The Wyatt Earp everyone knew has gone away. More than once. Perhaps no figure in American history has endured such an odd ride through fame. He has been portrayed as a magnificent hero and a lowly villain; a glory-seeking braggart and humble introvert avoiding the spotlight.
Writers have created and debunked mythical Wyatt Earps, time after time. It is only in the last couple of decades that we are growing to understand Earp himself and the many controversies of his life.
This is part of what makes Earp and his adventures so enduring—he is a mass of contradictions amid a stew of controversy. Since those gunshots went off in the street outside the O.K. Corral, the debate has raged whether he was a murderer or a brave lawman saving his town from outlaws.
In his own time, as early as 1888, newspaper articles around the nation portrayed Earp as both a hero and a villain, telling exaggerated tales or lapsing into total fantasy. The contradictory legacy would continue into the 20th century, when two major books swept the nation telling of a heroic Earp that rode against injustice. Walter Noble Burns, in his 1928 Tombstone: An Iliad of the Southwest, and Stuart Lake, in his 1931 Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, both created the Earp of legend: a valiant law officer saving the citizenry from an onslaught of outlaws. The books spawned a series of movies, and the movies built a legend.
Then came that TV series, telling American children the remarkable—and supposedly true—story of an unparalleled lawman who shot to wound, not to kill. The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp elevated him to a standard beyond reality. Even the lyrics to the theme song made him grand beyond belief: “The West it was lawless, but one man was flawless,” the ballad flowed from the TV screen into the ears of the children of America. There were those who adamantly believed this was pure bunk.
Earps of the Imagination
Burns, Lake, and the films were the glorifiers. They would be followed by the debunkers, the likes of Frank Waters and Ed Bartholomew, who portrayed Earp as the villainous head of a crime operation. The debunkers would be followed by the fabulists, a group of writers who fabricated stories for fun and profit. Glenn Boyer and Wayne Montgomery would be most notable among the throng.
Together, the three groups created Earps of the imagination. Readers could find any Wyatt Earp they desired, then passionately defend their beliefs by pointing to their sources.
A new era of Earp/Tombstone research began toward the end of the 20th century as researchers began seeking real sources rather than following legends. Jack Burrows’s 1986 John Ringo: The Gunfighter Who Never Was stripped apart the Ringo legend and began a series of articles and books based on evidence rather than yarns.
Before any real understanding of Earp and his situations could come about, the credibility of past writers had to be assessed. That became a serious project for Gary Roberts, Jeff Morey, Roger Peterson, Burrows, and myself during the work done on my book, Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend. By this time, Burns and Lake had fallen into disrepute by researchers who had torn past the veneer and realized that many of the tales were highly exaggerated and inaccurate. That had been the role of the debunkers.
As I worked on my book, it became increasingly clear that the writings of Glenn Boyer, then the reigning authority in Earp research, were highly problematic. Further developments proved that many of his assertions were entirely false.
Investigation continued when Jeff Wheat and S.J. Reidhead located documents from debunker Frank Waters that demonstrated that he, too, had fabricated much of the material that he put forward as fact in his 1960 book The Earp Brothers of Tombstone.
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