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.
Ned Buntline biography
Wyatt Earp and the “Buntline Special” myth
There was nothing punk about Tom Sharkey
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