Posts Tagged: History of the Wild West


7
Jul 14

Author’s PREFACE to WYATT IN WICHITA – a novel About Wyatt Earp

Here’s my PREFACE to Wyatt in Wichita. The novel itself will be out, shortly, this preface included, from Skyhorse publications.

Preface: The Legend of Wyatt Earp

Wyatt In Wichita is a novel about a historic figure: Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp. The work you hold in your hand focuses on the young Wyatt Earp. But it’s still a novel and, inevitably, quite a bit of this tale is fiction, including the murder at the heart of the plot. Even so, many of the events in this novel did happen, and I tried to portray him in a way that seems to me close to the historic young Wyatt Earp. He was capable of doing all he does in this novel. And a number of the remarks he makes in this novel—and those made by certain others—are in fact quotations, statements made in real life.

The legend of Wyatt Earp has gone through cycles, spinning like a Peacemaker’s cylinder. Early on, the first “popularizer” of the Tombstone story, Walter Noble Burns, called him “the lion of Tombstone” and Earp myth-maker Stuart Lake made him the archetypal “Frontier Marshal.”

After a spate of overly reverential mid-century Hollywood movies, the 1960s brought a series of biased attacks on Earp’s reputation. The anti-Earp crowd claimed that Lake and Earp made many of his exploits up, or wildly exaggerated them. These writers had a way of quoting Earp’s enemies; they chose their documentation very selectively, and sometimes they made things up themselves—or exaggerated more than Lake did, but in the negative. One of the principal anti-Earp authors is from Texas, where people still grumble about how Wyatt Earp treated some of their grandfathers who were troublesome cowpokes in Dodge City and Wichita. Wyatt had a short way with rowdy drunks and Texas has never forgiven it.

In recent years, the cylinder has spun again. Serious, deep-delving researchers like Bob Palmquist, Allen Barra, John Gilchriese, and Casey Tefertiller have found evidence strongly supporting Earp. Stuart Lake exaggerated and he certainly cleaned Wyatt up, but he had some of it right. For example, Earp did, after all, ride shotgun out of Deadwood; he did arrest Shanghai Pierce; and Earp’s courtroom testimony concerning the gunfight not-quite-at-the-OK-Corral has been confirmed by forensic research. The most negative tales about Wyatt S. Earp have been cast into doubt or largely refuted.

It’s also true that Wyatt Earp was no angel—he was a complex man, and he had his dark side. We see that dark side in this novel: Earp was involved with a prostitution ring, in 1872. But he put this behind him and, despite some very human ethical stumbles, became a good lawman. It turns out that, despite the redundancy, he really was, as the old TV theme song had it, “brave, courageous and bold.”

Some historians suspect Wyatt Earp killed more men than is generally acknowledged—Johnny Ringo might’ve been one of those men—but the fights in which Wyatt fires his gun, in this novel are fiction. Wyatt in Wichita is about the young Earp, and takes place before Tombstone.

Many of the men Wyatt faced down in this novel were real, and Wyatt’s basic conflicts with them were much as I describe them. The tale of Bat Masterson and Corporal King is true, too.

While the characters Dandi LeTrouveau, Sanchez, Swinnington, Johann Burke, Toothless Mike and Montaigne are made up, Bessie Earp was a real person, as were Celia Ann “Mattie” Blaylock, Sallie Earp, Charlie Utter, Dave Leahy; so were Mike Meagher, John Slaughter, Ida May, Dunc Blackburn, Mannen Clements, Thompson’s enemies in Ellsworth, and Isaac Dodge. And of course Bat Masterson was real; so was his close friendship with Wyatt Earp. The novel’s newspaper quotations are also genuine. They are given verbatim.

The young Henry McCarty (also, William Henry McCarty), who later became well known under a different name, was in Wichita at the time Wyatt was there. No one knows if they met. They could have. Wyatt did have a fight with Doc Black like the one I describe in the novel, and for the reasons I give. Wyatt said he first met Wild Bill Hickok in Kansas City.

Opinions vary, but I believe Wyatt could have run into James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok in Deadwood too. And Wyatt’s riding shotgun for Wells Fargo, the subsequent encounter with outlaws on the trail to Cheyenne, and how that wound up, did happen much as I described it, though I have woven the real event into my fictional plot.

Early on, I had to skip ahead in time a bit—and over some mighty eventful times. A few events in Wyatt’s real history, depicted here, have been chronologically shifted for dramatic purposes. But a great many incidents in the novel really happened, as for instance the Ida May’s piano story, the confrontation on the bridge over the Arkansas River, Smith’s calumnies, Wyatt’s thumping of him, and Abel Pierce’s arrest in Wichita.

When I could, I stuck to facts.

John Shirley, 2013