[175 years ago this weekend, Wyatt Earp was born in Illinois. Earp would go on to become one of the most iconic Wild West figures, so this week I’ve AmericanStudied stories of that complex and mythic region and history. Leading up to this weekend birthday post on engaging Earp!]
On Wild West myths, realities, and how to split the difference.
While the mythos of a figure like Billy the Kid very much began during his (brief) lifetime, it seems that the myth of Wyatt Earp only truly began to be created after his January 1929 death at the age of 80. Earp had been living in Los Angeles for the last couple decades of his life, trying among other things to get a film of his life made; to that end he had been working with Western author Walter Noble Burns, whose book Tombstone, an Iliad of the Southwest (1927) had really begun the mythologizing of Earp. The process accelerated significantly with Stuart Lake’s authorized biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal (1931), a bestseller which was based on many conversations between Lake and Earp but which nonetheless (or perhaps as a result) established many of the iconic details of the Earp myth that have endured to this day. It is those details, centered on the shootout at Tombstone’s O.K. Corral but also and especially framed by stories of a lifetime of legal and extralegal justice delivered with his trusty pistols (and alongside his brothers and his best friend Doc Holliday), that became the basis for pop culture representations, from TV shows like The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-61) to films like Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994) among many others.
Earp did work off and on as a lawman throughout his life, but it was his brother Virgil who was working as a Deputy U.S. Marshal in Tombstone (Wyatt was working as a stagecoach shotgun rider at the time). And in any case, the through-line of Earp’s life, at least from his first police work in Wichita, Kansas when he was in his mid-20s through his move to LA in his 60s, was not any one profession but rather constant sojourns across a series of Western boomtowns in an effort to strike it rich. The settings also included Dodge City, Kansas; Deadwood, South Dakota; Tombstone, Arizona; Eagle City, Idaho; Nome, Alaska; and San Francisco. The get-rich-quick schemes included participating in numerous silver and gold rushes, owning and operating saloons, dealing faro (a popular card game at the time), racing horses, and refereeing boxing matches. If the latter doesn’t sound like a way to get rich quick, it’s worth noting that Earp was suspected of having fixed the December 1896 heavyweight championship bout in San Francisco between Bob Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey, an accusation that haunted Earp until the end of his life. Earp’s brothers and Holliday frequently joined him in these endeavors, as did his multiple wives, reinforcing these pursuits as the most consistent part of his identity.
So beyond simply noting oversimplifications and inaccuracies in the pop culture stories (a somewhat useful but too often pedantic exercise), how do we put these different stories in conversation with one another? I’d say one important way to do so would be to recognize that work as a lawman was simply one of many professional paths for Earp (and his brothers and friends), and indeed one through which he and they were likewise hoping to prosper. That doesn’t mean they were necessarily corrupt, but rather that the system and society of these towns, of the late 19th century West more broadly, and of Gilded Age America overall was one in which law and justice were very much caught up in power and prosperity, gold and greed, the American Dream and its darker undertones. Those interconnections are somewhat specific to the world of the “Wild West,” not in its mythic meanings but in its all too fraught realities. But, as Monday’s focal voice Richard Slotkin would no doubt remind us, those interconnections are also definingly American, one more reason why the Wild West has retained its powerful hold on our collective imaginations.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Wild West stories or histories you’d highlight?