Tag Archives: Wyatt Earp

‘Dodge City,’ by Tom Clavin

Long ago, based on an article I read in some magazine, I joined the anti-Wyatt Earp party. Anti-Wyatt people like to point out that Wyatt Earp was primarily a gambler, not a lawman – he was never the marshal of anyplace, though he was a deputy off and on. Also that the story of the Gunfight at the OK Corral (which took place not in the corral, but in a nearby vacant lot), is told in so many contradictory ways that it’s impossible to get at the truth, but that the Earps’ conduct is suspicious at best. And that Wyatt’s famous vendetta ride, though understandable in light of the murder of one brother and the maiming of another, was entirely extralegal and far from a law ‘n order affair. And, oh yes, there’s evidence Wyatt was a pimp, at least for a while.

Since then I’ve softened a bit. Wyatt was no Hugh O’Brien (that’s the guy who played him on TV, for your kids out there), but neither were his enemies – white hats were hard to find in them parts, in those days.

My real favorite Wild West lawman is Wild Bill Hickok. And yet I keep picking up books about Earp. Maybe because there are more mysteries in his story. I’m still trying to get to the bottom of him.

So I picked up Tom Clavin’s book, Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town In the American West. It has its virtues, but in terms of a search for the facts, I think it’s a step back rather than forward.

One great virtue of Dodge City is that it provides a lot of context. Although the narrative is centered in Dodge, it sends feelers out to touch on a lot of places that involved the main characters through the second half of the 19th Century. I appreciated this; I know my Old West fairly well, but my sense of what was contemporaneous with what was improved.

The book’s particular virtue is that, instead of concentrating on the almost mythic figure of Wyatt Earp, Clavin also keeps his eye on Wyatt’s close friend Bat Masterson. Masterson has gotten too little attention, and Clavin makes a good case (with which I tend to agree) that he was the more accomplished of the two. For one thing, Bat was actually an elected sheriff, at least for a while. But he was also involved in more adventures, from the legendary Adobe Wells fight to various manhunts, shootouts, and arrests as a lawman. William S. Hart knew both men, but it was Masterson he identified as his character model.

The great weakness of Dodge City is that it scores low on the factual scale. Clavin treats these men as if they were career lawmen, men on a mission to bring peace to the frontier, like in the movies. I don’t think you can honestly make that case. His account of the feud with the Clantons is routinely biased toward the Earps. And there are simple mistakes of fact. I’m not a “real” historian, but Clavin’s accounts of events involving Wild Bill Hickok and Billy the Kid are wrong in important details, to my best knowledge. (Although I could just be behind on the scholarship. It keeps changing. But Clavin does not inspire my confidence as scholar.)

Dodge City has some value for the reader looking for a sweeping overview of a colorful time and place in our history. But if you’re looking for objective scholarship, I’d suggest you look elsewhere.

‘John Clum, Apache Agent, and It All Happened in Tombstone,’ by Woodworth Clum

When, as often happened, one of the raiders lost his mount, he would proceed, running on his own feet, being careful not to set too fast a pace for the ponies.

Recently I saw an old Audie Murphy movie which, even within the canon of Audie Murphy’s ouvre, was fairly non-memorable. Walk the Proud Land was an attempt on Murphy’s part to broaden his range through playing, not a gunfighter, but a man of peace. That man, a genuine historical character, was John P. Clum. The movie failed at the box office in its time, but it succeeded in piquing my interest in a man I’d wondered about before. I knew John Clum as editor of the Tombstone Epitaph, mayor of Tombstone, and a staunch friend of Wyatt Earp. I’d also read he was a devout Christian. I’d been mostly unaware of his exemplary career as an Indian agent.

John P. Clum was a Dutch Reformed boy from a farm in New York state. Intending to enter the ministry, he attended Rutgers University, but had to drop out due to lack of funds. His education did earn him a job as a weather observer for the US Army Signal Corps in Santa Fe, New Mexico, however. This led, through a college connection, to his appointment as Indian Agent at the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona.

Clum was 22 years old when he arrived at San Carlos, not entirely sure what he’d find. In general, he was pleasantly surprised. He found the Apaches, by and large, decent (by their lights) and hard-working people, scrupulously honest, and historically eager to be friends with Americans (it was the Mexicans they hated). John Clum, Apache Agent, and It All Happened in Tombstone (a compilation of two books) begins with a narrative of United States relations with the Apaches, and it’s a sad and painful story. For every American willing to treat the Apaches decently, there seem to have been ten who, motivated by greed or bigotry, lied to them, cheated them, or killed them like animals.

Clum set about earning the Apaches’ trust, helping the decent ones and punishing  the (minority of) bad actors. In time he was able to set up a working self-government system. He was particularly proud of his efficient Apache police force, which operated with distinction and crowned its achievements with the capture of Geronimo (the only time – as Clum takes pains to point out – when he was captured without voluntarily surrendering).

In time, however, bureaucratic interference and changed Indian policies left Clum with no alternative, in his own mind, to resigning his post and leaving the reservation. The later history of his Apache friends is sad to read.

There is considerable pride in Clum’s account, along with great contempt for narrowminded and bigoted Americans who spoiled what might have been an exemplary peace. The only character Clum seems to hate more than these bureaucrats is the “bad Apache” Geronimo, whom he describes as a liar, a master manipulator, and a merciless killer. He is particularly offended that his friends ended up sharing Geronimo’s fate of exile and imprisonment, without the advantages that Geronimo enjoyed – celebrity status and income from souvenir sales.

The later part of his book is Clum’s own account of his career as mayor and editor in Tombstone, during the fabled days of the Earp-Clanton feud. He is staunch in his support of Wyatt Earp (who would seem, on the face of it, an odd friend for a good Dutch Reformed boy), and (regrettably) his account varies not at all from the well-known (and much-questioned) version told by Stuart N. Lake in Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal. What will be fresh for most western buffs is Clum’s own account of what he believed to be an assassination attempt against himself on a stage coach run, when he ended up leaving the stage and proceeding on foot, to be less of a target.

The book John Clum, Apache Agent was not written by Clum himself, but was edited by his son Woodworth Clum, from his father’s unpublished papers and reminiscences. The prose is not bad – generally avoiding the excesses of Victorian baroque. The main problem with this electronic edition is that it was obviously produced through OCR transcription, so there is the occasional misread word – as well as entire lines of text getting lost now and then. But it wasn’t enough to spoil the story as a whole.

If you’re interested in the Old West, John Clum, Indian Agent, and It All Happened in Tombstone makes interesting reading. I suspect Clum left out some of the juiciest – and/or most appalling – details, so the book is suitable for most readers.

‘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. Continue reading ‘The Last Gunfight,’ by Jeff Guinn