Jeff Guinn Talks Wyatt Earp and The Last Gunfight


51hJTGvlTYL People have argued about the Gunfight at the OK Corral since Oct. 26, 1881.

 Some say Wyatt Earp, his brothers and Doc Holliday, were bad guys.

 Others believe the Earps were honest lawmen doing their job.

 The men the Earps and Holliday gunned down, Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton, some say, were not as bad as they’ve been painted and were victims. 

Jeff Guinn–a former journalist who lives in Fort Worth, Texas–has written a non-fiction OK Corral account titled The Last Gunfight and is here to set us straight.

 Q. Jeff, you seemed to avoid calling anyone a hero, or a bad guy, and explained everything from the various protagonists’ point of view, but at the end of the book, Wyatt and Virgil Earp looked better than anyone else you wrote about. 

Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. Wyatt is seated.
Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. Wyatt is seated.

The “cowboys” were obviously thieves, liars, and back-shooters, Tombstone’s citizens were unreliable and mercenary and Johnny Behan was a manipulating, dishonest coward and serial betrayer.

But Wyatt and Virgil did their duty as they saw it, and were honest men. And Wyatt was loyal to Doc when it cost him in Tombstone.

Did you think about this as you were writing the book? That these people proved what they were by their actions?

Johnny Behan
Johnny Behan

 GuinnI think it’s almost always dangerous to completely categorize people. There were no saints anywhere in or around Tombstone.

 Wyatt and Virgil certainly did their duty as they saw it – but so did Johnny Behan. He was just more flexible in terms of what he was willing to do.

 Most of the cow-boys felt themselves justified in breaking laws – in their minds, no one had the right to tell them what they could or couldn’t do.

They were wrong, of course, but that’s what they thought. (And it was an open secret that some laws could be broken with impunity – local authorities turned a blind eye toward rustling if the cattle were stolen from Mexicans.)

The challenge in writing this book, at least to me, was acknowledging this specific period ambiguity and still telling an objective story. Hopefully that allowed readers to draw their own conclusions. 

The Mclaurys and Billy Clanton in their coffins. Billy at right.
The Mclaurys and Billy Clanton in their coffins. Billy at right.

Q. Why have so many writers/historians attempted to destroy Wyatt’s reputation, accusing him of everything from dishonesty to murder?

Last year, one such man accused Wyatt of being a horse thief based on the fact Wyatt was one of the men accused of the crime. Yet he was never convicted.

Guinn: I think some writers approach researching nonfiction books with the aim of proving what they already believe.

A self-proclaimed historian who already detests Wyatt will find and emphasize plenty of facts supporting his/her opinion. Admirers of Wyatt can focus on lots of other material indicating he was a paragon. 1881q

This is why I always try to write about subjects that are initially new to me. That way I don’t have to battle any pre-prejudices as I research and write.

Q. Many writers/historians have claimed (including yourself) that the Earps craved social status. What is that based on? If a person wants money and opportunity, is that the same thing as wanting status?

Guinn: The Earps didn’t just want to be rich. They wanted to be important. That’s critical in understanding what they did and why.

I don’t fault them for this. But I think that any objective study of the Earp family demonstrates that many of them had ambition beyond hefty bank accounts.

Frank McLaury
      Frank McLaury

 They consistently sought public office, usually with disappointing results. On the frontier, money did not always guarantee authority, which is what the Earps craved. (Not that they didn’t want money, too.)

 Q. Why was Wyatt such a hard luck guy? Nothing much ever worked for him.

Guinn: Wyatt could be devious – for example, his scheme to catch the stage robbers and position himself to run against Johnny Behan – but he wasn’t subtle, and he also tended to believe that people would always honor their political and business obligations.

The trait that I most admired in him was his constant loyalty to family and friends. He kept his word when he gave it, a rare quality then and now. 

Wyatt and Josephine in 1906, on their California property
Wyatt and Josephine in 1906, on their California property

Q. Did you systematically think about Wyatt’s character, and Doc’s, and Ike’s, etc? You seem to have excellent insight to their various characters.

Guinn: I hope that insight resulted in presenting real people to readers, not caricatures. Acceptable behavior changes from era to era. Wyatt, Doc, Ike and everyone else in The Last Gunfight can’t be judged by modern-day standards. They were men of their specific time and place.

I think it’s required of historians to give readers context, a sense of how and why people did things.

The late Stephen Ambrose once told me that all of his books were intended to answer one question: “How did they do that?” My books attempt to take it a little further: “WHY did they do that?”

Wyatt, at about 21-years-old.
Wyatt, at about 21-years-old.

 Q: Was Wyatt a dour man or an unhappy man? He looks unhappy in his photographs.

 Guinn: Like the rest of us, I think Wyatt had his up and down moods. But he was also exceptionally driven, and the jolly gene isn’t usually dominant in such people.

Q: At one point you wrote that Doc thrived on tension, excitement and drama, and he was an extremely dangerous man. What do you base that on?

Guinn: Even casual study of Doc’s life indicates that he often sought confrontation. It must be unsettling to know during every waking minute that you’re a dying man, that you’ll never reach old age. I suspect Doc would have preferred dying in a fight rather than in bed – this is just my opinion.

51YQEUP3IIL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ And, in every way, he is certainly an interesting man. I would have been tempted to write another book just about Doc Holliday, but Gary Roberts (in Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend), wrote the definitive one. Good for Gary.

Q: What did Wyatt see in Doc? He could have been grateful but kept his distance, but he didn’t. And why do you find Doc fascinating? That implies you believe there’s an element of mystery in Doc.

Guinn: I don’t think Wyatt Earp let political considerations affect his personal relationships. Doc Holliday was his friend, and he wouldn’t sacrifice that friendship even to achieve his own burning desire for status and personal power. This speaks well of him.

Tombstone before the 1881 fire.
Tombstone before the 1881 fire.

 Doc Holliday is such a protean figure. The more you learn about him, the less easily he can be categorized.

 Some very questionable facts (i.e., that Doc was born with a cleft palate, with successful experimental surgery performed by a relative) have often been presented in books and accepted by readers.

Gary Roberts did an admirable job of research and writing. We can’t imagine many variations on Wyatt Earp or Ike Clanton – after careful, objective study, we can essentially know them, understand who they were. But there’s some eternal mystique about Doc. 

Artist Thom Ross has painted this depiction of the OK Corral gunfight.
Artist Thom Ross has painted this depiction of the OK Corral gunfight.

Q: I’ve read Doc did not kill that many men; what’s true?

Guinn: That’s certainly true. As in the case of Billy the Kid, the number of notches on the handle of Doc’s gun have been greatly exaggerated. For one thing, he was a terrible shot.

Innocent bystanders were probably in more danger than whoever Doc might be aiming at.

Q: Many writer/historians find it contemptible that the Earp men’s common-in-law wives were former prostitutes and that Wyatt was a professional gambler? Is that how you feel? 

  Ike Clanton
Ike Clanton

Guinn: Wyatt Earp was a man of his times. Gambling was a respectable way to make a living.

Women were scarce on the frontier. Many turned to prostitution to survive until a better way to support themselves (or, more preferably, a husband) turned up.

I personally find no cause for contempt.

Q: Considering the number of men compared to the number of women in the West, could the Earps have found “nice” women if they had looked hard enough?

Guinn: Wyatt’s eventual choice of Josephine calls into question whether he had any long-term attraction to “nice.”

In general, men on the frontier were grateful for almost any female companionship. “Availability” was often much more important than “nice.”

This is said to be Big Nose Kate Elder, who periodically lived with Doc Holliday. The identification is not authenticated, as far as I know.
This is said to be Big Nose Kate Elder, who periodically lived with Doc Holliday. The identification is not authenticated, as far as I know.

 I think “nice” reflects specific modern-day moral standards. As I mentioned in an earlier response, we need to see people in the context of their own times.

 Q: Do you believe Tom McLaury was armed during the gunfight?

 Guinn: I do not believe that Tom McLaury was armed during the gunfight.

 Q: You said Wyatt was a “genuinely tough man,” but also indicated he was not discerning about politics or human motivation. Is that a good summing up?

Guinn: I think so.

Q: How much did Wyatt make running his gambling games?

Guinn: Not enough, clearly.

Q: We think of the West as a highly egalitarian place, but that’s not necessarily true is it? Tombstone seemed as socially structured as San Francisco or New York. 

Wells Spicer, the judge who ruled there was no reason to put the Earps and Doc Holliday on trial.
Wells Spicer, the judge who ruled there was no reason to put the Earps and Doc Holliday on trial.

Guinn: If anything, most significant towns in the West were even more socially structured.

Consider the guest lists for Tombstone’s major dances and balls – no Earps, male or female, were invited. The whole image of the West as egalitarian was as misguided in 1881 as it is today.

Q: Do you find it as sad as I do that Tombstone pitted the Earps against the cowboys and then turned on them?

Guinn: It’s sad but, I think, also inevitable. The Earps were used as tools by town leadership. When they were no longer useful, they were discarded.

Q: I was stunned to read how many people turned out for the cowboy’s funeral. Where did all those people come from?

"What Billy Allen Saw," by Thom Ross. Billy was a OK Corral witness.
“What Billy Allen Saw,” by Thom Ross. Billy was a OK Corral witness.

 Guinn: We forget that Tombstone was surrounded by small ranches. The McLaurys and Billy Clanton were part of that social strata.

 Lots of townspeople were attracted by the spectacle of an elaborate funeral procession.

And, almost immediately, public opinion began turning against the Earps and Doc Holliday.

Q: To change the subject to your Bonnie and Clyde book, Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde. What do you think of them? 

 Bonnie and Clyde
Bonnie and Clyde

Guinn: They were the antithesis of Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway (who starred in Bonnie and Clyde, released in 1967).

Essentially, they were two poor kids who through perfect timing briefly became national entertainment in a time when many Americans considered cops and bankers to be enemies.

Q: You’ve written a novel titled Glorious. What’s it about?

 Guinn: I’m writing a Western series for Putnam, trying to use real history as the basis for fictional storytelling. Glorious, the first in the series, is set in Arizona Territory in 1872. 91DYT+ZWJ2L

Buffalo Trail, which will be published this October, takes the protagonist into Texas and the second battle of Adobe Walls.

I want to entertain readers while still giving them a solid sense of the real frontier.

Q: What (else) are you working on?

Guinn: I’m finishing up the third Western for Putnam, and getting ready to start writing my next nonfiction for Simon & Schuster. That book will be titled, The Bitter Cup: The Life and Times of Jim Jones and Peoples Temple.

I hope to keep alternating nonfiction and novels, with all of them in some way or another concerned with real history as opposed to mythology.

 Jeff Guinn
   Jeff Guinn

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