Saturday, September 27, 2014

4. "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp"

4.  "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp"

                                                                        September 27, 2014


       As a child, I sprawled on the living room carpet to eagerly watch episodes of the television show "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp."   Loosely based on Earp's feats as Tombstone's deputy marshal, he was the hero of the Gunfight at the OK Corral.  With those memories in mind, I tackled Steven Lubet's Murder in Tombstone, the Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp in hopes of gaining a more historically-accurate account of this legendary character's adventures.

      Lubet does not disappoint.   He brings Tombstone back to life, portraying Wyatt Earp's "tough and inflexible" approach to law with a (questionably) "minimum amount" of force against the "rough and lawless crowd"  known as Cowboys (Lubet's capitalization) (25, f 16, 14).  Tombstone's "flush economy and relative absence of established authority" create the perfect storm for the wild shoot-out of the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday against the McLaury and Clanton brothers (13, 2).  But as Lubet demonstrates, teasing out the "good guys" from the "bad" remains a conundrum.

       After gunfire left three Cowboys dead and two Earp brothers wounded, Lubet investigates the trial (hearing) at great length.  The lawmen are accused of  premeditated first-degree murder, but the proceedings are overshadowed by local politics, a weak and vengeful prosecutorial team, and two rival, biased newspapers.  The townspeople take sides, too, Republicans (Earp proponents) versus Democrats (Cowboy supporters).  The defense attorney, Tom Fitch, outmaneuvers the disorganized prosecution by cross-examining witnesses with the then-innovative approach of "sharp, leading questions" that tear the prosecution's case apart (189).  Judge Spicer, a Republican, renders his decision in less than a day:  the prosecution had not proven its case (180).  The Earps and Holliday go free.

       As Lubet notes, questions regarding Earp's innocence still remain up in the air.  He presents Wyatt as a fast-thinking hot-head, a sharpshooter and quick on the draw  -- and probably a liar on the witness stand.  Did Earp enter the OK Corral harboring a vendetta against the Cowboys, exploiting his badge to legalize murder?  Why does the feeble prosecution insist on a first-degree murder charge rather than more believable manslaughter?  Does Earp's nemesis, John Behan, distort the facts to his own advantage?  Is Judge Spicer's decision unduly influenced by elite Republican Tombstonians?  Lubet does not (cannot) provide definitive answers.  He leaves interpretation to the reader.

       A few years ago I visited Tombstone and watched a reenactment of the gunfight, complete with blazing guns, bulky black coats and Billy Clanton's grieving girlfriend (apparently a bit of romantic inaccuracy to enliven the Wild West theme).   Like the Earp TV show, notoriety trumped historical facts in the still-Republican-leaning staged event.    So-o, given my various experiences with the Wyatt Earp legend, what conclusion have I drawn?  I can't help but admire Wyatt's élan, but I believe he got away with murder.  Further,  I would change the TV show's heroic theme song lyrics that describe him as "brave, courageous and bold" to "impetuous, troublemaking and audacious."  I would, however, leave intact the last lines of the Wyatt Earp tune which still seem to ring true:

                                     "Long live his fame

                                     And long live his glory

                                     And long may his story be told."





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