The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn has a subtitle that perfectly describes the book: “The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral – And How it Changed the American West.” I’ve been reading about Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral for decades, and the story just gets better and better as historians gather more and more data and keep putting the pieces together over and over looking for the historical truth. Jeff Guinn’s book is the best yet, but I also liked Inventing Wyatt Earp by Allen Barra. Both have come a tremendous distance down the trail since Stuart Lake’s Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal in 1931.
Growing up in the 1950s meant watching a lot of westerns on television. Western movies have been around since the earliest days of silent films. The allure of the wild west began in print way before the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral in 1881 with newspaper stories and dime novels. Stories of the west have always been mythic, and the truth has always been hard to know. We know the wild west through fiction – through the myths. In recent years historians have been examining and writing about those myths and the reality is startlingly different.
Back in the 1950s Wyatt Earp on TV was a squeaky clean good guy. But before the real Wyatt Earp got to Tombstone he had mainly worked in whorehouses, probably as a bouncer, but maybe as investor, and had been arrested a couple of times, including for horse stealing. After the gunfight he killed three men in cold blood, and only one in a gunfight, because he was tired of waiting for the law to catch the killers of his brother. Wyatt Earp essentially got away with murder. Many people also felt the Earps and Doc Holladay murdered the three men at the O.K. Corral. Wyatt Earp had worked for the law, but never as full Marshal or Sheriff, just as a deputy. But this work brought him in contact with criminals that wanted him and his brothers dead, and the Earps killed the cowboys first.
In the myths of television and movie westerns violence is the solution. We like to think the white hat cowboys represent good and the American way of life, and the black hat cowboys represent lawlessness and evil. Jeff Guinn’s book goes beyond those stereotypes to explain things were far more complex. As ambiguous as any complex issue today.
Even as the conflict between the cowboy rustlers around southern Arizona and New Mexico was taking place with the city folk of Tombstone, press reports about the violence was entertaining newspaper readers all over the country. At first the Earps were praised for warring against criminals and maintaining the peace, but after the famous gunfight, when Wyatt went on his famous revenge vendetta ride, the public turned against him too. He became just another killer that society needed to deal with.
Wyatt Earp lived another forty something years and fame dogged him the rest of his life. He wanted to square his story with the public, which is why he worked with Stuart Lake on his autobiography. But Earp died before it was finished, and Lake had to make it into a biography. But because of Earp’s wife Josephine, Lake was forced to clean up the story. Wyatt had already been telling lies for years about his life, and before he died already had his own mythic view of his past ready. People wanted to read about a gunman, but Earp wanted them to believe he was a peace officer and businessman.
Then the movies started coming out and the legend began to grow and Wyatt Earp was turned into one of most famous men in wild west history. He’s even eclipsing Wild Bill Hickok and other men who were more famous at the time. Jeff Guinn explores this in the last chapter of his book. I think it deserve a whole book itself.
The story is complicated. Just read the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” at Wikipedia. It’s so complicated that it makes for a Rashomon like tale. Jeff Guinn strengthens this story by giving a lot of American history that leads up to why the various principle characters acted the way that they did. Much of the story is political – can’t get far from the Republicans and Democrats today, can we?
Because of television and movies we picture old west towns with one long street, with a sheriff’s office, several saloons, a hotel, a general store, a telegraph office and a livery stable. 1881 Tombstone was far more urban than that. It had two opera houses, a bowling alley, an ice cream store, tennis courts, a stationary story, many hotels, mines, factories, countless bars, countless whorehouses, two newspapers, and lots of businesses, including those that sold the latest fashions for women from the east and Europe. The wild west in 1881 was already becoming what we know as modern – and thus the famous shootout was less about wild west gunslingers and more about of a complicated crime.
Wyatt Earp and his brothers had common law marriages to prostitutes, mainly earned their money from gambling, and Wyatt hoped to make it big by becoming Sheriff who got to keep 10% of the taxes he collected. The Earps were near the bottom of the social/economic heap and hoped to climb up in status by working as lawmen. Unlike the movies, they weren’t famous citizens of their town. Their names got in the papers when they arrested cattle rustlers or arrested drunk and disorderly cowboys, but that wasn’t that often. They were just tough guys hired to deal with more unpleasant tough guys.
We see westerns today where the good guys kill countless bad guys. How many men did Marshal Matt Dillon kill over the course of Gunsmoke? Well Wyatt Earp is the most famous gunfighter in history for being involved in killing six men, but none in quick draw duels. There were damn few gunfight duels like we see on television that you have to study hard to find them. Most gunfights were drunken brawls and cowardly ambushes. Even the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral was not men whipping out six-shooters from their holsters. Wyatt had his pistol in a coat with a specially made pocket for a handgun. I don’t know if any of the men had guns in holsters slung low on the hip like we see in the movies. One man the Earps shot apparently didn’t even have a gun – but they probably didn’t know it since they let another man with out a gun, Ike Clanton, the man they really wanted to kill the most, get out of the way. Something like 30 shots were fired in 30 seconds by six people. More of a close fire fight than a duel.
The gunfight at the O.K. Corral was an insignificant event in America history that’s been elevated into myth and legend. Because the event is at the intersection of history and myth, like stories we find in The Bible, people can’t let them go. The gunfight at the O.K. Corral is like a meme that grows and grows. We can no longer tell reality from myth when it comes to stories about the American wild west, but there is something about these stories that deeply resonate with us. We want to define ourselves and our history by the myths rather than reality.
I predict there will be more movies about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in the future, and with each new generation of films, they will redefine the story again and again. Sometimes the pendulum will swing towards reality and other times towards fantasy. The Kevin Costner and Kurt Russell portrayals glorified Wyatt Earp even though they both tried to be realistic. The new book Doc by Mary Doria Russell tries to de-glorify them, and make them more human, and demystify the violence – but I’m worried she went to far in making them likable. My personal guess is they were both pretty damn unlikable. But the fact is we’ll never know. We can make Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday into whatever we want – and will, time and again in the movies and books.
JWH – 12/28/11