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the last gunfight

9 january 2012

Until last week, everything I knew about Wyatt Earp I had learned from the movies. A lot of movies, mind you, and a fair number of competing versions of the events in Tombstone in 1881 that made Earp famous. I know better than to take Hollywood stories as remotely representative of reality, but I don't know better than to hope that there's a kernel of real heroism behind the tinsel heroism of the pictures. Jeff Guinn's Last Gunfight dispelled my remaining illusions.

Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and their friend Doc Holliday seem to have had one quality in common with their screen avatars. All of them were brave to a fault. Virgil and Wyatt Earp, in particular, made their living for a while by being the guys in your town who thought nothing of going up to misbehaving armed drunks, clouting them on the side of the head, and tossing them into a jail cell to sleep it off. The "gunfight at the O.K. Corral" started in just that way. On the morning of 26 October 1881, a "cowboy" named Ike Clanton was raving drunk in the streets of Tombstone, waving a pistol and rifle around and threatening to shoot down his enemies in general and the Earp brothers in particular. Virgil – doubling as a duly appointed federal marshal and as local police chief – walked up behind Ike, grabbed the barrel of his rifle, and smashed him a good one on the side of the head while relieving Ike of his weapons. This gesture in the direction of law and order saved Ike's life for the time being, and ruined both men's in the long run.

It's a shame that the day couldn't have ended with Virgil disarming Ike. Still one of the best moments in any O.K. Corral movie is Sam Elliott as Virgil in Tombstone, telling the Clanton gang he's fixing to disarm them. It combines ample testosterone levels with a sense of righteousness and self-control. But the actual events were a sloppy, hideous tragedy, dissatisfying to all concerned. Both parties were at a (metaphorical) hair trigger, and though neither side really wanted to kill or die, when the three Earps and Doc Holliday rounded the corner onto the gunfight lot (some distance from the Corral, but as Guinn says, "'Gunfight in the Empty Lot on Fremont Street' didn't lend itself well to legend" [318]), everything just went to hell. A few minutes later, Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded, and Tom & Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton were dead.

In the earlier movies, that's the end of it: justice is restored to the West, and Wyatt walks off into the sunset. (Doc Holliday sometimes dies, though in real life both Doc and Wyatt would die peacefully in bed, sooner and much later, respectively.) In the more revisionist films (Tombstone and Wyatt Earp), the Gunfight sets off a feud, with its own drama and conclusiveness. In the historical Tombstone, the events of 26 October set off an inconclusive series of pointless murders, several of them committed by Wyatt Earp in fairly cold blood.

It's not that there remains nothing to admire about Wyatt Earp after reading Guinn's account. Earp was brave, as noted; he was loyal. He wasn't corrupt. He and his brothers were in the right on 10/26/81, though the result was literal overkill; he retains something of the moral high ground even throughout Guinn's account of the "Vendetta Ride," undertaken by Wyatt and Doc to avenge the later killing of Morgan and disabling of Virgil in ambushes. But my gosh, was Wyatt Earp an amoral hard character. Even keeping in mind his legitimate cause for vengeance one is left with an uneasy feeling about him.

And society, for much of Wyatt Earp's life, maintained that uneasy feeling. He was a figure who inspired mild awe but not much admiration – until after his death, when he became the subject of a good deal of fanciful fiction.

The Last Gunfight is a keen account of the difficulty of maintaining order on one of America's "last frontiers." (It's as well to remember that there was nothing "frontier" about southeastern Arizona to someone like Geronimo, who was simply a local objecting to unruly newcomers.) At times in Guinn's narrative it's hard to remember who's the marshal and who's the sheriff and who's the police chief. In fact, the divided jurisdictions of the day helped foment the Gunfight. Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan represented a competing interest on the side of the law. If Virgil Earp (who represented the federal and local governments) had been able to deal with the Clantons and McLaurys alone, things might have been less lethal. But miscommunication and cross-responsibility helped turn a flareup into a showdown.

Guinn, Jeff. The Last Gunfight: The real story of the shootout at the O.K. Corral—and how it changed the American West. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011.