New book takes potshots at Wyatt Earp

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Wyatt Earp survived countless brawls with drunken cowboys in Dodge City, Kan., and walked away from the shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz., without a scratch. But he couldn't outride the academics.

In "Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life," Andrew Isenberg, a professor at Temple University, calls on the big guns to debunk the Earp myth: German sociologist Max Weber, Henry James and even Shakespeare's Prince Hal. You may wonder exactly what these men have to do with the frontier West, and you may finish the book still wondering.


By Andrew C. Isenberg
Straus and Giroux ($30).

The worst thing that ever happened to Wyatt Earp was having his name used on a 1950s TV show and in movies by worshipful Hollywood directors such as John Ford in "My Darling Clementine" and John Sturges' "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral." It's been more than half a century since anyone accepted the hagiographic version of Earp's life offered by Stuart Lake, in the 1931 book "Frontier Marshal."

We've known for decades that Earp as a young man may have been involved in a horse theft, that he spent some time as an "enforcer" in a bordello and that he went on a vendetta ride to avenge his brother's murder in Arizona.

The Vendetta Ride looms large in Mr. Isenberg's narrative because it was a classic example of the law man -- Wyatt was a deputy U.S. marshal at the time -- taking the law into his own hands. The reader, though, might feel more sympathy for Earp than Mr. Isenberg intends because Earp's only alternative was to let his brother's assassins go unpunished.

Mr. Isenberg cherry-picks through the historical record, discarding evidence that doesn't support his case. An example: in the famous 1896 controversy in which referee Earp stopped the heavyweight fight between "Ruby Bob" Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey, awarding the fight to Sharkey on a foul, Mr. Isenberg quotes only from the San Francisco Call, not the San Francisco Examiner, which supported Earp in his decision. (Mr. Isenberg also neglects to tell us that the editor of the Call lost a great deal of money on the fight.)

Unable to blame Earp for the gunfight in Tombstone -- the historical evidence weighs too heavily on Earp's side -- Mr. Isenberg decides that the killings were indirectly Wyatt's fault as "the consequences of his ambition." Earp apparently was the only one in Tombstone guilty of this sin.

But the most baffling assertion Mr. Isenberg makes is that there was some kind of homosexual relationship between Wyatt and Doc Holliday. The evidence for this is absurdly thin: Bat Masterson, in a magazine story on Earp, referred to Wyatt and Doc as Damon and Pythias, which had "a long-standing association in the English-speaking world with homosexuality." The odds that Masterson knew this are pretty long, but Mr. Isenberg thinks for some reason that frontiersmen of this era spoke in "coded" language.

Earp's famous long-barreled Colt, the Buntline Special, was an "overtly phallic symbol." Wonder what Mr. Isenberg thought of "Old Betsy," Davy Crockett's long rifle?

"Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life" isn't really a biography, providing very little in the way of information on Earp's life. It reads more like a lawyer's indictment, coming down hard on his subject for not living up to his TV and movie white knight image. A better subtitle would have been: "A 19th-Century Man Judged by 21st-Century Standards."


Allen Barra, who writes for American History magazine, is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends" (1998). His latest book is "Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, the Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age."


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