MEANDERING the MESQUITE: CHRONICLERS AND MYTH MAKERS —  Writers Who Shaped Western History

Wyatt Earp died in bed at age 80.

Part 4

Wyatt Earp

“The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” had a memorable line of dialogue. John Ford’s classic summed up much of Western distortion in two sentences. Ford, who knew an aged Wyatt Earp, had the old gun fighter in mind with his end-of-movie revelation.

A newspaper man, upon learning the real story of a killing that propelled a man into national heroism, decided not to change history. He ripped up his notes and declared to his audience: “This is the West, sir. When the truth becomes legend, print the legend.”

So it became thusly with Earp, who spent the better part of a lifetime moving away from the glare of the spotlight, but at the end, attempting to correct the myth. Well, sorta. Nobody ranks higher on the controversy scale than Wyatt Earp.

The Tombstone street fight garnered national attention. It was to become the penultimate shootout between good and evil that would become the model embraced by the Western movie genre. The sometime-lawman spent 40 years on the back burner of attention until a Chicago writer, fresh off a success with “The Saga of Billy the Kid,” turned his pen upon Wyatt Earp. Contacting a reticent Earp, Walter Noble Burns deceived Earp by claiming his book would be about “Doc” Holliday. The 1927 “Tombstone, An Iliad of the Southwest” proved to be a glorification of Wyatt Earp, proclaiming him as the lion of the tale.

MEANDERING the MESQUITE: CHRONICLERS AND MYTH MAKERS —  Writers Who Shaped Western History

"Tombstone, An Iliad of the Southwest," by Walter Noble Burns.

Earp was not pleased. He embarked on a path to have his story told correctly, and hopefully to make some money with the effort. In all of Wyatt’s lifetime events, the goal was to obtain some wealth for the efforts.

{h3 style=”text-align: center;”}A miss & a hit{/h3}

If that book was nettlesome to Earp, the following year a publication drove him to a frenzy. Old Tombstone nemesis Billy Breakenridge, leaning hard on a ghost writer, debuted “Helldorado, Bringing Law to the Mesquite.” The former AZ deputy sheriff had spent years ingratiating himself with audiences, heralding his own exploits and besmirching the Earp legend. Earp had endured enough. He turned to a trusted friend to present his story.

The problem with Earp’s strategy was John Flood, albeit an educated fellow, could not write a lick. Flood’s manuscript, even with the endorsement of mega western movie star William S. Hart, failed to garner interest with publishers.

Enter a masterful writer, Stuart Lake. Lake interviewed Earp several times and exchanged letters with Earp and his wife, Josie. Lake, without crediting, used much of Flood’s manuscript, and conducted his own research. He also took some liberties with the truth. “Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal,” published in 1931, was a gigantic hit that pushed Earp into the Western heavens. Earp, who died in 1929, never saw the book, nor did he see any money.

MEANDERING the MESQUITE: CHRONICLERS AND MYTH MAKERS —  Writers Who Shaped Western History

“WYATT EARP, Frontier Marshal,” 1931, by Stuart N. Lake

If ever there was a talented myth maker, Lake would be the master. Years after, much of Lake’s book would be challenged factually. Poor Wyatt’s image would suffer as critics would blame him for the content. Ed Bartholomew’s second book series on Earp were attempts to unravel any positive image. (Author’s note: Bartholomew was an unabashed Earp-hating Texan, not uncommon with that state’s citizens, due to Wyatt’s encounters with them in Kansas cow towns.) But Wyatt was not done. TV rescued the image for a new generation. Hugh O’Brian put Wyatt back on the map, Buntline Special and all.

{h3 style=”text-align: center;”}Historic novels too{/h3}

You would think that the Earp story was complete. But in the 1970s Glenn Boyer, a retired Air Force colonel, expanded the image. Boyer using extensive research, wormed more Wyatt info out a host of Earp family members and related sources. His “I Married Wyatt Earp,” based on Josephine Earp interviews, was a blockbuster. Boyer followed with two other Earp books, the last of which got him in hot water with a cadre of Earp researchers. Glenn, in defense of his own decisions of what Wyatt might of or would have said and done, claimed that the books were historical novels. The enemy doubled down and produced a campaign to abdicate Boyer from the Earp realm. Glenn, for his part, proclaimed his perceived harpies could go to hell.

MEANDERING the MESQUITE: CHRONICLERS AND MYTH MAKERS —  Writers Who Shaped Western History

Glenn Boyer, Earp historian

(Author’s note: having seen the bulk of Boyer’s research, and copied same, there is no doubt that his files were exhaustive, exquisite and thorough. His detractors, in their agitated state, threw out the baby with the bath water. What he wrote was his business.)

Of the many, many Earp books that have been published post-Boyer, the best is “The Last Gunfight,” by Jeff Guinn, 2011. Is it entirely accurate? There are excerpts that I disagree with, but most fall into the hazy judgment areas. (Author’s note: Guinn consulted with me on various incidents in the Tombstone story. I also guided him on an all-day research trip in Cochise county).

Wyatt Earp, for whatever the reasons, has become a mythical Western icon. The truth is he was a man, like many of his era, that sought out wealth and status in his lifetime. He had his failings. Yep, he was human.

He also was in the thick of some Western moments that transcend mortals. And he never got a scratch and died in bed.

Throughout the years, I have given dozens of lectures, mostly about Tombstone, but never any focusing exclusively upon the life of Wyatt Earp. Perhaps that would be appropriate. To my readers, let me know if there is an interest.

Scott Dyke is a Wyatt Earp historian Western lecturer and researcher.

He is a member of the Western Writers of America. He can be reached at scottdyke65@gmail.com