First published October 29, 2013
How do we put Wyatt Earp into perspective?
By now, you will have come to realize I love history. I have been passionate about the subject since I was a little kid. My first real memory was watching Roy Rogers on television. I know, it dates me, but it also puts my pathetic brain into focus (we can try).
Historians recognize there are ‘golden ages’ of civilization. These are times when life was, to use the trite phrase, “remarkable” — times when the average Joanne could have had a halfway decent life (as long as she wasn’t a slave). It probably speaks volumes that I have chosen to concentrate my writing and studies on two of those time frames — Roman Britain, along with Arthurian Britain, and the Wild West.
In many ways, both eras were much the same. They were times, taking place in outposts of a larger civilization, when reality and history merged into legend. The legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table came out of post-Roman Britain. We are in the unique position of watching legend being born.
I have this theory that every society, every civilization, every nation has a defining moment. There are larger-than-life moments and larger than life people:
- King Arthur is Britain’s
- Charlemagne is Germany’s
- Roland belongs to France
- Romulus and Remus were legend by the time Rome became Empire
- Rome and Britain both claim Troy’s Aeneas as founder and patron
- You can find Wotan’s name in genealogical records if you dig back far enough
- Gilgamesh is identified with Mesopotamia
- There was Odysseus in Ithaca
- Agamemnon in Mycenae
- Pocahontas is America’s princess
For good or ill, the United States of America, the post-Civil War nation, the survivor matured by battle, death, assassination, and cynicism, was defined in less than thirty seconds of violence. It was a chilly, windy afternoon. The temperature never went above the mid-40s. The sky was overcast, with sleet sometimes pelting the region, the threat of snow realized later that night with several inches falling, covering the blood-stained dirt on Fremont Street near the OK Corral.
It was the moment of legend. It was the moment when reality would later merge with myth. Our image of the laconic lawman with cold, steel-blue eyes, long coat blowing in the breeze as he holds his long-barrel Colt .45. His long, tapered gambler’s hands are steady as he stares at his opponents. He is flanked by a dying friend, a seasoned older brother, and the rash youthful one who would soon be murdered, shot in the back. He represented the establishment, law, and order. He was the backbone of civilization, willing to take on the ‘dirty job’ others relegated to him.
In less than thirty seconds, three young men were dead. Three had fled in terror. Three others were injured. Only one man stood, unscathed, his life forever changed. Gone were his hopes, dreams, and aspirations. Gone were his ambitions in life. All he had been doing was supporting his older brother. He became the great American survivor.
Were they right or were they wrong?
At the inquest, the judge ruled the older brother had committed an ‘injudicious act’ but could find no fault or guilt because the deceased had, on more than one occasion, threatened the lives of he and his brother. A few months later, the older brother would be gunned-down as he walked across the street. As the legendary Wild West doctor discusses removing the severely maimed arm, the lawman tells his wife, “Don’t worry, darlin’, I’ll still have one good arm to hold you with.” He survives, more or less intact.
A few months later, the younger brother is dead, shot in the back.
The laconic lawman sets out on a path of vendetta that defines a moment in time and again helps redefine a nation. Like so many others who would come after him, was he doing the government’s bidding or was he acting on his own? Did the ‘Feds’ pull the rug out from under him, or did they smooth his way to another jurisdiction where he couldn’t be prosecuted? The hunter became the hunted as he was followed by a posse made up of some of the most legendary outlaws in wild west history.
He rode away, leaving everything behind, stripped of property, respectability, and anything of value. Did he stop and bemoan his fate? We will never know. We do know that he never looked back at his losses. He moved forward. He rebuilt a life. He became a celebrity. He became legend.
The infant Hollywood sought him out, begging for his stories. The rich and famous courted him. A young wrangler on the back lots of Republic Pictures imitated the way he spoke, the pitch of his voice, the way he walked. John Ford realized the young actor’s given name of Marion Robert Morrison (and later, Marion Michael Morrison) would not suffice. He needed a laconic, strong, and powerful name. He needed a name like Wyatt Earp. He became John Wayne. By copying Wyatt Earp, John Wayne became the All-American icon of the latter half of the twentieth century. By becoming Wyatt Earp, John Wayne became the persona of America.
Wyatt Earp morphed from reality to legend to prototype in less than a generation, aided by the advent of an exciting new medium, moving pictures. During his lifetime, during the heyday of the cowtowns like Dodge City and Wichita, the Great American Tourist was evolving. Youths back in ‘civilization’ clamored for dime novels, penny dreadfuls, short stories. They wanted to imitate Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill, Buffalo Bill, and Bat Masterson. They were hungry for moving pictures depicting life in the Wild West.
Wyatt Earp became the persona of America, the lawman, the individual standing up for Truth, Justice and the American Way. Lawmen became him. Cowboys became him. Movie stars became him. Presidents became him. He became the defining moment — that brief, shining moment very few people fated by history ever know. He transcended reality and became myth and legend.