A Glorified Nobody

In his entertaining new book, Jeff Guinn makes it clear that he's no fan of Wyatt Earp

If not for the O.K. Corral fight, Wyatt Earp would be forgotten today.

His life was not so different from that of countless frontiersmen who came West, flailed around trying to get rich without working too hard, and went through his share of women and legal scrapes. He lived until 1929 without much to show for his wanderings.

But he had the gunfight—and he had Stuart Lake and Hugh O'Brian.

They resurrected Wyatt as a heroic figure, a Western colossus reeking of gun metal who righteously returned bad men to dust. Lake did so in his beautifully written 1931 biography, and actor O'Brian picked up the banner with The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, the popular TV Western that aired from 1955 to 1961.

The myth's creation gave future observers a juicy target to knock down, after which the pendulum would swing, and along would come another writer to push it the other way. The fight has kept the story ricocheting through time.

The latest entry is The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral—And How It Changed the American West, by Texas writer Jeff Guinn. He sees Earp as a glorified nobody, "a minor functionary who ultimately overstepped himself in particularly violent, regrettable ways."

Most readers know the basics of what happened on Oct. 26, 1881, in a vacant lot opening onto Tombstone's Fremont Street. The Earp boys—Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan—accompanied by their dentist friend, Doc Holliday, tried to arrest some rustler-cowboys with whom they'd been feuding.

The result was something rare in the West: a face-to-face shootout. It lasted 30 seconds and left 19-year old Billy Clanton dead, along with Tom and Frank McLaury. When a judge found insufficient evidence to charge the Earp party with murder, the rustlers sought to punish them with Winchesters, as Will McLaury, brother of Tom and Frank, vowed.

Three days after Christmas in 1881, Virgil was badly wounded during an ambush while crossing the street in Tombstone, leaving one arm useless. And on March 18, 1882, as Morgan played pool in a saloon, the cowboys shot him in the back, killing him.

Now comes the part of the story most sidewalk historians don't know.

Enraged, Wyatt embarked on his "vendetta ride," killing three men in eight days, and these weren't anyone's definition of legally righteous shoots. But "legal" wasn't part of Wyatt's calculation anymore. As he saw it, the law was incapable of delivering justice, leaving him to kill the men trying to kill his family.

One of those killings occurred in Tucson on March 20, 1882. As he escorted Virgil to California, Wyatt spotted Frank Stilwell, involved in Morgan's murder, lurking at the downtown train depot. Wyatt got off the train with his posse, and the result became clear next morning as the sun rose over Stilwell's shot-up body. He had powder burns on his hand and fear on his face.

Guinn writes of these events in an easy, lucid style that has the feel of a long newspaper story. It's evident from his rhythm that he writes quickly. Guinn is a former book editor and senior writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He starts with a fine opening chapter, setting the scene in Tombstone that day. But he lets the narrative sag when he steps back to provide context, seeming to struggle as he shoehorns in disparate threads from his research.

For those familiar with Tombstone history, Guinn doesn't break much new ground. But most people aren't familiar with it and will be surprised by his accounting of the feud, and its lynchpin character, Wyatt, a man with cold blue eyes and undetectable charm.

Young Wyatt had his share of trouble before arriving in Tombstone in 1879, at 31. He was arrested for stealing horses in Arkansas in 1871, and he ran from a charge of pocketing some money while a lawman in Lamar, Mo.

He also had a habit of getting busted in bordellos in and around Peoria, Ill., as both customer and pimp. But his critical flaw might've been his temper, which, in Guinn's telling, played as much of a role in instigating the fight as Ike Clanton's epic big mouth did.

Ike spent the morning of Oct. 26 making threats as he hunted for Doc Holliday. When Doc, who lived under a death sentence from tuberculosis, crawled out of bed and heard of this, he sharpened his fatalistic wit and cracked, "If God lets me live long enough to get my clothes on, he shall see me."

Also the morning of the fight, Wyatt and Tom McLaury traded words, after which Wyatt gave him a good boink on the head with his six-shooter, leaving Tom lying in the street. "I could kill the sonofabitch," fumed Wyatt.

When Frank McLaury, as protective of his little brother as Wyatt was of Morgan, heard of Tom's crucible, he was angry, asking, "What did he hit Tom for?"

As inevitably happens in retellings of the Tombstone dust up, The Last Gunfight reveals as much about the political and social leanings of the writer as the characters involved.

The story has always been a looking glass. It offers up the law-and-order Republican Earps, tight with business and government leaders, versus the Democratic common-man cowboys, bitter at the restraints the law placed on them and wanting to be left alone to make their living, legal or not.

Guinn, as stated, comes down on the Earps-as-public-menace side as he fires away at the myth. The Earps bravely stood up to lawlessness? No, they were stubborn. They stayed in Tombstone after the O.K. Corral and risked death, rather than leave and be perceived as cowards.

Wyatt was fearless, as some who knew him said? No, he departed Tombstone just as Frank Stilwell's brother, Jack, a well-known Indian fighter and scout, arrived. Guinn implies Wyatt left in fear of Jack's revenge.

Guinn seems eager to interpret events on the anti-myth side even when the Earps' actions were unremarkable. He makes much of the fact that Wyatt came to Tombstone on the make, desperate to fill his pockets and become somebody. But most men who ventured to frontier mining towns held those same ambitions.

He tells us Wyatt exaggerated his exploits when he cooperated with Lake. Again, all frontier memoirists did that, aware no book could get published unless it presented a manly icon.

We even learn the Earps shoved their women into the background, as if this distinguishes them among 19th-century men. And in a head-scratching footnote, Guinn tells us that Tombstone mayor John Clum, a major Earp-party supporter, would today probably be an executive at Fox News.

But for the most part, differing interpretations aren't a detriment if they're backed by solid research, as they are here. On the contrary, they enliven history and make it more fun. Guinn has written a good book.

Now we await the next one, and the swing of the pendulum back the other way.

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