Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral-And How it Changed the American West

While I was writing my last post, I downloaded Jeff Guinn's book, The Last Gunfight.  Known primarily for a series of Christmas books, Guinn preceded this debunking of the O.K. Corral/Tombstone legend with a debunking of the Bonnie and Clyde myth.

Guinn's purpose in writing the book was to show that few figures in the Old West were as bad or as good as we've come to portray them  The views we've had of Wild Bill Hickock, Buffalo Bill Cody or George Armstrong Custer was as we've come to accept them.  His view is that Wyatt Earp is an archetype of the western Good Guy, but that his story is chiefly a creation of his own, his wife, and others that profited from that story as well as the movies and television.

The story Guinn shares is almost like an alternate universe from that portrayed in the movies.  Earp, it seems, was never the only law in town, not in Dodge City and not in Tombstone. Rather he was just one of the deputies, working for the sheriff.  Described as a big hulking man, most effective at "buffaloing" or pistol whipping law breakers.  When Wyatt and his brothers took their families to Tombstone, again he was just one of the boys in the band, never the law in Tombstone. The movie that portrays this most effectively is Costner's Wyatt Earp. 

 Earp is also portrayed as someone who was always on the edge financially.  He primarily made his money gambling at cards.  He owned faro games and stayed out very late playing poker. Though he occasionally worked for Wells Fargo as a stage coach guard, he and his third wife Matty were often just scraping by.  Though Josephine Marcus is portrayed as rich in Tombstone, Guinn asserts she came from a middle class San Francisco family.  Together Josie and Earp had financial ups and downs in their marriage.  Mostly downs.  Earp died in poverty in 1929.
Wyatt Earp with Kurt Russell's mustache.  Wait, other way, right?

As a follower of the Tombstone movies, what interested me most is the context Guinn creates for the ultimate shootout at the O.K. Corral (which didn't even happen at the O.K. Corral, Guinn identifies it as  the fight on Fremont Street.)  Guinn takes pains to paint a picture of the mining interests as an economic engine for the San Pedro Valley.  The Earps, seeking access to power and success in Tombstone ran up against competing political interests that left them largely on the outside. Only Virgil was able to obtain a U.S. Marshall's deputy position, while the lucrative city marshal and county sheriff's position went to others. The town business owners, journalists and elected leaders were very active, very law and order and often withdrew their support at critical moments. 

 Guinn also gives credence to the existence of a loosely organized group of cowboys in eastern Arizona responsible for rustling cattle from Mexico, and likely a series of stage holdups. There is a difference however, between these cowboys and the Cowboys portrayed in Tombstone.  They lacked that kind of organization.  In addition, some of the key figures in that group pop in Guinn's history as well.  Curly Bill Brocius is a leader in the cowboys.  John Ringo, much less so. Ike Clanton seemed to be very much as Stephen Lang's clownishly drunken and vicious character as he appeared in Tombstone, and nothing like the sophisticated Robert Ryan character in Hour of the Gun. Guinn places Ike's actions as the catalyst that led to the Fremont Street gunfight.
Battle Map of the O.K. Corral or Fremont Street gunfight.
One other character of interest, who appears in Tombstone and Wyatt Earp is Johnny Behan, the county sheriff, who always seemed to work against the Earps and protected the cowboys/Cowboys. Portrayed by John Tenney in Tombstone and Mark Harmon in Wyatt Earp, Behan was actually much shorter and rounder.  Behan's was an elected position, and he was quite conscious of his standing with voters. Guinn's portrayal of Sheriff Behan is very much the same as he is portrayed in the movies-officious and ineffectual, often seeming to take the part of the outlaws.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Last Gunfight is the chronology of the conflict between the Earps and the the cowboys.  The gunfight occurred on a very cold and windy October 26, 1881.  The range was about six feet and about 30 shots were exchanged in 30 seconds, killing Tom and Frank McLaury and young Billy Clanton, and wounding Morgan and Virgil Earp.  Ike Clanton filed charges against the Earps and Doc Holliday, and the trial lasted 30 days, when Judge Spicer released the defendants due to lack of criminal intent.  The assassination attempt against Virgil Earp occurred on December 28th, and Morgan Earp isn't murdered until March 19th.  The movies all telescope the time to appear that these attacks on the Earp brothers immediately after the gunfight.

The Earp Vendetta Ride, which is portrayed in all the movies as Wyatt with a small band of followers riding around the countryside blasting the crap out of the cowboys, lasted from March 20th, the date he received federal warrants for the arrest of the offending cowboys until April 15th when Earp left Arizona territory.  In all, Earp killed four cowboys including Curly Bill Brocius with a shotgun blast. That's a few less than portrayed in Tombstone's "Wild Ride of Wyatt Earp."  After Earp killed Brocius, he did seek the help of Henry Hooker, a cattleman with a large ranch that traded sold beef to the U.S. Army and the nearby Indian reservation that housed the Apaches (Geronimo's folks when he was at home and not running off terrorizing the countryside.) Hooker disdained Behan and his posse of known cowboys, even offering the outnumbered Earp supporters the opportunity to stay and fortify his ranch against the sheriff and his men. Hooker only appears in Tombstone, and is ably played by Charlton Heston.

In all, Guinn's tale is very interesting and paints a complex portrait of Wyatt Earp, Tombstone, and the forces affecting the town's development.  Guinn is provides depth to the story we learn to the movies and in some cases turns what we know on its ear. The narrative never bogs down, and while packed with interesting detail, never bogs down on that which is too complex or unnecessary.  It's a great story well written.

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