‘The Last Gunfight,’ by Jeff Guinn

The Last Gunfight

None of the Earps were flawless saints, but they also were not shady characters who lucked into heroic places in Western history. What they did do, Wyatt especially, was exaggerate their accomplishments and completely ignore anything in their past that reflected badly on them. In this, they were typical of men of their time—and men today.

Wyatt Earp wanted a desk job. You could argue that that simple fact is responsible for the bloodletting that occurred in an empty lot next to C.S. Fly’s photographic studio, not far from the OK Corral, on October 26, 1881 in Tombstone, Arizona. All the Earps dreamed of wealth and social respectability, but they had to settle for gambling, police work (usually as deputies), and sometimes less reputable work like pimping, until they could catch the brass ring. Which none of them did in their lifetimes.

Wyatt thought he had a fair shot at being elected sheriff of the newly-created Cochise County, Arizona, on the Republican ticket. He was a deputy to his brother, Deputy US Marshal Virgil Earp, who was also Tombstone chief of police. He thought he could arrest several wanted “cowboys” (a word that meant rustlers at the time), if he made a deal with the rancher Ike Clanton to betray his cowboy friends. Unfortunately, Ike got the idea that Wyatt had been telling people about the deal, and got so mad that he spent the night of October 25 lurching from one saloon to another, bragging about everything he was going to do that two-faced Earp. This was a stupid thing to do if he wanted the deal kept secret, of course, but brains were never Ike’s strong suit. The next day Virgil deputized his brothers and Doc Holliday and led them down to the vacant lot to disarm Ike and his friends. The rest is… about 1% history and 99% myth and romance.

Though the Amazon description calls Jeff Guinn’s The Last Gunfight the “definitive” account of the affair, it’s not and cannot be, as Guinn himself admits in his Afterword. New information keeps turning up, and sometimes it’s pretty illuminating. What The Last Gunfight offers is a fairly recent, and fairly comprehensive, account of the personalities and forces that led to the shoot-out, and the events that followed, with the focus on the Earps.

The book takes a fairly positive attitude toward the Earp brothers, which surprised me a little. It would be almost as easy to tell the story from the other side. Wyatt, especially, seems to me a somewhat cold-blooded figure by all accounts. We can’t know for sure who shot first in Tombstone, and we can’t even be sure how many of the cowboys were even armed. There’s good reason to believe the Earps acted in legitimate self-defense, but we can’t know for sure. Guinn gives them the benefit of the doubt.

I enjoyed The Last Gunfight, and I recommend it if you’re interested in learning the not-especially-romantic facts, as far as we can reconstruct them today.

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