Good Cops, Bad Cops –Exposing the Wyatt Earp Myth

by Jesse Wolf Hardin on August 3rd, 2015
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Good Cops, Bad Cops

Exposing the Real Wyatt Earp: “The Fighting Pimp”

(OK – we’ll ask him to keep on his britches!)

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

As a naturalist, ecophilosopher, and booster of folk herbalism, I have many readers who are perplexed about my simultaneous interest in history with all its militarism and violence, treachery and injustice… and I say, not only because it is a fascinating collection of dramatic and consequential tales, but because of what we can learn in the process about ourselves, our culture, government, and popular icons.

Lawmen of the Old West Unmasked banner-72dpi 

Part I: Police Shootings, Unworthy Heroes, & Honorable Peacekeepers

In these days when the news is filled with reports of police shooting unarmed citizens, it seems important to remember that not all cops are bad.  Nor, as we are becoming more and more aware, are they all good like we may have been told when we are kids.  I have been beaten by police for no reason at environmental demonstrations, and had them bear false witness against me, and yet the rural county where we live has had a number of honorable sheriffs that we could trust to respect the people as well as do all in their power to protect us.  It was the same back in the days of the “Old West,” with there being many seldom remembered lawmen who bravely and honestly stoop up for the common folks, alongside a number of badge wearers who used their power to literally “get away with murder.”  It seems crucial that we measure every lawman as an individual, regardless of the fairness of our established laws… and that we take great care as to who we claim as our cultural heroes!

It is kind of crazy to imagine things ever are or were as simple as “good” and “bad,” white hat and black.  Western lawmen were human beings like the rest of us, making hard choices in difficult situations and fast changing times. Whether we respect their choices or not, we have to sympathize considering all they faced and dealt with.  Whether known as sheriff, marshall, deputy, ranger, policeman or peace officer, those who wore a badge found themselves caught between the demands of a city council or state government and the practical realities of hard-bitten frontier towns where freedom and opportunism were both worshipped and defended.  Many received no pay other than a percentage of any money that those they arrested might be fined, contributing to the most honest officers having to moonlight at a second job, and others to turn to protection rackets or other crimes.  Those who received salaries, usually made less than the not only the saloon-keepers but even the saloon sweepers, a monthly wage no better than that of the cowpunchers they rode herd on come Friday and Saturday nights.  Their work could best be described as weeks of boring tasks, punctuated by moments of high drama and sometimes deadly confrontation.  For these reasons and more, very few of even the most famous lawmen actually spent that many years wearing the star.  While some like famed Jeff (Jefferson Davis) Milton could boast of lifelong lawman careers, they were the exceptions.  Wild Bill Hickok, for example, served only a few stints between less officious gunslinging, while our subject, Wyatt Earp, worked only as a policeman in a couple of Kansas towns and for less than 3 years, other than being temporarily deputized by his brother Virgil in time for the O.K. Corral gunfight.

Wyatt Earp as we like to think of him – and as he may have looked during his time in Tombstone

Wyatt Earp as we like to think of him – and as he may have looked during his time in Tombstone

It is the image of Wyatt Earp and the O.K. Corral gunfight – or more accurately, the fight in a back alley near the O.K. Corral – that defines the western lawman for most people today, as popularized by early sensationalist dime novel biographer Stuart Lake, featured in dozens of books in the years since, and burned into our memory thanks in part to the highly inaccurate movie Wyatt Earp and more so due to the powerfully acted but also fictionalized film Tombstone.  We are comforted in this case, by the notion of a brace of officers standing up for law and order and protecting the innocents with an air knight-like nobility and fitting panache, unintentionally setting off a firefight with their well meaning enforcement of sensible gun control laws.  Less comforting is the reality of two contending politicized factions of part time criminals and full time hustlers vying for control of the town of Tombstone, using an unpopular and seldom enforced ordinance against carrying guns as the excuse to confront a handful of cowboys who were already saddling up their horses and on their way out of town.  There is something creepy about the Marshall pinning badges not only on Wyatt but on the colorful lawbreaker and killer Doc Holliday in order to carry out what many testified to be more of an execution than fair fight.

In the “days of yesteryear”, and to some degree in these modern times as well, things like right, wrong, justice and law enforcement in the American West were anything but clear-cut.  Instead of the proverbial black-hatted bad guys and white-hatted heroes, upon close inspection what we find are more like the gray hats of complex people acting on agendas that sometimes appeared – to certain vested interests, in specific situations – as being either dangerous threats to the community needing to be removed or else its brave defenders upon whom civilization itself seemed to depend.  Not only were they judged differently depending upon the circumstances, but many at one time or other worked both sides of the fence.

The job of lawman may have been underpaid but it provided potentially valuable inside information and special advantages sometimes contributing to officers branching out into extortion, or hanging up their badges altogether in exchange for a potentially more lucrative career of crime.  Whether they were praised or reviled for their forays outside the law depended on the situation and context, and just who was doing the appraising.  The bounty hunter Tom Horn was treasured by the well financed and often European cattle barons that hired him to both punish assumed rustlers and enforce their monopoly on grazing, but was hated by the small struggling homesteaders whom he primarily targeted.  The respected lawman Sheriff Henry Brown of Caldwell, Kansas, was awarded a gold plated, presentation model Winchester rifle by a grateful citizenry for his services, but then took this same rifle with him on a botched robbery attempt on the bank in nearby Medicine Lodge.  At the same time, experience as a gunslinger and lawbreaker were excellent qualifications for the post of sheriff, and it often required bending or ignoring the fine points of law and order to get the job done.  In the cases of Hickok and the Earps, town managers were more than happy to overlook their zealous use of their Colt’s revolvers to bludgeon or shoot the miscreants undeniably making life difficult for law abiding folk.

Wyatt Earp is a perfect case in point, our collective memory of him being one of a brooding anachronism with a flat brimmed hat and drooping mustache, a reluctant hero and near magician with a gun.  More often and more accurately he was a gambler and provider of womanly flesh, a man whom many contemporaries referred to as the “fighting pimp”.  He can neither be wholly lionized, nor vilified, being more than anything typical of any of the “sporting men” who joined with the countless other opportunists who came west in search of riches and adventures.  What distinguished him and others of his ilk, was a degree of hard-headed determination and a willingness to kill.  But even given his various shooting scrapes, the primary reason we remember him is for the exaggerations and outright fabrications about his experiences that started with the release of those dime novels while he was still alive.

Part II: Wyatt Earp Myth & Reality

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” (from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 1962)

Like many of you, I grew up watching a fictionalized Wyatt Earp played Hugh O’Brien on TV, a morally spotless good guy always looking out for everybody but himself.  To the contrary, the real Wyatt was in many ways a self serving and self aggrandizing scoundrel.  

No matter what the books say, Wyatt was no angel, and he never carried a long barreled "Buntline Special" revolver either.

No matter what the books say, Wyatt was no angel, and he never carried a long barreled “Buntline Special” revolver either.

Wyatt was born March 19, 1848 to a family that locals came to call the “fighting Earps,” since anytime the father and brothers weren’t fighting other folks they could likely be found brawling amongst themselves.  When he got his first law enforcement job as constable of Lamar County, Missouri in 1870, he was heard to brag about how the badge made it possible to do as he liked without any more worry about being thrown in jail.  A year later he had quit and moved on into the territory of the Cherokee, where he and a friend named Edward Kennedy were pursued, arrested and fined for rustling horses.  By 1874 he could be found with his brothers Jim and Morgan and their mistresses in the then rowdy cow-town of Wichita, Kansas, where he made money gambling in the saloons and managing a stable of prostitutes… several of whom registered for business using the Earp last name.  It was for kicks, it’s said, that he joined local officers in tracking down a wanted miscreant, when the act of emptying their prisoner’s pockets of $148 for “expenses incurred” reminded him of the extracurricular opportunities law enforcement work could provide.  Wyatt then got hired as a Wichita policeman himself in 1875, his performance described by the Wichita Weekly Beacon newspaper as “unexceptionable,” the most exciting incident he was involved in being his dropping of his revolver on the saloon far and being barely missed by his own bullet.  Later that year he was arrested and fined for pummeling his boss’s main rival during the election campaign for city Marshall.  The Earps moved out of town two weeks after his dismissal, prompted by the city council issuing a warrant for their arrest as vagrants.

Not exactly the best start for what would be a future righteous legend.

Soon after being run out of Wichita, Wyatt Earp worked two short stints as deputy of of Dodge City, possibly shooting one fugitive in the back during a chase, clubbing dozens of rowdy party-goers with the butt of his sixgun, and putting a bullet in the leg of a Texas cowpoke in the course of enforcing the ordnance against carrying guns in town.  Resigning his post, he fatefully chose the silver mining town of Tombstone for his next attempts to strike it rich with as little effort as possible.  It was there that he and his brothers came into conflict with an equally roguish band of part time rustlers who called themselves simply “the cowboys,” with the Earps being both romanticized and provoked by the self proclaimed champion of “law and order”, Tombstone Epitaph editor John Clum.

In March of 1881, the Benson stage was robbed by someone with insider information, and Wyatt came under suspicion.  Years later his brother Virgil’s wife wrote that she had hidden the masks and disguises they used, but regardless of the facts, things were heating up for what would be the shootout upon which much of Wyatt Earp’s future fame will be predicated.  In June, the then Mayor Clum appointed Virgil the town Marshall, who in turn temporarily deputized Wyatt and Morgan Earp as well as the always “game” Doc Holliday.  By October 15th things had heated up between the contending parties and their respective political bases, beyond the point of hope for a peaceful resolution.  It was ironic, many would agree, that the gun toting, often lawbreaking Earps would again use the enforcement of early, widely resented gun laws to spark the confrontation that everyone had been so long expecting.

On that infamous afternoon of October 26th, word had gone out that “cowboy” faction members Ike and Billy Clanton, Billy Clairborne and Tom and Frank McLaury were armed and gathered in the aforementioned alley, saddled and ready to ride out, though clearly making a point of taking their time.  As was indicated by later trial evidence, of the five cowboys only Billy Clanton and Frank McLowry were “packing iron”, while all three of the Earps and Holliday were carrying. The fight apparently went down much as dramatized in the movie “Tombstone,” other than the ridiculous fanning of a dozen rounds into the nearby Fly Photography Studio: Virgil yells at the cowboys that “I want your guns,” as Wyatt draws his Colt and Doc jabs his shotgun menacingly at Tom McLaury.  The spunk Billy Clanton pulls his revolver in response, as an unarmed Tom McLaury struggles to get his Winchester 1873 rifle out of the scabbard on his horse.  Somewheres up to 30 shots are fired in a space of around 25 seconds or so, a wild melee in which Sheriff Behan pulls Billy Claiborne to safety, the troublemaking Ike Clanton runs, Billy Clanton shoots at Wyatt, Wyatt shoots at the more formidable Frank McLaury, and Earp exchange shots with F, and Doc putting two loads of buckshot into Tom as his horse spins out of his grasp.  The fight ends with the thrice-shot and quickly bleeding-out teenager Billy Clanton hollering for more bullets as he clicked his emptied revolvers, and a dazed Morgan Earp and puckish Holliday now armed with a Colt handgun, facing down a wounded Frank McLaury who bravely asserts “I’ve got you now.”  “You’re a daisy if you do,” Holliday is reported to have replied, as he and Morgan simultaneously drop him dead.  Scorecard: The McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton, deceased.  Doc Holliday, a flesh wound to the hip.  Morgan, a round in the shoulder.  Sheriff Virgil Earl, a .45 caliber hole through is right calf.  Wyatt, unscathed and movie-poster proud.  Later, Wyatt and Doc are both arrested, and then freed in November.  Judge Spicer felt obliged to drop charges in part because they hadn’t gunned down the despised but unarmed and retreating Ike Clanton.

Dissatisfied with the ruling, cowboy compatriots ambushed and shotgunned Virgil Earp first, crippling him, and then blew away Morgan Earp as he bent over a billiard table.  One of the suspected shooters was Frank Stillwell, who contrary to the movie version was at work at the stock yards in Tucson and not stalking the Earps when he first had his legs shot out from under him, and then suffered two loads of buckshot and four rifle rounds to the torso.  Earp and friends put five holes in a second suspect, Indian Charley, before he could get away from the area, and the third suspect Pete Spence promptly asked Sheriff Behan to place him in protective custody.  Satisfied at having taken the law into their own hands and extracted revenge, Wyatt and Doc left Arizona… but not as triumphant lawmen, as fugitives with warrants out for their arrest and a reward on their heads.  For Earp, the O.K. Corral shootout was the historical high point from which he slowly spiraled down into a life of increasing irrelevance and personal desperation.

The Wyatt of comic book fame shot the guns out of bad guys hands... the real Wyatt was a bully and bushwhacker happy to put some lead in a nemesis' back.

The Wyatt of comic book fame shot the guns out of bad guys hands… the real Wyatt was a bully and bushwhacker happy to put some lead in a nemesis’ back.

Hugh O’Brien aside, Wyatt never ever wore a star on his chest again.  Instead, in the ensuing years he travelled around the West with his brother Jim running confidence schemes and real estate scams that bankrupted unsuspecting rubes, and Wyatt was actually arrested a number of times including in Alaska and in Idaho on two counts of claim jumping.  His notoriety won him honored work as referee of the world champion boxing match in 1896, a bout which he ended due to a foul he called against contender Fizsimmons, a judgment it was commonly believed was made because of bets Wyatt had placed on opponent Sharkey.  As late as 1911, at age 63, Earp was arrested again for vagrancy and for bilking tourists in a bunco game. 

Wyatt Earp, 1923, not exactly a happy camper.

Wyatt Earp, 1923, not exactly a happy camper.

Wyatt spent much of his later period trying to get film star William S. Hart to publish his autobiography and make it into a movie, but Hart found problems with the manuscript’s veracity.  Stuart Lake held no such reservations, and printed his pack of colorful lies under the title “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall.”  70 years later there have been several imaginative programs and movies made about his life, with little understanding of or attention to the complexities and twists of this most famous lawman/outlaw.  

 In the end, it was no shootout that did him in.  The year of the stock market crash, on January 3, 1929, Wyatt Earp died as he had lived: a “pain-in-the-arse”… not from bullet wounds, but from prostate cancer!

Wyatt Earp old and pissed off 72dpi

Part III: Mixed Bags & The Highest Standards

“Don’t shoot!  I can’t breathe!” -Recent protest chants against police injustices

After 2015s incidences of citizens being killed for sassing the cops or trying to run, we are left wondering what is different now and in the days of the Wild West… if anything at all.  The famous/infamous Wyatt Earp never suffocated any black men for selling loose cigarettes or drivers for reaching for their keys like officers were accused of this year, but he damn sure shot unarmed men in the back who dared to be so disrespectful as to try to run away.

Then, as now, we are largely left with what we as a collective people seem to desire more than truth: the hope that can only come from an excitingly portrayed legend.  The truth, to the degree that we are willing to listen, is that we humans are all a mixed bag of qualities and faults, and that America’s chosen heroes are often not the best examples of laudable character.

And the truth is that of all the people on this planet, the ones we should be holding to the highest standards of all are those that we have as a society permitted to carry a badge and a gun.

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Books on Western history and culture by Jesse Wolf Hardin are available for sale at: www.OldWestScribe.com

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Categories: Jesse Wolf Hardin – Essays & Tales, Uncategorized