It’s doubtful that any American has had more of his legend turned into “fact” than Wyatt Earp, who had a brief career as a frontier peace officer and scarcely wore a badge over the last 48 years of his life. Before and after “lawing,” as it was called in the 19th century, Earp was a teamster, boxing referee, prospector, buffalo hunter, racehorse owner, croupier, stagecoach guard, bouncer, saloon keeper, bodyguard, Hollywood movie advisor, and, for a while before he became a noted lawman in Kansas, a pimp.
He’s been portrayed by more actors than any American president — Walter Huston, Henry Fonda, Burt Lancaster, Hugh O’Brian, James Stewart, James Garner, Kurt Russell, and Kevin Costner, to name just a few. But the only years Hollywood has taken notice of are those spent in the cow towns of Wichita and Dodge City, Kansas, and the silver mining camp, Tombstone, Arizona. What happened over that brief span has engendered enough books to fill a small library.
The theme song for the 1950s Wyatt Earp TV series declared: “Long may his story be told.” And so it is again in two new books, Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride from Hell by Tom Clavin, a journalist and popular historian; and Ride the Devil’s Herd: Wyatt Earp’s Epic Battle Against the West’s Biggest Outlaw Gang by John Boessenecker, a San Francisco trial lawyer and author of several widely respected volumes on the criminal West, most recently a biography of Frank Hamer, the Texas Ranger who killed Bonnie and Clyde.
Both books are about the clash between the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday and the semi-organized gang of cattle rustlers, thieves, and killers collectively known as “Cowboys.” That vaunted term was relatively new in 1881 and was then roughly the equivalent of a disparaging term like brigand or pirate. Clavin and Boessenecker emphasize not the gunfight at the O.K. Corral that tends to hog the attention, but rather the subsequent “vendetta ride” in which Wyatt went from lawman to vigilante, combing the hills and valleys around Tombstone hunting down the Cowboys — the contemporary newspapers capitalized the term — who crippled one brother and murdered another.
As history, Clavin’s Tombstone is lightweight. Unattributed dialogue makes it read like a novel, and not in a good way. It lacks an authoritative voice; on most key incidents Clavin offers no opinion but defers to other historians such as Earp biographer Casey Tefertiller and Holliday biographer Gary Roberts. Dubious claims are left unsourced, making it impossible to sift fact from fiction.
Examples abound. In Las Vegas, New Mexico, Doc Holliday “reportedly had dinner with Frank and Jesse James.” Reported by who, exactly — the Frontier National Enquirer? Weren’t Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy invited? We’re told Wyatt, Bat Masterson, and Doc Holliday were “three friends” from Dodge City who would “reunite in Tombstone.” But later we learn Bat was “not fond of the frequently drunk dentist” and that Holliday was someone Masterson “respected even less than he liked.” So which is it?
Wyatt’s fabled arrest of notorious Texas gunfighter Ben Thompson in Ellsworth, Kansas, has been a staple of pulp westerns and B-movies ever since his first biographer, Stuart Lake, purple-prosed the incident in his hugely popular 1931 biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. Clavin writes that “[t]here are embellished accounts of what happened” between Earp and Thompson. Actually, all accounts of what happened between Earp and Thompson are embellished because no eyewitness account survives.
The sourcing information offered in some of the footnotes is bafflingly sloppy. The notion that James Arness’s Marshal Matt Dillon was based on Wyatt Earp is credited to “CBS publicity flacks.” Surely the TV series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which ran from 1955 to 1961, had more to do with that impression than Gunsmoke. Another footnote concerns Earp’s killing of a cowboy named Frank Stilwell in Tucson as Wyatt was seeing his family off on a train. “It has been attributed to Wyatt Earp that at the Tucson train station he declared, ‘Tell ’em the law is coming. You tell ’em I’m coming, and hell’s coming with me.’ If only he had been that loquacious. The declaration is found only in the screenplay of the 1993 feature film Tombstone.” Since no one has ever claimed that the real Wyatt spoke those words, Clavin is giving himself credit for debunking a myth which he seems to have invented.
Clavin pulls off an amazing feat: he inflates the already hyped-up Earp saga with even more hyperbole. “The so-called Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and the Earp vendetta ride” are really “our Iliad and Odyssey […] big parts of the foundation of our mythology.” Right. Surely the Battle of Breed’s Hill (incorrectly identified by Clavin as Bunker Hill), the siege at the Alamo, and the Battle of Gettysburg are more Homeric than the vendetta ride and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which wasn’t even called that until the 1957 movie starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. For many years it was simply referred as the street fight in Tombstone. As Western historian Jeff Morey wryly suggested, gunfight “at the back of the corral in a vacant lot next to Fly's Photography Studio” wouldn’t fit on a movie marquee.
Like many before him, Clavin gets carried away by his subject’s inflated importance. He closes his book with “Wyatt Earp turned away from Tombstone and rode off, into American history.” Wherever Earp rode off to after Tombstone, it wasn’t history. It would be more accurate to say he rode off to Hollywood.
This book does a major disservice by muddying some historical waters that took decades to clean up. Bogus literature on Earp was in the works before he died, and dedicated researchers over the years have red-flagged most of it. Perhaps the two greatest offenders were Frank Waters’s The Earp Brothers of Tombstone and Glenn Boyer’s I Married Wyatt Earp: The Recollections of Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp. This book has now earned the distinction of a strong runner-up in the embarrassing field of Wyatt Earp hokum.
Waters, author of the well-received novel The Man Who Killed the Deer and the more controversial Book of the Hopi, spent some time interviewing Virgil Earp’s widow Allie and in 1960 published The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, which was filled with disparaging comments on all the brothers, especially Wyatt, who was portrayed as a card shark, confidence man, and womanizer. But in 1990, researchers came across Waters’s papers and found no evidence that Allie Earp had made any of the derogatory comments Waters put her name on. An editor at True West magazine concluded, “Allie never said those negative things about her brother-in-law. No infidelity. No criminal activity. No pompous jerk Waters, apparently, had his own feelings about Wyatt and put them in his book — but said by Allie.” Clavin falsely identifies Waters as Allie Earp’s nephew and litters his book with fabricated quotes from The Earp Brothers of Tombstone.
Frank Waters, though, made one major contribution: he told the world about Josephine “Sadie” Marcus. Which brings us to the invariable doorstep of the historian Glenn Boyer, who died in 2013 at the age of 89, and probably did more damage to this minor but contentious area of Western history than anyone else.
The University of Arizona Press published his book I Married Wyatt Earp: The Recollections of Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp in 1976, telling the detailed story of an attractive young Jewish woman who left her family in San Francisco to brave the wilds of Arizona Territory. At first romantically involved with Wyatt’s political rival, County Sheriff John Behan, Josephine would become Wyatt’s companion for the next 47 years of their lives. Her story touched off renewed interest in Earp in movies and books in the 1990s.
But diligent researchers uncovered Sadie’s unfinished and unpublished memoirs and found much of I Married Wyatt Earp to be fiction. After years of controversy and threats of lawsuits, a series of articles in the Phoenix New Times exposed Boyer’s fraud and in 2000, an embarrassed University of Arizona Press withdrew the book from their catalog. Writing about Wyatt Earp and not knowing about this controversy is a little like writing about Howard Hughes and not knowing about Clifford Irving. But Clavin seems not to know of it. He quotes liberally from Boyer’s fraud with only this note of skepticism: “Part of the fun of reading I Married Wyatt Earp, ‘written’ by Josephine decades later, is trying to discern fact from fiction.” It might have been easier if he had discarded the disgraced book altogether and go straight to Josephine’s original writings.
The problem is that without Boyer’s fabrications, the story is far less spicy, because there is no record — no eyewitness accounts, no documentation, not even gossip — to indicate the nature of the Tombstone romance between Josie and Wyatt that Clavin takes for granted. When Josephine leaves Tombstone in the book, Clavin has Wyatt “discreetly” saying goodbye (he would eventually woo her in San Francisco). It would have been discreet indeed because no one in Tombstone ever mentioned seeing them together.
There are no such conjectures in Ride the Devil’s Herd. Boessenecker cuts through years of debate about who the good guys were in the Tombstone wars with fact. By the time they came to Arizona, the Earp boys had all left their rowdy pasts and brushes with the law behind. “[T]he West was a forgiving place, settled by rough men who did not look down on saloonkeepers, gamblers, pimps, and gunfighters.” They had names like Russian Bill, Indian Charley, Whistling Dick, Turkey Creek Jack Johnson, Rawhide Jake, Harelip Charlie, Texas Jack Vermillion, Simpson “Comanche Jack” Stilwell, Pink Truly, and Zwingle Hunt (whose epitaph called him “rash to the extremity of foolishness, and as brave as an Arabian fire-worshipper”).
The Tombstone Cowboys “were the Old West’s biggest outlaw gang,” “an Old West version of modern youth gangs,” many of them “long-haired cow-boys from Texas,” as one Arizona paper phrased it, “whose characters will not bear close inspection.” Over one three-year period they “would murder at least thirty-five men, steal thousands of horses and cattle, terrorize the ranchers and settlers of Southern Arizona and northern Mexico and cause a series of international incidents. No one could stop them.” They were protected in part by the local Democratic Party, who employed them as poll watchers in elections where they forged voter lists and stuffed the boxes with phony ballots.
Hamstrung by the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act that forbade the federal government from using the military to enforce civilian law, and without a federal police force patrolling the borders, Virgil Earp, the Deputy US marshal for the southeast area of Arizona Territory, had no resources besides his brothers and a few trusted deputies to help him contain the rampant lawlessness.
A US Customs official reported that between 1878 and 1880 “as many as nine thousand cattle had been smuggled from Mexico into the San Simon Valley.” The region became the most violent in the country; Boessenecker estimates that when adjusted for population, Pima County saw, between October 1879 and October 1880, “147 homicides per 100,000 people, which is twenty-eight times higher than the modern national homicide rate.” Later, newly created Cochise County, with a smaller population, had an annual murder rate that was worse, “fifty-five times higher than the nation’s current homicide rate.”
There seemed to be no limit to the Cowboys’ brazenness. President Rutherford B. Hayes was passing through Tucson on the way back to Washington when a message arrived that Cowboys were threatening to stop his train; a detachment of cavalry was brought in to guard the president.
Mexican ranchers and government officials protested Cowboy “depredations” so vociferously that the US attorney for Arizona “warned the Attorney General in Washington” that the Cowboy raids into Mexico could “lead into an open rupture between that country and our own […] if not war.” General Sherman, commander of the US Army, called for a repeal of the Posse Comitatus Act and offered to stop the Cowboys with the Cavalry.
“But it was Wyatt Earp — not the US Army — who would take the battle to the Cowboys.” The Earps were tireless enforcers of the law; on one posse ride chasing stage robbers they went “sixty hours without food and thirty-six hours without water.” On another, they rode their horses so hard they had to walk nearly 20 miles back to Tombstone. Town marshal Virgil and his brothers administered gun control. (Virgil was so strict he arrested Mayor John Clum for “fast riding” in his carriage and even levied a $20 fine on his brother Wyatt for “disturbing the peace” in a gambling dispute.)
The big clash came on October 26, 1881, when the Earps and Doc Holliday, fed up with Cowboy threats, went to disarm them at an empty lot near the O.K. Corral. The ensuing fight left all the participants except Wyatt wounded and three of the Cowboys dead. Boessenecker’s account of what happened at the gunfight and its legal aftermath are models of lucidity. In revenge, Cowboy assassins ambushed and seriously wounded Virgil and murdered Morgan. Wyatt, assuming his brother’s federal badge, hunted down the accused, culminating in a gun duel with the Cowboy leader, Curly Bill Brocius.
Boessenecker doesn’t give Wyatt a free pass for his vigilante actions, but like most of us who try to project ourselves back into the time of Earp, he also doesn’t condemn him for passing sentence on killers who would otherwise have gone unpunished. Ride the Devil’s Herd presents the evidence, and invites the readers to make their own judgment.
I do wish that Boessenecker had not chosen to use Earp/Cowboy conflicts as an object lesson for 21st-century law enforcement issues. “In Arizona Territory,” he writes,
merchants, politicians, and journalists sided with the Cowboys and against the Earps in pursuit of money, power, and votes. A similar danger exists today, when American police are routinely attacked by far-left politicians, activists, and reporters for using lawful force against criminal suspects. […] [I]n a trend that is becoming increasingly familiar, prosecutors using the flimsiest of evidence, now file criminal cases against officers for shootings and other physical force in attempting to carry out their official duties.
This passage will not age well. As the unjustified homicides of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd prove, there is a great deal more to the subject of police violence than criticism from the “far left,” namely a racial element which didn’t exist in the Tombstone troubles of the late 19th century. As I write this, hundreds of thousands Americans in cities all over the country protest racism and police brutality in the wake of Floyd’s murder. They cannot be written off so casually. But this ill-advised foray into contemporary politics aside, Ride the Devil’s Herd is a rich and satisfying read, a significant contribution to Earpiana, an antidote to Clavin’s fanciful stew, and a book that unclouds the picture and shows us why these men became legends.
Allen Barra writes about books for The Daily Beast, The New Republic, and Truthdig. He was recently cited by the National Arts and Journalism Awards for literary and film criticism. Among other books, he is the author of Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends.