True West
Erroneous Ellsworth Image Credit: True West
Erroneous Ellsworth Image Credit: True West

Erroneous Ellsworth

LETTERS HELP PROVE THAT THE WYATT EARP-BEN THOMPSON SHOWDOWN IS A TALL TALE.

Kim Allen Scott

Among the many questionable incidents people often repeat about Wyatt Earp’s life story, few reveal the duplicity of his biographer as much as the tale of Wyatt’s 1873 showdown with Ben Thompson in Ellsworth, Kansas. Letters between Stuart N. Lake and a Hollywood producer show the legend makers of print and fi lm collaborating to create a fi ctional character who both men insisted matched the real man.

The Ellsworth Incident

Stuart N. Lake first told the story of the Ellsworth incident in a 1930 Saturday Evening Post article. A wandering buffalo hunter searching for opportunities in the cattle business, Wyatt landed in Ellsworth on August 18, 1873, where he responded to a dangerous standoff after the killing of Sheriff Chauncey B. Whitney. Bill Thompson had shot Whitney and was allowed to ride out of town, while his brother Ben held off any pursuers with a shotgun. The remaining Ellsworth peace officers were too cowed to challenge Ben until Wyatt volunteered to arrest him, with the aid of two borrowed sixshooters and a sheriff’s badge. Striding fearlessly across the street, Wyatt ignored the “hundred or more half drunken cowboys” who backed Ben and intimidated Ben into surrendering. When offered a permanent position on the police force by the mayor, Wyatt contemptuously refused due to the court’s release of Ben on a $25 fine.

The problem with this story is that it has not been proven. The only


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