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Wild West - February 2011 - Letters from Readers

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: December 02, 2010 
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'The gunfight made Tombstone the major tourist and history buff destination it is today. Since it is the pivotal town attraction, why not render the site to be historically accurate?'

Benefit of the Doubt
I am always amazed by Earp apologists. Lee Silva writes in his October 2010 article ["The Mysterious Morgan Earp"], "In those days prostitution was often considered no less moral then, say, the banking business." It appears that Morgan and Wyatt Earp were charged as pimps. From the article, pimping must have been a highly respectable profession in Peoria. That is why they lived in the "red light" district in houses of prostitution. Perhaps someone could do some research on how many bankers were arrested for banking during those years. Which of the "wives" of the "Fighting Pimps" were not prostitutes?

According to Wyatt, through Stuart Lake, he was buffalo hunting in the Texas Panhandle in spring 1872. Arrest records seem to show him pimping in Peoria in February, May, August and September, and he was at his father's farm in June. "The brothers may have been between buffalo hunts, just 'living' there," the article says. Perhaps they hunted buffalo during the week and returned to Peoria weekends. It is only a 2,000-mile round-trip. Probably Wyatt had a magic horse. We know he later had a magic gun.

Of course, we always want to give Wyatt the benefit of the doubt, even when there is no doubt. He disarmed Ben Thompson in Ellsworth, even though he was not in Ellsworth at the time and the local newspaper did not mention the incident. Wyatt said Ned Buntline had Colt build five Buntline Specials (the magic gun) and presented one to Wyatt. Which issue of the Dodge City newspaper reported the visit of Buntline, one of the best-known men in America at the time? Where is the Buntline Special ever mentioned prior to the publication of Lake's book in 1930? Of course, we always want to give Wyatt the benefit of the doubt.

The famous Tombstone gunfight happened when recently appointed city marshal Virgil Earp appointed three deputies—Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday—to help him disarm cowboys armed in violation of the city ordinance. If Virgil wanted to arrest men illegally carrying weapons, he could have started at the Alhambra Saloon the night before. Wyatt, Morgan and Doc, not deputies at the time, were obviously armed when they tried to get Ike Clanton into a gunfight. The next day Wyatt, still not a deputy, pistol-whipped Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury in separate incidents. McLaury was unarmed then and later when he was shot to death at the famous gunfight. Of course, we always want to give Wyatt the benefit of the doubt.

Alan Dodson
Garland, Texas

Lee Silva responds: It appears Mr. Dodson may have fallen victim to many of the old anti-Earp and pro-Earp myths. As far as your last point, Virgil Earp had appointed his brothers Wyatt and Morgan special policemen before the day of the gunfight. For more on Ben Thompson and the Buntline Special Colt, I humbly suggest he read my Wyatt Earp: A Biography of the Legend, Volume I: The Cowtown Years. Also see Roger Jay's article "'The Peoria Bummer': Wyatt Earp's Lost Year", from the August 2003 Wild West.

Morgan Earp's Wife
The October 2010 issue of Wild West is special for me and those who follow the writings of experts. Author Lee Silva has presented an outstanding piece on Morgan Earp. Just to add my two cents. Morgan's common-law wife, Louisa, was supposedly a Harvey Girl, but that, like much in Earpiana, is in doubt. Her name was pronounced "Lew-I-za," according to the family, as they informed Earp historian Glenn Boyer. The inclusion of the article on Steve and Marge Elliott's museum is quite noteworthy, as any Earp/Tombstone buff will want to stop and see this important display.

Scott Dyke
Green Valley, Ariz.

Editor's note: Trying to put together the scattered information known about Morgan Earp is no easy task, and facts are scarce when it comes to detailing many of his activities, especially when he was in Montana Territory. For instance, Silva mentioned the possibility that Morgan bested Billy Brooks in a Montana gunfight but says there is no hard evidence. Several readers pointed out that the Billy Brooks of Kansas pictured on P. 31 of Silva's article, was not the Billy Brooks reportedly shot by Morgan. More on the Billy Brooks of Kansas appears in Robert DeArment's 2010 book Deadly Dozen: Forgotten Gunfighters of the Old West, Vol. 3. (That book is reviewed in the same October 2010 issue.) For more on Morgan Earp (and perhaps the Billy Brooks of Montana), we'll have to wait until Kenneth B. Vail or some other researcher publishes new information.

Resurrect Gunfight Site
I visited Tombstone in July 2010 [and] was shocked to see how absurd the gunfight site appeared. The gunfight in Tombstone on October 26, 1881, began in the vacant lot on the south side of Fremont Street between Fly's boardinghouse and the Harwood house. The fight spread out onto Fremont Street. At no time was the fight ever on the property of the O.K. Corral. Currently, a high brick wall divides the lot from the street, and the Harwood house site is a vacant space, ruining the effect of the narrow nature of the actual vacant lot (about 15 feet wide) where the gunfight began. The tight margins of the lot gave an impact to the fight, because smokeless powder had not been invented until 1885, thus after the first few shots the smoke from the firearms would have caused a foglike atmosphere billowing out from the lot onto Fremont Street.

The reason the fight was later dubbed "The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" was partially due to Wyatt Earp drawing an overview sketch of the fight in 1926 at the ripe old age of 79 during an interview with an early biographer in Los Angeles. He incorrectly placed the action beginning in a dirt alley about 50 yards east of the actual fight location. This alley was the rear exit of the O.K. Corral, on Allen Street. The gunfight made Tombstone the major tourist and history buff destination it is today. Since it is the pivotal town attraction, why not render the site to be historically accurate?

Mike James King
El Cajon, Calif.

Lee Silva responds: The original Fly's boardinghouse and the Harwood house no longer exist. But the new Fly's is built approximately on the site of the old one. The owner of the O.K. Corral has installed an iron railing about 15 feet from the wall of the new Fly's, so that space between the railing and Fly's now simulates the vacant lot where the shootout took place. When I narrated the 125th anniversary of the shootout, bleachers were installed on the vacant space where the Harwood house originally stood, and the audience looked directly at the shootout site from the side of the lot. Unfortunately, the owner had to build the high wall along the front of the shootout site on Fremont Street to keep tourists from coming in the back way without supervision. In addition, as you mention, the gunfight spilled out onto Fremont Street, which is now the major highway through Tombstone. So that part of the gunfight cannot be portrayed without closing off Fremont, which would mean closing it every day for the daily reenactments. And if the Harwood house were rebuilt, the only vantage point to view the reenactments of the shootout would be from out on Fremont Street anyway, looking into the front of the lot. This problem was exacerbated last year after two tourists were killed by a truck while trying to cross Fremont Street to the shootout site; now parking is no longer allowed on Fremont. So the O.K. Corral owner has now built an entire re-creation of the shootout site farther back in the corral, the bleachers occupying the vacant lot of the former Harwood house. It's not exactly the original gunfight site, but it was the only practical way to resolve the problems and still have room for a daily audience, not to mention trying to preserve the original site from wear and tear. By the way, smokeless powder did not become common until the mid-1890s.

More Pony Stops
In response to the October 2010 "Pony by the Bay" letter by Roger Reed of Walnut Creek, Calif.: It appears Reed also missed the boat concerning details of the Pony Express route between Sacramento and San Francisco. In addition to the Martinez and Lafayette stops, the Pony had six other stations.

If the mail missed the steamboat at Sacramento, the riders did not ride along the Carquinez Strait but followed the route that is now I-80/I-680. The first station west of Sacramento was the Solano House in Davis, then on to the Halfway House at Silverville (no longer extant, but the town site is marked), Gillespie's Store in Vacaville, the Rockville House in Rockville, then to the Solano Hotel on First Street in Benicia before crossing the Carquinez Strait by ferry. On the southern side was another station, Woodfords Hotel, at Pacheco between Martinez and Lafayette. The Pony Express Trail Association has markers at the locations.

Howard Wray
Modesto, Calif.

Pony Express Rider
Just a comment about the Pony Express rider letter in the August 2010 issue questioning the photo originally captioned "Frank E. Webner, Pony Express rider." History is always changing as new information surfaces. I did find a list of riders on the Internet taken from Saddles and Spurs, by Raymond and Mary Lund Settle. I also found some other names elsewhere, as we have mounted a small display in our museum. Frank Webner was on the list. Who is to say that though the picture may have been taken later, the title refers to his claim to fame previously?

Betty J. Strecker
Executive Director
Bucks County Civil War Library & Museum
Doylestown, Pa.

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