TRUTH & MYTH: EARP, HOLLIDAY & BAT

Everyone knows the story of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the OK Corral. It’s possibly the most iconic story out of the “wild west.” But there are many more stories yet untold. I’ve been following the trail of this one for a while. Doc Holliday. Wyatt Earp. Bat Masterson.

Afternoon walk - Tombstone

Where did they meet? How did Doc Holliday — legitimately a D.D.S. (Doctor of Dental Surgery) and apparently a good one — wind up best friends with Wyatt Earp and his brothers? How did this polite, educated gentleman become a lethal gunfighter and gambler? When and how did Bat Masterson get into the mix?

The "Dodge City Peace Commission", June 1888. (L to R) standing: W.H. Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, W.F. Petillon. Seated: Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Frank McLain and Neal Brown.
The “Dodge City Peace Commission”, June 1888. (L to R) standing: W.H. Harris, Luke Short, Bat Masterson, W.F. Petillon. Seated: Charlie Bassett, Wyatt Earp, Frank McLain and Neal Brown.

John Henry “Doc” Holliday (August 14, 1851 – November 8, 1887) became a gambler and gunman out of necessity. Not quite the killer his reputation made him out to be, Doc’s reputation was part truth (he was a very good shot), mixed with rumor and publicity. Often credited with killing people he never met, the rumors were fueled by Holliday’s own personal publicity. The more dangerous he seemed to be, the less likely it was he’d be called out to really fight.

He wasn’t fond of killing people. He was famous for shooting opponents in the hand or foot, thus ending a duel without killing anyone.

Stagecoach in Tombstone

Other than as a gunfighter and gambler, Doc Holliday was a mild-mannered, well-bred southerner who was a pretty good dentist. Except for being tubercular. Tuberculosis is a career-ender for a dentist. Exactly how he met the Earp brothers and with which of the many Earps did he connect first? Lots of speculation, but no evidence that can stand up to scrutiny. When and where did Bat Masterson come into the mix?

Bat Masterson is a great character. He pops in and out of the story, shows up in the nick of time to pull someone’s iron out of the fire, then disappears back to his own story. Sounds like a supporting actor Oscar to me.

copy-75-vintage-tombstonenk-005.jpg

The OK Corral has been done to death. Can I convince someone to rewrite the story just one more time? Without zombies, werewolves, or vampires? Make it all human, in the just-before-the-turn-of-the-century west. Use the facts as we know them and make up the rest.

Interesting factoid: Doc Holliday was a cousin by marriage to Margaret Mitchell, author of “Gone With the Wind.”

We know some of the facts, but we have no way of knowing who said what or to whom. We know the players, dates, and locations. There’s documentation for that, but not how they felt or what they said when no one else was listening, or for that matter, how they met.

In the end, you might as well print the legend.

Yet, after you realize the facts don’t really form a coherent or cohesive story, you can pick your favorite version — or write your own. At some point, when you get into Western mythology, your version could be as good and possibly as true, as any other.



Categories: #American-history, #Photography, History, Marilyn Armstrong, Movies, Myths and Fables

Tags: , , , , , , ,

8 replies

  1. I liked the Gene Barry version of Bat Masterson, even if very little of it was true. I was not as fond of Hugh O’Brien as Wyatt.

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  2. Good stuff!
    “OK Corral” – a conflicted Legend.

    I got my Time Machine ready Marilyn. Jump in and be prepared to discover that nobody go it right. Maybe the Clanton/McLaury’s (always portrayed as cattle rustlers, thieves and murderers) were just misunderstood Trumpites?

    Make sure you bring your ‘shootin’ iron’.
    And hope you never have to use it.

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    • Nobody has gotten it right, probably because there were so many Earps. It was a huge family and the ones that get mentioned are just a few or many. But what is so interesting is how all these people met and became friends. Bat and Wyatt lived long and prospered. So did some of Earp’s brothers. Holliday died of TB, no surprise to anyone.

      Also, the Clanton-McLaurys were not entirely bad guys nor were the Earps always the good guys. I think the main difference was that the Earps were inclined to working as lawmen and the others, not so much.

      I’ve read a lot of this material and it’s pretty confusing especially since many of them were also related by marriage or blood. Talk about COMPLICATED. I’m not even sure anyone could write the whole story unless it was a series. There are just too many characters and too many things going on.

      We’ve been re-watching the old “Wyatt Earp” TV series and the show actually includes a lot more of the “extra” material that never made it into movies, including the erratic comings and goings of Bat Masterson — truly one of the more unique characters of the period. And pictures of him? He looks like a banker!

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      • There was one very interesting revelation by Kurt Russel on his portrayal of Wyatt: In the gunfight he didn’t move! He just stood still – and fired. Kurt figured the badguys naturally targeted whoever was moving – as this was threatening to them. Thus pretty well everyone else got shot or killed. It sounds crazy, but could very well be true.
        As you say, guess we’ll never know.

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        • The guns back then were also VERY inaccurate. If you didn’t stand still and carefully point, you could really miss the side of the barn. That’s why “duels” were fought in very close quarters. Further away and no one got hit except maybe an unlucky bystander.

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  3. There are so many fascinating characters that have come out of the so-called Wild West. I guess it’s easy to mythologise them and forget that basically these were people who went around killing other people, but the fact remains is that they make for great stories!

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    • It’s hard NOT to mythologize them, especially because there were so MANY of them. The Earps were a huge family. In addition to the brothers we see in the movies, there were three, four — maybe more? — other brothers. And the old man was an out and out thief. Also, the “good guys” and the “bad guys” were related by marriage and sometimes by blood, so whatever went on? It WAS personal!

      This is a story that needs a series, not a movie. There are too many characters to fit into a single movie and some of the side characters were really interesting.

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