Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday's Forgotten Books: Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends by Allen Barra

While reading about US Marshal Bass Reeves, an unsung American hero, I was reminded of the more celebrated life of Wyatt Earp and what good PR can do. Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends (1999) by Allen Barra demonstrates how a man becomes a legend and morphs into myth. And, as is often the case, the real life revealed is far more colorful. Some highlights:

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral actually took place in Harwood's lumberyard down the street from the rear entrance to the corral. The gunfight itself is portrayed in some movies as going on for several minutes but really lasted only about 30 seconds.

The line spoken in Tombstone by Holliday (Val Kilmer) when one of the Cowboys got the jump on him - "You're a daisy if you do" - is correct, according to eyewitnesses.

Allegedly, dime-novelist, Ned Buntline, gave Wyatt a 12-inch barrel and shoulder stock attachment. This "Buntline Special" takes on mythical status and years later, folks would swear they saw Earp brandishing this weapon. Alas, like the singing sword, it just didn’t exist. (There’s a brief scene in Tombstone where Kurt Russell reaches for the famed weapon.)

On December 2, 1896, "Sailor" Tom Sharkey fought heavyweight Bob Fitzsimmons, "the Freckled Wonder." In the eighth round, Fitzsimmons knocked Sharkey down and appeared to have won the bout. Wyatt, who was acting as referee, disqualified Fitzsimmons and awarded the bout to Sharkey on an alleged foul. The public was outraged and a judge eventually cleared the famed marshal of any wrongdoing even though Wyatt had bet on the game and had an obvious bias.

In this era of revisionism (Unforgiven, Deadwood), Inventing Wyatt Earp fits in nicely. Mr. Barra has stripped the myth down to its barest skeleton by using firsthand accounts and newspaper stories of the time. Unlike some biographers who like to take our heroes down a peg to make a fast buck, Barra obviously respects his subject and provides a fresh take on a well-told tale. Inventing Wyatt Earp is a must for fans of Earp, the old west, and history.

Related links:

Ned Buntline biography

Wyatt Earp and the “Buntline Special” myth

There was nothing punk about Tom Sharkey

Click here for more Friday's Forgotten Books on Pattinase


Charles Gramlich said...

It's really fascinating how legends develop. I've always wanted to put in some study on the subject but have never had the time.

Cullen Gallagher said...

Reminds me of that famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Maybe part of Wild West Monday will entail re-watching this movie, as it's been about 10 years since I saw it last. Way too long.

David Cranmer said...

Charles, It never ceases to amaze me how we are so desperate to create a hero when there's very little to work with, or, in the case of Earp, we have a hero but then we have to blow him up to ridiculous heights.

Cullen, That movie is the prime example of what we are talking about and a film I haven’t seen in about fifteen years.

Ray said...

Put this on my hit list - which seems to be growing at a rapid rate.

Scott D. Parker said...

"Unlike some biographers who like to take our heroes down a peg to make a fast buck..." As a historian, this is something I never get. Why bother going through the trouble of research with a predetermined agenda. The person who does that will usually skew facts to fit the preordained thesis. Now, it's quite another thing to love a historical figure and then find out things about said figure you don't like or changes the figure's perception. I think you're duty-bound to write it, no matter how the figure might change. I appreciate your assessment of Barra and his use of primary source materials. It's the best way to write history, if you have them. Great review.

Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin said...

That sounds great - I've got to get that book. Earp was a bit of a scoundral without doubt - course his wife Josephine did a lot to build the legend after his death.

David Cranmer said...

Ray, My to-read list is unmanageable at this point.

Scott, Albert Goldman was a good example of that. His biographies of Elvis and Lennon were for nothing more than a quick buck. U2 slams him pretty well in God II.

Gary, Josephine and that first major biography 'Frontier Marshal' did more than anything to build the myth. I do think with the exception of his vendetta ride, he was on the right side of the law the majority of the time, but with that being said, he was always looking to get rich wherever he settled.

Sarah Hina said...

I like that you're attracted to works that want to get at the truth of a thing, David. I've noticed it in many of your picks.

It's very refreshing. :)

Chris said...

Thanks for the review. Wasn't aware this book was out there but agree with the thesis.

David Cranmer said...

I never looked at it like that but I have always been interested in historical accuracy. Thanks Sarah!

Chris, I know you would enjoy it.

Scott D. Parker said...

Can I get an "AMEN" for historical accuracy!

David Cranmer said...


G. B. Miller said...

Interestinly enough, both Earp brothers were worked into a story arc during the last season (I believe) of Deadwood.

In any event, I just started reading the book, and I will try to let you know what my thoughts are on it when I'm done.

David Cranmer said...

Georgie, Looking forward to that and I've watched most of the DEADWOOD shows but must have missed the episode with the Earps. I'm getting ready to buy the entire series on DVD soon and will have to check it out.