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Wild West - August 2010 - Letters from Readers

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: June 03, 2010 
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'There's a very important element of classical drama involved with Wyatt that we don't have with Virgil—Wyatt's good guy/bad guy friendship with Doc Holliday'

Pony Express Rider
I just perused the April 2010 edition of your magazine. On P. 31 the caption identifies the photo as an 1861 photo of a Pony Express rider. This cannot be. An 1861 photo in the West would invariably be a daguerreotype or variant thereof. This photo clearly dates much later. The Montana-style hat, combed-in-front hairstyle, clothes and accoutrements date this photo to around 1900–1915. Another giveaway is the rifle stock—clearly not an 1850s musket/Sharps model. Please correct your error in a subsequent issue and refrain from future avoidable and unnecessary mistakes. Your magazine deserves much better.

Russ Kane
Via regular mail

The editor responds: Thanks for your input. The photo, courtesy of the National Archives, was originally captioned, "Frank E. Webner, Pony Express rider." The date usually given for the photo is "circa 1861," although it has also been dated 1887. In our limited caption, we hinted the image might be from a later period and the information incorrect by writing, "No complete list of the riders survive." We have not come across any other mention of a "Frank Webner" with the Pony Express. By the way, the full image also shows an unidentified Indian woman and another horse.

Earp Talk
The December 2009 issue of Wild West featured one of my favorite researchers and writers. Lee Silva has once again demonstrated his research skills and given us two more great articles—on Virgil Earp ["In a Brother's Shadow"] and Dora Hand (the latter written with his wife, Sue, now deceased). The sidebar by Don Chaput added gravy to the potatoes. It might interest readers to know that Silva's Volume II, Part 1 of Wyatt Earp: A Biography of the Legend has come out. Lee is at the top of the list when it comes to Earp researchers, not to mention his vast knowledge of firearms.

Scott Dyke
Green Valley, Arizona

I read with interest Lee Silva's "In a Brother's Shadow," on Virgil Earp. It is a fine article, and I agree with its conclusions. But having researched Earp's visits to Portland, I'd like to correct a few points. I determined there was no evidence in any of the news coverage or in any memoir of the visit by Virgil's family that his wife, Allie, accompanied him as the author states. In short, available evidence shows he came alone. Also, Virgil's grandson George Law, at age 90 in 1976, remembered that upon Virgil's death in Goldfield, Nev., in 1905, Allie wired Virgil's daughter Nellie Jane, If you want your father, send for him, or Wyatt will claim the body. George related that his mother sent to Goldfield for Virgil's body and had him brought to Portland, where he was buried in a family plot owned by his granddaughter Maud's widower. Virgil was buried on October 29, 1905, beside Maud.

One more thing: Silva portrays Virgil's grave as "forgotten by all but a few dedicated Earp historians." When I came to pay my respects and inquired at the cemetery as to where to find his grave, one employee simply turned to another and said, as though on a first name basis for something routine, "He's here to see Virgil." She informed me that Virgil's burial site is the most visited in Portland's large and historic River View Cemetery. The cemetery lists 32 notables buried there, including Virgil Earp.

Mark Dworkin
Thornhill, Ontario, Canada

I enjoyed Lee Silva's examination of Virgil Earp's career in your fine magazine. But I believed Silva overlooked a couple of very important points in why Wyatt overshadowed Virgil so significantly historically. First, there are many "famous" Western lawmen (such as Charlie Siringo, Bill Tilghman and James Masterson) whom today's Joe Six-Pack would not know from SpongeBob SquarePants.

I think one element of Wyatt's enduring fame is that he was a pretty shameless self-promoter. Stuart Lake's book was probably the start of that. And Wyatt had developed meaningful ties with the film industry, which was emerging as a creator of legends and a shaper of opinions. Further, there's a very important element of classical drama involved with Wyatt that we don't have with Virgil—Wyatt's good guy/bad guy friendship with Doc. That's one reason the story of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid is so compelling. And it goes all the way back to Shakespeare: Think Othello and Iago.

If you think about all the film versions of the Earp saga, Holliday is the catalyst that makes the story work in most of them. In the Earp-Holliday relationship, we explore the theme of redemption through friendship, just as in the Garrett-Billy relationship we explore the theme of justice in spite of friendship. Compelling drama!

Brian Baker
Saugus, Calif.

Lee Silva responds: In his 1994 book Virgil Earp: Western Peace Officer, Don Chaput says Allie was with Virgil in Portland. I recently checked with Don, but he no longer has his sources. In his 1980 book The Earps Talk, Al Turner quotes a 1958 letter by George Bertrand, the grandson of Alex Bertrand, who married the daughter of Virgil's daughter Jane Law, and this appears to be the most direct primary source about Virgil's first visit to Portland to meet Jane. Bertrand mentions only that Virgil went to Portland, without noting whether Virgil's wife Allie went with him.

I am not familiar with the 1976 memoirs of Virgil's grandson George Law that Mark Dworkin mentions. Mark is a dedicated researcher, however, and I believe that his information about Allie Earp's willingness to send Virgil's body to Portland is accurate. But it is possible that Allie's message to Virgil's daughter Jane was a response to a request by Jane, not an initial offer. So, for me, the question still remains: Why did Allie send Virgil's body to Portland instead of burying him near her in California?

As for the popularity of visitors to Virgil's gravesite today, when I visited it in 1989, it was so seldom visited that even the cemetery staff didn't know where it was until they looked it up for me. So I assume the 1993 movie Tombstone and 1994 movie Wyatt Earp had a lot to do with the increase of visitors to Virgil's grave.

In my 2002 book Wyatt Earp: A Biography of the Legend, Volume I, The Cowtown Years, I came to the conclusion that most of the "misfacts" in Stuart Lake's 1931 biography Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal can be traced to Wyatt and not Lake. But I also state that I believe Wyatt did this not out of braggadocio but out of the humble belief his story needed buttering up so it would sell better. In fact, after all the publicity of the 1896 scandal when Wyatt, as referee, was accused of fixing the heavyweight fight between Tom Sharkey and Bob Fitzsimmons, Wyatt clammed up and did very few interviews for the remaining 32 years of his life. So he can hardly be accused of "shameless self promotion." As Lake wrote in a letter, he had to pry information out of Wyatt word by word when he was interviewing him. Yes, Wyatt did make friends with Hollywood movie legends William S. Hart and Tom Mix (both of whom were pallbearers at Wyatt's funeral). But I have found no evidence that Wyatt had other important Hollywood "ties" or that he ever got paid for any movie "consulting" he might have done.

And yes, Wyatt's link with not only Doc Holliday but also Bat Masterson, Bill Tilghman, Charlie Bassett, Luke Short, Dodge City, Tombstone, John Ringo, Curly Bill Brocius, the Clantons, the McLaurys and the "O.K. Corral shootout" has vaulted him into the top name of 21st-century Old West icons.

No Fan of Fanning
In the June 2010 "Guns of the West" department, a sentence in Lee Silva's article reads in part, "…most gunmen were accustomed to rapid firing their single-action revolvers by 'fanning' the hammer." The words "by fanning" were substituted during the editing process for Silva's words "by manually re-cocking the hammer." The fanning statement is false, and the editors regret the error. The truth is quite the opposite, as Silva writes in Volume I of Wyatt Earp: A Biography of the Legend: "The art of fanning was disdained by professional gunmen in the shoot-'em-up days of the Old West because of its lack of accuracy." Silva will explore fanning in more detail in the October 2010 "Guns of the West" and for good measure will have a feature article on the third most famous Earp brother after Wyatt and Virgil—Morgan.

Send letters to Wild West, 19300 Promenade Dr., Leesburg, VA 20176, or e-mail us at WildWest@weiderhistorygroup.com. Please include your name and your town.



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