June 09, 2011
The feel-good book of the summer it is not. But as they head to
the beach, history buffs won’t do better than The
Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral -- And How It
Changed the American West.
Author Jeff Guinn argues that the iconic bloodbath was not a
clash between irredeemable thugs and unblemished lawmen. It was the product of politics,
raging machismo, too much booze, and
one family’s unbounded ambition.
Last Gunfight doesn’t even get to the shooting until page
228 -- with less than a third of the book to go. Readers won’t mind the wait.
The Earps were emblematic of many American clans of their time. They
were in a hurry -- for wealth, status, and acceptance. In the Victorian era, social
stratification was more tightly fixed. Academics, politicians, and businessmen would
not mix with laborers, professional gamblers, and lawmen with common-law wives
and murky criminal pasts.
In the late 1870s, Guinn writes, “All the Earp brothers were scattered
around the West -- Wyatt in Kansas, James in Texas, Virgil in Arizona,
Morgan in Montana.
None of them had achieved anything permanent and substantial. If one had, he
would have tried to bring the other brothers in on it. They were still
searching, yearning for the one break that could change everything.”
Virgil’s ship came in first. He volunteered to help apprehend
two violent perps in Prescott,
Arizona, and the political class
noticed. Guinn avers that Virgil “could chat amicably with anyone, a skill that
Wyatt and Morgan … pointedly lacked.” Soon, he was a deputy U.S. marshal, and would later
become chief of police in a silver-crazed boomtown a few hundred miles to the
quickly grew from a smattering of tents to a community of 4,000, complete with
hotels, theaters, churches, and a library. (“Town improvements were paid for
with revenue from … quarterly city licenses: $10 for bakers, $15 for butchers,
$10 for individual prostitutes (and anywhere from $20 to $60 from their madams,
depending on the number of women working in their brothels), $250 for anyone
selling ‘wine, malt or spirituous liquors.’”)
Wyatt had been a lawman in Wichita
and Dodge City.
He joined his brother in Tombstone,
as did Morgan, James, and Warren. Despite their quest to join the
establishment, the Earps kept curious company. The taciturn, teetotalling Wyatt
was close friends with John Henry Holliday, a Georgia-born dentist who gambled
for a living and was dying of tuberculosis. In the words of Bat Masterson, “Doc”
had “a mean disposition and an ungovernable temper, and under the influence of
liquor was a most dangerous man … a walking weakling who could not have whipped
a healthy fifteen-year-old boy in a go-as-you-please fistfight.”
One hundred and thirty years ago, the Southwest was infested
with “cowboys,” a diverse group of ranchers and rebels who frequently rustled
cattle and robbed stagecoaches. (Guinn amusingly demonstrates that election fraud was another offense.)
Wyatt’s political aspirations prompted him to craft a scheme with Ike Clanton,
a prominent cowboy. The plan fizzled, and Ike, a loudmouth lush, became
A few hours before the gunfight, Wyatt wasn’t in a diplomatic
mood. “You damned dirty cow thief,” he growled at Ike, “you have been threatening
our lives and I know it. I think I would be justified in shooting you down any
place I would meet you, but if you are anxious to make a fight I will go
anywhere on earth to make a fight with you, even … among your own crowd.”
Under mounting public pressure, Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan, with
a shotgun-toting Doc -- always game for a potentially deadly tussle -- attempted
to disarm Ike and several other cowboys. The brothers and their tubercular pal
prevailed in the ensuing shootout. But there was more killing to come. In
retaliation, a few months later cowboys ambushed Virgil, and then Morgan,
killing the latter. Wyatt organized a vendetta posse, and the blood continued
It’s a brutal tale, and Guinn, a former investigative journalist,
tells it proficiently. Taking mercy on his readers, he eschews feminist cant
about the treatment of women on the frontier, hand-wringing over racial/ethnic
insensitivity in the nineteenth century, and sermons about the ecological
damage wrought by mining in the period before environmental impact statements.
Last Gunfight is about what happened in Tombstone on October 26,
1881, why it happened, and what happened next. It’s a fact-focused examination of
a legend Hollywood
has never gotten right.
D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.
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