Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life, by Andrew C. Isenberg, Hill and Wang (a division of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux), New York, 2013, $30
“I have doubtless made many mistakes in trying to puzzle out the details of Earp’s life,” the author admits in his acknowledgments. With all the shadows, gaps, myths, contradictions, lies and cover-ups involved, trying to sort out the truths in Wyatt Earp’s life is, as Andrew Isenberg says, a humbling process. He has picked up much of his information from the research of earlier Earp investigators and has skillfully blended it all together while providing his own conclusions (many debatable, but then what conclusions in this field aren’t?). It is a good read but will no doubt irk many fans of Wyatt, who comes across here as a not very likeable fellow who led “a life of restlessness, inconstancy, impulsive law-breaking and shifting identities.”
There is something to be said for Isenberg’s argument that Wyatt “embraced the prerogative of self-invention.” And when the author writes, “Wyatt convincingly acted the part of the upright lawman but was never willing to sacrifice gambling, prostitutes, confidence games or petty crimes to become one completely,” it almost rings true—almost. Gambling was Wyatt’s primary profession (as it was for Bat Masterson) and soiled doves went with the territory in the Wild West. That didn’t mean those times he took jobs to uphold the law and seek justice were all an “act.” In any case, no matter how many flaws the man had, it’s hard to figure this book’s title. When one brother was killed and another crippled from ambush, and the sheriff was on the side of the ambushers, Wyatt went on a so-called vigilante ride (or vendetta) in 1882. It’s hard to blame him for reacting that way, but even if you do, that was just one year in a long life, and “vigilante” doesn’t even fit his standing during those famous 30 seconds near the O.K. Corral.