Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Not-So-OK Corral

From Simon & Schuster.com
The Last Gunfight: The Real Story
of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral
and How It Changed the American West
By Jeff Guinn
(Simon & Schuster)

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
--The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

     Many films and books have been done on the subject of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Recent films include Tombstone (1993) and Wyatt Earp (1994), but there have been many more. There was even a Star Trek episode (Spectre of the Gun, 1968) in which aliens made Kirk, Spock and a couple of other crewmen relive the gunfight as the losers.
     Back when I was a teen, I recall stories about how the gunfight wasn’t really as black and white as it was presented, and that maybe the Earps and Doc Holliday weren’t the good guys in the altercation. So when I saw The Last Gunfight, I picked it up out of curiosity. I looked at the first page, describing how the night and morning before the gunfight, Ike Clanton got (and stayed) drunk and walked around telling everybody that he was going to get his gun and kill the Earps and Doc Holliday, but that Virgil Earp, a Tombstone marshal, didn’t pay it any mind. Such statements were made all the time.
     That was one of the moments when the gunfight could have been avoided, or at least postponed. The Last Gunfight then backtracks to tell the story of how Tombstone was founded, and the lives of the participants before the gunfight and all the events that led to and contributed to it. 
     Despite some one-star reviews on Amazon (mostly by people who felt from a cursory examination that the book is anti-Earp and so did not bother to read it), it’s a mostly even-handed book that seems fair to both sides. That it reveals some warts and blemishes on the Earps is apparently unacceptable to many. Still, while it may not live up to its grandiose subtitle, it places the confrontation in a political, historical and sociological context.
     The Last Gunfight reveals some surprising information about the old West, including that in Tombstone, Ariz., it wasn't permitted for citizens to carry guns around unless they had just arrived or were about to leave. The official reason for the Earps to approach Ike Clanton and his companions wasn’t that he had been threatening to kill some people, but that some of his friends were bearing arms.
     Fans of the gunfight already know that it didn’t actually take place at the O.K. Corral, but that was news to me. They probably also know that Wyatt Earp wasn’t a hired lawman at the time, but merely a deputized civilian who made his living in part from gambling. “Cowboys” wasn’t what ranchers called themselves, either, but rather a derogatory term for rustlers (although most of the rustling was across the border into Mexico, which was tolerated because the area needed the beef and Mexicans weren’t considered fully human); Ike Clanton and his companions were “cowboys.”
     Whether you believe the Earps acted heroically, merely appropriately, negligently or criminally, one thing is clear from this book: it wasn’t a classic Western shootout, just a police action that got out of hand. It was more akin to Rodney King than a duel.
     Ike Clanton, the man probably most responsible for precipitating the event by his drunken threats, wasn’t even armed at the time.
     One of the men the Earps shot and killed may not have been armed; at least, no gun was found at the scene. The Earps probably didn’t think they were going to do anything more violent than confiscate some guns.
     Instead, for whatever reason, a lot of shooting breaks out, and several people died. Later, Virgil Earp is maimed and Morgan Earp is killed, probably in retaliation, and Wyatt Earp goes on an extra-legal “vendetta ride” to kill (arrest doesn’t seem to have been a considered option) those he held responsible.
     All in all, there are few real heroes here, certainly not Wyatt (although Virgil and maybe Morgan come off better), who comes across as a frustrated, bitter man not above breaking or bending the law himself. Clanton and the cowboys don’t come off any better, though you could argue that at the time of the gunfight they weren’t doing anything to merit capital punishment.
     Some of the reviews of The Last Gunfight argue that there’s nothing new here if you’ve read other books about the O.K Corral. I haven’t, so I can’t judge, but I enjoyed this one.


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