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See the extensive bibliography (divided into print, video/audio, and online resources) below the essay.

Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp

[1] Wyatt Earp lived the mortal life of a man. He is worshipped as a legendary lawman. He is spit-on for cold-blooded murder. Wyatt Earp remains Americas most famous frontier law-dog. He spent most of his life running saloons and playing cards in every mining boomtown that popped up its tents. From Tombstone, Arizona, to Alaska, Wyatt traveled where money was found in the earth and considered himself a business man. The O.K. Corral is the event he is most remembered for. But did he tame the wild frontier or murder innocent men?

[2] The biography of Wyatt Earp remains one of the most substantially disputed of any hero of our time. Throughout his life Wyatt continually found himself struggling in a fight for truth. He found himself in favor of the republican newspapers while the democratic newspapers soiled his name and sided with the outlaw cowboys. During 1878-82, the span of Wyatt's stay in Tombstone, the Epitaph was the home republican paper and the Nugget was the democratic. The Nugget represented Johnny Behan, Cochise County Sheriff, Wyatt Earps rival, the cowboys, and many other high city officials. The Nugget charged Wyatt Earp with stage robbing and murder. Meanwhile, the Epitaph sided with Wyatt Earp and denounced the democratic leaders for skimming taxes and aiding cattle rustling cowboys. Frontier journalism formed popular beliefs as it fought its own war against political adversaries. In addition, Wyatt found himself as a lawman conveniently siding in favor of his business in town. Naturally, Wyatt possessed favoritism for good friend John H. Doc Holliday, notoriously known as a killer. Book after book has been published, each contradicting the other in a debate to label Wyattmurderer or hero. Unfortunately, Wyatt Earps life is filled with a political haze, and the truth is hidden in his grave.

[3] Wyatt Earp actually spent the later years of his life trying to get his life story told on the screen. Wyatt, sickened by the slander of his name, sought refuge in Hollywood to tell his story. He felt if the world could see the truth, they would no longer dirty his name in the papers. William S. Hart, the biggest cowboy actor of his time and a friend, advised him to have his biography written first, then the movie could be made. Typical business in Hollywood is to make the book a movie. No such book was written until after his death, and it took the world by storm. Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall written by Stuart N. Lake was published in 1931. No one could have ever guessed the power that the book possessed.

[4] Lakes book was brilliantly written. His book was also skillfully skewed to represent a man second to Christ. This biography portrayed a man of perfection. Wyatt could do no wrong. He was a dedicated lawman always seeking righteousness. Entering into many gunfights, Wyatt was never hit with a bullet. Lake made Wyatt immortal in the biography by portraying a one-sided heroification containing some truth and a lot of dramatic license. No harm done if no one reads it. However, Frontier Marshall was published in 1931 while the Great Depression was well under way. The book hit the market at a time when Americans were in desperate need for an immortal to follow. Lakes book gave people a little taste of excitement and hope in a destructive time. This book stopped the speculation about Wyatts past. As the movies quickly followed Lakes book, a legend was molded.

[5] Wyatt Earp was born on March 19, 1848, to Nicholas and Virginia Earp, and died on January 13, 1929. Wyatt made a life traveling and carrying a gun. He was a constable in Lamar, Missouri, in 1870, an officer in Wichita 1875-76. He then moved on as a deputy in Dodge City (1876-77) and later returned in 1878-79 as assistant marshal. Wyatt then landed in silver mining town Tombstone, Arizona, as early as 1878 and left in April of 1882 on a train bound for Colorado. Wyatt Earp left Arizona as a fugitive after killing Frank Stilwell and Curly Bill. However, he preferred not killing anyone. Wyatt always avoided killing whenever possible. Instead, he preferred a pistol-whipping.

[6] Being a lawman in Cowtowns did not exactly put food on the table. In fact, as much as Hollywood glorifies the West, a marshal or deputys job was not all fame. Wyatts main concern was maintenance. Fixing streets, sidewalks, and serving the public. For most lawmen at his time, being an officer was part-time. Wyatt never considered himself as much of a Marshall as he considered himself a businessman. Wyatt made a career taking ownership in saloons, dealing faro, coning the city slicker, and even pimping.

[7] Wyatt found as many friends as enemies in Tombstone. The local cowboys, the Clantons, the McLaurys, Curley Bill, and company sided with the local county sheriff Johnny Behan. Meanwhile, Wyatt and his brothers Virgil and Morgan and "Doc" Holliday sided with those terrorized by the cowboys.

[8] The cowboys were the first organized mob. The term cowboy during 1881 referred to cattle rustlers, rowdy drunken criminals, and evil men. The honest businessman that wanted to survive had to either side with Wyatt, Doc, Virgil, and Morgan or the Cowboys. Tension between the town and sides built up to the famous showdown and shootout at the O.K Corral.

[9] On the morning of October 26, 1881, Ike Clanton had been threatening to kill the first Earp to show his face on the street. Ike had been drinking, ranting, and raving all night. The Clanton gang (Ike Clanton, Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury, Frank Mclaury, and Billy Claiborne) gathered at O.K Corral. Wyatt, Doc, Virgil, and Morgan walked down Allen Street to meet the cowboys and to disarm them. Firing commenced. The first shot is still an arbitrary issue, but witnesses confirm the first shots to be simultaneous. The Earps, all legalized lawmen, deputized Doc before the confrontation. Ike and Billy Claiborne ran as soon as the firing started, while Frank, Tom, and Billy were shot and did not survive their wounds. Wyatt was never touched. Virgil, Morgan, and Doc received bullet wounds that were not fatal.

[10] Following the shootout came a reckoning on both sides. The cowboys assassinated Morgan. An attempt was taken on Virgils life as well, but failed. However, the effort still managed to cripple Virgil, leaving him with one arm. Wyatt then took the law into his own hands. He admitted to killing Frank Stillwell point blank with a shotgun, then later Curley Bill when being ambushed. After killing Frank Stillwell, Wyatt Earp became a fugitive on the run. He escaped to Colorado, where he waited till the cowboys vengeance petered out. Nothing was done about either killing. Total bodies number of bodies dead in the feud amounted to five.

[11] Today, Wyatt Earp is portrayed on the movie screen and is remembered for his mystifying acts as a lawman. Earp lived to be 71 years old and was always trying to make money. However, film remembers he was always a better lawman then a businessman.

[12] Despite film, biographies of Wyatt Earp are still being written. The politics in Wyatts life, surrounded with the confusion of Tombstones, naturally make for a great drama that directors want to put on film. However, people are still seeking the truth behind the fabrications that Lake created. Scholars are still arguing. They are still searching to find out the exact details that occurred in Tombstone in October of 1881.

Print Resources

Barra, Allen. Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1998.
"This book isn't a biography, at least not in the usual sense. I hope anyone wishing to know the facts of Wyatt Earp's life will come away satisfied that they have a definite sense of the man and the environment that produced him. My real subject, though, is the Wyatt Earp legend. How it came into being and evolved over the decades and why it has been constantly resurrected and reinvented."
Boyer, Glenn G., ed. I Married Wyatt Earp: The Recollections of Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1976.
Josephine's memories are a perfect example of how history is tainted. Boyer is constantly correcting the authenticity of Josephine's memory against times, places, and events that conflict with her stories. Josephine's purpose for writing/publishing this book, besides her state of poverty, is her desire to vindicate the reputation of her dead husband. However, in the processes of revealing the truth about Earp, she only wants one side of the story told. Josie goes to great lengths hiding the dirty laundry of her past -- for instance, her past as a prostitute. Unfortunately, she takes her laundry to the grave. Boyer spends at least half of the book correcting Josie or at least placing the correct references to her stories. Indeed, the book is extremely informative about how history can be skewed, and it is interesting to see a one-sided story even has much as Boyer tries to make it a two-sided one. The O.K Corral is mentioned but not in as much detail as Josie's adventures with Wyatt Earp. The majority of the book is post-O.K. Corral and post-Tombstone. Josie and Wyatt Earp's 47 years of marriage remained separate from their past Tombstone lives. Tombstone was their meeting place.
Breakenridge, William. Helldorado: Bringing the Law to the Mesquite. 1928. Ed. Richard Maxwell. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1992.
Billy Breakenridge was a deputy sheriff under sheriff John Behan in Tombstone, Arizona, during the O.K. Corral incident and was on the posse that tried to arrest Wyatt Earp for murder. Breakenridge's book should be juxtaposed to Stuart Lake's. His views favor the cowboys against Wyatt Earp. Breakenridge attacks Wyatt Earp's name by confronting the world with the thieving, pimping, gambling, murdering Wyatt Earp.
Lake, Stuart N. Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. New York: Pocket Books, 1931.
Lake's book is the biography that started it all —- the myth of a man and a man attacked for murder. Because of his exaggerated story telling, much criticism arose against Earp for being a liar and a braggart. The cover of the 1994 edition states, "The only authorized biography of the legendary man who inspired two of this year's biggest events!" and contains an introduction by Loren D. Estleman, author of Bloody Season, a Novel of Tombstone. Therefore, two big blockbuster films, Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994) rejuvenate a book long out of print. Evidently, this was a successful ploy because I bought the book. However I bought the book with the knowledge that Lake took too much dramatic license. Almost everywhere I turn I read that this book needs to be taken with a grain of salt. In Marc Carnes' Past Imperfect, John Faragher states, "Lake published Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, which featured a hero who single-handedly cleaned up the worst frontier hellholes. This book subsequently became the authority for nearly all the film portraits of Earp. Acknowledging Lake's biography on screen lent a kind of historical authenticity to these films, but the trouble was that the book was an imaginative hoax, a fabrication mixed with just enough fact to lend it credibility. Although he claimed to have interviewed his subject —- and used Earp's authoritative, first-person voice throughout his narrative —- Lake confessed that 'as a matter of cold fact, Earp never "dictated" a word to him'" (154). Lake was also in constant battle with Josie Earp's censorship. Lake wanted to glorify Wyatt Earp's life and skill with a gun. His original title was to be Wyatt Earp: Gunfighter. However, Josie permitted no such thing. She did not want her late husband remembered for killing. She wanted the hero remembered—the lawman. Lake's results made legend Wyatt Earp.
Marks, Paula. And Die In The West: The Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc. 1989.
Much like Terfertiller, Marks arbitrarily takes on all the rumors, stories, and contrary accounts of Tombstone. However, Marks concentrates entirely on Tombstone and how it came to be, whereas Terfertiller's focus was on the controversies of Earp throughout his life. For Marks: "The abundance of distorted narratives stems in part from our love with the American West. The Tombstone gunfight story —- with its stagecoach robberies, love triangles, shoot-outs, and vengeance killings -- contains many of the elements of western myth and thus lends itself to treatments in which the characters in real, complex Tombstone drama turn into extreme frontier stereotypes —- the venomous, completely asocial bad guy, the noble law bringer, the prostitute with the heart of gold" (7). Marks deals with all the established stereotypes as well as the political, social, and economical complexities of Tombstone in great detail. After reading this book in full, one might think he/she were a witness at the famous shooting.
Terfertiller, Casey. Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind The Legend. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1997.
Terfertiller excellently cites the much confused, scrambled, and the chaotic life of Wyatt Earp. Terfertiller displays how Earp is used as a figurehead in political battles between the two local newspapers in Tombstone, the Epitaph and the Nugget. Terfertiller also portrays Earp's life-long battle to maintain a good repute in the public eye. John Boessenecker raves: "A major contribution to the history of the American West." Terfertiller also links Earp's fame to The Great Depression and links Earp to the Hollywood scene, mentoring John Wayne and John Ford about the frontier. Terfertiller even quotes Earp trying to get Hollywood to tell his story and straighten out the rumor spread that he was infamous. Earp obviously thought Hollywood could portray to Americans that his actions were justified. Referring to the TV series, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Terfertiller points out, "no TV show has had a greater impact on rewriting American history than the show that tried to tell the truth" (339). Terfertiller then addresses the new released movies about Earp: Tombstone and Wyatt Earp are a direct answer to the lawless cry of drive-by shootings and gangs. Terfertiller concludes, "It is inevitable that America rediscovers Wyatt Earp whenever lawlessness reigns" (343).

See Also

Sarris, Andrew. The John Ford Movie Mystery. London: Secker & Warburg Limited, 1976.

Online Resources

The American West: A Celebration of the Human Spirit http://www.americanwest.com/index.htm
The American West is the mother load of links. This site is very organized and possesses every fathomable famous Western name, gunfight, ghost town, outlaw -- you name the subject, and this site has a link possessing information about it. For each link, there is a quick and useful annotation about the link. One could spend a lifetime just trying to digest the information The American West provides.
Jim Janke's Old West http://www.janke.washcoll.edu/oldwest/oldwest.htm [Archived]
"Philosophy of this page: The Old West of this page is defined loosely as the legend and reality of 19th Century America west of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and anything and anybody associated with it, past and present. After all, the Old West is not really a time or a place but a state of mind."
The O. K. Corral Trial ("Trial of Wyatt Earp"**) 1881 http://www.law.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/earp/earphome.html
"The Old West's most famous gun battle lasted all of about thirty seconds, but it left three men dead, three other men shot, and enough questions to occupy historians for more than a century. The gunfight also led to criminal charges being filed against the three Earp brothers (Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan) and Doc Holliday who, near the O. K. Corral on October 26, 1881, decided to enforce the law against four notorious 'cowboys.' The hearing that followed the shoot-out considered the question of whether the Earps and Hollidays killed out of a justifiable fear for their own lives or simply to rid themselves of troublemakers and personal enemies. After listening to weeks of testimony, Judge Spicer gave his answer--but whether his answer was the right one remained a subject of considerable debate long after the silver mines that gave birth to Tombstone, Arizona had vanished."
OK Corral -- Tombstone, Arizona http://www.tombstone-epitaph.com/
This page is for the museum town of Tombstone, Arizona.  "Tour The World's Most Famous Gunfight Site, walk where Wyatt Earp, 'Doc' Holliday, Virgil Earp and Morgan Earp fought the Clantons and Mclaurys."
Western Outlaw -- Lawman History Association http://www.westernoutlaw.com/
This site won the Police Guide Award for excellence in 1997 and is pertinent to Wyatt Earp. This homepage possesses many critical links to Wyatt Earp, Tombstone, the OK Corral, and the Clanton's gang. It is also a great resource for the political battle of right vs. wrong: Outlaw vs. Lawman.
The Wyatt Earp Historical Homepage http://www.oldwesthistory.net/oldwest2.html/
Up to date (11/16/99) 155,618 people have surfed this site. The creator, Nick, is a fireman and teacher, as he reveals in his credits, but he does not give his last name. However, anything and everything revolving around Wyatt Earp is thoroughly produced, including more links to other web sites.