Thursday, April 19, 2012

Saving Tombstone

The "Wild West" earned its name - a shortage of women, children, and old people set up a social dynamic which could only lead to trouble. Add in a shortage of law enforcement officers, and a plethora of opportunities to steal cattle, gold, and silver - the west needed to be tamed. The men who did it earned their places in American memory as heroes.

Among those who made the west safe for settlers, and who stopped the rampant criminal behavior, were Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and his friends. Historian William Weir writes:

Say "O.K. Corral" and the same picture pops into the minds of millions of people. It's a cold, blustery day in the high desert town of Tombstone, Arizona. Three tall, broad-shouldered men who long frock coats do not hide their holstered six-guns slowly walk down the dusty street. With them is a skinny man with a shotgun. Waiting for them are four grubby men in cowboy outfits. They, too, have holstered six-guns.

Images, however, do not always make for accurate history. At least four major motion pictures and a TV series have been made about Wyatt Earp in Tombstone. None of them are totally accurate, and some of them have bent the story so far from the actual facts that they count as fiction.

Accurate history doesn't always make for good movies. The gunfight at the O.K. Corral lasted, in fact, only thirty seconds. It's difficult to make a movie about an event that short, so Hollywood has stretch the fight out to ten or twenty minutes in most movies, and changed the outcome. In real life, Old Man Clanton was not at the gunfight, having died previously. One movie version adds Johnny "Ringo" Ireland to the gunfight - but in actuality, he wasn't there.

But an accurate history of Wyatt Earp's activities is still fascinating, and justifies his status as an important figure in civilizing the west.:

The head of the frock-coated crew, U.S. Marshall Wyatt Earp, leading his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, and their friend, Doc Holliday, tells the cowboys to throw up their hands. Instead, the cowboys draw their guns, and both sides begin shooting. When the smoke clears, the evil Clanton-McLaury Gang, which had been terrorizing Tombstone, is kaput, and the lawmen led by Wyatt Earp have established law and order.

The build-up had been a series of incidents, involved the stealing of horses or ponies from the army and the robbery of a stage coach. But the Hollywood image needs more correction:

In reality, Wyatt Earp was wearing a mackinaw instead of a frock coat, he carried his revolver in a coat pocket instead of a holster.

A 'mackinaw' is "a short coat or jacket made of a thick, heavy woolen cloth, typically with a plaid design," according to one dictionary. They are usually red and black, and often worn for hunting.

Wyatt Earp was once a city policeman in Wichita, Kansas, from April 1875, until ... a year later. Later, he became number two man in the four-man police force of Dodge City, Kansas. At the time of the gunfight of the O.K. Corral, he was merely a citizen deputized temporarily by his brother Virgil, Tombstone's city marshal, and the nominal leader of his group.

Wyatt Earp had wanted to leave law enforcement entirely, but conditions in Tombstone were so bad that his brother gave him the temporary status as long as needed. Record-keeping in those times and places was often spotty, so some gaps in Earp's career exist.