Urban Legends

By William Urban

We are all familiar with “urban legends”, stories so plausible that they survive as folklore no matter how many times proven wrong. Perhaps the most famous example is the belief that urban pet owners flushed baby crocodiles down the toilets, not knowing that they would flourish in the city sewers. They don’t.

Monmouth has a few of its own urban legends, the most persistent being associated with Wyatt Earp. In the March 24 Business/Ag section of the Review Atlas it popped up again, that the birthplace museum was “Listed on the National Register of Historic Places as the birthplace of Wyatt Earp….” Not so. According to Beth Bolan, historian of the National Registry (email message August 9, 2001), “we have listed the house solely for its architectural merits.” That is, it is an upright and wing house representing the transition from the L-shape house to a front gable house with a wing. The National Registry takes no stand on who was born there or not.

There is probably nobody to blame for this entry. It is an urban legend. The writer simply put in a statement that has been circulating locally, not thinking to check its accuracy. Certainly it is no worse than the entry in the 2003 publication, Warren County, Illinois. History and Families, saying that Wyatt’s father was “farming” lots first on South A Street and later at North 5th Street and Broadway. Surely only a city dweller would call a garden or small pasture only a half-block in size a “farm”.

How did this whole business get started? Wyatt’s birthplace was not mentioned in the newspapers when he died in 1929, nor in 1932, when his fictionalized biography became a best seller, nor at any other time before 1956 when the TV series was aired. The hunt for the birthplace was a publicity stunt by the Chamber of Commerce and the Prime Beef Festival, with the goal of attracting industry to town. The committee had been persuaded by a letter to the Review Atlas that 406 S. 3rd was the birthplace when without an explanation it suddenly decided to put the marker in the city park. I have looked closely at that letter. My reasons for believing that it was a hoax can be read at https://department.monm.edu/history/urban/wyatt_earp/WyattEarp.htm

Old-timers may recall that in 1996 the marker disappeared for a time. When it was later found on the golf course, the Monmouth City Council, acting on information that the Illinois State Historical Society would place it at 406 S. 3rd Street, voted to move it there. However, when Jon Austin, the executive direction of the Illinois State Historical Society, heard of this, he hastened to notify the city council that no such decision had been reached and that the situation had been “misrepresented”. The marker is back on the boulder at the park.

I received a prize from the Illinois Historical Society for my article on Nicholas Earp’s 1859 convictions for selling liquor (“The People versus Nicholas P. Earp,” Illinois Historical Review, 90 [Fall 1997], 173-190). I am working on another article that I think is even better: Wyatt and his family’s connections to bootlegging, gambling and prostitution.

Other than the odd article on this very interesting family (most of whom were NOT involved in criminal activities), my concern has been “our” money and historical accuracy. Even within the past month the issue has been raised about how “we” will support the birthplace museum and tourism in the future. This column will probably attract letters accusing me of incompetence and malice. I hope that readers will give me the benefit of a doubt when that happens so that we don’t have another “urban legend”.

Daily Review Atlas (March 31, 2005), 4.

Note: I have been informed that alligators have been found in sewers, but the websites on urban legends say that sewers would be very bad environments for these reptiles.

As for the fictionalized aspects of Stuart Lake's book, I refer only to the stories related to Monmouth, Illinois.