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The Life of Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp is arguably the most famous of all the Western lawmen. He is an iconic figure whose life has inspired many books and Hollywood movies. In this solution I will explore the heroism and controversies surrounding Earp through a historiographical comparison of three very different accounts of his life. The first book by Stuart Lake entitled Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal can be seen as a glorification and justification of Earp and his deeds. The Earp Brothers of Tombstone by Frank Waters paints a dramatically different viewpoint of Earp and his clannish extended family while the final book written by Casey Tefertiller, Wyatt Earp The Life behind the Legend sets forward a more balanced and unbiased account of the man and his exploits.

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Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp (March 19th 1848-January 13th 1929) is arguably the most famous of all Western lawmen. He has become an iconic figure in American history and his name is recognized in cities and countries all over the globe. The character of Wyatt Earp has appeared in numerous films and television series from Frontier Marshal in 1934 to Tombstone in 1993 and Wyatt Earp in 1994.
The career of Wyatt Earp was diverse and notably unimpressive until October 26th 1881. It was on this date that Wyatt, his brothers Virgil and Morgan and 'Doc' Holliday participated in what has become the most famous gunfight in American history, the so called 'Gunfight at the OK Corral.' This controversial incident catapulted Earp into the public spotlight and helped to begin the creation of the legend of Wyatt Earp.
My intention in this literature review is to compare and examine three separate accounts of the life of Wyatt Earp and discuss the dramatically differing accounts of the career and personal life of this Western hero and the making of his legend. The first book by Stuart Lake entitled Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal can be seen as a glorification and justification of Earp and his deeds. The Earp Brothers of Tombstone by Frank Waters paints a dramatically different viewpoint of Earp and his clannish extended family while the final book written by Casey Tefertiller, Wyatt Earp The Life behind the Legend sets forward a more balanced and unbiased account of the man and his exploits.
In 1931 Stuart N Lake published his biography of Wyatt Earp. Lake had spent time with Earp before his death in 1929 and the former lawman almost certainly collaborated extensively in the work. Lake also interviewed a number of 'old timers' and made use of court transcripts in Tombstone, Arizona.
Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal is as a powerful glorification of the life of Earp. Lake clearly endeavors to portray Earp as a true Western hero and imbues his character with the legendary qualities that the American public would expect their idol to possess. In order to elevate Earp to heroic status Lake portrays his character in a number of different ways.
First of all, Lake defines Earp by his courage and bravery in the face of any danger. In Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, the courage of Wyatt is formed from a very young age. In 1864 while emigrating westwards as part of a wagon train at age 16 on two separate occasions he risks his life to protect his father's stock and warn his fellow travelers while under attack by hostile Sioux warriors.(1)
As a young man according to Lake, his courage and self belief did not falter. While working as a buffalo hunter Earp faced down two professional gamblers and known killers who had attempted to cheat his friends out of their wages.(2) Bat Masterson became friends with Earp at this time commented that; "No man ever saw Wyatt Earp display the white feather."(3)
During his time as a lawman Wyatt Earp continued to display great valor in confronting those who defied the law or disturbed the peace. In Ellsworth, Kansas in 1873 he faced down and arrested notorious Texan troublemaker Ben Thompson in front of several hundred of his friends.(4) While deputy marshal in Wichita, Kansas he reputedly forced Texan Mannen Clements and his fifty men to back down(5) and arrests Shanghai Pierce who was supported by forty armed cowboys.(6)
Later in 1877 while working as assistant marshal in Dodge City, Kansas, Earp confronted noted gunfighter Clay Allison who had been sent to kill him and forced Allison to leave town.(7) In Tombstone, Arizona, Earp continued to show fearlessness and bravery arresting an armed and drunken Curly Bill Brocius(8) and after the OK Corral gunfight he remained in town in spite of numerous death threats.(9) In 1931, William J Hunsaker who had worked as an attorney in Tombstone described Wyatt Earp as "a quiet, but absolutely fearless man."(10)
Lake further embellishes the legend of Earp by comparing his courage to the cowardice as other characters in the book. In the Sioux attacks on the wagon train in 1864 it was the young Wyatt not Copely the hired hand who took the bold step of warning his companions of the danger.(11) Later in Ellsworth neither Happy Jack Morco, nor Brocky Jack Norton, both lawmen paid to keep the peace would risk confronting Ben Thompson.(12)
In Tombstone, both Virgil and Morgan Earp were shot by the cowboy faction from ambushes without warning, not the acts of brave men. Ike Clanton is depicted as a craven man who begs for his life at the OK corral and Curly Bill Brocius is described as the kind of individual who would prefer to shoot a man in the back.(13)
In Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, Lake also gives Earp almost mythic warrior skills. As a fist fighter he was tough and skilled, at the tender age of twenty he was chosen to referee prizefights in railway construction camps.(14) Bat Masterson commented that his ability as a fighter was well respected in the buffalo hunting camps after he beat two 'professional bullies who had provoked him.(15) In Dodge City, according to Masterson he fought back to back battles with two fearsome Texan cowboys one of whom wore spurs to rake his opponent with.(16)
As a gun fighter Wyatt Earp was no less impressive. He was a fast an accurate shot, so confident in his own ability that he never even practiced.(17) In Wichita, he shot the pistol out of the gun arm of a drunken Texan cowboy who threatened to kill him.(18) At the OK corral it was his skill which won the gunfight for the Earp brothers.(19) Bat Masterson commented that; "I never saw the man in action who could shade him in the prime-essential of real gun-fighting-the draw and shoot against something that could shoot back."(20)
Western heroes of course not only possess the fighting skills but also the good character to go along with those abilities. Lake therefore also goes to great lengths to promote to Earp's noble disposition and honest moral fiber. Earp is described as a decent, clean living, well mannered man who avoided the dangers of alcohol.(21) In 1929, Jimmy Cairns who had worked as a deputy marshal in Wichita with Earp gave his opinion of his former partner. "He was the most dependable man I ever knew; quiet, unassuming chap who never drank and in all respects a clean young fellow."(22)
Lake also depicts Earp as a gun fighter who would go to almost any lengths to preserve human life. In the incident with the gamblers in the buffalo hunting camp under the norms of the time Earp would have been entitled to shoot the con men but he did not.(23) In Wichita he prevented a vigilante mob from executing Shanghai Pierce(24) and in Dodge only wounded the Texas assassin who had been trying to kill him.(25) Later in Tombstone, he spares the life of Ike Clanton as the outlaw would not draw his gun.(26) Bat Masterson stated that; "Where human life was concerned, Wyatt was the softest hearted ...

Solution Summary

The solution provides a comprehensive narrative-analysis of Wyatt Earp's life from differing accounts of his life from a historiographical perspective.

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