Monday, November 22, 2021

The "Legend" of Wyatt Earp

Click to see Vol. I, Issue 4 of the newsletter in which this article first appeared.

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When I was a kid, one of the most popular TV shows amongst us boys was called The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. Centered on a supposed "hero" of that name, the show--and much of what we think about Wyatt--was more "legend" than "life" or solid biography.

Ask most people familiar with the name, and they'll tell you something like this: He was a "lawman" and the hero of the famous Shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona (which has made that virtual ghost town one of the most famous pilgrimage sites for fans of Westerns). The event was built up through the publication of "dime novels," cheap pamphlets read by daydreaming boys, followed later by films and TV shows. Later in life, Earp actively participated in the forging of his "legend."

The truth is a little seamier. Aside from his occasional work as a "lawman"--usually as an assistant to someone else--Earp derived much of his income from gambling and the operation of "bordellos"--houses of prostitution. He moved from one boomtown to another seeking jobs without much concern for which side of the law he was on.

Even the details of his most famous battle are shrouded in misunderstanding.

Wyatt was not the leader of the forces of "law and order" that day. Rather, the Clanton gang had caught the attention of City Marshal Virgil Earp, Wyatt's brother. They were a group of outlaw "Cowboys" who rustled Mexican cattle--Tombstone is only 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the border.

At 3 p.m. on October 26, 1881, after months of tension, three of the Earps (Wyatt and brother Morgan had been deputized) along with Wyatt's friend, a gambler and dentist named John Henry "Doc" Holiday, faced five (or six) members of the gang. (There are conflicting reports of what happened during and after the fight.) After 30 seconds of shooting near (but not at) the famed Corral, three of the Cowboys were dead, and Morgan and Virgil were wounded. Doc Holliday was grazed by a bullet, but Wyatt was unharmed.

This set off a vendetta in which, two months later, Virgil was ambushed, shot and crippled by unknown assailants. Nearly three months after that, in March of 1882, Morgan was fatally shot through the glass door of a saloon.

Wyatt was now a newly-minted deputy marshal, and set out to even the score. In the end, all the Clanton members were dead--and Wyatt was fleeing from a warrant on charges of murder. Leaving Tombstone for good, he continued his wandering life until settling down in Los Angeles, California, where he died at home at the age of 80 in January of 1929.


Vocabulary: Match the words to their meaning. Correct answers are in the first comment below.

  1. crippled
  2. deputized
  3. forging
  4. grazed
  5. newly-minted
  6. prostitution
  7. rustled
  8. seamier
  9. shrouded in
  10. vendetta

  1. hidden in; covered by
  2. sex trade
  3. stole (cows, horses, etc.)
  4. appointed as a kind of assistant
  5. recently created
  6. creation
  7. campaign of revenge
  8. more sordid; of lower morals
  9. incapacitated; disabled
  10. scraped lightly

Questions to Answer: Answer the following questions in your own words. Suggested answers are in the first comment below.

  1. What helped create the "legend" of Wyatt Earp?
  2. How did Earp make much of his money?
  3. Who was the leader of the "lawmen" at the O.K. Corral?
  4. What was the immediate outcome of the shootout?
  5. What happened in the months after the shootout?

Questions to Think About: These questions do not have "right" or "wrong" answers. They only ask your opinion.

  1. Was Wyatt Earp a "hero"? What makes a person a hero?
  2. Why do you think people love to hear legends, even when they're not true?
  3. Can you think of other famous "heroes" who are not as great as many people believe?

1 comment:

  1. Answers:
    Vocabulary: 1. I; 2. D; 3. F; 4. J; 5. E; 6. B; 7. C; 8. H; 9. A; 10. G

    Questions to Answer (suggested answers; yours may be written slightly differently)
    1. The "legend" of Wyatt Earp was created by cheap pamphlets, and later by films and TV shows. Wyatt Earp also contributed to making the "legend."
    2. Wyatt made a living by working as an assistant "lawman," as well as by gambling and prostitution.
    3. Wyatt's brother Virgil was the leader of the "lawmen" at the O.K. Corral.
    4. Three of the Clantons were dead, and all members of the Earp party were wounded except Wyatt.
    5. Two of Wyatt's brothers were shot by unseen gunmen, and Wyatt hunted down and killed all of the Clantons.

    Questions to Think About do not have any single correct answer. However, any answers you give should be supported by what you read or by things you know ("I think... because...").