Chronicles of Tombstone's TurbulEnt Years

Tombstone History Archives

Frank Waters - THE COLORADO, 1946

 

(New York: Rinehart and Co., 1946, pp. 223-227)

 

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The other outlaw, the myth, I knew indirectly. Of all places to stumble accidentally on his trail, it was in the city and on my mother's sofa.

 

On it sat a weazened little old lady who each after-noon came in to rest as she peddled little bunches of withered flowers from door to door. Throughout the neighborhood she was familiarly known only as "Aunt Allie." Eighty years old and eighty pounds little, she was wholly delicious, and perpetually cheerful as her dog "Twinkle." Aunt Allie was full of tall tales. Gradually and persistently she insisted I write her "life story."

 

Reluctantly I agreed. She was the real thing---pure Americana, a yard long and a yard wide. For another, she was dependent for a cot and meals upon a family of distant relatives; her only spending money came from selling flowers, and she desperately needed the few dollars that the possible sale of her "story" might bring.

 

At first our talks went well. Aunt Allie was childish; the old years came back more clearly than yesterday, wonderful years! She had been born in Florence, Nebraska near the Mormon Winter Quarters. As a child she watched the Exodus, saw the Handcart Battalion pass by. Her chum was named Amelia-the same Amelia who later became the twenty-fifth and favorite wife of Brigham Young, and for whom he built the house in Salt Lake City that became known as "Amelia's Palace." Allie herself got married to a young teamster and made the overland trip by covered wagon to Prescott Arizona, at the height of its boom.

 

It was, so far, a rare, firsthand pioneering saga that rang vividly true to the slightest detail.

 

Then suddenly something happened that changed it completely. We arrived on paper at Tombstone. I awoke to an astonishing fact. Her husband's name was Virgil. He had two brothers, Morgan and Wyatt. The famous "Fighting Earps" of Tombstone! Decidedly this was something!

 

But promptly her miraculous memory for detail failed here. And curiously enough, she showed a sudden bitterness. Wyatt's wife had secured a man to write his biography and for several years had bragged of the jackpot it brought her. To Aunt Allie this was a sore point; she was jealous, and determined that Virgil should get his just due of fame. At the same time she would relate nothing but their family life in Tombstone-nothing of the fights and robberies, holdups and murders.

 

At this point her distant relatives came over with a paper for me to sign, guaranteeing them full monetary rights to her story in case of Aunt Allie's death. Then, unaccountably, Wyatt Earp's wife called in my absence with the threat that she would sue me should I publish anything on the subject of her deceased husband. The whole history, she maintained, had been already authentically covered in Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, by Stuart N. Lake: Wyatt's purported autobiography.

 

Meanwhile I had been offered an old house near friends in Arizona to live in for two months. It was on the Mexican border between Nogales and Tombstone. Batching here, I began to dig into what already had become the Tombstone Travesty.

 

Research on Western Americana is not an armchair job. The year before, I had lived in a miner's cabin in Cripple Creek while chasing down the truth about Stratton. The trail wound between all the high frosty peaks of the Colorado Rockies, through a dozen mining camps, to over forty old-timers still alive who remembered him.

 

This time, in the same battered old Ford, I covered the Arizona deserts from end to end. I talked to nearly fifty old cattlemen, old-timers, judges and lawyers. The Arizona Historical Society gave me old letters, old affidavits, files of yellowed newspapers. Other letters and old court records came to light. All evidence whose existence had been denied by Lake.

 

Pieced together, they all settled for me this most famous and controversial subject of Arizona. Wyatt Earp had been little more than a tinhorn outlaw operating under the protection of a tin badge until he was run out of Arizona under President Arthur's threat to declare martial law in Arizona unless the Tombstone district was cleaned up.

 

Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, his purported autobiography dictated to Stuart N. Lake, is the standard textbook adhered to by all movie and pulp-paper western writers. In it he is portrayed as the model frontiersman, a super mixture of scout, plainsman, Indian fighter, buffalo hunter marshal, and all-around Dead-Eye Dick-a Ned Buntline Special. Actually it is not an autobiography at all. It is the most assiduously concocted blood-and-thunder piece of fiction ever written about the West, and a disgraceful indictment of the thousands of true Arizona pioneers whose lives and written protests refute every discolored incident in it.

 

This is not the place to relate the historical discrepancies. Besides, I returned with a bigger and more human story. I had found what was behind Aunt Allie's silence.

 

Lake's book pictures Wyatt as a dashing single man in Tombstone boarding with his two brothers and generally protecting them with his prowess. Actually all three Earp brothers were married and went there together with their wives-in Wyatt's case, his second wife. Still in the county court is a record of a suit against Wyatt and his wife Mattie for recovery of money borrowed against their house.

 

Run out of Arizona, Wyatt abandoned her. Soon after she was found dead of poison near Wilcox, possibly suicide. Earp went on to San Diego and made money in the real estate boom. Then he went to Alaska where U.S. Marshal Albert Lows slapped his face, took his gun away from him, and ran him out of Nome. Wyatt then returned to Francisco as a sporting man. In this new role he became referee of the Fitzsimmons-Sharkey fight-which he doubtedly threw to Sharkey on an alleged foul, having heavily on him. Here he married a wealthy San Francisco woman, Josephine Sarah Marcus, who would have nothing to do with the rest of the Earps-particularly Virgil and Allie. Lake's book, written at her order, therefore omits all the homely family life of the three brothers and every possible mention of Wyatt's second wife. It is, in short, a fictitious glorification of a man written to the order of his third wife.

 

With this I returned to Aunt Allie. The whole thing was plain. Morgan had been killed in Tombstone. A younger brother, Warren, a stage driver, was shot in a saloon fight. Virgil, maimed for life, eked out a 20-year existence in the mining camps of Nevada, followed faithfully by Aunt Allie. Only Wyatt, the tinhorn outlaw, remained to reap fame and fortune as America's most glorified frontiersman.

 

Little wonder that this destitute little woman of eighty had twitches of jealousy prompted by Wyatt's third wife's regular attendance at Tombstone's gala Pioneer Festivals. Aunt Allie alone had survived and lived it all, and was destined to die unheard. For, confronted by the facts, deathly afraid that Virgil's name might be "besmirked," she still refused to tell anything that might implicate him. It was a magnificent loyalty which endeared her to us forever: by it she showed what built Arizona-the integrity on which the whole West is built, and which today refutes Wyatt Earp's grandiloquent boasts.

 

Not until she dies will the book be presented to the Arizona Historical Society merely to complete its Pioneers' file as pure Americana.

 

For books, as books, are worthless. It is what they teach that gives them their only real value. And what we need is to understand the American Myth, the psychological truth of the men and the breeds that reflect the hidden truths in us today. The Tombstone Travesty is pertinent. Not only did its long investigation teach me what was the true outlaw, but it shows how the myth began. It shows who finally has created the outlaw, one of the truest figures in the American Parade-ourselves.

 

There's no use trying to act uppish about it. With all our vaunted rationalism and realism, we can't deny him. His appeal is singularly American and profound. More than any other, he embodies the secret loneliness in all our hearts, the uninhibited lust for violence, the naked fear, the relentless unrest. Like the trapper and the prospector, he was an outcast from his kind.

 

But here is the great difference. Unlike them, the law was not an outcast of his own volition, and thus lacked the peculiar mystical strain which they knew as simply strange and impelling wanderlust.

 

Both the trapper and the prospector was the new American self-driven forward to his own strange destiny.

 

The outlaw was the negative new American cornered - this destiny and fighting against it. The only true renegade. He embodies the stark-naked fear that lies at the bottom all our hearts.

 

First of all, the instinctive fear of the ever-inimical Western American landscape with its limitless savage deserts, huge brooding mountains, and weirdly distorted cliffs-the fear of its spirit-of-place that made him feel a stranger and would not let him rest.

 

Fear, too, of its overwhelming immensities, the immeasurable space that dwarfed him to an infinitesimal moving speck. And lastly, the fear of its haunting timelessness which overemphasized the brief, dangerous and suddenly ended span of his own life.

 

Everything about the outlaw betrayed this unconscious deep-rooted fear and inferiority. Lacking real strength, he had no gentleness. Lacking all but a desperate physical courage, he gave no odds and shot on sight. Without trust he had the cold unsteady eyes which were forever wary approaching strangers and friends alike. Even his face-the long western mold of fiction with deep cheek crescents-was an unemotional mask to match his taciturnity. Appearance and action, both added up to a complete and frozen inhibition.

 

A man wholly self-conscious, forever tense and unrelaxed and completely inhibited by his secret and unadmitted fear. Hence his boasts and the proud notches on his pearl-handled guns. A man with the temperament of a schoolboy bully who forever carried a chip on his shoulder to prove his courage and who usually died with his boots on at the first instance his bluff was called.

 

He is the most to be pitied, for he suffered most. We understand this suffering. It is what makes him our favorite American.

 

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