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I'm Wyatt Earp!
Paul Stocker looks at the famous lawman's legend and some of the figures depicting him
That's how Kevin Costner announces himself in the movie 'Wyatt Earp' when facing down a rowdy crew of cowboys riding into his town looking for a good time. And if you have seen the movie, you may recall one of the cowboys replies, Who the [expletive deleted] is Wyatt Earp?" This is the only time I know of in a movie that Wyatt Earp's supposedly widespread reputation as a dangerous law officer is questioned.
By contrast, in the movie 'Tombstone', which was released around the same time, his fame has definitely preceded him when he arrives in town.
The Wyatt Earp legend only seems to have become a part of Wild West folklore after his death, appropriately enough in Hollywood, in 1929. But then Earp probably helped to write the legend. The book 'Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal' by Stuart N. Lake was published in 1931 but it is believed to have been based on Earp's own possibly flattering account of his exploits.
The book, several movies, a 1950s television series and yet more books all helped give Wyatt Earp iconic status in the story of the West. In fact his legend at least matches, and possibly exceeds, that of Wild Bill Hickock and certainly eclipses the exploits of other lawmen of the time, such as Commodore Perry Owens who was a real legend in his own lifetime.
From what can be gathered from independent sources, Wyatt Earp was a tough and competent law officer in the rowdy cattle and mining towns where cowboys or miners went looking for rest and recreation.
But his effectiveness relied as much on his using his gun like a club (known as 'buffaloing') against the opposition as on gunfights. Earp may only have been responsible for one fatal shooting during the cattle town days and it was never confirmed whether he or a colleague fired the fatal shot.
It was his buffaloing of Tom McLaury on the street in Tombstone that is supposed to have triggered the confrontation at the OK Corral.
The gun most identified with Earp is a Colt .45 revolver with a twelve inch barrel, described as a 'Buntline Special', carried in a special pocket in his long coat which was greased to allow him to draw it quickly.
These are more features of the story written by Stuart Lake but the gun remains his trademark, very much like the Colt Magnum used by Clint Eastwood's 'Dirty Harry'. It is in keeping with the long tradition of legendary heroes using similarly legendary weapons. Rather less legendary or flattering is the recorded incident in 1876 when his loaded revolver fell out of his holster or pocket while he was leaning back on a chair and discharged a bullet which went through his coat and up through the ceiling, just missing his face, when it hit the floor.
Earp must have been considered good at the job for him to have held the various law officer posts that he did. But sometimes he didn't hold a post for very long and his spells as a law officer were punctuated by or ran parallel with other activities; he would at various times be a farmer, teamster, bouncer, gambler, saloon-keeper, boxing promoter, Wells Fargo guard, mine owner and prospector.
This doesn't mean that the job of lawman was necessarily badly paid. In July 1880, Wyatt was appointed deputy sheriff for part of Pima County, which included Tombstone. His deputy sheriff's position was worth more than US$40,000 a year at the time (over $950,000 in today's money) because he was also county assessor and tax collector and he was allowed to keep ten percent of what he collected.
But Wyatt only served in the post for about three months. There would also be a number of occasions when, even while acting as a lawman, he would end up in trouble with the law himself.
The two outstanding features of the Earp legend are his friendship with John Henry 'Doc' Holliday and the gunfight at the OK Corral. Holiday was a well-qualified dentist with a practice in Atlanta when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He moved to the American southwest hoping the climate would help prolong his life.
Although he would again try to practice dentistry, he found gambling more lucrative. As a gambler he acquired a reputation for being deadly with a gun although only three shootings can be confirmed. But he certainly seems to have had a nasty temper and to have been a mean drunk.
His friendship with Wyatt Earp began in Dodge City in 1878 when he is said to have helped Earp during a bar room confrontation. Earp credited Holliday with saving his life, although no precise details of that incident have survived.
The gunfight at the OK Coral is now probably the most famous gunfight in the story of the Wild West and it is at the heart of the Earp legend. But it was a relatively unknown event in America or elsewhere until the publication of Stuart Lake's book.
In fact the gunfight didn't take place all that close to the corral. It was Lake who gave it its name and the name proved memorable. Early film portrayals show a protracted gun battle over a large area but the two groups may have been only six feet apart at the start of the fight and it seems to have lasted for only about thirty seconds, during which about thirty shots were fired.
The gunfights in 'Tombstone' and 'Wyatt Earp' were more accurate in these two respects.
The 'Buntline Special' story is undermined by the fact that Wyatt is believed to have used a .44 caliber Smith & Wesson revolver with an eight inch barrel in his most famous fight. But the rest of the legend was enhanced by the fact that, while Doc Holliday and Morgan and Virgil Earp were all wounded in the fight and the 'Cowboys' (then meaning outlaws) Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury and his brother Frank McLaury were killed, Wyatt came through it unharmed.
Controversy about what actually happened before and during the fight reigned at the time and it still does. Different factions in Tombstone and the two local newspapers took largely opposing views and the Earps and Holliday were arrested for their actions. After a lengthy hearing, the case against them was dismissed due to lack of evidence.
As 'Tombstone' and 'Wyatt Earp' showed, killings continued after the OK Corral as Wyatt and a posse set out to track down the men he believed responsible for the subsequent murder of his brother Morgan.
Truth is all very well but legends are almost always better. Earp may not have lived up to his but, for those of us interested in the Old West, he remains a fascinating character, whether as the fearless lawman of legend or as a more complex man. It was the former that I set to try to model for myself after seeing the two movies I've mentioned and after reading more about him.
The end result may not entirely match the truth in a well known contemporary photograph Earp looks more like a banker or businessman than a lawman - but it's still the version I prefer.
Photos by Gaynor Stocker
Picture above: Andrea's Wyatt Earp is definitely the Earp of legend and it combines the distinctive clothes of Tombstone with the dramatic pose of the poster for 'Wyatt Earp'
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