The FIR Vault

WYATT EARP: PART 1

By • Jun 10th, 2013 • Pages: 1 2 3

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Walter Huston, right, the first actor to portray Wyatt Earp, with Ralph Ince in LAW AND ORDER, 1932.

In the history of the American West, one of the most legendary – and controversial – figures to emerge from that era was Wyatt Earp. Although less than five of his 80 years were spent in law enforcement, his exploits during that period have been chronicled, discussed, disputed and dissected ever since.

Numerous books published over the last 60 years have either glorified him as an invincible defender of justice or vilified him as a contemptible scoundrel and killer. Walter Noble Burns’ Tombstone of 1927 and Stuart Lake’s extremely popular Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal of 1931 are examples of the pro-Earp books while Frank Waters’ The Earp Brothers Of Tombstone of 1960 and Ed Bartholomew’s Wyatt Earp, The Man And The Myth of 1964 are typical anti-Earp books. There is no doubt that Wyatt’s official biographer, Stuart Lake, stretched the truth in extolling his subject but it is ironic that later researchers, who disregard the Lake book because of the positive bias, readily accept as truth the negative bias of the anti-Earp books. For instance, William Breakenridge’s Helldorado published in 1928 is often used as a legitimate source to prove various charges against Wyatt even though Breakenridge was aligned with enemies of the Earps and both hated and envied Wyatt Earp. Current film historians appear to be guilty of the same error, as evident from disparaging remarks about Wyatt in Brian Garfield’s Western Films: A Complete Guide and Tag Gallagher’s John Ford: The Man And His Films.

In brief, Wyatt Earp served as a lawman in Wichita and Dodge City in Kansas and in Tombstone, Arizona, holding such positions as City Policeman, City Marshal, Deputy Sheriff and Deputy U.S. Marshal. Despite attempts by detractors to denigrate and even deny his achievements in law enforcement, historical evidence proves that he served with distinction and was considered a man of integrity and courage as well as one who avoided gunplay whenever possible. Indeed, he never killed a single man until the O.K. Corral killings, a commendable record considering the level of violence rampant throughout the Old West.

The gunfight at the O.K. Corral is without a doubt the most disputed event of Wyatt Earp’s life. On the afternoon of October 26, 1881, two groups of men faced each other in a vacant lot (actually about 30 yards west of the corral) in Tombstone. In one group were five men known as “the cowboys” – Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaurey and Billy Clairborne. Opposing them were U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp, his brothers, and deputies, Morgan and Wyatt, and John H. ‘Doc” Holliday. Almost immediately after Virgil Earp ordered the cowboys to surrender their arms, guns were drawn and over two dozen shots were fired. Approximately 30 seconds later, Bill Clanton and the McLaurey brothers were dead and Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded. Since then, what actually happened during that minute has beer shrouded in confusion, contradictory testimony, prejudicial accounts and outright lies. Without a doubt the most authoritative and objective account of the fight can be found in The O.K. Corral Inquest edited by Alford E. Turner (Creative Publishing 1981) which contains not only the texts of the hearing and inquest that followed but scrupulously researched historical notes and editorial comments.

A number of factors led up to that bloody day. Since the discovery of silver in 1877 Tombstone had become a prosperous mining town with a population of over twelve thousand. The booming metropolis had attracted investors, merchants, settlers and, inevitably, outlaws who found the proximity to Mexico, the lack of established law and the shortage of beef conducive to criminality. The Clantons, who had a ranch near the San Pedro River, were widely suspected of criminal activities and the McLaureys were long time allies. They were all on a friendly basis with Cochise County Sheriff John Behan.

Johnny Mack Bown, right, as Wyatt Earp, with James Craig, left, in LAW AND ORDER, 1940.

Political factors were relevant. The Earps were Republicans while the Clantons and McLaureys were aligned with Democrats, one of which was Behan. Both parties wanted control of the territory. Economic factors were also important. The Earps had mining, property and gambling interest and were investing heavily in the town. The Clantons didn’t want any group, particularly one associated with law enforcement usurping their lucrative positions of power. Incidentally, the fact that Wyatt and his brothers had interests in saloons and gambling has often been used by detractors to impugn their honesty, though such professions were considered respectable in that era.

Wyatt Earp’s personal life may also have been indirectly a factor. When Wyatt was 18, he was married for the first time but his wife died within a year and he rarely spoke about her afterward. Though Celia Ann Blaylock lived with him in Tombstone as his second wife, there is some doubt as to whether they were actually married. Wyatt apparently left her for Josephine Marcus and Celia’s suicide the following year is frequently used to discredit his personal character, though details of the personal relationships are cloudy. Josephine’s prior romance with Behan probably increased the hard feeling between the two men.

After the gunfight, Ike Clanton charged the Earps and Holliday with murder but overwhelming evidence convinced Judge Wells Spicer, a jurist known for his honesty, to find that the cowboys were killed in a fair fight by peace officers in the line of duty and to clear the defendants of any wrongdoing. Charges that the deceased were unarmed were proven false by witnesses as well as the wounds suffered by Morgan and Virgil Earp. The accusation that the Earps wanted to kill Ike Clanton was dismissed since none of the defendants had fired at Ike who had apparently disarmed himself once the shooting started. The repeated threats made against the Earps by the cowboys prior to the fight was also considered relevant. The unsavory reputations of the Clanton gang members were also important in assessing the truth. Other cohorts of the Clantons included Johnny Ringo and Curly Bill Brocius, men not noted for their law-abiding lifestyles.

Detractors of the so-called “Wyatt Earp myth” tend to forget two important pieces of evidence used as part of Wyatt’s defense. One was a written statement from Dodge City signed by over 60 highly respected citizens attesting to his honorable character and courageous performance while Marshal in that city. A second statement from Witchita signed by over a dozen people attested to his honesty and integrity while on the police force of that town.

Randolph Scott as Earp with Chris-Pin Martin, left, and Cesar Romero, right, in FRONTIER MARSHAL, 1939.

Other supporters of Wyatt Earp were of equally high calibre. John Clum had a reputation for integrity not only as a journalist but as former Indian Agent of the San Carlos Apache Reservation. As founder and editor of the crusading newspaper, The Tombstone Epitaph, he championed the Earps and remained Wyatt’s lifelong friend. William Barclay “Bat” Mastersor might well have been a participant at the gunfight if he hadn’t been summoned away from Tombstone to help his own brother. Bat had frequently served as a lawman with Wyatt, particularly in Dodge, and always defended his friend’s reputation, even after he had become a respected New York journalist.

After the acquittal, the killings continued. Morgan Earp was murdered while playing pool and Virgil Earp was shot and permanently crippled. If further proof is needed of the characters of the participants in the feud, both Morgan and Virgil were ambushed from behind. The manner in which Wyatt tracked and killed at least three men responsible for the attacks upon his brothers has long been another subject of dispute.

Doc Holliday’s participation in all of these events has often been used to discredit Wyatt. Born in Georgia and educated as a dentist, Holliday was rumored to have left his aristocratic family’s home after bringing shame upon the family name. Contracting tuberculosis apparently caused him to give up his dental practice and become a gambler, gunfighter and deadly killer. Crippled by his disease and frequent coughing, Doc didn’t seem to care whether he lived or died, much to the dismay of his occasional traveling companion, Kate Fisher. He seemed to have contempt for everyone, including himself, until he met Wyatt Earp, who became his only friend. Despite advice from relatives and friends, Wyatt remained loyal to Doc and ignored attacks upon his own integrity as a result of the friendship. And Doc learned to control his deadly impulses out of respect for Wyatt’s status as a lawman and was willing to endanger his own life for that friendship. Doc eventually died of tuberculosis in a Colorado sanitarium in 1887.

Following the events in Tombstone, Wyatt pursued various business interests, including prospecting, gambling and horseracing. The rest of his life was generally uneventful, except for his controversial, though ultimately justifiable, decision as referee in the Sharkey-Fitzsimmons fight in 1896 and the murder of his younger brother Warren in 1900 which historian Alford Turner believes was a legacy of the Tombstone vendetta.

When Wyatt Earp died in 1929 with his wife of 47 years, Josephine, by his side, newspapers across the country carried reports of his passing. In view of such a colorful life, it is no wonder that he has often been portrayed on film in a variety of divergent interpretations.

Joel McCrea as Wyatt Earp, with Walter Coy, Vera Miles and Mae Clark in WICHITA, 1955.

In 1932, less than three years after the death of Wyatt Earp, his first screen incarnation was featured in LAW AND ORDER, which was based on the novel, Saint Johnson by W. R. Burnett (Dial Press, 1930). The protagonist of Burnett’s novel, “Wayt Johnson,” is an ambitious and not necessarily noble man who wants to be sheriff of Tombstone. Wayt believes in law and order not from an idealistic vision but as the only practical antidote to the anarchy caused by outlaws who dominate the town and weak-kneed citizens who cower before them. But when Wayt’s brother is killed, he demands vengeance and enforces his own brand of brutal law upon the killers. The realism of the characters and the lack of heroics that would be evident in Burnett’s more famous gangster novels (High Sierra, The Asphalt Jungle) are prominent in this non-traditional Western novel which was obviously a fictionalization of Wyatt Earp’s exploits.

The film version, released by Universal, changed the storyline and characterizations to some degree but retained the general theme of the novel The protagonist of LAW AND ORDER, renamed “Frame” Johnson, is the famous ex-marshal of Wichita and Dodge City who is tired of the killing and violence involved in being lawman. With his close friend, gambler and gunfighter Ed Brandt, younger brother Luther, and another friend, Deadwood Frame travels to Tombstone and finds the town under the domination of an outlaw family, the Northrups, who have the local sheriff under their control. In contrast to the warm emotional ties of Frame and his “family,” human brutality seems to reign in Tombstone. Frame doesn’t want any part of the town’s problems but when the tow elders beg him for help and appeal to his civic duty, he reluctantly becomes marshal. However, it soon becomes clear that the citizens don’t really want the law and order that Frame represents and they express their resentment to his harsh methods by accusing him of trying to take over the town for himself. When the Northrups murder Ed, the grief-stricken Frame angrily lashes out at the hypocritical citizens and promises them they can have the lawlessness they obviously want but only after he gets his revenge. The following morning Frame, Luther and Deadwood meet the Northrups at the O.K. Corral in a brutally realistic gunfight which leaves him the only survivor. Tormented by his grief and the violence he tried to avoid, Frame contemptuously berates the citizens for their cowardice and dejectedly rides away.

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2 Responses »

  1. I have this FIR in hardcopy-WONDERFUL READING!!!!

  2. I have the original magazines and this is wonderful reading!!!

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