When Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp was dying of prostate cancer in Southern California in the winter of 1929, he mustered up just enough strength to write to his biographer, Stuart Lake, to clarify an urgent request about his memoirs:
I would not want the manuscript to be seen nor examined by any person other than yourself until it is absolutely complete—that would not be fair to me—there may be changes or corrections that I would want to make, and nobody should know its contents until I have read it over thoroughly.
Earp died three days later. Near the end, as with much of his fabled, storied life, Earp fashioned and controlled his public image meticulously to the point of mania. Marshal, gunfighter, gambler, inveterate conman and liar, the Wyatt Earp of legend is a carefully crafted and curated persona. The darker, more neurotic side of the frontier marshal is the subject of Andrew Isenberg’s absorbing biography, Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life.
Before I go into details of the book, I can’t help but consider the obstacles that Isenberg was up against in writing it. True, a book on Earp will generate a great deal of interest, but what can anyone say about him that hasn’t already been said? Wyatt Earp is figure as iconic as Abraham Lincoln or Babe Ruth, nestled high in some American Mount Olympus of sepia-toned heroes. TV shows and scores of movies have been made about him, sometimes more than one in the same year. But Isenberg’s brilliance as a historian comes in part from finding the gaps within the myth.
In Isenberg’s journey to find out more about the man, he takes his readers through the expansive evolvement of American society after The Civil War into the Gilded Age and well into the postwar heydays of the ‘20s. His Wyatt Earp is part biography, part historical nonfiction that reads like a gripping novel. Like David McCollough, Richard Slotkin, Nathaniel Philbruck, and S.C. Gwynne, Isenberg gives us a narrative of the Old West and 19th century America that’s at once edifying and exhilarating in its scope.
In 2010 I remember watching a PBS American Experience documentary on Wyatt Earp, where Isenberg was one of the historians being interviewed. This new book on Earp is the third of his books on the West, the others being The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920 (2001) and Mining California: An Ecological History (2006). He teaches American history at Temple University.
The book on Wyatt Earp is the more colorful of Isenberg’s work in part because of the nature of its subject. In Isenberg’s narrative Earp is an American Cain who, through shrewdness and luck, transforms himself into David, a reluctant hero and slayer of evil. Isenberg is careful throughout to make us aware of Earp’s self-fashioning and motives. The book’s title, A Vigilante Life, is astute. The fame and notoriety behind Earp’s image was often shrouded in rage, greed, and pettiness. The frontier hero we know could have easily been just another ruthless conman with a badge, like Gene Hackman’s corrupt sheriff Bill Daggett in Unforgiven, if certain serendipitous events hadn’t come into play in Earp’s life.
Earp was born in the Midwest, in Monmouth, Illinois in 1848, the fourth of six children. His larger-than-life father Nicholas Earp could be described euphemistically as entrepreneurial, but in reality he was a volatile schemer who never held one job down for any stable length of time. Farmer, storekeeper, bootlegger, wagon train master, town constable, Nicholas Earp seemed to represent the flux and rapid change and growth of 19th century America. Isenberg dedicates nearly an entire chapter to Nicholas Earp, “The Sons of Ishmael”, which is one of the book’s strongest, most compelling episodes.
Incidentally, from Isenberg’s description of Wyatt’s father, I couldn’t help but think of the Nicholas Earp that Gene Hackman embodied in Lawrence Kasdan’s 1994 film, Wyatt Earp (which actually, is rather historically accurate as far as movies go) and feel that curious blend of strength, ruthlessness, and unabated love for his sons that Hackman brought out in the part. Throughout Wyatt’s childhood Nicholas moved the family around everywhere from Kentucky to Iowa to California. Consequently, Wyatt developed no particular attachment to any specific place, which only added to his lifelong sense of restlessness.
The Civil War broke out when Wyatt was a boy of 13. He tried to lie about his age to enlist but was invariably caught and sent home while his older brothers James and Virgil fought for the Union. Wyatt’s famous partner, John Henry “Doc” Holliday, a wealthy dentist from South Georgia, was also too young to fight. Isenberg asserts that Wyatt and Doc’s inability to fight in the most significant war of their time gave them a massive inferiority complex. Part of their success and fame as gunfighters of the West came from their burning desire to prove their valor after that chance was denied to them during the war.
Throughout the book, I found myself searching for that first moment in Wyatt’s youth where he showed a sign of becoming the Wyatt Earp we’ve come to know. In 1864 when his father was in charge of wagon train headed for San Bernadino, Wyatt staved off an Indian raid by driving the entire stock—mules, oxen, horses—towards the raiders so that they rode away in terror. It seemed rather a bold and ballsy thing for a 16-year-old to do. A quality that seems to distinguish Wyatt Earp and many of the fabled personalities of the West, like Billy the Kid and the James Brothers, is a certain fearlessness in the face danger. Most men are afraid of dying or being maimed, but the lofty nihilism shared by these men is what saved them in some ways and made them famous.
In 1870, Wyatt married Urilla Sutherland, the daughter of a hotel-keeper, in Lamar, Missouri, and would have happily settled into bourgeois life in the Midwest had his young bride and unborn child not died of typhoid fever a year later. Urilla’s death shook Wyatt. He went out West and turned to drink and carousing with prostitutes. He also gambled and stole horses and became a well known ne’r-do-well. Isenberg pulls together accounts from clippings in local papers like the South-West Missourian, The Wichita Beacon and The Dodge City Times as well as legal documents and Earp family journal entries to bring to life the story of Wyatt’s growth.
In October of 1874, when Wyatt was in Wichita, he helped an officer apprehend some thieves and earned a reward and a mention in the local paper. His position in the community suddenly changed when he stumbled onto the right side of the law. For the first time he knew what it meant to be respected and he wanted more of it. He became a deputy, but got into a brawl with another officer running for election, so he fled Wichita for the booming cow town of Dodge City, Kansas in 1876.
For fans of Westerns, Dodge City is usually where the Wyatt Earp saga begins. Isenberg points out that Earp met his famous friend Doc Holliday in Texas around 1878 when the two were on the gambling circuit. Earp was a skilled faro dealer and the men struck up a fast friendship. Relatively little is said about Holliday in this book besides what we already know about him, his tuberculosis, his courtly Southern background, his temper and his lethal fluency with the gun. Isenberg’s story is a tightly focused streamlined account of Wyatt Earp and there’s nothing rambling or extraneous in the narrative that takes us away from Earp himself.
Wyatt’s main duties in Dodge City were to make sure that the cowboys hired by wealthy ranchers weren’t too drunk or disorderly and could show up for work the next day. Things may have gone well there, but another prickly altercation ensued involving a cowboy named George Hoyt and Wyatt moved again, this time to the silver-mining boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona.
Isenberg details the famous showdown with the Clantons and the McLaurys with great clarity and energy. It begins harmlessly with Wyatt and his brothers being asked by an army captain and Wells Fargo to track down some stolen mules and ends up in a famous bloodbath that evolved into legend. According to Isenberg, the famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral didn’t even happen at the corral but at an empty lot behind the corral. The question of who fired first and who attacked who at what moment is the source of some dispute, but the fatal mistake that the Clantons made was to go after the Earp brothers. They underestimated Wyatt’s inexhaustible capacity to hold a grudge and his obsession with revenge.
After the famous gunfight of 26 October 1881, the book takes us through Wyatt’s variegated journey across the country from California to the Yukon and back to southern California where he would eventually become a consultant for the cowboy films in Hollywood during the silent era, regaling Charlie Chaplin and Thomas Ince with his stories of the Old West. There’s a brilliant bit in a later chapter, “Shadows of the Past”, where Wyatt is transformed by reading Owen Wister’s The Virginian. The story of a gunfighter and frontiersman elevated to near-biblical heights inspired Wyatt to recount his own story, changing facts and embellishing details along the way.
Isenberg’s dynamic biography of Wyatt Earp is one of the more comprehensive accounts of a complex, occasionally problematic figure. It’s not that Earp’s heroism is unwarranted. It’s just that behind the image of the gallant marshal there’s a deeply troubled, petty, egotistical, vengeful man. In many ways Wyatt Earp’s story, a story of violence, transformation, and endless reinvention, is the American story. Isenberg adroitly points this out that the beginning of his book:
Across three-quarters of a century, in battles against organized crime, Soviet communism, Islamist terrorism, and illegal immigration, Americans have invoked the Earp icon to rationalize the extralegal pursuit of justice… Wyatt’s story appealed to Americans who like him saw justice not in fickle courtrooms, but in the character of stalwarts who were willing to break the law—even to commit murder. Hollywood’s embrace of him as a paragon of law and order was the realization of his last and undoubtedly his greatest confidence game, his surest revenge, and his most complete reinvention.