For many years the standard work on the life of Wyatt Warp was the biography by Casey Tefertiller. I read that book several years ago and accepted most of what it had to say, then with further investigation—mostly by reading others’ research—I found that for all it’s usefulness Tefertiller’s account had some flaws. Some of that was just the problem of separating fact from legend, some of it was tall-tale repetition just for the sake of a good story. Others have tried to square the account of Eyatt Earp, especially his mythical gunfight at the OK corral.
Allen Barra’s Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends does much to correct misconceptions and beat back mythology. It is not a biography by any stretch of the imagination. One will learn little of Earp’s pre-Tombstone, Arizona, career, and not too much about his post gunfight experience. What you will find, however, is a first rate analysis of the gunfight, the nature of the feud with the Clanton clan, the nature of the “Cowboys” and their activities in southern Arizona, and the complex interrelationships of the Earps and other power centers in Tombstone.
What we find with Barra’s finely grained analysis is an assessment of a clear-eyed, even-handed, set of brothers who made their way to the far southwest to pursue the main chance. Barra’s discussion of Wyatt Earp peals back much of the veneer of a figure that has become a caricature of considerable debate and controversy. While Earp will remain a controversial figure into the foreseeable future, Barra’s work helps to draw out some key points about him and the Tombstone experience.
The Earp brothers—Wyatt, Morgan, Virgil, James, and Warren—found their way to Tombstone in 1879, proceeded to develop businesses, and tried to get rich in a mining boom town. Their investments in several mining claims and water rights brought them into conflict with Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy and Ike Clanton, Johnny Ringo, Curly Bill Brocius, and a few others. A few drunken brawls only raised the level of the feud. Doc Holliday, a friend of Wyatt Earp, also came to Tombstone and with his arrival the principal actors in the gunfight were present.
Barra makes much of the fact that despite this rivalry, it wasn’t really a blood feud, at least not at first. There had been a succession of altercations between these two groups for months, but Wyatt Earp was gambling with some of those on the other side of the gunfight only a few days beforehand. Moreover, the gunfight was really about a weapons violation in Tombstone. In April 1881, the Tombstone city council passed an ordinance prohibiting anyone from carrying firearms in the city limits. Anyone entering town was required to leave their weapons at any livery or saloon where they could pick them up when they left town. This was an interesting ordinance that the Second Amendment defenders would probably not appreciate, but it was because the Clantons, McLaurys, and others failed to do so that the Earps and Holliday confronted them, demanding that they give up their weapons. This was what caused the shoot out.
The gunfight, taking place on October 26, 1881, probably lasted only about 30 seconds and those analyzing it have concluded that only about 30 shots were fired. It was a close-range affair, with Vrgil, Wyatt, Morgan, and Holliday armed with shotguns on one side and Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury on the other. Billy Clanton and both McLaurys were killed, while Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded.
The Earps were brought before a judge and exonerated, but this led to an escalation of violence thereafter. Virgil Earp was ambushed in Tombstone on the night of December 28, 1881, and was hit by three loads of double-barreled buckshot. He survived but lost an arm. The next March Morgan was murdered. Wyatt Earp went on a rampage to avenge this action, exactly what had happened after the OK Corral gunfight when friends and relatives of Billy Clanton and the McLaury’s had done. These revenge killings ended in the deaths of three other men thought to be responsible for the attacks on the Earps. The next month Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday left Arizona Territory, in April 1882, and traveled to Colorado.
Overall, Inventing Wyatt Earp is a creditable analysis of a well-known, but poorly understood, story. Allen Barra’s book is well-researched and written, convincing, and entertaining. Most are aware of Wyatt Earp but probably know more about the mythical figure than the actual man. One caution, and this is not a major problem regardless of how irritating it was, this book is so poorly edited that it really distracted from the reading experience. It was riddled with typos and poor grammar, misspellings, and the like.