Note: This review is by my husband Jim.
Subtitled “The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral – And How It Changed the American West,” this is the story of what really transpired among Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Doc Holliday, the Clantons, the McLaurys, inter alia. I read this because I heard the author talk about the book at the Tucson Festival of Books, and because Tombstone, Arizona is just down the highway a piece from us – a place where tourists usually want to go.
Jeff Guinn provides a family history of the Earps, with an emphasis on Wyatt, its most colorful and longest-lived member.
Forget about the long running TV show “Wyatt Earp” and several Hollywood movies. Wyatt spent more time as miner, saloon (and sometime brothel) keeper, and card sharp than he did as a law man. His primary motivation to become a sheriff or marshal was not to bring law to the community, but rather to become wealthy by keeping his share (usually 10%) of local taxes collected in various jurisdictions. His elder brother Virgil, however, spent most of his career as a U.S. Marshal.
Wyatt may have exaggerated his virtue, but he appears to have been just as tough as he claimed. Before coming to Tombstone, he established a reputation as an effective deputy marshal in Dodge City without killing anyone, relying on his ability to intimidate and, if necessary, pistol-whip unruly brigands. The TV series was accurate in this respect.
In the late 1880’s Tombstone was a boomtown whose economy was driven by nearby silver mines. It was populated not only by miners and prospectors (normally a pretty rough bunch), but also by another very rough group, mostly from Texas, known as the “cowboys.” The cowboys made their living primarily by rustling cattle, mostly from just over the border in Mexico. Local ranchers tolerated the cowboys because they could supplement their herds with rustled Mexican cattle.
By 1890, enough miners had become sufficiently wealthy to constitute a local gentry who wanted a modicum of law and order in the town. The cowboys were notoriously ill-behaved. Enter the Earps. Virgil became the local U.S. Marshal. Wyatt schemed to be elected county sheriff, a real plumb because of tax revenues, but lost an election to Johnny Behan. Instead, he had to content himself with earning his living playing cards and occasionally serving as his brother Virgil’s deputy.
A great deal of animosity developed between the Earps and some of the cowboys, particularly the Clanton and McLaury families. There was indeed a shootout, but it actually took place about a block away from the O.K. Corral. (The location of the gunfight came down into modern lore as the O.K. Corral, because that has a more memorable ring to it than “the vacant lot on Fremont Street.”)
Wyatt had a pretty good idea who was behind the attacks on his brothers, so he gathered Doc Holliday and a few other friends and took the law into his own hands. In the next few months, he and his posse went on what became known as the Vendetta Ride and executed three of the cowboys, gangland style. Wyatt and Doc were indicted for murder, so they left the Arizona territory. They were arrested in Colorado, but through the efforts of Bat Masterson, they were never extradited, there having been some rough justification for what they had done.
Wyatt tried to retain a ghost writer tell the story of his life, but his choice of authors was so bad that the project went nowhere. It was only after his death that the legend of the virtuous westerner who stands up for law and order with his gun became popular. Ironically, the generic term for such adventurers became “cowboy,” a term of opprobrium in Wyatt’s day.
Jeff Guinn concludes his well-told tale as follows:
“As for Wyatt Earp, who was both more and less than his legend insists, we can feel certain of this: He would be pleased by the way everything turned out, except for the fact that he never made any money from it.”
Evaluation: Guinn is an expert storyteller who makes the action move along almost like a novel. However, he is careful never to lose his role as historian and his conclusions about the effect of the Earps and the gunfight on American culture are measured and appropriate where other writers would be tempted to exaggerate. I would rate the book more highly if it had covered more socially significant subject matter. Nonetheless, it is a pleasant read about an interesting historical epoch and its modern reputation.
Published by Simon & Schuster, 2011