And Die in the West

My mini-series on books about the Old West continues.

And more gunfighters this time in a book about the most famous gunfight in the history of the West. It was largely forgotten, as Wyatt Earp was, until Stuart Lake’s hagiography of him in 1931.

I left it out of my review, but Marks addresses the contention that the Earps and Doc Holiday may have been part-time stagecoach robbers.

As for the inevitable movie question — which cinema version of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral hews closest to history? — I have hardly seen them all, but Tombstone, in its depiction of the gunfight and the surrounding history, is fairly accurate. It even shows Wyatt Earp’s favorite tactic of “buffaloing” and pistol whipping troublemakers.

Raw Feed (1991): And Die in the West: The Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight, Paula Mitchell Marks, 1989.And Die in the West

This book is so interesting because it scrapes off myth and fading memories and wishful thinking about the legendary event and goes straight to the primary source documents: court statements and newspaper accounts. As far as I know, Marks’ work is still considered the definitive history.

It’s hard to tell what happened October 26, 1881 in the vacant lot between Fly’s Boarding House and Harwood’s house.

There are many different versions.

I don’t think the Earps went to kill the McLaurey’s and Clantons. Ike Clanton’s story that the Earps were gunning for him isn’t backed up by the attention paid to killing Billy Clanton and Frank McLaurey and not Ike. I think Doc Holliday or Morgan Earp, both impetous and not as worried about their law enforcement futures as Virgil or Wyatt, opened fire first, or it very probably was an accidental shooting triggered by the unarmed Tom McLaurey opening his coat.

Virgil seems to have been too calm and even-handed to have delibrately set out to kill the Clantons and McLaureys. Wyatt seems unlikely to have done so either. He seems to have preferred pistol whipping and slapping (things that show up again and again in his various jobs as law officer) to outright shooting, and his remark that shooting the cowboys wasn’t worth any money to him is revealing and truthful. There seems no denying, though, that Wyatt genuinely provoked Ike Clanton and Tom McLaurey — who didn’t take the bait — the morning of the fight. Perhaps he was just very angry at the threats Ike made against his friend Doc Holliday and brother Virgil.

Marks’ narrative shows there may be truth behind those Western cliches of factional fighting. But here the truth is much more complicated than any movie or novel. The conflict was more than just between cowboys and townsmen. It was also between political parties, economic interests, gamblers and cowboys and, ultimately, between those with different attitudes on private justice. It existed even between Tombstone law enforcers, the Earps, and Pima County Sherriff Behan. Rustlers like the cowboys the Earp brothers fought had an ambiguous relationship with the ranchers who supported them: part friendship, part extortion.

I was amazed at the bloodbath unleashed by the gunfight: the Stilwell and Morgan shootings and John Ringo’s mysterious death and the unknown fate of Curly Bill Brocius who may have been killed by Wyatt.

The fate of all concerned was interesting and strange in a way only reality can be. Wyatt’s last years were both pathetic, in the rewriting of his past, and annoying.


More reviews of Old West history exist.

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