a confidence man. As Isenberg writes, "He donned and shucked off roles readily, whipsawing between lawman and lawbreaker, and pursued his changing ambitions recklessly, with little thought to the cost to himself, and still less thought to the cost, even the deadly cost, to others."

By 1900, Earp's misdeeds had caught up with him: his involvement as a referee in a fixed heavyweight prizefight brought him national notoriety as a scoundrel. Stung by the press, Earp set out to rebuild his reputation. He spent his last decades in Los Angeles, where he befriended Western silent film actors and directors. Having tried and failed over the course of his life to invent a better future for himself, in the end he invented a better past. Isenberg argues that even though Earp, who died in 1929, did not live to see it, Hollywood's embrace of him as a paragon of law and order was his greatest confidence game of all.

A searching account of the man and his enduring legend, and a book about our national fascination with extrajudicial violence, Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life is a resounding biography of a singular American figure.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
On the afternoon of October 26, 1881, deputy sheriff Wyatt Earp and his brothers Virgil and Morgan, along with Doc Holliday, confronted Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, and Billy Claiborne at the O.K. Corral, in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, resulting in one of the most legendary shootouts in Wild West history. Though Wyatt would be known by posterity primarily for his involvement in that famous showdown, Isenberg (Mining California) focuses in this plodding biography on the lawman’s life before and after O.K. The Temple University historian reveals Wyatt to have been a master of self-invention, creating a new identity for himself as he moved restlessly from one frontier town to the next, and finally on to Hollywood. He further dispels much of the romance surrounding Wyatt, uncovering some of the more ignominious traits he had developed by the early 1870s, including “an attraction to the underworld of petty crime, an impulse to seize opportunities regardless of the legal consequences, and a disposition to flee when the situation became untenable.” Wyatt is without a doubt a dynamic and interesting character, but Isenberg’s bio is as spiritless as a Wild West ghost town. Map. (July)
From the Publisher

“Meticulous . . . illuminat[es] an entire social milieu . . . Beautifully rendered . . . this new biography is a gem, and includes a touching look at Wyatt's single lifelong friendship with Doc Holliday . . . offer[s] the reader an exciting glimpse into vanished forms of American life. The field of Western history has now entered a phase of precision scholarship, [of] deep research and glorious writing.” —The Wichita Eagle

“This brief, well-written, and superbly researched volume reconfigures the life of the western notable Wyatt Earp.... Anyone who reads this important book is not likely to view Wyatt Earp the same way.” —Richard Etulain, Journal of American History

“Absorbing . . . Isenberg's brilliance as a historian comes in part from finding the gaps within the myth . . . Wyatt Earp is part biography, part historical nonfiction that reads like a gripping novel. Like David McCollough, Richard Slotkin, Nathaniel Philbruck, and S.C. Gwynne, Isenberg gives us a narrative of the Old West and 19th century America that's at once edifying and exhilarating in its scope.” —PopMatters

“his is the best dead-on Earp deconstruction I've ever read. At a time when vigilante action is being widely discussed—when we must ask ourselves if standing one's ground after stalking a black teenager translates into justifiable murder—it’s good to know that, in the old days, the issue was even more shockingly unsettled. Not only did Earp slay with impunity, but he also relied on the media to help him wipe the fingerprints and clean up the blood. Isenberg’s book deftly shows how a man of violence remade himself into a man of valor.” —Tucson Weekly

“Masterful . . . [the book] will be applauded by those who like their history to adhere more closely to facts.” —The New Mexican (Santa Fe)

“Isenberg carefully separates the historic from the hysterical, examines documents, evaluates sources critically and eventually scrapes away from Earp's image the gilding that cultural history has applied . . . Isenberg shows us Earp as an early Jay Gatsby, reinventing himself continually.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Meticulously researched and persuasively argued, this weave of a single life and its constantly changing culture shows how an ambitious, violent man from the Midwest who made his name as a gambler, pimp, and all-around enforcer ultimately took up the cause of remaking his own reputation, with enduring consequences for Hollywood myth and popular lore. No biographer has ever illuminated the origins of Wyatt Earp's legend or captured his complexities and contradictions as compellingly and with such beautiful prose as Andrew C. Isenberg does in Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life.” —Louis S. Warren, author of Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show

“Even Wyatt Earp must sometimes stand naked. Andrew C. Isenberg’s new biography of Earp shows us the man bereft of his own mythologizing—a cardsharp, a flimflam man, and most of all a ruthless self-promoter. This is a remarkable and revealing portrait.” —Thomas Cobb, author of With Blood in Their Eyes and Crazy Heart

“This book is quite simply absorbing. That a life as tangled, contradictory, mythologized, and disguised as Wyatt Earp's could offer such a clear window into the nineteenth- and twentieth-century West is a tribute to Andrew C. Isenberg's talent as a historian and writer.” —Richard White, author of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

“With no ax to grind, and showing respect for even the most outrageous attempts at history and biography (which he systematically disassembles), Andrew C. Isenberg has written a reliable guide to Wyatt Earp's conflicted existence.” —Loren D. Estleman, author of The Perils of Sherlock Holmes

Library Journal
Isenberg (history, Temple Univ.; Mining California: An Ecological History) pulls no punches in his critical examination of the image of Wyatt Earp—best known for his shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, in 1881—as a heroic lawman. Earp was also a gambler who fixed faro games and a salesman who painted bricks yellow and sold them as "gold." Laying bare many of the myths and fictions about Earp in popular culture, Isenberg shows him to have operated on both sides of the law for most of his life. In later years, Earp actually worked with filmmakers and actors as an adviser on Westerns, and in so doing found the means to reinterpret his checkered past in a highly favorable light that contributed, after his death, to myths about the heroic American West. The O.K. Corral shootout and its legal aftermath are detailed in a very matter-of-fact manner here. The most compelling part of the book is the demonstration that Earp was often at his best as a confidence man and faro dealer, able to reinvent himself as needed. The role of Josephine Marcus, later Earp's wife, as a contributing factor in the famous gunfight is considered by Isenberg but not argued as far as in Ann Kirschner's recent Lady at the O.K. Corral. VERDICT Recommended for academic and independent readers wishing to know both the dark and darker sides of this controversial Western icon.—Nathan Bender, Albany Cty. P.L., Laramie, WY
Kirkus Reviews
Isenberg (History/Temple Univ.; Mining California: An Ecological History, 2005, etc.) examines the life and legend of the famous lawman/liar/faro dealer/boxing referee/advisor on Western movies. This is likely the only biography of Wyatt Earp (1848–1929) that compares him with Henry, not Jesse, James. Although he focuses on Earp's biography--with both actual and Earp-concocted facts--the author pauses periodically to provide historical context and offer literary and other analogies. Melville has a cameo, as do Damon and Pythias and Prince Hal. Even Freud (unnamed) appears in an allusion to the Colt Buntline Special as phallic symbol. Isenberg also alludes continually to Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, Stuart Lake's 1931 biography that told Earp's story mostly the way he'd wanted it told--i.e., falsely. Isenberg carefully separates the historic from the hysterical, examines documents, evaluates sources critically and eventually scrapes away from Earp's image the gilding that cultural history has applied. Earp was only marginally different from the men he--in company with a couple of his brothers and tubercular Doc Holliday--helped shoot near (not in, the author assures us) the O.K. Corral. (Isenberg's account of the 30-second battle consumes only a couple of pages.) The author notes that, later, Earp had been evanescing, but in 1896 he emerged to referee--in clearly corrupt fashion--a big boxing match. This brought his name back, and in the emerging era of mass media, Earp found he could not flee his notoriety. So he decided to cash in on it. After his death, the flood of films and books and TV shows has never really subsided. Isenberg shows us Earp as an early Jay Gatsby, reinventing himself continually. Thorough research enriches the paint in this convincing and often unflattering portrait.

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Read an Excerpt

On the night of March 20, 1882, at a train station in Tucson, Arizona Territory, Wyatt Earp, a deputy United States marshal, shot Frank Stilwell, an accused stage-robber and murderer. Wyatt aimed to kill, firing his shotgun into Stilwell’s chest at such close range that powder burns encircled the gaping wound. The shotgun blast alone was a mortal wound, but when a railroad worker discovered Stilwell’s body the next morning, he found that Stillwell had been shot multiple times. Members of Earp’s posse, which included his youngest brother, Warren, and his closest friend, the professional gambler John Henry “Doc” Holliday, had opened fire with their own weapons to make sure of Stilwell’s death. The gunfight was one-sided: Stilwell’s pistol had not been fired.1
By most accounts, Stilwell was a villain. As a deputy sheriff in Cochise County, Arizona, which included the silver boomtown of Tombstone, he was one of several corrupt lawmen who shielded cattle rustlers and stage-robbers from justice. He was in Tucson, seventy-five miles northwest of Tombstone, to face prosecution for having participated in a stage robbery himself. He was at the train station awaiting the arrival of a cowboy who would provide him with an alibi in court—the cowboy was likely prepared to commit perjury. Wyatt had long known Stilwell was a blackguard, but he had another, more important reason to confront him at the train station in Tucson. Two nights earlier, in Tombstone, gunmen had murdered Wyatt’s younger brother Morgan. Witnesses had identified Stilwell as one of Morgan’s killers, and a coroner’s jury in Tombstone had indicted him for the crime.
As Stilwell’s wounds suggested, Wyatt, despite his commission as a deputy U.S. marshal, made no attempt to arrest the accused murderer and bring him before a judge. Wyatt’s experiences with Arizona’s legal system over the previous half year had soured him on courtroom justice. In October 1881, as a deputy police officer in Tombstone serving under his brother Virgil, the town police chief, Wyatt had participated in a gunfight that had left three cowboys dead. (The shoot-out, memorialized as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, actually took place in an empty lot behind the corral.) Following the shoot-out, Virgil, Wyatt, and Wyatt’s fellow deputies Morgan and Holliday were accused of murder and endured a monthlong courtroom ordeal. Wyatt spent much of that month in a Tombstone jail cell.2 In late December, confederates of the dead cowboys shotgunned Virgil on a deserted Tombstone street; Virgil survived, but lost the use of his left arm. A cowboy, Ike Clanton, was charged with attempted murder, but in court, seven witnesses swore that Ike had been with them in a mining camp outside Tombstone on the night of the attack.3 Wyatt feared that if Stilwell was brought to court to face charges for Morgan’s murder—which like the shooting of Virgil was in retaliation for the October gunfight—Stilwell’s friends would testify falsely to provide him an alibi.
Accused of murdering Stilwell and, in the days that followed, two other cowboys he suspected of involvement in Morgan’s death, Wyatt fled Arizona. Despite the ignominy of his exit from Tombstone, his role as a vigilante became a crucial part of his eventual status in American popular culture as an icon of law and order, the violent agent of justice on a lawless frontier. On the surface, it seems unlikely, or at least ironic, that a vigilante killer would become a symbol of rectitude. Yet Wyatt’s story appealed to Americans who like him saw justice not in fickle courtrooms, but in the character of stalwarts who were willing to break the law—even to commit murder.
A host of books, films, and television programs propelled Wyatt into his status as the iconic vigilante lawman.4 In 1931, a biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, by Stuart N. Lake, cast Wyatt as an Old West version of an FBI agent and his Tombstone enemies as an organized-crime ring. Like Eliot Ness or Melvin Purvis, Lake implied, Wyatt rightly resorted to extralegal justice because of the brutality of his enemies and the corruption of local police and judges. During the early years of the Cold War, the icon of the resolute lawman became a symbol of resistance to communism. Such resistance was so violent, in Western films such as 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which starred Burt Lancaster as Wyatt, that the lawman inevitably remained outside of the civil society he protected.5 In late 2001, when President George W. Bush vowed to get Osama bin Laden “dead or alive,” he summoned up the Earp icon of the frontier lawman willing to go outside of the law in the pursuit of justice. On September 19, 2001, a columnist for the Hartford Courant referred to the “dead or alive” vow as “Wyatt Earp rhetoric.”6 In 2010, one year before the Justice Department indicted his office for discriminating against Mexican Americans, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, created an armed “immigration posse” to inderdict suspected illegal aliens. One of the posse’s members was a Phoenix man, Wyatt Earp, who was not only the namesake of the 1880s Arizona lawman but claimed to be his nephew. Across three-quarters of a century, in battles against organized crime, Soviet communism, Islamist terrorism, and illegal immigration, Americans have invoked the Earp icon to rationalize the extralegal pursuit of justice.
Yet the Wyatt Earp of the nineteenth-century American West was not the film icon familiar to modern Americans. While the Hollywood version is stubbornly, consistently duty-bound, in actuality Wyatt led a life of restlessness, inconstancy, impulsive law-breaking, and shifting identities. Beginning in his late teens, he rarely lived more than a year or two in one place. For much of his life, he was both hunter and hunted: he was a lawman in Missouri, Kansas, and Arizona; he was also a fugitive in Colorado and saw the inside of jail cells in Arkansas, Illinois, Arizona, and California. He was the grandson of a Methodist preacher and struck most of the educated, genteel, religiously minded people who knew him as a paragon of probity; he also spent most of his life working in brothels, saloons, and gambling halls. When he was not wearing a badge, he was variously a thief, brothel bouncer, professional gambler, and confidence man who specialized in selling gold bricks that were nothing more than rocks painted yellow.
His hasty exit from Arizona in 1882 was not the first time that an impulsive criminal act had forced him to become a fugitive. In 1871, he broke out of jail in Arkansas after being arrested for horse theft. In 1872, he left Peoria, Illinois, following a string of arrests for consorting with prostitutes. In 1876, officials in Wichita, Kansas, declared him a vagrant and banished him after he assaulted a candidate for town marshal on the eve of a municipal election. In each case, Wyatt left behind his scandals, moved to a fresh town where he was largely or entirely unknown, and reinvented himself. In the narrowly localized society of the 1870s, a man such as Wyatt who was willing to pull up stakes and remake his reputation in a new town could outrun his past.
These reinventions often meant abandoning old partners—men and women—for new ones. In Wichita, he left behind his police partner, Jimmy Cairns, with whom he had shared a bed. When he fled Arizona, he abandoned Mattie Blaylock, a woman with whom he had lived for years. Indeed, Wyatt changed partners nearly as often as he changed occupations and addresses. He had three wives over the course of his life; a fourth woman, a prostitute at a brothel where Wyatt worked, once claimed to be his wife. He maintained close relationships with two men; in addition to Cairns, his friendship with Holliday was so close that it was described by one contemporary as romantic.
Self-invention has a long history in America. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, self-invention was closely related to the powerful American belief in the possibilities of moral betterment and upward social mobility. Benjamin Franklin was the prototype for this kind of self-made man; in his autobiography Franklin depicted himself, not entirely without justification, as a runaway servant who rose to wealth and prominence through hard work and virtuous self-denial. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, an ex–divinity student, Horatio Alger, Jr., heralded the American creed of rags-to-respectability mobility through a series of stories aimed at boys and girls. Alger’s protagonists were bootblacks and pickpockets who, after experiencing a conversion to the Whiggish creed of upward mobility, righted themselves to become churchgoing entrepreneurs.7
Wyatt’s version of self-invention differed from that of Franklin and Alger. Socially, his family was downwardly mobile. He had been born into an extended family of churchgoing, Whiggish strivers who adhered to values of hard work. Yet when Wyatt was still a boy, his father, Nicholas, disappointed by a series of financial and legal setbacks, lost his faith in the promise of upward mobility. By the time Wyatt was in his teens, his father had become an inveterate liar who invented for himself the achievements that had eluded him in life. Like his father, Wyatt embraced the prerogative of self-invention, and like him, he eschewed the self-denial that Franklin and Alger maintained was essential to upward mobility. As an adult, Wyatt convincingly acted the part of the upright lawman, but was never willing to sacrifice gambling, prostitutes, confidence games, or petty crimes to become one completely.
The role of the solitary, dutiful lawman was thus one of many identities the protean Wyatt took on and cast off in his life. So, too, was the role of vigilante. His resort to vigilantism in 1882 was not the act of a man unwaveringly committed to justice in a frontier territory where the courts were corrupt, but the impulsive vengeance of a man who had long disdained authority. He donned and shucked off roles readily, whipsawing between lawman and lawbreaker, and pursued his changing ambitions recklessly, with little thought to the cost to himself, and still less thought to the cost, even the deadly cost, to others.
Yet Hollywood vindicated the vigilante, turning Wyatt into an icon of law and order. His plastic identity and penchant for reinvention freely lent itself to Hollywood mythmaking. Consumed in his last years with justifying his resort to deadly violence in Arizona, he told and retold stories of his life as a law officer in Tombstone and in the Kansas cow towns of Wichita and Dodge City in the 1870s. His tales were as inconsistent and changeable as his life itself: he edited out his missteps and embarrassments, inflated his accomplishments, and appropriated the deeds of others as his own. He spent the last two decades of his life living primarily in Los Angeles and becoming a fixture at Hollywood studios. Befriending Western silent-film actors and directors, he presented himself to them as a lawman singularly committed to justice.
One of those actors, William S. Hart, convinced Wyatt that a memoir, presented either in book form or serialized in a popular magazine such as the Saturday Evening Post, should be the basis for a film script. In the late 1910s, Wyatt collaborated on such a memoir with Forrestine Hooker, the author of somewhat formulaic children’s stories and the daughter-in-law of an Arizona rancher whom Wyatt had known. Although Hooker’s manuscript presented Wyatt in a flattering light, he was dissatisfied with it, or perhaps was not yet ready to settle on a definitive account of a life he had so often reinvented. He steered the manuscript into a desk drawer to be forgotten and did what he was long practiced at doing: he began again with a new narrative. His new collaborator was John Flood, a young friend who regarded Wyatt with unqualified admiration. Yet fidelity proved a poor substitute for ability: Flood struggled with the task of writing Wyatt’s biography for two years, eventually producing a convoluted manuscript that was rejected by all of the publishers to whom Hart sent it.
After a decade of false starts, Wyatt settled on Lake, a former journalist and aspiring screenwriter, to write his biography. Yet even as Wyatt reminisced to Lake during the spring of 1928, in what turned out to be the last year of his life, he carefully edited his past. He had long hidden his youthful arrests even from some of his own family. He repeated to Lake many of the same stories he had told his family—for instance, that he had spent the early 1870s hunting bison in the southern plains, when in fact he was compiling a criminal record in Arkansas and Illinois. Wyatt did not intend to arouse Lake’s suspicions by mentioning that as recently as 1911 officers of the Los Angeles police’s bunco squad had arrested him for running a crooked faro game. Yet he need not have worried. Lake, eager to make his literary reputation by casting himself as Boswell to Wyatt’s Samuel Johnson, polished Wyatt’s tales to a high shine. The icon conjured by Wyatt and Lake quickly made its way onto the screen, just as Wyatt had hoped, dominating the American memory of Wyatt for a half century. Unlike those Horatio Alger strivers who invented a better future for themselves, Wyatt invented for himself a better past. Though Wyatt, who died in 1929, did not live to see it, Hollywood’s embrace of him as a paragon of law and order was the realization of his last and undoubtedly his greatest confidence game, his surest revenge, and his most complete reinvention.

Copyright © 2013 by Andrew C. Isenberg
Map and family tree copyright © 2013 by Angelica Maez Edgington

Meet the Author

Andrew C. Isenberg is the author of Mining California: An Ecological History and The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750–1920, and the editor of The Nature of Cities: Culture, Landscape, and Urban Space. He is a historian at Temple University.

Andrew C. Isenberg is the author of Mining California: An Ecological History (Hill and Wang, 2005) and The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750–1920 and the editor of The Nature of Cities: Culture, Landscape, and Urban Space. He is a historian at Temple University and lives in Penn Valley, PA.

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