THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

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Sunday, June 5, 2016

WYATT EARP: Frontier Marshal by Stuart Lake, Part II

Part I can be read here.

Before becoming a writer, Stuart Lake had done stints as a professional wrestling promoter and as a press aide for Theodore Roosevelt when the ex-president made his bid for the presidency as a third party (Bull Moose Party) candidate in 1912.  Both of those jobs must have been perfect training for writing a pseudo biography of Wyatt Earp.

In his foreword to the book, Lake wrote:

"Since Wyatt Earp has so long been a myth to lovers of the Old West, it is no more than fair to state definitely that this biography is in no part a mythic tale.  It would be less than fair to subject and to reader if any least resource of effort had been spared in seeking the utmost accuracy of fact.  Scores of eyewitnesses to the scenes portrayed have been interviewed to verify circumstantial details; thousands of miles have been traveled to unearth substantiating material; hundreds of time-worn documents and files of frontier newspapers have been examined for pertinent content; literally thousands of letters have been exchanged with competent old-timers in developing this work.  

"The book had inception in an observation by Bat Masterson, more than twenty years ago.

"'The real story of the Old West can never be told,' Bat said, 'unless Wyatt Earp will tell what he knows; and Wyatt will not talk.'

"Happily, time and circumstances combined to bring Masterson's foreboding to naught, and Wyatt Earp was persuaded to devote the closing months of his long life to the narration of his full story, to a firsthand and a factual account of his career.  It is upon this account that the succeeding pages are entirely based.

"...[Wyatt Earp won] frontier-wide recognition as the most proficient peace officer, the greatest gunfighting marshal that the Old West knew."

The above comments contain what can only be described as a combination of hyperbole, misrepresentation, and outright falsehood, but the reading public swallowed it hook, line, and sinker; and not just the public. The Saturday Review called it "a rare contribution to authentic Western history," and the New York Times followed up by stating that "the book is a notable contribution to knowledge of our Western and Southwestern frontier."  It may not be possible to fool all the people all the time, but Lake's pseudo-biography proved that it was possible to fool all the people some of the time.  The book became a best seller in 1931, one that elevated a relative unknown to legendary status and in the process made Lake a wealthy man.

It is possible that Lake did have the conversation with Bat Masterson that is noted above, but if so, Bat was mistaken about Wyatt's unwillingness to talk. In fact, no persuasion was necessary to get Wyatt's cooperation for he had been attempting for some time to get a book published about his life.  Therefore, when Lake contacted him he quickly agreed to be interviewed.

Wyatt Earp, age 21
That said, however, the book was in no way a "first-hand" or a "factual account" of Wyatt's life and career. It is true that most contemporary accounts described him as a competent and efficient, if not distinguished, lawman, but it is a gross exaggeration to say that he "won frontier-wide recognition as the most proficient peace officer, the greatest gunfighting marshal that the Old West knew."

In fact, prior to the showdown at Tombstone's O.K. Corral in 1881 he was virtually unknown and even then he did not possess a national reputation. That changed with the publication of Lake's authorized "biography." Only then did Wyatt Earp acquire the legendary stature that he would possess for decades to come.

Tombstone, 1881

Wyatt Earp, age 39
There is no doubt that Lake's book is filled with tall tales.  The question becomes, however, who was responsible for their inclusion?  Was it Lake or Earp?  The answer: probably both.

According to Lake, he conducted eight interviews with Wyatt.  He later admitted to fellow writer Burton Rascoe that he found the elderly Wyatt to be inarticulate and rather monosyllabic during the interviews and that they resulted in no usable quotes and therefore he was forced to make up the quotes that he attributed to Wyatt. This is readily apparent for Wyatt comes across in the book as anything but inarticulate and monosyllabic, and his quotes have the same rhythmic pattern as Lake's narration.

Wyatt demanded to read the finished product before its publication.  However, his death in 1929 prevented him from doing so.  Therefore, there is speculation that with his subject out of the picture, Lake proceeded to sensationalize his book with half-truths and outright fibs in order to boost sales.  If so, it worked.

On the other hand, Wyatt had years earlier recounted some of the tall tales that found their way into the book and therefore he has to bear some of the responsibility for the lack of veracity in the narrative of his life.

Here are some examples of Wyatt's culpability in that area for which there is no independent corroboration:
  • His account of his arresting a shotgun wielding Ben Thompson in Ellsworth, Kansas in 1873;
  • His account of backing down Clay Allison in Dodge City in 1878;
  • His account of shooting and killing Curly Bill Brocius in Arizona in 1882;
  • His account of shooting and killing Johnny Ringo in Arizona in 1882.
Wyatt Earp was never the marshal of any town, including Tombstone.  To his credit (and Lake's), he does not make that claim in the book.  Hollywood was the primary culprit in making that assertion.  However, either Earp or Lake failed to tell the whole truth about his peace officer duties in the Kansas cowtowns of Wichita and Dodge City.  It is true, as stated in the book, that Wyatt was an assistant marshal (chief deputy) in those towns, but Lake has Wyatt claiming that in that position he was actually the chief law enforcement officer who even had the responsibility for hiring the other deputies.  The marshal, on the other hand, was a figurehead administrator who handled the political and public relations duties of the office.  This must also be placed in the dubious category.

Buntline Special

On the other hand, Lake must take full responsibility for foisting the Buntline Special on the reading and viewing public.  According to Lake, Ned Buntline, a writer of pulp novels, in an act of appreciation, gave one of the specially made Colt .45's with a 12-inch barrel to Earp and four other Dodge City peace officers. In appreciation of what?  Neither Earp nor the other lawmen ever appeared in a pulp novel written by Buntline or any other writer.  Furthermore, the Colt Company has no record of any such weapon ever being produced by their company.

Since Earp never mentioned that he ever possessed one of the weapons it is safe to surmise that it is entirely a creation of Lake's imagination, a creation that became a mythical weapon in the hands of a mythical hero.

John Henry "Doc" Holliday
One of the more perplexing problems faced by Lake and/or Earp was trying to explain the close relationship that existed between Earp, saintly paragon of virtue, and John Henry "Doc" Holliday, a notorious gunman and gambler who cohabited with a known prostitute.

Of course, it was perplexing because neither Lake nor Earp were invested in telling the whole truth about the life and times of the frontier lawman. The reason given in the book is that Doc once saved Wyatt's life.  Okay, but how did that lead to a situation in which Doc became Wyatt's closest friend and Wyatt became Doc's only friend?

The answer is simple.  As more recent, and more truthful, biographers have established, the two men were much more alike than they were different.  They were both gamblers who frequented not only saloons, but also the brothels that were often maintained upstairs.  In short, they shared common interests which neither Earp nor Lake wanted to admit, but did not know how to satisfactorily explain.  

It would require another book to correct all the errors of commission and omission in Lake's "biography" and I don't possess the capability or desire to do that. However, there is one other omission that needs to be addressed:   Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp.

Josephine Sarah Marcus

Johnny Behan

Although you will not read about it in Lake's book, when Wyatt Earp came to Tombstone he brought his wife -- actually common-law wife -- with him.  She was an ex-prostitute named Cecilia "Mattie" Blaylock.  At the time, Josephine Sarah Marcus was the common-law wife of Wyatt's chief political rival, sheriff Johnny Behan. In addition to politics the two became rivals for Josie's affections -- and Wyatt eventually won.

After Wyatt's so-called "Vendetta Ride," in which he and others, including Doc Holliday, hunted, rode down, and killed several men who were implicated in killing Morgan Earp and wounding and crippling Virgil Earp, he deserted Mattie. He and Josie became man and wife and lived together for over forty years, though no documentation exists that they ever wed.

In order to protect Wyatt's reputation -- and hers -- Josie was able to pressure Lake into completely removing her -- and Mattie -- from Wyatt's Tombstone period.  According to Lake, since neither Wyatt nor Morgan was married they shared living quarters.  In reality, both men, just like Virgil, were married and their wives were with them in Tombstone.  And the truth is, it probably didn't require much pressure for Lake to exclude the two women because they and their past would have blemished the whitewash that he was applying to the Wyatt Earp persona.

Lake's narrative does contain one amusing allusion to the Josie affair:

"As Wyatt Earp followed the run of Tombstone's social activities with no special pretenses, Tombstone was considerably amused to learn that the object of Johnny Behan's most ardent affections had given Johnny the mitten and was publicly exhibiting a decided preference for the marshal's company."

Well, now.  Who could that unnamed, mysterious lady have been?

Finally, Josie does make an appearance -- but not in Tombstone -- and not until page 376 -- where Lake wrote:

"For the five years next succeeding, Wyatt Earp and his four-animal hitch of mules roamed the California and Nevada deserts, on the prospecting expeditions which kept him in the wilderness he preferred to the settlements.  In San Francisco he had married Josephine Sarah Marcus, daughter of a pioneer merchant in that city, who, as Wyatt put it, 'was a better prospector and camper than I ever hoped to be.'"

In her efforts to protect Wyatt's reputation she told Lake and other writers that Wyatt didn't drink, never owned a gambling establishment, and that he certainly never operated or frequented a brothel.  But he did -- and there is documentation that proves it.  Even though she was able to protect her reputation she nevertheless branded the book as one that was filled with outright lies -- and collected royalties on its sales until her death in 1946.

Lake's book became a cottage industry for him.  Four movies and one hit TV series were based on the book and Lake served as screenwriter and/or "expert" consultant on all them.  

The title of the TV series was The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.  The lyrics to the opening theme set the tone for the series:

I'll tell you a story a real true life story 
A tale of the Western frontier.
The West, it was lawless,
but one man was flawless
and his is the story you'll hear.

Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp,
Brave, courageous and bold.
Long live his fame and long live his glory
and long may his story be told. 

"The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp" would have been a fitting title for Lake's biography.  If your library or bookstore has the book today, it will be found in the fiction section.  And if it isn't there it has been misplaced. Whatever one thinks of Wyatt Earp there is no doubt that he was "brave, courageous, and bold" and his fame and glory have lived a long life.  Unfortunately, his true story was not told in WYATT EARP: Frontier Marshal.  

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