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The Legend of Wyatt Earp

Published: 1/13/2014
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Portrait of American lawman and gunfighter Wyatt Earp, 1900s (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Getty Images)

The 1881 gunfight at the OK Corral lasted less than a minute, but it defined the rest of Wyatt Earp's life. While the shootout that killed three men eventually turned Earp into folk hero and became a symbol of how the West was tamed, it stoked debate during his lifetime. As Public Broadcasting Service notes in the introduction to its American Experience episode on Earp, the gunfight "blurred the boundaries of law and criminality."

See more photos in our Wild West Slideshow

Before his death in Los Angeles on Jan. 13, 1929, at 80, Earp campaigned Hollywood to tell his version of events, arguing that he, his brothers and pal Doc Holliday had been in the right when they shot and killed three outlaw cowboys.

In one of many letters to Western-movie star William S. Hart, Earp urged that his version of events be brought to the big screen. "If the story were exploited on the screen by you, it would do much toward setting me right before a public which has always been fed lies about me," he wrote.

Earp did not live to see that happen, but it did. After the best-selling and highly fictionalized Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall was published in 1931, his actions at the OK Corral were celebrated and immortalized by Hollywood in movies big and small. Here is a sampling of the actors who have played Earp or Earp-based characters.

The small screen also embraced the heroic version of Earp, most notably in the series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, which ran from 1955 to 1961. As the show's theme song intoned, "Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp/ Brave, courageous and bold/ Long live his fame and long live his glory/ And long may his story be told."

 



But Earp was a complex character. Before he made a name for himself as a lawman –– most notably in Kansas and Tombstone, Ariz. –– he was a lawbreaker, thief and gambler who spent time in jail. At one point he worked as a bouncer for a brothel owned by his brother. After his days as a lawman, he alternately made his living gambling, running a saloon and seeking mining riches.

In the 2013 biography Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life, author Andrew C. Isenberg says Earp created his own legend, turning vigilante killings into acts of justice. "Justice, in this view, is not found in fickle courtrooms, but in the character of stalwarts such as Earp, who possess an innate sense of law and order. It is a view that suggests, to paraphrase Mao, that justice grows out of the barrel of a gun," Isenberg wrote recently on The Daily Beast.

Isenberg theorizes that Earp's "extra-legal" conception of justice has had modern consequences. "The echoes are loud and clear in George W. Bush’s post-9/11 vow to bring justice to terrorists 'dead or alive,' a vow that rationalized a disregard for privacy, civil rights and due process," he wrote. "One can hear the echoes in Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s 'immigration posse,' which interdicts suspected illegal immigrants."

So what is the truth about Earp? It depends on whom you ask. In his 60s, Earp was paid $10 a day by the Los Angeles Police Department to "carry out tasks outside the law, such as retrieving criminals from Mexico," according to Wikipedia. Later, that same department arrested Earp for attempting to swindle a man during a card game.

Earp's story, Isenberg wrote, "is not about the redemptive power of violence, but the redemptive power of media. That we know Earp not as a confidence man but as a duty-bound law officer was his most enduring and successful confidence game."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

 

 

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