Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Wyatt Earp, fact or fiction?

Wyatt Earp is often portrayed a hero, especially in his biography, Frontier Marshal, which was written by Stuart Lake. Well, due to my membership in Western Union, the Japanese western lover’s organization, I have come to own a first issue copy of Wild, Woolly & Wicked, Harry Sinclair Drago’s history of the Kansas cow towns and the Texas cattle trade. Drago’s name may not be familiar to you, but he wrote westerns under the pen names of Bliss Lomax and Will Ermine. Apparently President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s two favorite authors were Lomax and Ermine. Wild, Woolly & Wicked won the 1960 Buffalo Award for best western book, and Drago’s “Great Range War” which he wrote when he was 83 years old, won the 1970 Western Heritage Award for the most outstanding western nonfiction book.

Now, in the interest of wickedness, I would like to quote from the chapter 14 of Drago’s book, Fact Versus Fiction.

If the long factual recital of what occurred in Ellsworth, Kansas, on the afternoon of Friday, August 15, given in the preceding chapters, shows those few hours to have been highly dramatic, history becomes pallid and only modestly exciting when compared with the super-melodramatic version put together by Wyatt Earp and his biographer, which has “a hundred forty-five slugs screaming across the plaza.”

Stewart N. Lake
It gets off to a bad start, however, by making the date August 18. That glaring error is compounded by many others. To enumerate them would be a thankless task. Several errors that early critics of the narrative pointed out, and that first cast doubt on it, can be mentioned.

According to Earp, Ben Thompson and the Texans were gathered in front of the Grand Central Hotel during his conversation with Mayor Miller and across the street from where he and Miller stood. This is a complete reversal of their positions; Ben was a lone in front of the hotel; the mayor was on North Main Street with him; the Texans were across the way on South Main Street, in front of Brennan’s saloon. Again, Earp says that a messenger ran up while he was talking to Miller with word that Whitney was dead. “The announcement was premature,” we are told. “Whitney actually lived for several hours after the Thompson hearing.”

Cap didn’t breathe his last until Monday, three days later. Earp designates Cad Pierce, Neil Cain, and John Good as cowboys. They were gamblers. He repeatedly speaks of the space between North Main Street and South Main Street as the “plaza”—a term never used by the citizens of Ellsworth. He names Charlie Brown and Ed Crawford as being on the police force, which neither was at the time.

Famous Wyatt Earp portrait
But the list is too long. What is of interest is Wyatt’s account of how he, unknown, a stranger who just happened to be in Ellsworth, without any previous experience as a lawman, save for a few months he had served as marshal of the little farm community of Lamar, in Barton County, Missouri, stepped into the breach when Mayor Jim Miller appeared on the scene. One must remember that the name Wyatt Earp meant exactly nothing. He had hunted buffalo on the Salt Fork of the Arkansas and Medicine Lodge Creek and wintered at the trading post of Captain C. H. Stone, in 1871-73. Stone’s store was the beginning of what was to become the town of Caldwell, Kansas. He claims to have been well acquainted with Ben Thompson. At most , it could have been only a hearsay acquaintance. As for Ben, he doesn’t mention him in the story of his life given to Buck Walton. Chances are that he had never heard of Earp in his Ellsworth days.

Before reaching the climactic moment when the redoubtable Wyatt alleges he stepped up to the mayor and offered to cross the “plaza” and arrest Thompson, he says: “At his back [Thompson’s] were a hundred Texas men, half of them man-killers of record, the rest more that willing to be . . . In groups around the plaza, three or four hundred more Texans were distributed. Every man-jack had six-guns at his hips and a gunhand itching for play.”

After picturing the police as cowed and helpless, Earp, undeterred by the overwhelming odds, alleges that the following dialogue ensured between him and Mayor Miller.

Ellsworth, Kansas
Earp: “Nice police force you’ve got here.”

Miller: “Who are you?”

Earp: Just a looker-on.”

Miller: “Well, don’t talk so much. You haven’t even got a gun.”

Earp says he was in shirt sleeves and obviously unarmed. Earp: “It’s non of my business, but if it was, I’d get me a gun and arrest Ben Thompson or kill him.”

Brocky Jack Norton and Happy Jack Moreo were standing by.

Morco: “Don’t pay any attention to that kid, Jim.”

Miller: “You’re fired, Norton. You, too, Moreo.” (The mayor snatches the marshal’s badge from Brocky Jack’s shirt front.) “As soon as I can find Brown and Crawford, I’ll fire them.”

The mayor turns to Earp.

Miller: “I’ll make it your business. You’re marshal of Ellsworth. Here’s your badge. Go to Beebe’s and get some guns. I order you to arrest Ben Thompson.”

The foregoing is first-rate folklore fiction—but that’s is all it is. It never happened.

It was Wyatt Earp’s short journey across the “plaza” under the muzzle of Ben Thompson’s shotgun (to say nothing of the surrounding hundreds of armed Texans) that, according to his admiring biographer, “established for all time his preeminence among gun-fighters of the West.”

Ben Thompson
How Ben Thompson, a fearless bulldog of a man, of whom Emerson Hough once said: “With the six-shooter he was a peerless shot, an absolute genius; none in all his wide surrounding claiming to be his superior,” waited like a sitting duck, though armed with a brace of pistols as well as a shotgun, suffered the unknown Earp to close in on him and demand that he toss his shotgun into the street, goes beyond the bounds of plausibility.

But it makes good reading. Perhaps that was the end result Wyatt had in mind.

With measured, unfaltering step, his arms hanging loosely at his sides, “conveniently close to his holsters,” the youthful marshal moves in until only a few yards separate the antagonists. The whole town is watching. The guns f the massed Texans, the “man-killers of record,” are silent. Ben Thompson, “the deadliest gunman then alive,” suddenly stops his angry pacing and defiant threats. A spell seems to have been cast upon him. Like a frightened tenderfoot, he cries: “What are you going to do with me?”

“Kill you or take you to jail.”

Amazedly, we read the following: “Neither Ben Thompson nor any onlooker, and least of all Wyatt Earp, has offered a completely satisfactory explanation[!] for what followed.”

It would have been difficult, not to say impossible.

Ben grinned, meekly tossed the shotgun into the road, and raised his hands. “You win.”

Billy Thompson
Earp says he marched Ben across the “plaza” to Judge Osborne’s court, where “five hundred milling men stormed at the narrow doorway.” Judge Osborne fined the prisoner twenty-five dollars [as Earp tells it] and the Mayor then offered him $125 a month to continue as City Marshal. “Ellsworth,” Wyatt says he answered, “figures sheriffs at twenty-five dollars a head. I don’t figure the town’s my size.”

Earp had been living in Hollywood for some years. It evidently had had some effect on him, for the tag line he says he gave Jim Miller sounds like a title plucked out of one of the old silent Westerns.

To give the book an air of authenticity, there are numerous quotes from the Ellsworth Reporter. “There is only one that is important. It is the Reporter’s account of the killing of Sheriff Whitney and the events that followed. To historians it is a familiar document. In its entirety Wyatt Earp’s name is not mentioned. In Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal the last lines are omitted. Here they are:

Thus the city was left without a police force, with no one but Deputy Sheriff Hogue to make arrests. He received the arms of Ben Thompson on the agreement of Happy Jack Morco to give up his arms.

The reason for omitting these lines is too obvious to call for explanation. Include them and the Earp story is demolished. That it fails to include them cannot be attributed to a faulty memory. Was the deletion made because a hoax was being perpetrated that could not survive, including the Reporter’s statement that Deputy Sheriff Hogue received the arms of Ben Thompson? The reader may decide for himself.

Let me skip a few paragraphs to the end.

An example of a Drago book
William McLeod Raine, the first writer elected to the Cowboy Hall of Fame, at Oklahoma City, the first honorary president of the Western Writers of America, Inc., and a man highly esteemed by all who were fortunate to know him, comments in what is believed to be the last article he wrote:

“It was in Ellsworth, according to Mr. Lake, that Wyatt performed the feat which ‘established for all time his preeminence among gun-fighters of the West. This particular bit of heroism has been ignored in written tales but was a word of mouth sensation in ’73, from the Platte to the Rio Grand.’ Mr. Lake is right in one respect. This tragic day in the history of Ellsworth received a great deal of attention. Every newspaper in Kansas and Nebraska carried stories covering it. The Ellsworth Reporter gave it pages . . . But nobody at any time during the next fifty years thought of Wyatt Earp in connection with the affair. No newspaper, no writer made any reference to him in any way. There is a reason for this. He wasn’t there.”

How’s that for wicked?

Vulture Gold is the first Havelock novel and a finalist in the Global eBook Awards.


  1. This is an enjoyable post but real old news to anyone with a passing knowledge of Earp history. His sunset tall tale spinning to Lake ties right into his activities and friendship with Tom Mix and the burgeoning exploitation of western mythology in the movies. The Dodge years are, well, kinda dodgy too. But the mettle of these men, who they were and what their world was about no matter whose side you’re on, all comes to a head in Tombstone. No one had to make that stuff up, though they’ve been trying to “spin” it ever since. But in Tombstone, reality trumped fiction by a country mile.

  2. History, myth and research lead to many a tale that reads well, but....

    These men and women of the old west have taken on the hero myth that serves it's purpose, but for me I'll keep looking for the nugget that inspires the story. Doris

  3. And somewhere in the middle lies the truth! Whether fact or legend, the pure charisma of these old west characters are what make them so fun to write about. I doubt that folks will be discussing MY life 140 years from now.

  4. Ha! Nice work, Charlie.

  5. Might be "old news" to some folks, but not to me. I didn't know all this, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, Charlie. Love your "wicked" posts and this is one of the best. I appreciate it!