D. Dowd Muska


Thirty Seconds, Thirty Shots, American Legend

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.

The 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 southeast. Tombstone 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 belligerent.

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 to flow.

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.

The 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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