Wyatt Earp: a Vigilante Life

WYATT EARP: A VIGILANTE LIFE

By William Urban

Andrew Isenberg’s new biography is advertised as revisionist, and it is. But that has been true of every biography since it was proven that the 1931 classic by Stuart Lake, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, was more fiction than fact.
The first reaction to the debunking of Lake (who was an advisor for the “Frontier Marshal” TV show of 1956-61 with its catchy theme song) was to believe that Wyatt was essentially a criminal. After all, policemen and criminals tended to come from the same lower class, and Wyatt’s career had gone from horse thief to policeman to professional gambler to racing horses and fixing fights. It was even suggested that he held up a Wells Fargo stage, or planned to.
Later it became popular to portray Wyatt Earp as a gunslinger for capitalism. However, the laugh factor set in. Who, exactly were these capitalists he was working for? Wells Fargo? The miner owners in Tombstone? They don’t seem to have paid him well! At last it was discovered that he really hadn’t shot that many folks. His specialty in his law-enforcement careers in Kansas and Arizona was to knock drunken troublemakers over the head with his revolver. He was, in fact, a fairly respectable physical specimen, and few sober men would want to take him on. Or perhaps have a cause to.
When a reader of old Peoria papers discovered how many times Wyatt had been arrested there for consorting with prostitutes (most likely he was a bouncer), it did not take long to connect his first “wife” with the daughter of a local madam. Then later his “wife” in Wichita with a girl working in his sister-in-law’s whorehouse. (James, who had lost the use of an arm in the Civil War, married a woman working in the horizontal profession, then helped move her into a management position; as a bartender, he could direct customers her way.) His “wife” in Tombstone did not work in that city until Wyatt abandoned her for Sadie (whom he also never married); afterward she drifted back to Arizona, resumed her profession and died of a drug overdose.
Isenberg covers most of this very well. He was unfortunate in publishing too soon to get the real scoop on Sadie, who had persuaded everyone that her first visit to Arizona was as an actress performing in H.M.S. Pinafore. We now know that she was a fourteen-year-old prostitute who had run away from her family in San Francisco and at the time of the excitement in Tombstone was the live-in girlfriend of Sheriff Behan. She was, in fact, the reason that Behan’s wife divorced him, but unfortunately for conspiracy theorists, she did not seem to have been the reason for Behan hating Wyatt.
Isenberg gets Wyatt’s early life better than most previous biographers, but that is because he used my articles on Nicholas Earp in Monmouth and Iowa, most importantly the semi-legal judicial scam that Wyatt’s grandfather and father and one uncle pulled on citizens who had failed to pay their debts — arresting them, collecting the court costs, then confiscating property to pay the IOUs that they had bought at a discount.
Wyatt and his brothers were driven, Isenberg posits, by an Honor Code. That, not money or politics or personal advantage, is why the Earps and the cowboys faced off at the OK corral in late 1881. There is obviously something to this, but it seems that he rides this horse a bit too hard. The world is too complicated to fit into nice categories, even one as attractive as this one.
Moreover, even Isenberg’s Wyatt is not sufficiently one-dimensional to make it work. His description of Doc Holliday is such that Val Kilmer and Dennis Quaid just might come after him — Doc was too short and too thin to be a fighter, and not much of a gunslinger, either. Why he hit it off with Wyatt has always been a mystery. Isenberg comes awfully close to suggesting that it was a romantic relationship. (I told you this was a revisionist book.)
Wyatt read at least one book in his old age. Owen Wister’s The Virginian inspired him to remake his past into a noble image of a defender of right and justice. This fit the bill for biographers, including Lake, who wanted a two-fisted tale that even respectable women could read, and were willing to believe that Wyatt’s private life was as pristine as the television show later portrayed him — no drinking, no interest in women or gambling. The not drinking part was correct, and after Wyatt met Sadie, he stopped running after other women. Or, maybe, he couldn’t afford them. (She was quite a spendthrift and a bad gambler.)
Isenberg tells us much about the Fitzsimmons-Sharkey fight, saying that the fix was in, and that Sharkey had been beaten to a pulp before Fitzsimmons struck his signature blow to the solar plexus that gave Wyatt an opportunity to rule it a low blow. This gave the match to Sharkey and the gamblers. There was a great public outcry, which Isenberg said was the critical moment in Wyatt’s concern over his reputation. Until then he had been forgotten, but once Tombstone residents began to say what scum he was and those who had lost bets on the fight spread it around that he had been crooked from the beginning, Wyatt decided to tell his side of the story his way. Previous biographers fingered Sadie for the cover-up; Isenberg blames Wyatt.
Wyatt left out the times he sold gold bricks to suckers who thought they could get stolen property cheap, or his managing saloons; and he exaggerated his family’s status in Monmouth society. The Earps who stayed in Monmouth were hard-working, honest, and religious. Wyatt’s family didn’t fit into any of those categories.
This said, one can still argue that there was something heroic about the Earps taking on the cowboy faction, and tragic in what it cost them. Isenberg doesn’t agree, which almost guarantees that the next Wyatt Earp biography will spend more time arguing with Isenberg than we really care about. Above all, Wyatt and his brothers, his parents and his wives, were not dull. They were, once biographers took their stories in hand and made them fit what the public wanted, the stuff of legend.

Review Atlas (Nov. 29, 2013), 4.

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