If not for his notorious role in an 1896 prizefight staged before 15,000 spectators in San Francisco, Wyatt Earp might have vanished into obscurity on the heels of so many other 19th-century gunfighters.
Yes, that exhibition of fisticuffs occurred only 15 years after Earp, together with two of his brothers and a former dentist, John Henry “Doc” Holliday, took the lives of three smack-talking lawbreakers during a 30-second shootout in the Arizona Territory boomtown of Tombstone. However, as Pennsylvania historian Andrew C. Isenberg recalls in Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life, in the time following that altercation and a subsequent wave of vigilante killings, Earp had remained largely absent from the limelight, gambling, training race horses, speculating in real estate and commencing what would be a half-century romance with a flamboyant aspiring actress, Josephine Marcus.
Only his agreement to referee the ’96 bout between professional pugilists Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey thrust Earp back before the public eye.
“Just at the moment when the favorite [Fitzsimmons] appeared to have knocked out the underdog and won the fight,” Isenberg tells me, “Earp called a low blow on the apparent winner and awarded the fight to the underdog. The suspicion was that the fight was fixed; it was national news and the biggest scandal in professional sports until gamblers fixed the 1919 World Series. The national media started asking about Earp, and as a result the stories about Tombstone, and his vigilantism, got a new life.” In defense, the episodic lawman launched a campaign to refashion his reputation, and by the 1910s Earp “had started to hang out at Hollywood studios, eventually befriending early silent-film Western stars in the hope that they would make a film of his life, and was talking to a professional writer about his memoirs.”
Earp didn’t live to witness the results of his efforts; he died in 1929 at age 80. But today, thanks partly to the myth-making of his first biographer, Stuart N. Lake (Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, 1931), later movies about the 1881 Tombstone stand-off and a 1950s TV series—The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, starring Hugh O’Brian—Earp has become an Old West celebrity, transformed from the sometimes cold-blooded shooter, card cheat and saloon keeper of fact into a paragon of law and order—the “brave, courageous and bold” marshal of O’Brian’s portrayal.
Isenberg, a 48-year-old professor with Philadelphia’s Temple University (and previously the author of Mining California), has long used clips from assorted Earp films in his History of the American West courses to help students understand how Hollywood mischaracterizes the country’s frontier heritage. When he began his research for Wyatt Earp, Isenberg says he wanted to “peel away the Hollywood mythologizing and get to the real story; [but] I found that Earp’s self-inventions were the real story.”
Nicholas Earp, Wyatt’s father, may have set the pattern for his son’s ardent fictionalizing. The two men “shared a number of characteristics,” Isenberg explains. “Both of them were restless, tending to stay in one place for only a few years before moving on.” They both ran for minor public offices, particularly as police officers, so that they could earn money through court fees. “Most of all, like Wyatt, Nicholas told tall tales about his frontier exploits: He claimed to have fought in the Black Hawk War (in fact, he was hundreds of miles away from the fighting); he claimed to have scouted for Daniel Boone (who died when Nicholas was 9 years old).”
Among Wyatt Earp’s own bogus assertions, notes Isenberg, were stories about how he’d “stood down a lynch mob in Tombstone (in fact, it was the city marshal at the time, Ben Sippy, who did so)” and “killed the cowboy Johnny Ringo (in fact, Ringo committed suicide outside Tombstone while Earp was in Colorado).”
Earp became so habituated to inflating his life’s story that even when, in his gray-haired years, he solicited a biographer, he resisted—maybe consciously, perhaps not—the notion of allowing somebody else to set his past in print. Giving up the opportunity to continue his self-reinvention, Isenberg contends, was “a kind of death” for Earp. “This is one of the most intriguing aspects of Earp’s personality,” the author observes. “It’s understandable that he was outraged by a book such as Helldorado , by William Breakenridge, which painted him in a bad light. But he was equally upset by accounts that were favorable to him or by writers with whom he had cooperated.” Earp went to his grave a man of “many masks,” as Isenberg puts it.
So, if he’s not the “flawless” lawman of legend, or even an honest broker of his own life’s story, what is there still to admire in Earp? Isenberg is quick to answer:
“He was born to a downwardly-mobile farm family,” Isenberg says, but “he used his wits, and his boldness, to carve out a place for himself in the West.” That boldness also got him into hot water; he was arrested in Indian Territory for horse theft and he was thrown out of Wichita for roughing up a man who ran for city marshal. “Whatever other personal failings he might have had,” Isenberg adds, “the 1881 gunfight in Tombstone certainly showed that he was no coward.”
J. Kingston Pierce is both the editor of The Rap Sheet and the senior editor of January Magazine. His regular crime-fiction columns for Kirkus Reviews can be found here. Photo of Andrew C. Isenberg above courtesy of Elena Isenberg.