Getting the draw on the Wild West

08/23/2013 3:34 PM

08/08/2014 10:18 AM

“Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life” by Andrew Isenberg (Farrar Strauss and Giroux, 296 pages, $30)

“Shot All to Hell: Jesse James, the Northfield Raid, and the Wild West’s Greatest Escape,” by Mark Lee Gardner (Harper Collins, 309 pages, $27.99)

Like the Lincolns half a generation before them, the Earps migrated from the semi-feudal upper South of Kentucky, crossed the Ohio River, and settled in rapidly commercializing central Illinois, where Walter Earp (the paterfamilias) and his large clan of sons, daughters and a few grandchildren entertained fantasies of success in farming and town politics.

Nicholas, Wyatt’s father, failed soon enough, moved to Iowa, moved to California on the Overland Trail, then dragged his family, including sons Wyatt, James and Morgan, back to Iowa and then to Illinois again. Older son Virgil had already established himself as a wanderer, booty lawman and tax farmer. Wyatt, cut loose from any notion of settled life, undertook at first to steal a horse in Indian Territory, was jailed, escaped, and entered thereafter into what would become his permanent vocation as an itinerant gambler, pimp, enforcer and, like his brother Virgil, a booty town lawman.

There are, of course, many Earp biographies, most famously Stuart Lake’s 1931 confabulation, which established Wyatt’s legend as The Virtuous Western Hero. Andrew Isenberg, author of the inestimably valuable and sad “The Destruction of the Bison,” adds greatly to what is currently known about Earp and his social era by not only assembling a meticulous personal history of the man and his brothers, but by illuminating an entire social milieu erected on the foundations of saloon gambling, prostitution sheltered by official town policy, cattle rustling as small-time entrepreneurship, and county politics as “legal theft.”

For example, Wyatt’s career in Wichita (which lasted barely two years), saw him established as a city policeman who earned a share of the fines imposed on drunks and miscreants, a card sharp who dealt a particularly mean brand of faro to Texas cattle drovers, and an enforcer in his brother Jim’s brothel across the Arkansas River where town law didn’t reach. In fall, when the cowboys left Wichita, Wyatt followed them to Texas and dealt crooked faro there. Wyatt emphatically was not a gunfighter or a lawman; rather, he was a tall, tough, hard-to-reach con artist who, because he didn’t touch alcohol, almost always had an advantage over his cowboy adversaries. In Tombstone, in 1881-82, he dealt faro for a living and pursued a family vendetta against the Clantons and other cowboys in what amounted to “honor culture” killings straight out of the social comic book of Kentucky.

Beautifully rendered as a portrait of the underbelly of mining and cattle town life in the 1870s and 1880s, this new biography is a gem, and includes a touching look at Wyatt’s single lifelong friendship with Doc Holliday. In later life, Wyatt continued to pursue his gambling interests through the medium of racing horses and selling bogus mining claims. He ran saloons in a number of oddball boom towns like Goldfield and Tonopah in Nevada (where Virgil joined him) and Eagle, in Idaho. “Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life,” provides the reader with a fine bibliography, along with some delightful photos.

Mark Lee Gardner is an independent historian and the author of a splendid life of Billy the Kid called “To Hell on a Fast Horse,” probably the definitive book about William Bonny. “Shot All to Hell” — the story of the James-Younger gang’s assault on the First National Bank in Northfield, Minn., on Sept. 7, 1876 — is a gloriously detailed and superbly written chronicle of what turned out to be a disaster for the eight-member crew of border ruffians, sadists and thieves.

Unlike the Earps, Jesse James, his brother, Frank, and the Youngers (Cole, Jim and Bob) were plain-Jane criminals who often hid under the coattails of the Confederate cause to justify their train and bank robberies. As teenagers, they had ridden with Bloody Bill Anderson, becoming skilled horsemen, excellent marksmen and practiced murderers before turning 16. Riding together, the eight (Frank and Jesse, Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, later joined by Clell Miller, Charlie Pitts and Bill Chadwell), wore long tan dusters, big spurs and wide-brimmed hats. Armed with rifles and pistols, they were, in 1876, at the top of their game, and must have presented an awesome and frightening sight to behold.

“Shot All to Hell” is without doubt the most detailed rendering of the assault on Northfield ever written, vividly evoking the town’s minute-by-minute response, the chase after six survivors across the lake and swamp country of south-central Minnesota, the capture of Cole and the killing of his brothers, and the eventual escape of Frank and Jesse, the latter of whom returned to St. Joseph and took up life as a horse breeder and trader. Throughout the book are fascinating personal portraits of the sheriffs, posse members, farmers and townfolk who stood up to the gang and pursued them for weeks.

Taken together, “Wyatt Earp” and “Shot All to Hell” offer the reader an exciting glimpse into vanished forms of American life. The field of Western history has now entered a phase of precision scholarship, deep research and glorious writing that Stuart Lake in 1931 could hardly have imagined.

Entertainment Videos

Join the discussion

is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service