Wyatt Earp, second from left in the front row, with other members of the ironically named Dodge City Peace Commission, including Luke Short, second from the left in the back row, and, to the right of Short, wearing a bowler, Bat Masterson. The photo was taken about a year and a half after the shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Earp was back in Kansas because, as shown in Jeff Guinn’s The Last Gunfight, the political and legal repercussions from the gunfight made life in Tombstone rather uncomfortable for him.
Earp was a grouchy part-time civil servant and three-quarters time gambler with pathetically small political ambitions, and the gunfight was an attempt to roust a bunch of drunks that got out of hand partly because Earp, who really had no business being there, was in a foul mood over a series of disappointments brought about by political rivalry with the county sheriff, who should have been there to break things up before the shooting started, who in fact had been there, but had decided that it was in his political interests to get the hell out of the way.
In The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral-And How It Changed the American West, author Jeff Guinn’s take on the showdown between the Earps and the Clanton Gang is that instead of its being a tale of western adventure and derring-do of now legendary proportions, it’s a story of local politics of the most typical and banal sort, except that, unfortunately, a number of people involved were in the habit of carrying guns.
The gunfight and its bloody aftermath came about as a roundabout result of the political rivalry between Wyatt Earp and the county sheriff, Johnny Behan.
Let’s get this out of the way right off. As most people know by now, what happened in Tombstone, Arizona on October 26, 1881 wasn’t a heroic showdown between the forces of good and evil. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday weren’t there either as gunslingers with murder in their hearts or as avenging agents of law and order. They were there as deputies to Wyatt’s brother, Virgil, who himself was there as a police officer on what should have been a fairly routine drunk and disorderly call. And they didn’t shoot it out with a gang of dangerous and deadly desperados. Only one of the men they faced down, Billy Claiborne, qualified as any sort of gunfighter and that only by way of Claiborne’s own boasting and one barroom murder, and he ran for it before the shooting started. The others were a hot-headed young rancher with more pride than sense, a pair of teenage boys with too much to prove in their own eyes, and a drunken loudmouth and coward who conveniently had no gun on him and successfully begged for his life when Earp had him in his sights.
They would Frank McLaury, Tom McLaury and Billy Clanton, and Ike Clanton.
And they’d all had too much to drink.
They didn’t stand a chance.
Which everybody on both sides would have known going in.
The afternoon should have ended with the Clantons and the McLaurys being sent home to sleep it off. How it turned out to end in bullets and blood has a lot to do with local politics at the time.
Guinn doesn’t exactly argue that what happened in down a back street in Tombstone---it wasn’t actually fought in the corral, that was just the most well-known local landmark for the newspapers to point to when describing where it went down---was politics carried out by other means. He has set out to show that Wyatt Earp and his brothers and Doc Holliday were where they were, doing what they were doing that day and the Clantons and the McLaurys and Billy Claiborne were where they were, doing what they were doing, and everybody involved was in the moods they were in as a result of a series of events that grew out of local politics.
To put it briefly, if, among other things that might have happened in the political arena, Sheriff Johnny Behan hadn’t felt it politically expedient to break a promise he made to Wyatt and Earp had been appointed deputy sheriff as he felt he should have been, things probably would have worked themselves out differently.
At the center of The Last Gunfight is an extended comparison and contrast between the characters of Wyatt Earp and Johnny Behan. Behan’s at an unfair advantage in a competition for readers’ sympathy because it’s hard to see the real Wyatt Earp through the layers of superimposed images of James Garner and Hugh O’Brien and Burt Lancaster and Henry Fonda. Even so, when Guinn is able to strip away the myths and the legends so we meet Earp as he was, unsociable, mean-tempered, and not particularly devoted to any cause or principle except the main chance, Behan still comes out the worse. basically because of this. Behan was a born politician. Wyatt Earp wasn’t.
Earp came from a struggling middle class family of small farmers with vague ambitions of rising in the world by any means except farming. Wyatt Earp and his brothers---and there were several more besides Virgil and Morgan, the two who were with Wyatt outside the O.K..Corral---drifted around the West, sometimes separately, sometimes in pairs, trying their hands at this and that, usually to not much success. Wyatt routinely found work as a lawman and in Kansas he developed a reputation for being able to handle the cowboys who liked to celebrate the ends of cattle drives by getting drunk, getting into fights, getting into places that had no business getting into, and then reaching for a gun or a knife or a broken bottle when someone tried to tell them the fun was over. Earp was big, strong, brave, and ornery, and very convincing when he told someone it was time to break it up and go sleep it off.
He was almost always able to do this convincing without firing his own gun.
Other men he worked with and worked for, including Bat Masterson, admired him for his courage, toughness, and reliability. He was also relatively honest. Too honest for his own good sometimes.
It’s not clear why Earp never stuck with any of these jobs for long. As Guinn tells the story, it appears that a mixture of factors contributed to Earp’s developing a spotty resume as a lawman, a key one being that the jobs were political, that is, they were in one way or another patronage jobs, and Earp didn’t have a continuous streak of luck in choosing his patrons.
He also had a way of rubbing people he needed to like him the wrong way and of letting his temper get the better of him. And he was restless, in spirit and in his ambitions, small as they were. He seems to have had a habit of convincing himself that success was always over the next hill.
But early in his adult life he also developed a taste for running for office himself. He ran for and was elected to several minor positions over the course of time, all of them some form of policeman---town constable, deputy sheriff, and the like. He doesn’t seem to have been the type to have taken naturally to the glad-handing and back-slapping and public displays of good nature running for office requires, but either he was able to do what he needed to do despite his temperamental inclinations or his reputation or his connections carried the day for him, because he won often enough that by the time he landed in Tombstone in 1879, he was confident enough in his political skills to believe that this was it, his big opportunity. There were several offices he was suited for and he managed to obtain a couple of them, including deputy U.S. Marshal and, for a time, deputy sheriff. But the one he had his eye on, the one he coveted most, because it was the one that would raise him farthest and fastest on the social and economic ladders, was county sheriff.
Among their duties, sheriffs collected taxes and as part of their pay they got to keep a percentage of what they collected.
Seems, appears, possibly…these are words that occurred to me rather often in connection with Wyatt Earp as I was reading The Last Gunfight whenever Guinn is trying to give some insight into Earp’s thoughts and motives.
As a law officer, and also as a defendant, Earp did a lot of testifying in court over the years. Court records show him to have been intelligent, articulate, self-aware and reflective. But these records and some newspaper articles are about all the primary sources we have to draw on in trying to get to know the real Wyatt Earp. He wasn’t a letter-writer, he didn’t keep a journal, and if he was any sort of a conversationalist he didn’t do his conversing with anyone inclined to write down in detail what he said at the time or later. Towards the end of his life he decided to write his autobiography, but he didn’t chose the most talented of ghost writers and, because his point was to make money and Earp hoped to sell his story to the movies, he shaped it accordingly, which is to say he lied.
It’s worth remembering that movies were still silent at the time. So the emphasis was on Wyatt Earp as a man of action, defining himself through deeds of derring-do, a heroic and dashing figure constantly putting himself in danger in the line of duty and getting himself through it all with a cool head and a keen eye and quick draw.
The trouble with this was that Earp’s solid reputation as a lawman was based on his not having had to shoot it out with the bad guys in the line of duty. Except for what happened at the O.K. Corral, which was a mistake, and then what he may have done on his infamous Vendetta Ride, which was murder, almost the only times Marshal (or Deputy or Constable or Police Officer) Wyatt Earp drew his gun was to hit a drunk over the head with it.
In short, in order to sell himself as the fit subject for a movie, Earp pretty much had to make himself up.
The resulting autobiography, which was never published, was a badly written assortment of tall tales, exaggerations, idealizations and romanticizations, white lies, black lies, gray lies, and out and out whoppers intended to turn Wyatt Earp into the sort of heroic character who could be played by the cowboy star, and Earp’s friend, William S. Hart. It was not meant to be at all helpful to future historians intent on telling the true story of what happened in Tombstone in October of 1881.
What this means for scrupulous biographers like Guinn is that they have a subject about whose personality there is no reliable record. At the center of The Last Gunfight is a character who has no inner life, not one that can be known in depth or even plausibly inferred. Seen on his own, Wyatt Earp comes across as a man who didn’t do all that much and had less to say about it.
Johnny Behan is more knowable, at least as a type of young politician on the make. But he cheerfully made himself more of a public figure and so more people were paying attention to him. Guinn’s Wyatt Earp gets defined for us as not like Johnny Behan. So where Behan is outgoing and gregarious, Earp appears gloomy and taciturn. Where Behan is cheerful, good-humored, and fun-loving, a man who never entered a bar he wasn’t immediately at home in or was handed a drink he didn’t down in a gulp, Earp comes across as morose, irritable, and something of a prig---there was a period after his first wife died when he drank heavily, but he gave it up and was stone-cold sober all the rest of his life, and if he never actually ordered milk in a bar, he rarely ordered whisky for himself either or anything else more potent than water.
Behan enjoyed attention and he courted scandal. He was a compulsive philanderer with a penchant for seducing other men’s wives. Although this doesn’t appear to have ever gotten him in enough trouble with the husbands to put his life in danger, it did earn him a scandalous divorce, and threatened to derail his political career a couple of times. Somehow he managed to survive the scandals and bounce back. Which probably, possibly, likely, I’m guessing infuriated his political rivals like Wyatt Earp. But probably, possibly, more likely, I’d bet what made Earp madder was that Behan got himself elected and re-elected sheriff without being all that good at the job.
It wasn’t that he wasn’t out and out incompetent. But he wasn’t particularly tough and nowhere near as physically intimidating or resilient as Wyatt Earp and that meant he wasn’t the best man to break up a bar fight or, considering what a chase after outlaws through the bare mountains and desert plains of southeastern Arizona entailed, lead a posse. And he wasn’t quick to act, possibly because it took him some time to work up his courage, but also because he took too much time weighing the political consequences of any and every decision before making them, which contributed to what happened at the O.K. Corral.
Behan was was an opportunist. But Wyatt Earp could be as self-interested and self-serving. The big difference between the two is that when Earp was on the job, he was on the job. He thought that doing the job well was the point and he believed that if the right people saw him do the job they would recognize and reward his good work.
Behan understood that life didn’t work that way. Not a life in politics anyway. Behan knew that getting the right people to see him do the job and convincing them that he was doing it the way they wanted it done was part of doing the job.
At the end of the day, Earp expected to hear, “Good job, Wyatt.” Behan expected to hear it too but he knew that the proper reply wasn’t a laconic “Thanks, pard.” It was, “I couldn’t have done it without your help and advice, sir.”
He knew that the people who were glad to have you doing their bidding while you were doing it had a tendency to forget your existence when you were out of their sight so he learned never to be the first person to leave the room, so to speak. Earp didn’t even know which room to enter.
Apparently, seemingly, possibly, etc…
But that would go a long way towards explaining why Behan was sheriff and Earp wasn’t. And although for other reasons I’ll get to Sheriff Wyatt Earp might not have done a better job of defusing the situation that fateful day, it’s probable that had he been sheriff the situation wouldn’t have arisen.
To see how that would have come about you have to know that Behan was a Democrat, and Wyatt Earp was a Republican and understand that in Arizona Territory in the late 1870s and early 1880s, Democrats and Republicans stood for almost exactly the opposite of what they stand for today.
The Republican Party was still the party of business, but businessmen in Tombstone understood that in order for their businesses to succeed and thrive they needed some things that only a strong, centralized government could provide, law and order and infrastructure. Because Arizona was still a territory not a state, they looked to Washington for that government and consequently Republicans tended to see Arizona as a part of much larger whole. The Republicans were then the party of public works, civic improvement, and putting national as opposed to regional interests ahead of other political considerations.
The Democrats in Arizona were dominated by transplanted Southerners, many of them Texans. The Civil War was still raging in their heads and antipathy to the federal government, that is, to government by the Yankees in Washington, was reflexive. And many of them, because so many were Texans, were ranchers and cowboys or small business owners in small towns that depended on and served the ranches. Tombstone was a mining town, booming on silver. But it fed itself on beef. So the ranchers had their representatives among Tombstone’s elite, as well.
But here’s where the trouble really starts. Ranching was something of a semi-legitimate business. That part of Arizona was not the best cattle country, to put it mildly. Most of the ranches were small outfits, the ranchers unable to afford to maintain large herds or to buy cattle to restock their herds on the open market. Many of them, then, depended on rustling to keep themselves afloat. Some of them, like the Clantons, actively engaged in it. Most though, like the McLaurys, did business with rustlers while pretending not to know where the rustlers got the cattle they bought from them.
This meant that it was in a lot of Democrats’ interest to protect the rustlers. The movies have promoted the Clanton Gang as the bad guys in the story, but the actual Clantons were just a family of ne’er do wells who sometimes ranched and sometimes rustled. There was a gang of outlaws in the area, known as the Cowboys---at the time, the word didn’t have the more innocent and romantic connotations it soon came to have. When people talked about cowboys as “cowboys” it was something like people today talking about motorcyclists as “bikers.”---and Ike Clanton, at least, was friends with some of the Cowboys and sometimes rode with them. And many of the Cowboys did not limit their criminal activity to rustling. They liked to supplement their income by robbing stage coaches. But they felt protected by their Democratic rancher friends and felt free to come and go in Tombstone as they pleased. Which did not sit well with the Republican business owners and other solid citizens and their representatives in local law enforcement, including and especially Wyatt Earp.
As a good and trusty Republican representative of law and order, Earp despised the Cowboys and resented the Democrats who protected them. But it got personal. And while his quarrel was really with more notorious and dangerous Cowboys like Curly Bill Brocius and the truly deadly Johnny Ringo, Ike Clanton, by virtue of being a drunken idiot and shooting his mouth off too often while being in the wrong place at the wrong time, earned Earp’s especial enmity.
Earp wasn’t any too fond of the McLaurys either and they returned the favor.
A string of events caused the feelings of Wyatt and his brother Morgan and his best friend Doc Holliday to be running even more than usually high against Clanton and the McLaurys that day and the McLaurys to be feeling just as angry. And then Ike Clanton tied one on really good.
The McLaurys had had a few themselves.
Things were coming to a head, and it should have been up to Johnny Behan to take care of it. But as usual he was slow to act because he couldn’t make up his mind as to what action he should take would be most in his political interests. As a good and trusty Democrat, Behan didn’t feel he could take the side of the Earps against the McLaurys and the Cowboys. On the other hand, he was the sheriff and if he expected to continue in the job and then move up from it, it wouldn’t look good if he hid in his office all day.
Meanwhile, Virgil Earp, Wyatt’s older brother who was Tombstone’s chief of police, had his own political considerations to worry about. His instincts, which were usually sound, told him that the Clantons and the McLaurys were just blowing off steam and that if left alone they’d probably calm down and leave town on their own. But he was under pressure from town leaders, mainly Republicans, to do something.
What he would have liked to have done was nothing. What he knew would have been best to do, go down to the O.K. Corral with his two police officers to talk sense to Frank McLaury, he couldn’t do because both officers had been on night duty and were home sleeping and Virgil, under pressure from the people who were in essence his bosses, didn’t think he had time to send someone to wake them up. What he did, then, was probably the worst thing he could have done.
Not thinking it wise to confront the McLaurys and the Clantons all on his own, Virgil turned for back-up to the men he trusted best in potentially dangerous situations, his brothers Morgan and Wyatt.
Doc Holliday fell in with them, partly out of loyalty to Wyatt, probably mostly out of hatred for Ike Clanton who routinely threatened to kill him.
The rest is history…
The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral-And How It Changed the American West, by Jeff Guinn, published by Simon & Schuster, is available from Amazon in hardback and kindle editions.
Excerpt. Frank McLaury isn’t about to let anyone think he’s intimidated by Wyatt Earp.
Meanwhile, just a few yards away on Fourth Street, Wyatt Earp glared into Spangenberg’s through the store’s front window. After pistol-whipping tom McLaury, Wyatt had gone to Hafford’s Saloon on the corner of Fourth and allen, where he bought a cigar and stood smoking it. He watched Ike Clanton come down the street and go into the gun shop and then saw Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton join Ike there after they met and briefly spoke with Billy Claiborne, who Wyatt must have known had recently killed someone in Charleston. Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton were stuffing bullets into their gun belts. Wyatt could only assume that they were preparing to fight.
Frank led his hose by the reins as he and Billy walked along Fourth Street looking for Ike. When they went into Spangenberg’s Frank tethered his horse too close to the building. It clopped up onto the sidewalk and stuck its head into the door of the gun shop. That provided an excuse for Wyatt to intervene. He stalked over, grabbed the horse’s reins and began pulling the animal back onto the street. Frank and the Clanton brothers immediately came outside, and Frank yanked the reins from Wyatt. “You will have to get this horse off the sidewalk,” Wyatt told Frank, who tied the horse farther out on Fourth Street and then went back into Spangenberg’s without speaking a word. Wyatt was left to watch and seethe as the cowboys continued to put bullets into their gun belts. Wyatt was even more convinced that the cowboys wanted a showdown. As he recalled later, when they briefly left the shop while Wyatt was moving frank’s horse, Billy Clanton clearly “laid his hand on his six-shooter.”
The cowboys, Frank in particular, were just as suspicious of Wyatt. It hadn’t been necessary for him to barge in and order Frank to move his horse back onto the street. If he wasn’t trying to goad them into a battle, then he was pushing them around to impress onlookers. The town was still buzzing; everyone was watching the Earps and the cowboys to see what might happen next. Frank McLaury was an especially proud man, as he’d proven fifteen months earlier when Lieutenant Hurst accused him of stealing army mules. Frank cared what people thought about him---about his integrity, about his willingness to stand up for himself, his manhood. Frank still intended to find his brother Tom and take him home, but he couldn’t leave the impression in Tombstone that Wyatt Earp had scared him into scurrying out of town. Wyatt’s actions with the horse had been too public. Prickly Frank McLaury had to make it clear he wasn’t intimidated.
---from The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn.