The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral—And How It Changed the American West
by Jeff Guinn, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2011, $27.
This book should have been written a quarter century ago. It is the book Tombstone tourists have been longing for—a slam-bang-thank-you-ma’am, barebones account of the shootout near the O.K. Corral and Wyatt Earp’s life before and after. Jeff Guinn has mined the minds of dozens of Earp historians for their lifetimes of research. And he has successfully used that information to write a colorful and intriguing story rather than merely throw facts on a piece of paper. His style is easy reading, with some clever wit thrown in, and doesn’t bog down in details about the controversies saddled to the legends of Earp and Tombstone. There are no side trails here. Guinn admits this is his interpretation of events. And that’s what he gives readers, take it or leave it. He is a 21st-century Stuart Lake or Walter Nobel Burns.
There is no such thing as a perfect book, and this one has its warts, too. There are slipups. On one page he refers to City Marshal Fred White as “Sheriff White”; in relating the newspaper account of the shooting of Milt Joyce by Doc Holliday, he defines a “self-cocker” pistol with the vague explanation of number of shots, which has nothing to do with whether or not a revolver is a self-cocker; and he misinterprets the important testimony of impartial witness Martha King at the murder hearing after the gunfight. Perhaps the biggest flaw is that the author repeatedly assumes what the person he is writing about was thinking during an incident, what that person’s motives and intentions were. For example, as the fatal showdown begins, Guinn relates, “Billy Clanton…could only see Wyatt reaching into his coat pocket and believed that the Earps were starting to shoot and he needed to do the same.” But Billy was dead a half-hour later without having talked to anyone, so how do we know what he could see, what he believed and what he thought he needed to do?
Guinn also often makes statements without backing them up with sufficient footnotes. For example, he writes, “As was the case with many gamblers earning their livings in Tombstone saloons, Doc certainly had a permit to carry a weapon inside city limits.” But Guinn cites only an interview with noted historian Gary Roberts as his source for this definitive statement, without quoting Roberts directly. And contrary to the contemporary practice of putting the word “cowboy” in italics or quotes to make it synonymous with “rustler” (Wild West capitalizes Cowboy), the author leaves it alone, thereby lumping in all the honest cowboys with the rustlers about whom he is writing.
For the dedicated Earp scholar, nothing new is revealed here. But this is storytelling at its best. The neophyte Earp aficionado should be in hog heaven with this book. And it is a must-read for the seasoned Earp historian, too, as it presents a handy synopsis of almost everything to do with the legends of Wyatt Earp and Tombstone.
Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.