Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of The Shootout at the OK Corral and How It Changed the American West

Genre: History
Author:Jeff Guinn (2011)
There are at least three events that almost all modern Americans of my generation are familiar with in the history of the frontier West, in part thanks to history but in the main thanks to movies and television and to books like this one .

The first is the siege and the defeat of Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and about 200 "Texicans" at the hands of overwhelming odds from Santa Anna's Mexican Army at the Alamo in 1836. Roughly forty years later, there came the total defeat of General George Custer's main force of cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn by a combined army of Lakota and Comanche warriors in present day eastern Montana. These were battles by any description--they changed at least for a time the course of history.

The last and most controversial event always seemed inflated beyond measure. But this book explains why what is popularly known as the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral became a part of frontier lore.

It directly involved only eight or nine men. It took an estimated thirty seconds to unfold. Thirty bullets were exchanged. Three men died. Three suffered serious wounds. One man was grazed by a bullet but not seriously incapacitated.

And one man--a rough-hewn gambler and former deputy sheriff turned deputized U.S. marshall, Wyatt Earp, walked away unscathed and became, along with "Will Bill" Hickok and "Bat" Masterson, one of a handful of men who were to become the most famous lawmen of the frontier.

The writer, Jeff Guinn, a Texan who has already written a well-received book on Depression Era bank bandits Bonnie and Clyde ("Go Down Together") tries as other historians have since the 1920's, to separate fact and fiction for the reader to try and get a grip on why this one event gained so much publicity at the time and why it became an incident that has fascinated screenwriters, writers of fiction and non-fiction in general and the public ever since.

He does a good job I'd say in laying out the forces, economic and political and personal, that brought these disparate men together on that afternoon.

The idea of this one shoot-out "changing the West" is publishing hype, of course. But it should be noted this was an incident that at the time captured interest all over the territory, the Rocky Mountain states, and the big West Coast newspapers. And the subsequent trials for murder and later the vendetta killings carried out by the Earp Brothers and the Clanton/McLaury families became nationwide stories.

Mr. Guinn does succeed in telling readers why Tombstone (now a tourist den where they reenact the events in an area called "Old Tombstone" ) is a good microcosm to examine the forces of late frontier Westward Expansion.

Tombstone, Arizona, in the southeast corner of the territory was a thriving silver-mining and gambling boom-town in the Arizona Territory that had only come into being three years before the incident at the vacant lot took place. It had already attracted a telegraph station, sewer lines, a regular stagecoach run, two thriving daily newspapers--one serving the Democrats (aimed more to those who had come to Arizona from the former Confederate states) and the other for the Union-minded Republican factions that were the most well-heeled in terms of banking, mining, gambling and prostitution (the latter was legal if the "house of ill-fame" paid taxes to the city.) There was a lot of money to be made in law enforcement there since whomever held the offices of sheriff collected taxes for all of Cochise County--keeping at least ten percent as commission-- and whoever was in charge of Tombstone city police also got a rake-off. In addition there was the office of US Marshall, a post held generally by whoever was appointed by the Territorial governor up in Prescott, a couple hundred miles away. The federal salary was supplemented by the chance to get money from Wells Fargo, a massive corporate-style freight company which had no trouble rewarding good lawmen who brought in stagecoach robbers since the company made a point to make good on any losses from robbery.

It was quite possible to make a large fortune in a very short time in and around Tombstone if you could keep the cattle rustlers in line and collect the taxes on ranches and businesses without much fuss and bother to those who held the big purse-strings. This was a place where lawmen could make the equivalent of 20-30 thousand dollars a year, roughly $400,000 dollars annually in modern terms according to Guinn.

So enter to Tombstone around 1879 the brothers Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt Earp to the new boom-town. They were followed by a dentist-turned-gambler named John Henry "Doc" Holliday, a Georgia-born tubercular patient with a fatalist outlook on life. Wyatt and Doc had been friends and fellow gamblers back when Earp had been in a spot of trouble while gambling in a Texas town and Holliday had come to his defense against strong odds. By all accounts Holliday was usually comfortable around trouble. He would have been a good friends for the Earps to have in Tombstone which was why Wyatt wrote to him to come down there when he and three of his brothers came there.
Earp later worked as a deputy marshall in the Kansas cattle towns of Wichita and Dodge City. Earp's main job was to keep the "drovers" in line--drovers were cattle-wranglers who brought Texas longhorns driven up from that state to the railroad lines that furnished beef for the cities back East.

Wyatt Earp had honed his skills at "buffaloing" rowdies and pistol-whipping drunken hot-heads while serving as a bouncer in a bordello or two in Illinois (his birth state) and also running (and protecting) the card gaming that typically went on in places like Dodge City where there were men with new money in their pockets and the foolish desire to gamble with card sharps like Earp and Holliday.

All these towns , including Tombstone, had serious gun-control laws by the way. If you went to an area of saloons and gambling clubs, et al, the authorities took your gun and you got it back when you left town. Similar laws were enforced in Tombstone in 1881. The fact that some men were allowed to have guns in town with permits and other, like the "cow-boys", couldn't get those permits usually made for more bad blood between the factions.

"Few frontier lawmen had clean records," Guinn records. "The idea was that men who had broken laws themselves would understand best how to prevent others from doing the same."

A short entry from Wikipedia sums up Wyatt Earp's past: "Earp left Dodge City in 1879, and with his brothers James and Virgil, moved to Tombstone, Arizona. The Earps bought an interest in the Vizina mine and some water rights. There, the Earps clashed with a loose federation of outlaw Cowboys. Wyatt, Virgil, and their younger brother Morgan held various law enforcement positions that put them in conflict with Tom and Frank McLaury, and Ike and Billy Clanton, who threatened to kill the Earps. The conflict escalated over the next year, culminating on October 26, 1881 in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, during which the Earps and Holliday killed three of the Cowboys. In the next five months, Virgil was ambushed and maimed and Morgan was assassinated. Wyatt, his brother Warren, Holliday, and others pursued the Cowboys they thought responsible in a vendetta.

"After leaving Tombstone, Earp continually invested in various mining interests and saloons. He and his third wife, in their later years, moved between Los Angeles and the Mojave Desert, where the town of Earp, California was named after him. Although his brother Virgil had far more experience as a sheriff, constable, and marshal,[1] because Wyatt outlived Virgil, and due to a largely fictionalized biography by Stuart Lake that made Wyatt famous, he has been the subject of and model for a large number of films, TV shows, biographies and works of fiction.":

Indeed in my opinion the best lawman among the Earps was Virgil Earp. He had the best "people skills" and likely had a cooler head when dealing with potential opponents. He had had been crippled in a sneak attack shortly after the famous gunfight and lost part of his arm. His life was more sedate after that, while Wyatt still pursued fame. Late in life, Wyatt became (as the last living man at the famous shoot-out) a minor celebrity. He moved to Los Angeles more or less permanently in the 1920s with his wife and made friends with Hollywood western actors like Tom Mix and William S. Hart. He also was a friend of a young director of Westerns named John Ford, who introduced him to a young prop-man in the Ford company named Marion Morrison, soon to be known as John Wayne.

In his last years, Earp, who died in January of 1929, age 80, tried to capitalize on a renewed interest in the Old West. He hoped that William S. Hart would play him in a film, but it never happened. Earp did find his main biographer, Stuart Lake, and hoped to tell his side of the story about life in Tombstone almost a half-century later. As it was, Wyatt died before the success of the Lake book and the beginnings of the legend of him through "the silver screen" career came about. At least a dozen famous actors--including Henry Fonda to James Garner to Kurt Russell to Burt Lancaster and Kevin Costner have played Wyatt Earp or, in the case of Errol Flynn and Randolph Scott, played men inspired by his exploits, however close to the truth they really were.

"The Last Gunfight" is a very interesting book for those interested in Western lore, history and how it all reflects American culture today.


  1. From what I've read this is a pretty accurate depiction of the gunfight itself, at least for the first two minutes.

    From the 1993 film, "Tombstone", featuring Sam Elliott as Virgil Earp, Kurt Russell as Wyatt and a bravura performance by Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday (the one with the shotgun).

  2. wow I can almost smell the horse sweat and gun smoke Doug lol but in reality it was these events in western towns
    at that time which brought about a primitive form of "gun control" and many people would be amazed to learn that most of these town became "dry" no booze. lol

  3. "Tombstone" is one of the best Westerns of recent vintage, Rosie. :-)

  4. Yes, the ways Westerns have evolved in showing both violence and a gritty realism have certainly evolved Mike.

    Quite true I'll bet, Mike. I know "temperance" was a big issue in those days in many states.

    From the book I've read, the town of Tombstone wasn't in fear of going "dry". At least not in the 1880's. There was so much money in that town that they imported champagne with other high-priced other drinks in the swank hotels.

  5. so true Doug many of these men were so feared back then that they were shot from behind or ambushed so they were no doubt dangerous even by standards of the time..examples are John W Harding, Jessie James and Billy The Kid.

  6. These names are famous all over the world but, as with any legends (apart from the Spartans at Thermopyle) the truth is always smaller than the tale. King Arthur (Arthur, mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) fought an important strategic battle at Bath, Avon which offset Scando-Germanic invasions for about three decades. It would have been a large battle (A few thousand involved) and he was clearly a military person of note, but the Medievalised nonsense that grew from what was probably only a suprisingly decent win is a good example of how simple folk get caught up in things and become new gods.

    Wyatt Erp seems one such fellow on the basis of your writing here, Ron. And we all know what a poser G.A. Custer was. There was a man who understood the concept of celebrity over integrity. There was a truly modern Western man. (Western meaning "The West" in global terms). For more than a century he was an American hero. A man who used cannon against unarmed women and children. A man who, through his massive arrogance led his own troops to their deaths, a man who would probably have become President had he not died at Little Big Horn, such was his talent for manipulation and his appetite for personal glory.

    The legends of the Wild West are absolutely fascinating. And I think that you have picked the three biggest stories out. OK Butch Cassidy and Sundance, Kid Curry and the Hole in The Wall Gang, Billy the Kid and The Jameses are super-legendary too, but there seems a little more to work with re the Alamo and Big Horn, which were politically significant events, rather than mere local spats. And the OK Coral was perhaps the epitome of "good" verses "evil" in a gun-slingin' sense, which is, I feel, why it has illicited those fine Hollywood films that you have also mentioned.

  7. John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper set a real standard there!

    Though I really enjoyed Yul (Not a bit American seeming) Brynner and the Magnificent Seven as well as Jeff Briges recent portrayal of Rooster Cogburn. And there was always the earnest and decent Jimmy Stewart taking on the likes of that total rotter Lee Marvin, when he was a mite short on a wagon or two to paint.

    And how good was that spaghetti-raddled Clint Eastwood. Sure seems like the West had a whole heap of grit.

  8. I don't have sound right now but I am sure I have seen this one Doug. I shall be back when I have sound. The one thing is that there are not that many westerns made these days. You would think that there is a niche for it.

  9. Yes, its been pointed out by historians and writers like the famous Louis Lamour and others that the number of gunfights with mewn facing each other in the streets was pretty rare compared to what was depicted in Westerns later on today. The interest

    I'm not sure how much modern crime rates compare with the surviving western urban hubs of today.

    What wasn't so unusual were these gunslingers you mention --and the animosity they felt toward lawmen and the lawmen or their other enemies willingness to ambush them for vengence or reward or both.

  10. Yes, Arthurian legend is a great example Oakie. The story was expanded, shall we say, by Thomas Malory and others. One of the first popular revisionist books about Tombstone, published in in the 1920's, was titled "Tombstone: An American IIiad". Another was "Helldorado!" The myths about men like Kit Carson and HIckok were being written iin their own lifetimes and some, like Bat Masterson, was both a famous lawman and, as a magazine and newspaper writer in his own age, a sinner of a heroic past that was far more sordid than the readers of the time cared to know.

    These were brave men, but they were indeed the same size as many of the other men around them.

    George Custer and his military career on the Americans plains in the "Indian Wars" I think here is another man whom historicans have taken apart trying to seperate myth from facts. Overall, the weight of historical records stands against Custer for his treatment of the native peoples, but he was little different in his attitudes from most Eurppean Americans on the frontier, especially those who wanted the Indian land for gold mining or ranching.

    The "OK Corral" story fit into a frame of good veersus bad through many films. This started to change in the 1960's as audiences---at the time of the Vietnam War--became more willing to see a Western genre film with a more nuanced approach. Some of what people call "revisionism" is part of going back and looking for as many "facts" and reasonable surmises as the records can show us---instead of making the legend surmount the real story. But there will always be some dramatic license involved which is fine if we have honest historians.

  11. True, the standards of the sound-era Western were set by actors who could play larger-than-life roles. They had to endow their characterizations with the stuff of myth. Personally it's hard for me not to think of Wyatt Earp and see Henry Fonda as he played him in "My Darling Clementine". There was an actor who could hold the screen in the quiet moments of that film as well.

    All the other actors you mentioned are also favorites of mine. "The Man Who Shot Libert Valence" with Wayne, Stewart and Lee Marvin is probably the best unadorned Western ever made in my opinion. And Eastwood and Sergio Leone reinvented the Western.

    And, as you intimate, the film of "Paint Your Wagon" (1970) was no-one's finest hour. I can't think of a musical Western that didn't flop at the box office. :-)

  12. You would think there would be more Westerns, Jack, I agree. It seems the one film genre impossible to imagine without the history of North American expansion.

  13. I have Thomas Malory's account. I think it was largely based upon Simon De Monfort's tabloid version of the legend.
    It was the latter who francofied the story, adding Lancelow, Camelow and a number of other Medieval-based Frenchies who would have had nothing at all to do with Romano-British realities. It's a bit like having the folks at the Alamo shouting "Yo, Mexican Dudes, attacking us is so lame!".

    Hehe! Yes, men the same size. Like Napoleon, who was average height but the British media always portrayed him as a tich to demean him. Thus he has been consistently presented as smaller.

    Yes, it does seem like a common attitude amongst the white settlers was "get the hell out off our land, injuns!"
    (Reminds me of that classic comment by Homer Simpson when pleasantly arriving at a Native American casino - "You people are guests in our country".)
    But Custer was always prepared to do his own thing with a pretty brutal initiative.

    I do think that it is so important to leave the legends and arrive at the truth. The history of the West just becomes more and more interesting the more that we put the flesh on the bones and make real people out of the false spirits of the American yesteryear.

  14. Yes, super actor Fonda, not least when he played the anti-hero.

    Liberty Valence really does have it all.

    How did Oklahoma do at the box office?

    I think that Spencer Tracy's "Bad Day at Black Rock" had all the elements of an intense Western despite it's modern setting.

  15. I've not read the Malory book in its original form, but I'm familiar with the Holy Grail stories through English translations from Chrietian de Troyes. Also the American Nobel Laureate, John Steinbeck, wrote an account of Malory's Arthurian tales. Malory's stories were a major influence on all of Steinbeck's writings, according to biographers.

    It makes sense that the influence of European medieval romances would find their way to the American West. The American West was such a place of imagination for so many. Both Adolph Hitler and Dwight Eisenhower were fans of Westerns novels when they were younger; a case that shows the gamut of their popularity.

    I read in an earlier book that Wyatt Earp was a keen fan of Western movies in his old age. When he could , he would try and see three or four a day while riding to theaters on streetcars around Los Angeles. Would have been interesting had he become a film critic. ;-)

    Yes the phrase "Indian removal" was quite popular in those days. Sometimes, Custer's 7th Cavalry aside, sometimes it was the regular Army that tried to step in to stop the settlers or local National Guard from attacking the Indians. Other native peoples like the Apaches under Geronimo gave as good as they got.

    I'm all for driving out "false spirits" as you say when it comes to US history.

  16. Fonda was a great actor. You can tell this in part because no actor iin films at least has replaced him in modern movies.

    I'm glad you mentioned "Oklahoma" because I checked that and indeed it did do reasonably well as a movie. The exception that proves the rule to musical Westerns. Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" (1974) has a few songs in it as well, but I prefer to think of that as satire.

    Re: Your previous comment: Yes, Homer Simpson at an Native American casino is rich fodder. Homer can always be counted on to bring shame on all of us stuck in the mainstream over here. : -)

    I agree "Bad Day at Black Rock" is a very good example of a modern Western. An incredible cast! All those great male character actors around Spencer Tracy and the lovely Anne Francis to boot!

    I saw it again not too long ago and was pleased to see it holds up as not only a 1950's Western. It's almost a kind of Kurosawa/Mifuni Samurai film as well. The director (John Sturges) may have been influenced by such films.

  17. I quite liked the "musical" Calamity Jane" as well.
    Good old Homer. America's inadvertant Oscar Wilde.
    Spencer Tracy was an excellent actor. Loved him in "Inherit the Wind" as well. Yes, I can see the Samuraii in "Bad Day ...." as well. An outnumbered hero prepared to face his own destruction for what he belives in.

  18. I haven't seen that one.

    Yes, Homer is the face of America for many.

    Exactly. Many of the best American action films about rooting for the individual against the odds. It's a cultural trait that reflects the positive and negative aspects of a self-centered society.

  19. The Brits believe that we always root for the underdog. The ordinary American has historically been the underdog from day one. Maybe that's one reason why our respective film industries are so similar. Not just a common language, but also the recognition of the common goal of survival against those odds. I'm sure that at the time of the War of Independance a great many Britons would have been sympathetic towards the similar folk in the New World as they came from a common background and a common underdog situation.

  20. Jeff Guinn, a Texan who has already written a well-received book on Depression Era bank bandits Bonnie and Clyde ("Go Down Together")

    I have a distant relative who was a Joplin, MO police detective. He was wounded in the shoot-out with Bonnie and Clyde and carried a bullet in his head from the incident for the remainder of his life. He remained a detective with the Joplin PD till he retired.

  21. I totally agree Oakie. We were a country that never should have been "born" when we did. The odds were stacked against us. That is part ofthe reason i think many find it difficult to understand why people in other nations can view us as an agressor rather than as a liberator in places like Vietnam and southwest Asia.

    Just as I think most decent Americans responded to and respected the British peoples' stance against Nazi agression in the long days and nights of 1940-41.

  22. Wow, that is an amazing wound to survive!

    He must have been an interesting person--quite a few famous robbers seem to roam the Middle West in those days.

    The number of police who died in the last part of Bonnie and Clyde's "career'" made it all the less likely they would ever have been taken alive.

  23. Violence, corruption, murder, gambling, prostitution, gunlaw...and this was how the West was won. It seems to me that what we have today is the logical conclusion of a lawless continent built upon genocide, greed and gangsterism....its hard to see how it could have ever turned out well Doug. Most of the heroes of the wild west, the role models and silver screen legends were criminals and madmen of one sort or another.
    The American Dream and Manifest Destiny are glorifications of unregulated capitalism and the free reign of the Robber Barons who created the military industrial complex and corporate plutocracy that is raping and gunning down the entire planet today.

    The literati seem to be the New World's only saving grace Doug, it's a bleak picture when viewed from afar, or so it seems to me anyway.

  24. I agree with your observations, AA, as do many outstanding historians like Howard Zinn. The "white-washing" of some of the outlaws of the past and the over-lauding of men like Wyatt Earp is one of the key features of Westward expansion. Everybody who went West, as the author Mr. Guinn points out, was in a state of "becoming" something bigger than they were back home. It drew the most base characters and post-Civil War frontier life itself made for a heady social Darwinian landscape that often brought out the most negative aspects of human behavior, particularly in the male character.

    There were some better men than others , too. Virgil Earp I would argue was basically a decent man, one who might have been a decent police officer in an another time and place.

    But brother Wyatt and many others of greater fame were essentially gamblers and little better than the men they pursued. (I suspect if Wyatt Earp had lived in England he would have been a shady card dealer, "cathouse" bouncer or a "bookie" in the demimonde of London or Birmingham, something that the author here impllies as well.) Wyatt was not a lawman at heart in other words.

    Thing is, decent men either stayed home or if they ventured out West they stuck to their learned trades and therefore just didn't get into the kind of get-rich skulduggery that later captured the imagination of the eager readers of Western pulp novels back East.

    The "dude" readers back east and in Europe wanted heroes or desperadoes to enliven their own more pedestrian lives and men like Wyatt Earp traded in on an over-inflated legend for most of his later life, trying to play down the real details of his more vigilante-style killings after the famous gunfight. He also wanted to leave out that he nearly stood trail for murder and was only saved by a Repubican governor in Colorado in 1883 from being sent back to Arizona Territory to face his accusers.

    Frontier America makes for an interesting history, but very often a bleak one, of that there is no doubt.