by andrew isenberg

Isenberg, Andrew, Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life, Hill and Wang
Farrar, Strauss, New York 2013 (296 pp. $30)

Like the Lincolns half a generation before them, the Earps migrated from the semi-feudal upper South of Kentucky, crossed the Ohio River, and settled in rapidly commercializing central Illinois where Walter Earp (the pater familias) and his large clan of sons, daughters and a few grandchildren, entertained fantasies of success in farming and town politics.

Nicholas, Wyatt’s father, failed soon enough, moved to Iowa, moved to California on the Overland Trail, then dragged his family, including sons Wyatt, James and Morgan, back to Iowa and then Illinois again. Older son Virgil had already established himself as a wanderer, booty lawman and tax farmer. Wyatt, cut loose from any notion of settled life, undertook at first to steal a horse in Indian Territory, was jailed, escaped, and entered thereafter into what would become his permanent vocation as an itinerant gambler, pimp, enforcer and, like his brother Virgil, a booty town lawman.

There are, of course, many Earp biographies, most famously Stuart Lake’s 1931 confabulation, which established Wyatt’s legend as The Virtuous Western Hero. Andrew Isenberg, author of the inestimably valuable and sad The Destruction of the Bison, adds greatly to what is currently known about Earp and his social era by not only assembling a meticulous personal history of the man and his brothers, but by illuminating an entire social milieu erected on the foundations of saloon gambling, prostitution sheltered by official town policy, cattle rustling as small-time entrepreneurship, and county politics as “legal theft”.

For example, Wyatt’s career in Wichita (which lasted barely two years), saw him established as a city policeman who earned a share of the fines imposed on drunks and miscreants, a card sharp who dealt a particularly mean brand of faro to Texas cattle drovers, and an enforcer in his brother Jim’s brothel across the Arkansas River where town law didn’t reach. In fall, when the cowboys left Wichita, Wyatt followed them to Texas and dealt crooked faro there. Wyatt emphatically was not a gunfighter or a lawman; rather, he was a tall, tough, hard-to-reach con artist who, because he didn’t touch alcohol, almost always had an advantage over his cowboy adversaries. In Tombstone, in 1881-2, he dealt faro for a living and pursued a family vendetta against the Clantons and other Cowboys in what amounted to “honor culture” killings straight out of the social comic book of Kentucky.

Beautifully rendered as a portrait of the underbelly of mining and cattle town life in the 1870s and 1880s, this new biography is a gem, and includes a touching look at Wyatt’s single life-long friendship with Doc Holliday. In later life, Wyatt continued to pursue his gambling interests through the medium of racing horses and selling bogus mining claims. He ran saloons in a number of odd-ball boom towns like Goldfield and Tonopah in Nevada (where Virgil joined him) and Eagle, in Idaho. Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life, provides the reader with a fine bibliography, along with some delightful photos.