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Reconsidering a Legend

Pimp? Gambler? Murderer? Jerk? Say what you will about storied lawman Wyatt Earp, but for the sake of his pop-culture fans, say it with a smile

November 13, 2005|Leo W. Banks

Big Nose Kate's saloon in Tombstone, Ariz., is the perfect place for a debate about Wyatt Earp. It has a long mahogany bar where perfumed women in low-cut dresses snuggle up to men in greatcoats and slant-heeled cowboy boots, and the piped-in music sounds as if it came straight from "My Darling Clementine," John Ford's 1946 movie about the legendary lawman. Faux gunfire sounds in the street outside, where re-enactors brandish hog-leg pistols to entertain the tourists.

Inside, Terry Clanton, a distant cousin of Earp nemesis Ike Clanton, is complaining that history remembers his kin as a moldy scoundrel and coward, but paints a romantic picture of Earp--and a seriously wrongheaded one, in Clanton's mind--as a white knight, a savior of men, women and the decent way of life.

"People are so into Earp it's almost at the cult stage," says Clanton, animated beneath his cowboy hat--which is black, of course. "He's like Superman or Spider-Man to them, and you can't talk bad about him. Nobody wants their hero knocked down."

Earp died in 1929 at age 80 in a bungalow in Los Angeles. He had spent his last few years making friends in Hollywood, and that guaranteed that the first draft of his story, at least, would be told his way. And sure enough, his name and reputation have grown far beyond anything he accomplished in life.

Brad Pitt is in Canada making a movie about Jesse James, and when it comes out James will, no doubt, be the Old West celebrity of the moment. But he won't last. Wyatt Earp won't be knocked off the throne built since his death by a steady stream of books, magazine articles, cable TV specials and now a stage play performed by a retired Arizona insurance agent named Wyatt Earp, a great-grandnephew of Earp's half-brother Newton, who averages one show a week in various venues and has performed in England, Ireland and Hungary.

To this day, Earp groupies leave gifts of poker chips and bullets on his grave at Hills of Eternity Memorial Park in Colma, Calif., and general manager Judy Edmonson says that so many bullets litter the grass that groundskeepers hunt for them before mowing, fearing lawnmowers might set them off. When True West magazine puts Earp on its cover, "sales go up," says Bob Boze Bell, the magazine's executive editor. "Earp's our Michael Jordan."

Which brings us back to Terry Clanton and his complaints in Big Nose Kate's. Does Wyatt Earp deserve this exalted status?

Clanton aside, many experts will tell you no, not even close. Neil Carmony, the editor or author of 15 Western history books, notes that scholars have written histories of Arizona territory and find Earp of so little interest that they mention him only in passing. It's not the scholars, though, that are keeping all the shiny memories alive.

"We've romanticized the frontier," says Carmony. "We like stories of good and evil and we like heroes, but most heroic stories have no foundation in fact. It's all folklore. I suppose somebody had to bubble to the top of all this interest."

In recent years, unknown particulars about Earp's life have come to light, not all of them flattering. This business of digging up tidbits, positive or negative, has a name: Earpiana. And you'd figure that Earpiana would give Clanton and his kind some hope, figuring as they do that the truth will set everyone free.

But after True West in 2003 published stories on evidence that Earp had been a pimp during his early years in Peoria, Bell recalls, his defenders flooded Internet chat rooms with denunciations of the allegations. Don't ever doubt the passion that Earpiana fans have for Wyatt who, prior to Tombstone, lived a life no more spectacular than did other men of his day.

He was well-built and blond and hailed from Illinois, which he left to make a living hunting buffalo and freighting supplies across dangerous territory in California and Arizona. He also worked as a lawman; his first such job was in Lamar, Mo., in 1870, when he was almost 22.

He later moved to the wild Kansas cow towns of Wichita and Dodge City and earned a reputation as a master intimidator with an uncanny ability to control men. He could walk into a roiling crowd of drunken cowboys, finger the instigator and literally slap him into submission. He sometimes cracked his revolver over the troublemaker's head, a practice known as "buffaloing."

Good as he was, other Western lawman did just as much, and for longer periods. Earp spent far more time gambling (in 1911 he was busted at a crooked faro game in L.A., giving police a phony name) than he did cracking skulls. All told, he wore a badge for just a few years.

But Earp's resume had something that others didn't: the Oct. 26, 1881, O.K. Corral gunfight, probably the most famous 30 seconds of blood and noise in U.S. history.

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