By:Thomas Fleming | March 19, 2013
Wyatt Earp, saloonkeeper, professional gambler, profligate, and alleged procurer of women, was for all his faults a great American hero.
Earp was born in Monmouth, Illinois, home of Monmouth College, the alma mater of our friend and colleague, the late James Stockdale. Living in Iowa he was repeatedly in trouble, principally for keeping a bawdy house. He served as deputy marshall in Wichita, Kansas, before joining his brother Jim in Dodge City. Wyatt, Jim, Virgil, and Morgan Earp landed in Tombstone, where their northern/unionist sympathies brought them into conflict with a group of cowboys nominally headed by the largely no-account Clantons and their respectable allies the McLaury brothers, who had the support of the town sheriff. The town was divided on the merits of the two parties, but in the famous gunfight near the OK Corral, Ike Clanton proved to be yellow and the others no match for the Earps and their homicidal dentist friend, Doc Holliday. The gunfight itself and Wyatt's vendetta against the men who shot his brothers is an old story, told to me many times by my father who as a boy sat on Wyatt Earp's kneee, and it will be retold as long as their are any real Americans left. As a child I adored Wyatt Earp, but a lifetime of reading has made me sadder and wiser without, however, entirely deadening my admiration for a man who generally avoided violent confrontation and never used a gun unless he had to, though, when he had to, displayed the nerve for which our people have always been justly renowned. Here are a few pages of a talk I delivered a few years back, some parts of which made it into Chronicles.
It was about 3 PM on October 26, 1881 as the town marshal and his informal deputies walked down the street. The date is probably not familiar, but you all know what happened that day in Tombstone, when Marshal Virgil Earp—also a deputy US Marshall, his brothers Wyatt and Morgan, and the Earps’ eccentric friend Dr. John H. Holliday confronted Isaac and William Clanton and Thomas and Robert Findley McLaury near the OK Corral. After thirty seconds of firing, Morgan Earp lay badly wounded, Holliday and Virgil had sustained less serious wounds, while Billy Clanton and the McLaurys were dead or dying. Only Wyatt and Ike Clanton—who had fled the scene, unarmed--were unscathed.
Witnesses to the gunfight said that Billy Clinton and Wyatt drew more or less simultaneously—though Wyatt claimed he drew only when he saw Billy reaching for his gun. Rather than shoot Billy, however, Wyatt went for the best gun in the bunch—Robert—known as Frank--McLawry and shot him in the stomach. The wounded McLawry took aim at Doc Holliday, saying, “I’ve got you now.” Raising his gun, Doc told him, “Blaze away: You’re a daisy if you do,” but Frank shot Holliday in the hip before being hit again by a wounded Morgan Earp.
The details are a little sketchy and have been debated by the Earps’ defenders and detractors for over a century and a quarter, but most of us who do not have a dog in this famous fight will probably still see the events as a morality play in black and white that has been told and retold in fiction and movies. The noble Earps—all good Republicans—were on the side of law and order. They were virtuous men who did not drink liquor or indulge in the vices that were on gaudy display in the Old West. Wyatt even ate ice cream instead of drinking redeye. The lives of these gallant officers of the law had been repeatedly threatened by a gang of rustlers, stagecoach robbers, and murderers, but when the time came, the fearless Earps, quick on the draw, showed their mettle.
This, or something very like it, was the story I grew up believing. It was enshrined in one of the classics of frontier literature, Stuart N. Lake’s Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, republished as the Life and Times of Wyatt Earp, a book I read more than once as a boy. I do not know how many films have been made, but the more famous ones include: Wyatt Earp (1994), Tombstone and (1993), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), My Darling Clementine (1946), and Stuart N. Lake’s Frontier Marshal (1939) with the best cast imaginable: Randolph Scott (Wyatt), Caesar Romero (Doc), Ward Bond, Lon Chaney, Jr, John Carradine, Binnie Barnes, and, playing the entertainer Eddie Foy who was in Tombstone, is Eddie Foy, Jr.
The most ridiculous of these films is probably Gunfight at the OK Corral with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster—I cannot recall which played Earp and which played Doc Holliday. Even more dishonest, perhaps is John Ford’s My Darling Clementine, in which the under-muscled Henry Fonda romances Doc Holliday’s former schoolmarm girlfriend—quite a difference from Holliday’s woman known as Big-Nosed Kate. Although it is not clear, exactly how Kate got her name, whether from the size of her nose or her habit of sticking it into matters that did not concern her, she was certainly no Rhonda Fleming. Ford kicked out the McLaurys and focused on the evil old man Clanton, played brilliantly by Walter Brennan, though Old Man Clanton must have had real grit to direct operations from the grave he was already lying in.
We all wanted to be cowboys in those days. We saw all the Western serials in the theaters—not just Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and the incomparable Hopalong Cassidy, but the oaters of Bob Steele, the Three Mesquiteers, and Lash Larue and Johnny Mack Brown recycled on TV—when it finally came to the small towns that were still inhabited by real Americans, when there were real Americans. Some of these cowboy heroes were sure to come to the Tristate Fair that was the highpoint of every year. Although I was sick in bed the year Hopalong Cassidy came to town, my father got me an autographed from Hoppy and his pal Lucky, who were staying in my father’s hotel, but the biggest thrill was the night my old man brought home Johnny Mack Brown for supper. This former halfback for Alabama’s Crimson Tide was a dead man walking. I had seen, in my short life, more than a few drunks, but I had never seen any man that drunk who could still walk and talk and more or less function, though not well enough to keep this 11 year old boy from skinning him, hand after hand, at poker.
We all knew, of course, that our cowboy heroes were only singers and actors—though even dead drunk Johnny Mack Brown could knock most men’s blocks off. But Wyatt Earp was no actor: He was the real thing. My father had told me many times about the time he had sat, as a very small boy, on the great man’s knee. Earp was in Chicago to do one of his lectures, and after receiving the keys to the city, he was asked if he wanted anything else. Yes, the former deputy marshal of Tombstone replied, he had read in the newspaper about the kind of real lawman he admired and would like to meet. That was my father’s uncle Garret Fleming. An anarchist—today we would call him a terrorist—had taken hostages (a woman and perhaps her daughter) and said he would shoot them if anyone came to arrest him. Great uncle Garret was no slouch—he would later put a slug or two into Frank Nitti—and he crashed through the window, drilled the anarchist, and rescued the hostages unharmed. Since Garret had no children, he took his brother and his nephew to meet the hero.
That incident, told and retold, explains my love for Stuart N. Lake’s hagiography on which the television show starring Hugh O’Brien was loosely based. My father never liked the show, and one night, as we were watching Wyatt confront the crooked sheriff Johnny Behan after fortifying his nerve on a wholesome glass of milk, my father observed, “All this comes out of the Tombstone Epitaph. If you read the other paper, The Nugget, Behan was an upright character and the Earps were villains.”
The remark taught me many things. I continued to revere Wyatt Earp, but I began to question the facts that were put in newspapers and history books, and I dimly realized that to understand history it was not quite enough simply to take sides. Life is not always so simple as a Sunset Carson movie; sometimes it is downright complicated—more like Bud Boetticher’s Ride Lonesome film than Roy Rogers in The Gay Ranchero.
Take the Earps. They were unquestionably brave men and tough. In Dodge, Wichita, and Tombstone, they proved themselves tough and resourceful. They inspired respect from many, envy from some, but very little affection. Perhaps it was the steely glaze of their cold blue eyes, or perhaps it was the fact that they were continually on the make, willing to make money by almost any means that did not involve working with their hands. At the preliminary hearing held for the killing of the Clantons and McLaurys, Wyatt listed his occupation as saloon-keeper. This was a piece of social pretension. While it is true he did tend bar from time to time, like his oldest brother Jim, he was a professional gambler and ran the Faro table at the Oriental Saloon. Early in his career there were charges—and not unsubstantial charges—that in Lamar, Missouri he had falsified a legal document and a defrauded a man of $20. He had even committed the Western sin against the Holy Ghost by stealing a horse.
Paragons of courage though they undoubtedly were, the Earps did not practice all the virtues. Jim was something of a lush, and his wife Bessie was both a prostitute and a Madame. It is not clear when or if Virgil, Morgan, or Wyatt married the women they were living with as man and wife in Tombstone, but one or another of them had worked the streets at one time. In fact, early in their career, when admirers of the brothers dubbed them the fighting Earps, enemies responded by calling them “the fighting pimps.” Even Wyatt’s middle-class Jewish wife Sadie had lived openly with Wyatt’s enemy, Sheriff Johnny Behan as his pretend-wife, though previously, when her modest thespian talents were not in demand, she had apparently practiced a more ancient if slightly less honorable profession.
One detail of the legend is true: Wyatt loved ice-cream and in his Tombstone days refused to drink.
The aftermath of the OK Corral fight—which took place on the street not in the corral—was even bloodier than the fight itself. Ike Clanton, backed by Johnny Behan, filed murder charges against the Earps and Doc Holliday, though only Wyatt and Doc had to undergo a hearing. The mood in Tombstone and around the country quickly shifted from a celebration of the Earps’ courage to a denunciation of them as murderers. Ike Clanton’s confused and contradictory testimony, however, undercut the prosecution’s case. But Ike’s stupidity and prevarication do not necessarily exculpate the Earps.
It is true that Virgil and Wyatt were peace officers who had a right to disarm the Clantons, but anyone with a drop of common sense knew that blood would flow if the two groups met on the street. Ike Clanton had been in Tombstone, getting drunk and badmouthing and threatening the Earps. But—and this is how bizarre things were--not long afterwards Virgil, Ike Clanton, Tom McLaury, and Sheriff Johnny Behan had stayed up all night playing poker, in which an altercation broke out between Ike and Virgil who ended up beating Ike with his gun. Taken into custody, Ike threatened the Earps and Morgan offered to pay his fine, if Ike would face him with a gun—Morgan always had a big mouth. Later, about 1 PM Wyatt ran into Tom McLaury on the street. By this time, Wyatt was out for blood:
“Are you heeled?” Wyatt snarled at McLaury. Tom told him politely that he was a friend of Wyatt’s and held no grudge but “If you want to make a fight, I’ll make a fight with you anywhere.”
“All right, make a fight,’ was Wyatt’s answer as his crashed his pistol into Tom McLaury’s skull. Now, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, after these events, can any reasonable person defend the Earps’ decision to confront the Clantons and McLaurys? Can any of you pretend that they went into the street to enforce the law? It is clear that the usually clear-headed and cool-tempered Wyatt—who had probably never killed a man and preferred to get the drop of a troublemaker by coming up behind him in an alley with a shotgun—had made up his mind. Ike Clanton had shot off his mouth once too often about killing the Earps and it was time to kill the Clantons and any friends who stood by them before they killed the Earps.
Even after the hearings, the fight was not over. In late December, Virgil was shot-gunned by three men in the street. Ike Clanton’s hat was found nearby, and his friend Frank Stillwell was spotted. Wyatt drew the obvious conclusions—though they would not have amounted to much in a court of law. By the end of January, though Virgil was still in a serious condition, Morgan Earp was pretty well recovered. Though warned of trouble, he insisted on having a night on the town, going to the theater and then to the pool hall, where he was shot through the window, as he bent over to make a shot. People said the shooter was Frank Stillwell, and when Wyatt caught up with him, he and Ike Clanton appeared to be laying for Virgil Earp, who was being sent home to California for his health. When Wyatt came upon Stillwell, he killed him in cold blood: “I ran straight for Stillwell,” he later recounted, “it was he who killed my brother. What a coward he was. He couldn’t shoot when I came near him. He stood there helpless and trembling for his life. As I rushed upon him, he put out his hands and clutched at my shotgun. I let go both barrels, and he tumbled down dead and mangled at my feet.” Wyatt went after Ike, but the cowardly Clanton once again made his escape.
By the standards of civilized life, both parties were guilty of cold-blooded, premeditated murder in the first degree, but look at it from each of their perspectives. The Clantons would say with some justice that the Earps had provoked a quarrel with the Clantons and McLaurys and then with their homicidal dentist friend, gunned them down in the street. By the laws of Vendetta, they deserved to die, not in a fair fight, as in an affair of honor, but executed without mercy or a chance to resist. The Earps, on the other hand, though they would not have accepted the cowboys’ right to blood, applied the same argument to the men who had assassinated Morgan and tried to do the same to Virgil. By the end of the story, the Earps will have killed two McLaurys, Billy Clanton, Frank Stillwell, Curley Bill Brocius and who knows whom else.
And yet, for all their toughness and homicidal violence, neither the Earps nor the McLaurys were really gunmen, much less outlaws. They lived according to an ancient code that had withered in London and Boston but sprang back to life on the frontier. Meaning of the frontier/West: lawless stateless conditions that permitted pre-modern life to revive and burst into flower. Gun battles and lynch mobs were as much a part of the can-do American mentality as quilting bees and barn raisings. Even New Englanders had shared some of this spirit, at least in the early days, but it was the Anglo-Celts of MW/South, as they moved West, who defined it.
Like so many Americans of that time, the Earps were footloose vagabonds. Their father came from Kentucky, but their childhood had been scattered across the West from Monmouth Illinois to California. Like so many rootless men who went West, Wyatt and his brothers were in eternal pursuit of the American dream: the fast buck. (I sometimes think that Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Cramden should be the American archetype or, if we prefer a literary character, either Bret Harte's Col. Starbottle or Col. Beriah Sellers in The Gilden Age co-authored by Mark Twain). Wyatt would go on to be a gambler, saloon-keeper, and boxing referee: In 1896 he refereed the Fitzsimmons-Sharkey fight for the heavyweight world championship. Wyatt gave the victory to Sharkey, who had been taking a beating all night, accusing Fitzsimmons of landing an illegal low blow that injured Sharkey. When Sharkey refused a medical examination, the word went up that Wyatt had fixed the fight, though it is more likely that he was taken in by Sharkey and his manager. Wyatt’s lowest point was his arrest in Los Angeles (in 1911) for taking part in a gambling con.
But the legend never quite died, and Stuart N. Lake, who interviewed the hero, made Wyatt a permanent icon of the Old West. The book has many inaccuracies but how many are due to Wyatt (known for his reticence) and how many to Lake is anyone's guess. I have made use of a number of books, especially Casey Terfilliger's fairly recent biography. It is well-researched and well worth reading, though a good editor could eliminate some of the clumsy writing and tendentious argumentation.
If there is any popular demand, I'll post a sequel that makes a case for the Cowboys.