Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp
It is ironic that Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp should die peacefully in a rented cottage near the burgeoning Hollywood dream factory. As one of his eulogists remarked there would be "no halo" hanging above his "storm-beaten head."
Earp's peaceful death is ironic since in truth he lived anything but a pacific life. As a veteran icon of the so-called "old American West" his life symbolizes the very violent nature of the lawless frontier. Passing on so near to Hollywood is a coincidence but an apt one since Earp has become a collosal fiction entombed in mythology.
Wyatt Earp was a remarkably lucky soul. Despite living much of his life in the wild, bloody and dangerous frontier he survived without substantial injury. Another characteristic meshed between the myth that stands as fact is that Earp was an absolutley fearless man.
With the publication of the book Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshall by Stuart Lake in 1931, two years after Earp's death, the legendary Earp began to replace the real Earp. Lake's book was essentially a piece of hagiography constructed by Lake himself but presented as a truthful and factual history. Today its accuracy is doubted. The book is considered an unreliable source for the real Earp. In Lake's book the "Lion of Tombstone" takes the stage as a super-hero responsible for taming the wild west by steadfastly fighting against lawlessness.
Lake's book did however seed the public consciouness with one of the penultimate moments in American history: the shootout between the Earp gang and the Clanton gang near the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. That event was further etched in American folklore by John Ford's 1946 film My Darling Clementine. In the film the real historical 30-second shootout that left three dead and two seriously wounded becomes a metaphor for the heroic defense of a community against lawlessness.
The Earp myth was further enhanced when the The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp premiered on the ABC television network on September 6, 1955. For six years on Tuesday nights between 8:30 and 9:00 pm the actor Hugh O'Brian portrayed an heroic Earp travelling the wild west as an honorable lawman.
In the 1960s there was some Earp myth revisionism. Hour of the Gun (1968) was director Preston Sturges' second telling of the tale (in 1957 he had made Gunfight at the OK Corral). In the 1968 story Earp is portrayed as psychologically unstable and driven by revenge. The television series Star Trek used episode 62 "Spectre of the Gun." to rearrange the events that occurred near the OK Corral. Kirk and comrades play members of the Clanton gang in a death sentence arranged by the peeved Melkotians. The episode, first aired on October 28, 1968 portrays Earp and Doc Holliday in less than heroic lights.The 1971 film Doc presents an even more complex and distrubed Earp and examines more intimately Earp's relationship with the decadent Doc Holliday.
In the 1990s two more movies and two biographies of Earp appeared. Tombstone starring Kurt Russell as Earp opened on Christmas Day in 1993. The film received good reviews especially for the acting. In 1994 Lawrence Kasdan released his Wyatt Earp epic starring Kevin Costner in the title role. At 192 minutes the film bored a lot of people and flopped at the box office.
In 1997 journalist Casey Tefertiller published Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend. Using a variety of sources not considered earlier such as contemporary newspaper accounts a more balanced picture emerged of Earp. In 1998 Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends was published by Allen Barra. While tracing in some detail the origins and perpetuation of the Earp myth Barra made the astute observation that it was Earp's enemies who kept him famous.
Among his enemies were the three men who died on October 26, 1881 at 2:30 pm down the street from the back entrance to the OK Corral in the Arizona Territory town of Tombstone. Billy Clanton, age 19 and the MacLaury brothers, Tom, 25 and Frank, 29 were gunned down by Wyatt Earp, his brothers Virgil and Morgan and "Doc" Holliday. Virgil and Morgan sustained serious injuries but survived the gunfight. Wyatt and Holliday were unharmed.
Earp and Holliday were arrested October 29, 1881 and charged with murder but on November 29 Judge Wells Spicer ruled that the defendants "were fully justified in committing these homicides that it was a necessary act done in the discharge of official duty." Despite two other attempts to try Earp and Holliday for the murders of Billy Clanton and the McLaury brothers, no conviction ever occurred.
(Considering these ideas in the year 2000 just days after the aquittal of the New York City police officers accused of murdering an innocent West African sitting outside his apartment is provocative. The confluence between Judge Spicer's words and the Amadou Diallo jury's finding of innocence reminds us that the wild bloody west of our past is perhaps just an historical prologue to the present.)
The gunfight on that overcast October afternoon pitted two rivals that have been drawn in a variety of colors and shades. Popular mythology portrays the Clanton gang and the McLaury brothers as cowboy outlaws engaged in cattle rustling, stage coach robbing and murder. The Earps and Doc Holliday are the lawmen discharged with the responsibility of protecting the good pioneer folks of Tombstone. This portrayal draws the lines in black and white. John Ford's film has no doubt about what is right and wrong or who was right or who was wrong in this moral environment. More recently historians have broken down the differences between the two competing groups in political shades of blue and gray. The Clantons and McLaury's represented the rural southern Democrats who were ex-confederates while Earp and gang were northern Republicans representing the more urban culture. The struggle was for the political soul of the emerging Arizona Territory.
There is yet another arrangement of causes and meanings of the deadly shootout. These are focused around the woman Josephine Sarah Marcus, the third Mrs. Earp. "Josie" was born in 1861 in Brooklyn, New york the third child of German-Jewish immigrants. When she was seven her family moved to San Francisco. At age 17 she ran away from home and joined a travelling theater troupe. She met Johnny Behan a cowboy with political aspirations in the Arizona Territory. By May 1880 the 19 year old Josephine is living with Behan in Tombstone. Wyatt Earp had arrived with his brothers in Tombstone that prior November. Earp, age 32, was working as a shotgun guard for the Wells Fargo company. He was also a part owner of the Oriental Saloon.
In January 1881 John Behan and Wyatt Earp were competing to be elected sheriff of the newly formed Cochise County, home of Tombstone. Tombstone, founded by silver prospector Edward Schieffelin in July 1877 had by 1881 become a booming frontier town. That's exactly why Earp and Behan were there. Territorial Governor John Fremont recognizing that Democrats controlled the new county appointed the Democrat Behan sheriff. But while Behan won the job he lost the woman. Josephine Marcus had fallen in love with Wyatt Earp. Despite the fact that Earp was already married to his second wife, Celia Ann Blaylock ("Mattie.") his affair with Josie blossomed and ended up lasting for the rest of his life. Behan must have been outraged. Some historians speculate that Behan orchestrated the OK Corral shootout as a ploy to remove the Earp influence in Tombstone. It is quite likely that a contributing cause of the infamous shootout was a romantic rivalry.
Earp left Mattie and with Josie he left Tombstone in March 1882 shortly after his brother Morgan was killed in an ambush. Wyatt and Josie would travel together to Alaska and throughout the country's frontier eventually settling in Los Angeles. (Josie died in 1944 and in 1967 a book called I Married Wyatt Earp supposedly by Josie was published. Subsequent study has found the book to be more "creative non-fiction" assembled by Glenn Boyer. Neverthless the book adds more fodder to the myth of Earp.)
Towards the end of his life Earp would become friendly with the Hollywood crowd. He knew John Ford and had met Charlie Chaplin. He was a consultant to several directors of Hollywood westerns. According to an October 1999 posting on an internet message board Earp appeared as an extra in the 1916 film The Halfbreed starring Douglas Fairbanks. In the film Earp can be seen in a group shot standing and nodding his head. The Western film stars Tom Mix and William S. Hart were pallbearers at his funeral.
Earp was a lawman in a time and place when men routinely took the law into their own hands for their own reasons. There is enough evidence to suggest that Earp was more a fearless and ambitious opportunist then a law-abiding protector of society. And while that evaluation may suggest something less heroic it does squarely show Wyatt Earp to be a truly American man.
Mattie Earp, 2nd Wife
Virgil Earp, brother
Morgan Earp, brother
Josie Earp, 3rd Wife
Earp, age 80
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