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A new Wyatt Earp bio recasts a law-and-order icon as a scoundrel

It's difficult to believe that in 2013 yet another biography of Wyatt Earp is needed to deconstruct the persistent myth of a violent man who, for a century, has symbolized vigilantism in the U.S. Even in the wake of fine and gritty Western movies and TV series—Tombstone (1993), Deadwood ('04-'06)—the notion persists that the Earp brothers were all that separated good townspeople from bad and ugly wrongdoers.

Enter environmental historian and Temple University professor Andrew Isenberg, whose latest book, Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life, strives to provide an antidote. It mostly works, thanks to Isenberg's thorough reconsideration of accounts that still serve to prop up the false image of a righteous, "bring 'em in dead or alive" lawman. The truth is almost comical in its 180-degree turn from the fictional construct.

Whoremonger. Horse thief. Bare-knuckle-boxing fixer. Card cheat. Embezzler. Flimflam man. Bootlegger. Indeed, the only crime Isenberg doesn't accuse Earp of is child rape. OK, it' a joke, but not far from the mark. With such a tarnished history, it's no wonder Earp, in a long effort to produce a winning presentation, exhausted two writer-collaborators, shelving their for-naught manuscripts before settling on journalist and screenwriter Stuart Lake. Lake's 1931 biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, published two years after Earp's death, became the preeminent Earp account, transforming him into a symbol of everything postwar American—extralegal crime-fighting, communist resistance and, most recently, Islamic-terror hunting. (Remember President George W. Bush promising Wild West justice to Osama bin Laden?) Isenberg is compelled to right historical wrongs, to illuminate hidden aspects of a man who, well, makes George Zimmerman look saintly.

Isenberg doesn't make excuses for Earp, but contextualizes the self-mythologizing. Despite Earp's father's predilection for tall tales, the family didn't emerge unscathed from conflicts in the antebellum and post-antebellum eras—Indian Wars, the Civil War, etc. Though Earp didn't fight during North-South hostilities, he watched his brothers go to war, looking up to them and learning their martial ways.

Emulation inspired him to hone his skills as a shooter, brawler and brothel visitor. He certainly wasn't a poseur when push came to punch. Earp refrained, though, from imbibing alcohol, probably because of a genetic disorder. As Isenberg relates,

He took his first drink of whiskey in a Prescott, Arizona, saloon. He promptly passed out, and when he awoke, he was still, according to his sister, in a "terrible state ... sick, headache, perspiring and trembling all over." On (brother) Virgil's advice, Wyatt took another shot of whiskey to cure his hangover, but "got just as bad as before." When he had recovered, he swore off alcohol completely—a pledge he kept for most of his adult life. Later in Wyatt's life, upstanding community members in Kansas and Arizona would remember that unlike many other lawmen and cowboys, he was a teetotaler.

Arizona readers will enjoy Isenberg's Tombstone description, even if they flinch at post-apocalyptic details: "One could do little to guard against the cloud of particles churned up by the near-constant wagon traffic and the hoisting works surrounding town." Earp's killing of three cowboys, it turns out, had nothing to do with being drawn into a law-and-order gunfight. It had everything to do with avoiding the frontier courtroom. The savagery of the killings irked the merchant class, earning Earp and his posse a murder indictment: "So Wyatt (...) left Tombstone in ignominy."

For me, the most fascinating chapter is the final one, "The Shadows of the Past." Earp chased away his dark phantoms by courting Tinseltown, hanging out on Hollywood sets and chumming with Western silent-film star Tom Mix and dictating his fictional memoirs. All this despite an arrest as late as 1911, at age 63, for running crooked card games in L.A. Isenberg remains a historian, so his prose lacks narrative flair. He often selects quotations better left summarized or freshly conveyed. But overall this 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.

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