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Vendettas And Penny Dreadfuls: Putting The Life Of Wyatt Earp Into Perspective

How do we put Wyatt Earp into perspective?

Perhaps this is the most important of my articles about the 125th Anniversary of the Gunfight at the OK Corral.

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.

About SJ Reidhead

  • Joan Hunt

    My favorite article of the whole series! Bravo!