Book Review: Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, 1850­1950 (Casey Tefertiller) : WW

8/12/2001 • Doc Holliday, OK Corral, Wild West Reviews, Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, by Casey Tefertiller, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1997, $30.

Western historians, especially the gunfighter specialists, all agree on these three things about Wyatt Earp–he was born in the usual way, he did physically die, and in between he resided in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, for a while. When it comes to most anything else about that famous Westerner–such as details of his life and his motivation for doing what he did or did not do, particularly during his Tombstone years–the experts and would-be experts tend to disagree, sometimes in disagreeable fashion. And so what are the nonexperts supposed to believe? Is Wyatt worthy of worship, a white knight who wore a silver badge over his good heart (see Stuart Lake’s 1931 work Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal)? Or is Wyatt worthy of condemnation, a tin-horn gambler in dire need of a vigorous debunking (see Frank Waters’ 1960 book The Earp Brothers of Tombstone)? And when you start talking about the truths and legends of Wyatt, you have to bring in his brothers, Doc Holliday, Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp, Big Nose Kate, the Clantons, John Ringo and other Tombstone types–all characters who seemingly can match Wyatt when it comes to historical controversy. It’s enough to scare some timid folks off, but not Casey Tefertiller. The author of this 403-page book (and the type is small) leans toward Lake’s heroic Earp. He says that “continued research shows that Lake was far more right than wrong,” but admits that Lake “was certainly one-sided and given to exaggeration.” The author covers Wyatt Earp’s entire life, but Tombstone takes center stage as usual. It is noteworthy that Tefertiller says in a press release from the publisher that he does not accept the work on Wyatt and friends done by Glenn G. Boyer (author of Wyatt Earp’s Tombstone Vendetta, The Suppressed Murder of Wyatt Earp, etc.), but that’s another controversial story in itself. In the foreword to Tefertiller’s book, Angus Cameron suggests that “it seems unlikely that a future writer will soon feel like tackling another biography of Wyatt Earp unless much more material is unearthed about Wyatt Earp’s later life.” Sounds like a challenge.