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Debunking the Myth of Wyatt Earp

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Wyatt Earp was born on March 19, 1848. When I was a teenager my grandparents took me and my sister to Arizona during spring break to catch Spring Training. We took breaks from baseball to see Nogales, a couple of museums, and Tombstone. It was awesome. To celebrate Earp’s 171st birthday, and to pay tribute to my grandparents (they’re both still alive!), I figured I’d set the record straight on Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral gunfight.

First things first: the gunfight at O.K. Corral did not actually take place at the O.K. Corral. The 30-second gunfight took place six lots away from the Corral’s back entrance. Crazy, right? Just think: the further back you go in time, the more shrouded events can become in legend and outright falsities.

The gunfight wasn’t exactly as black-and-white as Hollywood films would have you believe, either. While I happily acknowledge that the 1993 movie Tombstone is still the best Western of all-time, and that Doc Holliday was Val Kilmer’s best-ever performance (Kurt Douglas outdid himself in Quentin Tarantino’s 2015 film Hateful Eight, otherwise it would have been his greatest performance of all-time too), the Earps weren’t exactly upstanding citizens of Arizona Territory or the republic.

Wyatt Earp and his brothers - Virgil, Morgan, James, and Warren - sold booze, dreams, land, and sex in America’s frontier, and they weren’t above using the law to their advantage to make a little extra profit. Wyatt himself was mostly just a gambler in his youth (that’s how he became friends with Doc Holliday), but he also had an arrest record that followed him from Iowa, where he grew up (he was born in Illinois), to Wichita, Kan. Earp was mostly picked up for frequenting whore houses, but he was also arrested for stealing horses and “vagrancy.”

In Wichita, Earp somehow earned a spot on a law posse and developed into a solid policeman. He was fired, though, and the reason for his firing will help to illuminate why the O.K. Corral gunfight was not a black-and-white affair: Wyatt Earp got canned as a policeman in Wichita because he beat up a political opponent of his boss.

Tombstone politics, frontier politics

Like Wyatt Earp’s good guy persona, the American frontier itself is shrouded in myths that are eagerly perpetuated by Hollywood and other media outlets.

The Earp brothers, upon their arrival in Tombstone in late 1879, aligned themselves with a local faction led loosely by Tombstone’s Republican mayor, John Clum. Clum’s Democratic rivals were already friends with the infamous Cowboys, and when Wyatt began running for public offices, the rivalry between the Earps and the Cowboys became lively; it wasn’t honor that drove this rivalry, it was politics.

Arizona Territory was heavily Republican, so when Wyatt Earp lost a local election in November of 1880 by less than 60 votes, suspicions ran high and allegations of ballot-stuffing were lobbed at Wyatt Earp’s political opponent, Johnny Behan. Less than one year later, on Oct. 26, 1881, the Earps and Doc Holliday murdered some of the Cowboys six lots down from the O.K. Corral. Within that time frame, though, the Earp brothers and their allies heatedly attacked Behan, the Cowboys, and their allies in the local press. The Cowboys, portrayed as barbarous yahoos in film, were also adept at using media.

Public opinion after the shooting was staunchly on the side of the Cowboys, too. John Clum left town - fled to Washington, D.C., actually - and got a job with the post office. The Earps and the Cowboys continued their vendetta, of course, and the 1993 film does a pretty good job of staying true to the story of Wyatt Earp as avenger.

Wyatt Earp after Tombstone

Earp went on to live in Alaska, Idaho, Colorado, and California among other places. In Los Angeles he actually got a job with the LAPD at one point in time, and helped detectives hunt down wanted criminals in Mexico. He continued to gamble, associate with prostitutes, and physically assault his rivals. He died at the ripe old age of 80, in pain, from a urinary tract infection. Among his pallbearers was John Clum, the former mayor Tombstone, and William Hunsaker, Wyatt’s attorney in Tombstone.

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