Features The Courier (Monmouth College Student Paper) February 4, 2000

Urban reviews Inventing Wyatt Earp

by William Urban Professor of History

Allen Barra. Inventing Wyatt Earp. His Life and Many Legends. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1998. $27 This 1998 publication has been both highly praised and faintly damned. Praised for the author’s extensive research, rigorous logical analysis, and his many finely crafted sentences. Criticized for the occasional lapse in spelling, knowledge of geography, and insufficient care in following up peripheral matters. The weakest part of the book is that concerning Wyatt’s upbringing. That is understandable, since the general public is only concerned with Wyatt the lawman, that is, his Gunsmoke years in Wichita, Dodge City and Tombstone. But if the child is the father of the man, it is important to look at the child. Especially if the child spent several formative years living on South B street in Monmouth; and if the child’s father is Nicholas Earp, a staunch Republican who would not have let his son miss an opportunity to hear Abraham Lincoln when he stopped overnight during the election of 1858 to deliver a speech to a large crowd near what is today Alexander lumber yard. Barra notes that visitors to the museum are often disappointed that the house did not look “more like a ranch or a log cabin.” He cites Wyatt’s friend and would-be biographer, John Flood, as saying that Wyatt himself was disappointed when he returned (in 1868-69) for a visit, to see that “dear old Monmouth was not the Monmouth as he remembered it.” Everything had changed. So it is when one leaves a community at age eleven and sees it next at twenty. Barra then turns back to the Earp family coming to Illinois from Kentucky, mentions Nicholas Earp’s service in the Mexican War (generously allowing him to be kicked in the leg by a mule rather than somewhat higher up, as the records suggest), and then follows Nicholas to Pella, Iowa. Here Barra comes up with the interesting statement that the US government had given Nicholas 160 acres, a more plausible reason for not making it to California than has hitherto been given, but he provides no footnote to give a source. Or have Iowa researchers been so lax as to miss this before? It is not in Nicholas’ military pension records. Barra then has Nicholas move back to Monmouth “for no apparent reason.” Two years later (an incorrect date) he has Nicholas leave Monmouth, “probably to evade several steep fines for bootlegging”, a craft he had perhaps “picked up in Kentucky,” and returned to Pella without paying the court. In fact, the fines were not that steep, but the judge had to seize Earp’s property and order it sold at public auction in order to reach a settlement; moreover, Nicholas was convicted of selling whiskey, not making it. Still, on the whole Barra does not do too badly. Nicholas never did pay all his debts, which may explain why he kept his 1868 visit so quiet that the local newspapers never mentioned it. In the next paragraph, however, Barra slips more seriously. He notes that when the Civil War came Wyatt’s three older brothers did not enlist in Pella units, but “traveled to another distinct to sign up.” They came, in fact, back to Monmouth to fight alongside their friends. Later he misses the 1868-69 Earp family reunion in Monmouth and has Wyatt go straight to Lamar, Missouri (in 1889!), where Barra notes that Nicholas was constable. Barra seems to be unfamiliar with Nicholas’ law enforcement career in Monmouth. From this point on Barra’s story improves considerably. His Wyatt Earp is an honest lawman, aware of the public dislike of both public disorder and police brutality, who carefully avoided the use of firearms except as a club, and who collected more income from the local businessmen under the table than from his official salary. Though often only a deputy, he did the dangerous work for marshals whose primary skill was in getting elected. He gambled a bit, but drank hardly at all, and he did attend church. He had a wide circle of friends, including some he arrested and a few who were once hostile. He had a magnetic attraction for many, including the otherwise friendless Doc Holliday. Barra even rescues the Buntline Special story, explaining that a long-barreled Colt would have been the perfect instrument for beating intoxicated cowhands over the head. He notes that several witnesses reported that Earp had carried a longer gun than the short-barreled weapon in common use. But it was not as long as the mythical revolver, nor had it likely been specially ordered by Ned Buntline, who never wrote a story about Wyatt Earp. Barra concludes with a survey of the considerable impact that the Earp legends had on our ways of imagining the Old West, and with a review of the numerous movies that reflect the story of Wyatt Earp (whether or not they used his name). Barra likes Tombstone the best, but has praise for the Costner version. Still, he reserves his highest honors for My Darling Clementine, which appropriately returns the reader to the book’s subtitle, Wyatt’s “many legends.” This is the chapter that anyone with a interest in cultural studies has to read. The last chapter (“When the Legend Becomes Fact, Print the Legend”) brings the reader to the questionable scholarship of Glenn Boyer, the dominant figure in Earpiana for the past several decades, who has apparently invented a manuscript and then cited it as a major source in his publications. This does not surprise this reviewer, who has personal experience with Boyer’s pretentious exaggeration of his acquaintance with Warren County records. This feud will be something to watch. Barra is becoming ever more aggressive in his denunciations, with Boyer refusing to sue on the grounds that a lawsuit would give Boyer the right to subpoena his research notes. Hopefully, the second edition will record the role of David Wallace of Monmouth College, Mayor Holt and Prosecutor Stewart (in whose homes the Monmouth duo were founded), in convicting Nicholas of bootlegging. Perhaps someday an enterprising dramatist will turn it into a courtroom drama or a musical. Perhaps in time for the Monmouth College Sesquicentennial celebration in 2003.