Guinn, a former journalist at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, is no stranger to history. His previous book, Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde (2009), was a finalist for a Edgar Award from Mystery Writers of America, while his history Our Land Before We Die: The Proud Story of the Seminole Negro (2002) was honored with Texas Christian University’s Texas Book Award. Guinn is probably best known, however, for a best-selling series of Santa Claus books that include The Autobiography of Santa Claus and How Mrs. Claus Saved Christmas. Guinn took a break from researching his current book project to speak with Wild West about Wyatt Earp and his book The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral—And How It Changed the American West.
‘I feel sorry for Virgil Earp, who did everything he could to avoid confrontation until pressured into it by town leaders, and for Tom McLaury, who just wanted to finish his business in town, have a little fun and go home’
Do you find any similarities between the Clantons and McLaurys and Bonnie and Clyde? Wyatt Earp and Texas Ranger Frank Hamer? Doc Holliday and Santa Claus?
Frank Hamer and Wyatt Earp both had youthful brushes with personal lawbreaking (Earp more than Hamer). But when they were employed to enforce the law, they did so with no-nonsense attitudes that didn’t preclude violence. The Clantons/McLaurys and Bonnie and Clyde exemplify crime as almost a form of what some historians call “social banditry.” They openly broke the law (the Barrow Gang in many more ways), and a lot of people didn’t mind. Doc and Santa both loved homemade chocolate chip cookies.
What was the biggest surprise stemming from your research?
I discovered what I suspect many of your readers knew all along—this history of the West and the settling of the frontier is far more complex and interesting than many people realize.
Was the shooting at the O.K. Corral justified?
The shooting was the result of an attempted arrest (or at least weapons confiscation) that spun out of control. The relationships between the eight men involved were already so twisted that it was inevitable some combination of them would interact violently at some point. It happened to occur in a vacant lot on Fremont Street in Tombstone. From the Earp standpoint the shooting was justified. From the Cowboy perspective being ordered to surrender their weapons was unjustified. There isn’t a simple answer to this question.
Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday seem an unlikely pair of friends. What forged their friendship?
Up to now that’s always been murky, beyond vague references by Wyatt to Doc saving his life while both were in Dodge City. During my research I was lucky enough to gain access to interview notes recorded by John Flood, Wyatt’s early attempted biographer. These notes were in the possession of a private collector in New England. In them Wyatt told Flood the full story of how Doc interceded when “a crowd” of rowdy Cowboys refused to surrender to Wyatt when ordered to do so. It’s a colorful tale, and like many of Wyatt’s late-life reminiscences it may be embellished. But the upshot, as he told Flood, “It was because of this episode that I became the friend of Doc Holliday ever after.”
Talk about the McLaurys. Were they just in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Frank and Tom McLaury were no better or worse than other small ranchers in southeast Arizona. They interacted with the Cowboys and the rustling trade as a matter of economic survival. They certainly weren’t going to thank the Earps for trying to impose intrusive laws that, to their minds, hampered their freedom to make their livings as they pleased. To make the social and economic marks that they wanted, the Earps needed to impress Tombstone leaders with their ability to get people like the McLaurys under control. Everybody involved had a deep sense of personal pride. If the McLaurys had ranched outside of Tucson instead of Tombstone, they probably would have lived to a ripe old age.
Among the most intriguing people associated with the gunfight, one often overlooked by historians, is Will McLaury. What did you learn about him?
Will McLaury was a shrewd lawyer who loved his brothers dearly. Had he not been overcome by a determination to see the Earps and Doc Holliday hang for murder, he probably could have helped craft a case that would have found them guilty of lesser charges. But his thirst for revenge blinded him to the realities of frontier courtrooms and justice. He’s not remembered now because most people think the aftermath of the gunfight ended when three corpses were dragged off to be buried. It’s probably fair to say Will was more responsible than anyone else (even surprise witness H.F. Sills) for the Earps and Doc leaving Wells Spicer’s courtroom as free men.
You write that the gunfight “represented an unintentional, if inevitable, clash between evolving social, political and economic forces.” Explain.
By 1881 the nature of the frontier was changing. The advantages and restrictions of law and culture were gradually eliminating previously wide-open expressions of personal freedom. Tombstone businessmen wanted a civilized, sophisticated reputation for their town so East and West coast businessmen would be willing to invest locally. That meant pressuring lawmen like Virgil Earp to crack down on Cowboy rustling and carousing. The Cowboys and their cohorts were offended by anyone telling them what they could and couldn’t do. The times were changing, and one key element—the Cowboys—refused to change. That guaranteed that some time, somewhere, there would be the kind of confrontation that had to result in violence and probably death. It happened to occur on October 26, 1881.
Of the people associated with the gunfight, who is most misunderstood?
I feel sorry for Virgil Earp, who did everything he could to avoid confrontation until pressured into it by town leaders, and for Tom McLaury, who just wanted to finish his business in town, have a little fun and go home.
Which Tombstone figure is regarded most unfairly? And who is treated too kindly?
The McLaurys seem to be considered career outlaws, which they clearly weren’t. But I think the greatest injustice is how Tombstone is recalled as some dusty, primitive camp where everybody convened on Main Street at noon for a daily shootout. It was an amazing, sophisticated place. Wyatt Earp is probably treated too kindly. He was a man of his time, good in some ways and bad in others. But because he’s been resurrected as a one-dimensional superhero, we’ve forgotten all the different aspects of his character that combined to make him who he really was. Nobody’s perfect, including Wyatt.
Why is the fight associated with the O.K. Corral when, in fact, it happened in a vacant lot?
From the earliest attempts to lionize Wyatt and dramatize this specific event, it sounded better to describe “the gunfight at the O.K. Corral” rather than “the accidental confrontation in a Fremont Street vacant lot.” Billy Breakenridge and Stuart Lake both cited the O.K. Corral, and it spread from there.
Why do you suspect Wyatt Earp might have accidentally shot Morgan?
If you look at the diagrams of the gunfight drawn by Wyatt for John Flood—not just the new one in my book but in the more familiar ones in wide circulation—you can see how it is quite possible Morgan was struck by a bullet from Wyatt’s gun. Wyatt was tussling with Ike Clanton, and his gun apparently discharged in the process. It’s no sure thing Wyatt shot Morgan, but it’s one of several possibilities regarding how Morgan was wounded in the fight. Personally, I do think it was Wyatt’s bullet.
How did the events that day, as you suggest in your subtitle, “change the American West”?
What subsequent legends have done is changed the way generations have interpreted the history of the American West. A lot of people are convinced everything was a black-and-white confrontation between good and evil, when in fact there is so much more to real history than that.
After the gunfight, the inquest and the “Vendetta Ride,” who found the most success in life?
Even though he never made his much-sought-after fortune in Arizona, Tombstone chronicler George Parsons ended up a very influential man in Los Angeles. Good for George.
How much blame lies with Josephine Earp on the spread of misinformation about the O.K. Corral and Wyatt Earp?
Josephine spent practically every waking minute of her later life trying to expunge the slightest hint of human frailty from the reputation of Wyatt and, not coincidentally, from her own. She was a world-class pain in the neck and prevaricator. But she was far from the only one gilding the Wyatt lilly. Wyatt did a lot of that himself. This was customary among frontier old-timers trying to wring income from their experiences in the West. Wyatt and, to some extent, Josephine, weren’t doing anything unique. They just succeeded to a greater degree.
Compare the Tombstone of 1881 with the Tombstone we can visit today.
One was a vital, sophisticated place, and the other is a shoot-’em-up small-scale version of Disneyland. I understand why the current citizens of Tombstone want to encourage tourism with cartoonish entertainment. God bless ‘em, and I hope they continue attracting enough visitors to keep the town alive. But the real Tombstone was very different.
Best movie about the O.K. Corral—and why?
Actually, I like the old Star Trek episode that landed Captain Kirk at the O.K. Corral.
You’ve written about Santa Claus, Bonnie and Clyde, the O.K. Corral. What’s next for you?
Well, Santa to the Barrow Gang to the O.K. Corral is a predictable career arc, right? Actually, what I do is take iconic individuals and events, write about them, and in the process try to familiarize readers with certain places and eras in history. My next project is about the late 1960s, and Charlie Manson and the Tate/LaBianca murders are how I take readers there.
What is one question you’ve wanted to be asked about the O.K. Corral shootout but haven’t?
Why should we still care about what did or didn’t happen 130 years ago at the O.K. Corral…or at least nearby? If we understand the events not only of that day but also of the months and even years leading up to it, we get a better understanding of real Western history as opposed to the one-dimensional versions we’ve been fed for so long. And when we better understand history, we better understand ourselves. There will never be a definitive book about the event—there will always be new information yet to be discovered. But I hope The Last Gunfight is a worthwhile step in the process.