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A Significant New Book on Wyatt Earp!

The Real Wyatt Earp: A Documentary Biography by Steve Gatto. High-Lonesome Books. PO Box 878, Silver City, NM 88062. Phone orders 1-800-380-7323. Credit cards welcome. Edited by Neil B. Carmony. Hardcover with dust jacket, ISBN 0-944383-50-5- $24.95; softcover 0-944383-51-3- $14.95. Appendices, references, index, 27 photographs and maps, 246 pages. 6" x 9". Available mid-May.

As NOLA editor I am fortunate to frequently receive advance copies of books before their publication. The most recent is The Real Wyatt Earp: A Documentary Biography of a Western Lawman. This latest research effort of Steve Gatto will no doubt be available to all western buffs by the time this review is in print. His previous works, biographies of John Ringo, Wyatt Earp, and Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce, are a positive witness to his research abilities. Now we are presented with a biography of Wyatt B.S. Earp, a book which will become a collector's item by year's end, and will no doubt provide material for arguments and debates for some time to come.

The Real Wyatt Earp is a compilation of original documents, with brief commentary by Gatto, on Wyatt earp from before his first law enforcement job (in Lamar, Missouri), through his three years as a Kansas lawman, and the Tombstone experience. Following Tombstone, Gatto continues with presenting documentation concerning his years seeking gold, running saloons, the boxing business which resulted in an additional scandal- bringing him greater publicity than the Tombstone affrays- and the final years as an old man trying to get his life story published.

Steve Gatto recognizes clearly that Wyatt Earp is an international legend, a "mythical, noble Wyatt earp [who] will always be with us, [and] it will take more than mere facts to dispel a legend that people around the world have cherished for decades." [172-73] But Gatto did not intend to dispel the legend nor did he intend to belittle the work of previous authors and researchers. Rather, Gatto, with this thought-provoking and well-documented work, intended to provide an honest, fact-filled biography of a lawman who- in all of the four communities in which he served- never held a position above "entry level." [9] Gatto argues convincingly that previous efforts to provide a balanced biography of earp have failed because the authors "depended far too heavily on the reminiscences of other old-timers of dubious reliability." [10] Among those indentified as such are Fred Dodge, Billy Breakenridge, John Clum, John Gray, James C. Hancock, Mary Cummings ("thought by some to be Kate Elder, Doc Hollidays mistress" [10]). Allie Earp, and Josephine Earp. Many NOLA members will be familiar with the accounts left by these individuals. Gatto, even without intending to lay down the gauntlet, will certainly be challenged by some who have total faith in the veracity of these 20th century accounts, some of which have been challenged, some not.

Besides questioning the validity of mary Cummings' claims, other tales of greater prominance are challenged by Gatto, and not surprisingly, what is found is that Earp was a crafty "fabulist;" he was better as an accomplished teller of tall tales than a lawman. Gatto discredits the episode of Earp facing down Clay Allison; he discredits Earp's claim of arresting Ben Thomspon after the killing of Ellsworth lawman C.B. Whitney in 1873. The question of Earp facing down the Clements crowd is not mentioned, another example of there being no basis in fact, hence he ignores this Lake-inspired myth totally. A far better term for these "myths" might be malarkey, according to researcher Gatto.

Further, those who accept the Buntline Special as factual will be likewise disappointed as Gatto concludes it was another mythical creation of Stuart N. Lake. Besides quoting a wealth of legal documentation, easily comprehended and explained as needed due to Gatto's training in the field of law, there are numerous newspaper articles quoted from both pro and anti-Earp sources, contemporary diaries and letters presented here. The value of this technique is that nowhere do we see Earp as recalled by someone after years of reflection, or after having read the writings of others to glorify the man. One must conclude that an account of something written in 1881 or '82 undoubtedly has more objectivity than someone writing after having read the San Francisco Examiner's accounts of the Arizona adventures provided by Earp himself in 1896!

Gatto has, in this rather slim volume, presented conclusions, but based on strong evidence, that will certainly cause some to bring opprobrium to his reputation. This does not add to our knowledge of Earp, but perhaps underscores the accuracy of Gatto's research and writing! in contrast Gatto has judiciously avoided calling names and printing insults against those who have disagreed with his conclusions. In many instances the record will speak for itself; occasionally Gatto presents his conclusion on the basis of the existing contemporary record coupled with common sense. An example is his findings concerning the claim of Earp that he had killed "Curly Bill" Brocius during his "Vendetta Ride." The evidence that Brocius was out of the territory at the time of the supposed death is greater than the evidence that Earp did kill Brocius. Another example concerns John Ringo, sometimes claimed to be an Earp victim, sometimes a suicide. The evidence Gatto presents will convince anyone without prejudice that it was Ringo himself who took the life of John Ringo.

A futher personality whose reputation has been diminished through the years is that of Sheriff John Behan. Not only does Gatto present convincing evidence that Behan's version of the "O.K. Corral" fight should perhaps be given greater credence than that of the Earps, but he was perhaps a much better lawman than Earp-hero worshipers would have us believe. A casual reader might wonder: why hasn't a biography of Behan been presented, as he was arguably the better lawman.

One might think that those who survived the turbulent 1880s and later chose to record their reminiscenses should be given great credence in attempting to preserve the historical record. Although they certainly can be considered, editor Neil B. Carmony, perhaps says it best in the introduction, "It is better to leave some questions unresolved than to concoct solutions based on yarns spun decades after the fact." [11]

To some this work will be a joy to read as it avoids giving false information and condemning the work of others. To anyone with even a modicum of interest in the Earp saga this will be a riveting read, and a valuable tool to promulgate and encourage further debates, arguments, discussions and thought. As such it is a most commendable work by a young historian.

Chuck Parsons

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Chuck Parsons is the editor of the National Outlaw and Lawman Quarterly (NOLA), an organization dedicated to the preservation of old west history.


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Since March 18, 2000