Thursday, November 29, 2007

[wyatt earp] killer or protector

"Throw your hands up, I want your guns"

So said Virgil Earp, with brothers Wyatt and Morgan beside him plus Doc Holliday. Opposite them stood Ike Clanton, Billy Claiborne, Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton, cattle rustlers.

30 seconds later, Virgil had been shot in the leg, Morgan in the back, Holliday was grazed on the hip, both McLaurys and Billy Clanton were dead and the others had run away.

Wyatt Earp stood, unscathed, surveying the carnage.

The town was Tombstone, Arizona and a legend was born. It's all the more interesting because I've been trying to get to the truth of whether Wyatt Earp was a murderous gunman or an upstanding law enforcement officer.

Technically, he had no authorization to carry a gun on that day and did not wear a badge of office. Of course he had worn one earlier in Dodge City, from whence his legend had sprung. The friendship between Doc Holliday and Wyatt wasn't hard to understand either - Holliday had saved Wyatt from being murdered and yet Holliday disliked lawmen and Wyatt was one.

The more one reads, the murkier and greyer become the distinctions. The OK Corrall seems more and more a revenge killing for a complex set of happenings in the preceding months, people taking other's girlfriends and so on.

The people in the town were split too. Whereas the common folk seemed to back the Earps in their rough justice notion of law and order, the rustlers, particularly Billy, seemed to be reasonably popular in town. Wyatt seems to have been not universally loved and the Earps generally seen as men who took advantage of their positions to mete out fear and favour.

There seems to be no consensus because people were of one camp or the other. Wyatt? Dangerous, yes. Bat Masterton said of him:

Wyatt Earp's daring and apparent recklessness in time of danger is wholly characteristic; personal fear doesn't enter into the equation, and when everything is said and done, I believe he values his own opinion of himself more than that of others, and it is his own good report that he seeks to preserve.
Just a killer? Well, he was charged with murder following the shootout but was acquitted. Here's the modern day Clanton family's version of events. Bit different to the legend, yes? Here's a similar view. Here's a more pro-Earp account. Interesting that no two accounts seem to match.

In the rampage following the killing of Morgan some months later, when Wyatt and Doc Holliday then tracked down and killed the killers across the west is still a thorny question. Along the way, other outlaws like Johnny Ringo were found dead and that was attributed to the terrible two.


They certainly inspired fear in a lawless west at that time. One report from Wyatt's early days said:
Deputy Earp was known for pistol-whipping armed cowboys before they could dispute town ordinances against carrying of firearms. It is not known what kind of pistol Wyatt carried.
The line between lawless and lawman seems to have been a fine one. He's not known to have knowingly acted against unarmed or harmless people. He seemed to relish taking on the most dangerous. He doesn't seem to have had a brittle temper - reports say he was ice cold in such situations.

So was he a bad man? Was he a psycho behind a badge? Or was he a product of the times who brought law and order to part of a lawless land?

Dodge City, 1882 - would you want to have lived there in those times?


9 comments:

Crushed by Ingsoc said...

I think I'm right in saying that Wyatt Earp only ever ACTUALLY made one arrest in reality, a drunken prostiute.

Likewise, there is only one recorded gunfight in a stret at the striking of a clock.

And of course, all Marshalls and Sherrifs wore uniforms, then as now.

Much of the Wild West is pure myth, most of the outlaws were ex-confederates evading capture.

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Fascinating. I didn't really know much about him but I like to believe in the legend, probably because of that TV series and the theme tune "Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp, strong, courageous and bold..."

BobG said...

Earp spent most of his time gambling; he only worked as a lawman when it was convenient. His most common tactic when going to disarm someone was to have Masterson standing off to the side with a shotgun. If the person gave him an argument, he drew his pistol and hit them upside the head. The gunfights and duels shown in the movies were mainly a Hollywood invention.
When I was a kid, I used to talk to my great-grandfather about life when he was growing up. He grew up during the 1880's, and knew quite a few Civil War veterans, and was in the sheep and cattle wars along the Utah-Wyoming border when he was 14. He used to laugh at westerns, and tell me what it was really like at that time.

Matt said...

I think he was a law enforcement officer. That was back during the day when we couldn't enforce the law (unlike today where we just choose not to). Extreme measures were called for, Wyatt Earp answered the call. Thanks for the interesting article! It reminds me; back when I was on Facebook there was a group, "I noticed you are a badass, I too am a badass." They had photo after photo of badasses, don't ever remember seeing Wyatt though. Someone ought to add him!

Dave Cole said...

Earp was in his twenties when the Civil War broke out. The legitimate monopoly of force was very much contested. Whether or not he was right, he was a product of his times.

Gracchi said...

James this is such a better post than the one above because you recognise that the questions are open- history is full of ends that we can't tie up and things that we don't know. This post is a really good post because it ends with doubt.

Dave Cole said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dave Cole said...

There's an interesting picture at Wikipedia of Earp's pistol, checked but never claimed at the Red Dog bar in Juneau, Alaska.

Bretwalda Edwin-Higham said...

Yes, saw that. Weapons have come along since then but is that good?