Tombstone History Archives
Chronicles of Tombstone's TurbulEnt Years
Mrs. Virgil Earp and The "Tombstone Travesty"
By Gary L. Roberts
Frank Waters loved the Southwest. To him the real heroes of the frontier experience were simple folk, the hard rock miners, the nameless cowboys, the sturdy wives of forgotten men who were "the substance of lives like ours, brave and foolish and futile, but always human." In Alvira "Allie" Sullivan Earp's simple story of her life on the frontier he had an opportunity to use his remarkable gifts as a writer to advance his vision of the true pioneer spirit that he admired. Waters even began his manuscript with an unattributed quotation (which was preserved in his book) that implied a promise to honor the integrity of her story: "Old-timers complain that writers say that they want historical facts. They tell the writers a true story, but the story it can 't hardly be recognized as being what was told whet, the book is finished."
Ironically, The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, the version of "Aunt Allie's" story which was eventually published in 1960 almost thirty years after Waters began his collaboration with her, is a monument to the accuracy of the statement. His book is not one story, but two. The first is Aunt Allie's unadorned, straightforward account of her life, relating the things that were important to her. The other is the story that Frank Waters believed strongly should be told, an expose of the Wyatt Earp legend as portrayed in Stuart N. Lake's Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal which he believed was a "disgraceful indictment of the thousands of true Arizona pioneers whose lives and written protests refute every discolored incident in it."
Waters' attitude toward Allie was affectionate, even admiring, but withal patronizing too. He spoke often of her simplicity in describing those long ago times and the people she knew: "without perspective, like a child, she saw them as they were, and time has never distorted their image." Waters saw adding "perspective" as his role. In the beginning, Tombstone Travesty is a wonderful story shaped by a master story teller. Waters is mindful of a simple woman exposing her heart. He is captured by her humor, her hardscrabble charm, and naiveté. Allie's first-hand narrative moves in harmony with Waters' powerful discourse on the Westward movement. Waters' sometimes lengthy digressions serve to give context to Allie's story, flowing gracefully with her memories from childhood until she settles near Prescott, Arizona in 1877 with her husband.
Along the way, Allie watches her family disintegrate after her mother dies and her father does not return from the Civil War, she struggles to survive the hard life that becoming an orphan forces upon her. She strikes out on her own, meets and marries Virgil Earp, and joins her husband on a westward trek with other members of the Earp family which will eventually bring her to Prescott. Allie's story of life in Prescott and the third person narrative that Waters supplies for much of it, is, in many ways the most charming portion of both the manuscript and the book. It is pure Americana. Though it describes difficult times, Allie conveys a sense of contentment and happiness. Her story is poignant and real. She seemed to have found her place. Virgil Earp emerges as an honest, hardworking man trying to build a better life, though hot-tempered on occasion. He also pins on a badge, first at Dodge, to help his brother Wyatt, and then in Prescott.
It was at Prescott where Allie Earp first saw the violence that sometimes accompanied law enforcement. She remembered the gunfire and running into the willows near her home searching for Virgil to make sure he was all right. She found him there along with the body of a young man who had been hurrahing the town. "I can't say what I saw in that little clearin' in the cottonwoods and willows," she remembered. "I just see them there, the creek and trees and all, so awful plain with that young man's head in the leaves, and his dark curly red hair, and the cigarette still smokin' in his mouth like the six- shooters in his hands. Three little lines of blue smoke risin' up so peaceful, like Indian signal fires way up on the hills. And him dead. And me wondering if Virge..." It would not be the last time that gunfire would send Allie Earp running.
The Prescott days end with the arrival of Jim and Wyatt Earp, their wives in tow, bound for Tombstone to take advantage of the silver boom. Allie and Virgil join then, and, at that point, in a real sense, Allie's story ends, and Frank Waters's "perspective" takes over. In part three of the manuscript, Allie's voice becomes anecdotal, and Waters shifts from supporting narration to building a case, essentially piling quote upon quote to prove that Wyatt Earp was a con man, thief, robber, and eventually murderer. His style and form-oddly virulent--overwhelm Allie's story and reduce her to an accomplice in his effort to expose Wyatt Earp as a scoundrel.
There is a hint of what is to come earlier in the manuscript. When Allie reaches Dodge City in her narrative and encounters Wyatt and Morgan Earp for the first time, Waters's voice suddenly becomes hard and taut, and the shift in style and method is sharp enough to be startling. The flow of the story is interrupted by a collection of quotes from sources other than Allie directed at diminishing Wyatt Earp character as a peace officer. But none of the material about Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, and Wyatt's position in Dodge City that is directly attributed to Allie in The Earp Brothers of Tombstone appear in the Tombstone Travesty manuscript.
The Dodge City section of the manuscript is useful because it provides evidence that Virgil was a peace officer in Dodge in 1876 and recounts family stories of their sojourn there and at Peace, Kansas, where the Earps wintered in 1876-77 before moving on west in the spring. It was at Dodge, too, that she met Wyatt and Morgan Earp for the first time. She recounted that at that first meeting, she playfully stuck out her foot, and that Morgan pinched her toes and laughed. Clearly, she warmed to Morgan at once while she found Wyatt strangely cold and distant. In the Travesty manuscript she says simply that Wyatt returned to work without speaking to her, but in Earp Brothers, Waters has Allie say that Wyatt gave her a "cold and nasty look" when she stuck out her foot. In Tombstone Travesty, she asked Virgil about Wyatt's reserved demeanor, to which Virgil quipped, "Well, Allie, I'll tell you. Wyatt's ignorant, and he's afraid if he talks other people will find it out."
In the original version of Tombstone Travesty, Waters combined the fruits of his own research with Aunt Allie's feisty commentary about her life in Tombstone which was surprisingly free of commentary on the Tombstone war. In The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, on the other hand, he put the most damning of his accusations against Wyatt Earp into Allie's mouth. Waters would insist that Allie detailed Wyatt Earp's secret life as a criminal in Tombstone and exposed Wyatt's disgraceful treatment of his second wife, Mattie, along with his public affair with Josephine Sarah Marcus, who would become his third wife. And yet, none of those things appear in Allie's discourse in Tombstone Travesty. Indeed her only comment about the cowboy troubles was, "About all these things. . .I ain't knowin' or sayin'."
Moreover, when Waters presented the finished manuscript to Allie for review, she denounced it as a "pack of lies," refused him permission to publish it, and threatened to sue him if he did. Waters admitted in 1946 that "she would relate nothing but her family life in Tombstone-nothing of the fights and robberies, holdups and murders." Waters implied that Allie's silence lay in her desire to protect Virgil, "her magnificent loyalty," but that is a conclusion that is not borne out by the internal evidence of the Tombstone Travesty manuscript. Given Waters's commitment to debunking Stuart Lake and exposing Wyatt Earp, it seems highly unlikely that Waters would have omitted any negative commentary about Wyatt or the events of the Tombstone years from Allie herself. His agenda is the strongest evidence that he tampered with Allie's story. Apparently, to make his case, Waters felt justified in giving his conclusions the weight of Allie's voice by expressing them through her in the final book.
"For books, as books, are worthless," he wrote. "It is what they teach that gives them their only real value." Waters said what she would not say and put it into her mouth. Allie's story was corrupted to serve Waters's "higher purpose."
Two caveats are necessary in evaluating Allie's story. The first is that Aunt Allie, like all old-timers, was subject to the normal lapses of memory that occur when recalling past events that occurred years, even decades, earlier. Allie was very clear in her message, but some inaccuracies attributable both to failing memory and point of view do appear. She occasionally telescopes time in relating events, and confuses some things as in her description of the street fight where she has Virgil at home the night before. But these lapses do not distract from the value of Mrs. Allie Earp's reminiscences.
The second consideration is more cautionary. In light of the ways Waters "enhanced" Allie's story in The Earp Brothers of Tombstone and put words into her mouth that she never said, some doubt naturally falls on the authenticity of Allie's words in Tombstone Travesty. If Waters tampered with Allie's word in the published work, is it not possible that he enhanced what she said in the original manuscript? It certainly is possible, but in light of Waters's purpose, very doubtful. The best argument for the reliability of the original manuscript is what she talked about in it.
The story is a personal one, surprisingly free of commentary and, especially, of judgments about the familiar events that Waters doubtlessly wanted her to describe. For the most part she talks about what she saw, her worries about Virgil and the rest of the family, her observations about simple everyday things. She touches on legendary events, of course, but only as they directly affect the family. In the book, of course, things are very different. There Allie implicates Wyatt Earp in all kinds of illegal and immoral activities, most of which also appear, curiously enough, in the memories of Kate Elder, which Waters had not seen when he wrote the original manuscript, but had gone over closely by the time he finished the book. So what of Aunt Allie's simpler story as presented in Tombstone Travesty? What did she say and what did her story, as opposed to Frank Waters' story, teach us?
First, Allie Earp's story is a woman's story-a nineteenth century woman's story, the story of a woman whose only real break was meeting a tall, handsome stage driver named Virgil Earp, a woman who despite real hardship and loss, kept a wonderful attitude toward life. She talked about the things she knew, about home life and friends and family, about happy times and bitter times, about love and laugher and pain and hardship, about the stuff that memories are made of. They are the kinds of things that ought to be expected of an ancient woman remembering.
She provides a vivid portrait of the town of Tombstone when she first arrived. She could be insightful, noting, "Everything was nice if you had money, but we didn't so it wasn't." She took real pride in telling how she and Mattie "made a lot of money" using the sewing machine she brought with her from Prescott, helping to support the family until the men could find work, adding later, "That was our life: workin' and sitting home. Good women didn't go any place."
In common with most women of her time, she did not mix in her husband's business or care to. She knew nothing of Cochise County politics and little about the "cowboy problem" or the activities of the brothers Earp outside of the home. What she may have heard about stage robberies and killings and public controversies and private intrigues, she overheard from men talking over dinner or at the door of her home. She cooked and sewed and gossiped and sometimes sneaked away to see the sights of Tombstone and never thought of herself as mistreated. She was plain-spoken, funny, and loved her family-the Earps, all of the brothers, even "bossy" Wyatt. Tombstone Travesty provides a glimpse of a close-knit family with the kind of problems that seem rather typical of brothers and in-laws living so close together.
Most of her story is about those family things. Perhaps it was the loss of her own family which she details in the early pages of her story (fortunately, this part survived in the book with little alteration) that explains the importance of family to her. And it is notable that to her the "big story" was Virgil's 1899 reunion with the daughter he did not know he had, the offspring of his youthful marriage to Ellen Rysdam back in Pella, Iowa, before the Civil War. Allie told the story as if it were a triumph, perhaps remembering that her own father never came home from that same war.
Actually, she does a better job than Waters of putting the Tombstone story in perspective. In a manuscript of more than three hundred pages, Allie's quotes (along with some paraphrasing by Waters) account for about ninety pages. Of those, approximately eight are devoted to Dodge City, and only twenty eight to Tombstone, which means that thirty-six pages, or a little more than a third of her story, are about the famous times of Wyatt Earp.
The Earps were Allie's family. She was intimidated by Nicholas Porter Earp, the boys' father, and seemed to love their mother Virginia Cooksey Earp. She found the boys' half brother, Newton, and especially Newton's wife, Jennie, a bit stuffy and overly religious. She did not say much about James, except that he was a "square gambler" and managed to stay out of "fusses" in contrast to Wyatt and Virgil. Morgan was her favorite brother-in-law, from the moment she met him in Dodge, right up to the night he was murdered. Warren she treated more as a child, although her memories of him at Tombstone place him there earlier than many accounts suppose and give him a larger role in the events that transpired in Tombstone.
Of Wyatt, she wrote, "I never could figure him out, he was that crusty. But right off he puzzled me." She portrays Wyatt as serious, quiet, and self-important, the most like his father of all of the boys, "always thinking of himself." Allie delighted in telling the story about Wyatt hiding next to a hot stove to avoid Miss Wynn who wanted him to sell raffle tickets for her. But Allie also admitted that "Wyatt was brave when it came right down to brass tacks." Unlike The Earp Brothers of Tombstone where Allie's comments about Wyatt are harsh and bitter, in Tombstone Travesty her portrait of him is more balanced, even affectionate. There is never the slightest hint that Wyatt Earp was a bad man or outlaw.
Two anecdotes illustrate both Allie's view of him and ways that Waters altered her story for the book. When the family was preparing to leave Prescott for Tombstone, a dispute arose over whether there was room for Allie's sewing machine in the overloaded wagon they all shared. In The Earp Brothers, it is Mattie who persuades the others to find room for it, but in the Travesty manuscript, it is Wyatt who speaks up and says, "'Oh, we can get it in someplace'-and then under his breath in a whisper, 'but I don't know where."' This is but one example of how Frank Waters deleted any positive comments about Wyatt Earp, even the slightest compliment.
Another illustration involves the changes made in Allie's description of a night at the theater in Tombstone. Allie delighted in telling the story of Wyatt becoming so engrossed in a melodrama in which a young boy begged a villainous detective to return his money and not send him to prison, that he stood up, put his hand on his gun, and did not sit down again until the detective gave the boy the money, Wyatt growling that it was a good thing he did. "That was Wyatt for you," Allie recalled. "He wasn't the one to stand by and see wrong done to an innocent boy anytime. You'll remember that because the same thing happened later on a real stage-the street outside."
The "real stage" incident she referred to was the rescue of Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce. She recalled that the morning after going to see the play, Warren Earp came charging up to the house on horseback and called for her to help him saddle some horses. When Warren rode off at a gallop with the horses in tow, she followed on foot and saw the crowd in front of Vogan's Bowling Alley. "They were watchin' Wyatt and Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce gettin' ready to ride away in a wagon," Allie said in sharp contrast to the version in Earp Brothers in which Ben Sippy, John Behan, and Virgil are in the wagon, and Wyatt is not mentioned at all. Now, in both cases, Allie had the chronology of events wrong. The theater incident took place after the Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce incident. But the critical fact is that in her brief comments in the Travesty manuscript version, Allie clearly gives the central role in the affair to Wyatt, whereas in the Earp Brothers book, her extended commentary on the affair barely mentions Wyatt Earp at all.
The one thing about Wyatt that really seemed to bother Allie was not based on anything he did at Tombstone. Rather, she was genuinely incensed over Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal and the portrayal of Wyatt as the hero.
"Why to hear it, you'd think Wyatt bossed Jim, Morg and Virge like they was schoolboys, and he supported them, and told them when they could shave. That ain't right. We was all there together. We all worked hard for a living, like Mattie and me sewing." Aunt Allie was especially angry that Frontier Marshal did not mention Mattie. "Wyatt's wife was as fine a woman as ever lived," she said. "She worked like a nigger. Stuck with him through thick and thin. And was there every minute…Mattie's got more comin' to her than that."
Allie was closest, of all her sisters-in-law, to Mattie. She said almost nothing about Bessie, Jim's wife, and little more about Lou. Mattie, though, was her companion, a "sweet girl," and she never forgave Wyatt for ignoring Mattie in Frontier Marshal.
There is nothing, however, in Tombstone Travesty about Wyatt abusing his second wife. None of the black episodes that are included in The Earp Brothers of Tombstone are there, except for the time that Allie and Mattie sneaked out to "see the sights" and came home intoxicated from too much wine, and then the only thing she says is that Wyatt was pouring coffee down Mattie to sober her up. All she ever told Waters was that after Tombstone, Wyatt and Mattie quarreled and Mattie left. She hinted at one point that she would explain why Wyatt did not mention her, but the only explanation she provides is a brief portrait of Josephine Earp, Wyatt's third wife, whom she detested. Allie blamed the third Mrs. Wyatt Earp for keeping Mattie out of Frontier Marshal, not her brother-in-law.
One of the most revealing passages in the Travesty manuscript, in light of what Waters would later have Allie say in The Earp Brothers of Tombstone about Wyatt flaunting his affair with Sadie in Tombstone and in light of Glenn Boyer's claimed reminiscences of the third Mrs. Earp in I Married Wyatt Earp, is this brief passage about Sadie, "She don't have much to do with me or what's left of the Earps right now. Only she keeps rubbin' it in about her gettin' a hundred dollars ever' single month from Wyatt's book. And I heard when the man wrote it she was in the room to listen to everything that went on. And when Wyatt got to sayin' some things she'd say, 'Tsch - Tsch!' and that didn't go in. She was awful proud of Wyatt and never wanted nothing bad said about him. And when she goes to Tombstone now lots of new Tombstone people believe she was there in the old days herself [Italics added]."
In contrast to The Earp Brothers of Tombstone which contains extended passages about Kate Holliday, Bessie Earp, and the rest discussing Wyatt's clandestine operations as a criminal, about Hattie Earp's alleged affair with one of the McLaury boys, about Wyatt's involvement with Josephine Sarah Marcus, or about her knowledge of the building trouble-all attributed to Aunt Allie, herself-she simply says in the manuscript, "So Wyatt's wife Mattie, Morg's wife Lou' and myself, we never realized what things were comin' to. The men didn't talk much about it at home for fear of scarin' us I guess."
All the Earp wives knew was that Virge was "nervous," and Wyatt was "so mean and crusty there was no bein' around him." Morgan reassured the women that Wyatt had a lot on his mind, but he did not specify what.
Nor is there much about the Earps' friends and enemies. She only mentions Doc Holliday a few times. Of her meeting Doc (in Tombstone, not Dodge, as in the book), she said simply, "1 almost fell over when a slim' cold and disagreeable man came in. It was Doc Holliday, Wyatt's old pal. I'd heard about him a dozen times and how he had saved Wyatt's life in Kansas by sticking up a man who was goin' to shoot Wyatt. With him came the woman he lived with, Kate Elder. She was called Big Nose Kate on account of that very thing." That is her only mention of Kate.
Certainly, there are no "memories" of Kate's visiting her home and engaging in all those conversations described in the book. Allie's only other comment about Doc is that "He wasn't smart and witty. He was cold and disagreeable and I never liked him. Nor did anyone else." She is more positive about Bat Masterson: "Bat Masterson wasn't a swaggerin' tough hombre. He was a fine lookin' man." Then she paid him her ultimate compliment, "He looked like an Earp."
At one point in his narrative, Waters takes a backhanded slap at Lake for suggesting that Wells Fargo operatives Fred Dodge and J. B. Ayers were known only to the Earps. "As a matter of sober fact," he says in the manuscript, "half the town knew of them." Allie confirms that a "Wells Fargo secret detective" visited Virgil on a regular basis. She does not identify him as Fred Dodge, but what she says about him is consistent with Dodge's testimony that he checked in with the Earps on a regular basis.
Only when the Tombstone troubles touched Allie's life directly-in the Fremont Street fight, on the night her husband was shot down by assassins on the streets, on the awful night when her favorite brother-in-law, Morgan, was murdered, and when she sat on a train at Tucson, clutching a revolver to protect her man-did she talk about them, and then it was about the things that happened close at hand: descriptions, conversations, concerns, and emotions, not politics or personalities or vengeance or blame. She does not speculate on what it all meant nor even about who was wrong or right. She trusted Virgil, and that was enough.
Her account of the Fremont Street fight focuses on her concern for Virgil, but there are bits and pieces that are touching: Her concern for Billy Clanton, "a nice lookin' boy, only eighteen, and such a pretty shirt and neckerchief he had on," a young deputy crying and asking Virge, "What'll I do, Chief? What'll I do now?" Virge's rage at John Behan, the Earps barricading themselves in the house, the funeral of the McLaurys and Billy Clanton turning into a drunken party "almost like a Fourth of July celebration."
By Christmas of 1881, Allie recalled, "me and Lou believed all the trouble had blown over." Then before the leftovers of Christmas dinner were all gone, Virgil was shot, and Allie was once again running through the streets of Tombstone to find her husband. She remembered Virge telling Wyatt not to let the doctor take his arm, and Wyatt promising not to let him remove the shattered limb despite the protests of the doctor. Her account of Morgan's death provided a poignant view of Morgan's mood the night he was murdered, inquiring about Virgil and saying wistfully, "Wish he'd get better. I'd like to get away from here myself tonight!" She recalled Wyatt coming to her afterwards and saying, "Allie. . . you and Doc [Goodfellow] fix up Virge so he can get out. Then I can go get those fellows."
She remembered leaving Tombstone under guard and thanking God "I was taking Virge away livin' and breathin' beside me." She remembered the tense hours at Tucson the night Frank StilwelI died and Wyatt running along side the train holding up a finger and shouting, "It's all right, Virge. We got one! One for Morg!" Afterwards, she said, "We kept worryin' about Wyatt." None of these events are mentioned in Waters' book. In the confusion at the Tucson railroad station, a can of salve for Virgil's back spilled all over their clothes. But they were soon out of Arizona. For good.
Aunt Allie's story in Tombstone Travesty is far more compelling than the story attributed to her in
The Earp Brothers of Tombstone. Her simplicity and tone in Tombstone Travesty stand in sharp contrast to the details of the Earps' questionable activities and to the bitter diatribes attributed to her in The Earp Brothers of Tombstone. Frank Waters recognized that Aunt Allie "was the real thing-pure Americana, a yard long and a yard wide," but in the end, he was not content to let her tell her story. He had to improve upon it to serve his greater "truth," and in the process he not only betrayed Aunt Allie but also his own noble dream.
Author's Note: All quotations from Allie Earp in this article are from the 1934 version of Tombstone Travesty, marked "original version." The Frank Waters Papers, the Center for Southwest Research, also includes the 1959 version which is essentially the manuscript for the book. I have also used quotations from Frank Waters, all of which come from The Colorado (New York: Rinehart and Co., 1946, pp. 223-227), which is important because it reveals much about the transition from Tombstone Travesty to The Earp Brothers of Tombstone. Frank Waters' interview notes with Allie Earp are not part of the collection files in the Frank Waters Papers, so that conclusions drawn here are based upon the stark contrasts between the original manuscript and the published book.