The Hangin' Judge - #1

419px-Wyatt-earp-1923-lg“Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend” by Casey Tefertiller, copyright 1997, John Wiley & Sons, ISBN 0-471-28362-2

“Wyatt Earp is one of the few men I personally knew in the West in the early days, whom I regard as absolutely destitute of physical fear.”

HANGIN JUDGE LOGOSo said Old-West-figure-turned-Eastern-journalist Bartholomew “Bat” Masterson in 1907, in one of the essays he wrote and published on the lives of Western gunfighters. Masterson’s statement forms the basic thesis of this biography, a work that the author has loaded with anecdotes that detail Earp’s history and personality that defy the stereotypes of the man. While some of the anecdotes are attributed to hearsay or questionable witnesses at best, many of Tefertiller’s examples of Earp’s character are documented by records of the time and are historically-provable.

Tefertiller takes great pains to bust a lot of the common misconceptions that have been heaped on Wyatt Earp and his family by other authors, films and television. From the time Earp was born, he led a life that countered the stereotypic “Western lawman.”  And from his earliest adult days, he also led a life that could at best be described as “checkered.”  Far from the invincible hero portrayed in movies and television, Earp found himself on both sides of the law alternately and as the situation demanded.

For starters, Earp was born into a farming family but hated anything having to do with tilling the land, and began his career as a very young man in the West as a freight hauler with his older brother Virgil. The two ran a freight line from southern California to Salt Lake City, Utah and a second line to Prescott, Arizona. Though he returned to farming briefly at his father’s request, in his early 20s he became a lawman for the first time in Lamar, Missouri, taking a job in 1870 as the town’s constable. That stint ended abruptly and rather badly, as Earp was accused of pocketing some court fees and skipping town.

After another brief career as a hunter for a government survey team and being charged along with another couple of men of stealing horses (Earp was never brought to trial, as the trial of one of the other men ended in acquittal and the case basically disintegrated), Wyatt truly hit his stride in the lawless “cow towns” that sprang up in Kansas in the 1870s. First in Ellsworth and later in such infamous hell holes as Dodge City and Wichita, Earp would have been better described as a “peacekeeper” rather than a stereotypical gunslinger. In fact, he was said to have had a quiet, serious manner about him and was much more likely to talk his way out of trouble than use his guns. When he did resort to violence, it was more likely with his fists; Earp was said to have beaten many a man almost to the point of death, but knew when to stop before he crossed the line with them.

Another example of his style of peacekeeping was when he talked a saloon full of drovers into passing the hat to help the proprietress pay off what she owed on the saloon’s fancy piano rather than repossess it; he used the episode as an example that helped keep in line a bunch of Texas drovers who were ready to shoot up the town, telling them “they had better not get into something they couldn’t pay for.”  

The drovers left Wichita without further incident.

Earp’s lawman career kept moving west as the Kansas cow towns eventually faded away with the coming of the railroad and he sought employment elsewhere. 

The reputation he and his brothers earned at the OK Corral proved to be the one he would go down in history for, but it was just one small episode in a life that was otherwise multi-faceted.  The book also fleshes out various other characters who had a part to play in Earp’s life, such as Doc Holliday, who was described as mercurial and quick to fight, relying on his guns to do his fighting for him due to his frail physical condition; Bat Masterson, who was Wyatt’s longtime friend and fellow lawman; and the cow towns and Western culture itself, which is painted in vivid colors by Tefertiller.

Though the book, with a 1997 copyright, is obviously not new, it is fascinating and full of insight into what Wyatt Earp was like and the reasons he had for what he did (“Wyatt’s pattern was to cover up his misdeeds, not to create false glory”). The book is definitely worth reading by anyone who is interested in a thorough going-over of the Western “heroes” we most likely all grew up with.


 Western books, movies, and more both old and new that deserve a look and a possible place in your library.