Thursday, August 23, 2012


I'm so old and out of date that I'm not even sure I'm using the right term here, but lately--and for the first time--I've been engaging in a chat room, which is my possibly incorrect word for an online forum, in this case one dedicated to the history of Tombstone, Arizona.  For the benefit of the uninitiated (can there possibly be any such?), Tombstone was the site of what is likely the most famous shootout in pioneer history, commonly but incorrectly called the Gunfight at the OK Corral.  The term is incorrect because the confrontation occurred not at the OK Corral itself but near its back entrance, one street to the northwest.  The gun battle has been re-enacted dozens of times on film and probably thousands of times in tourist-trap modern Tombstone, and is commonly supposed to have been the achetypical confrontation between peace officers and outlaws--though many also consider it an unwarranted assault on innocent cattlemen by corrupt and ruthless gunmen.

The participants were Wyatt Earp, his brothers Morgan and Virgil, and a Georgia-born dentist-turned-gambler and sometime gunman named John H. ("Doc") Holliday, on one side; and on the other, local ranchers and cowboys Ike and Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury and Billy Claibourne.  Claibourne and Ike Clanton fled the scene at the first shots.  Billy Clanton and the two McLaurys were killed.  Every man in the Earp party save Wyatt himself was wounded, Morgan dangerously and Virgil less so.  A bullet grazed Holliday's hip.  Wyatt emerged untouched.

The event happened on October 26, 1881 and ever since that day partisans of both groups have kept  the battle going, happily using words rather than deadly weapons, though the emotions aroused sometimes seem as hostile as those of the original participants.  I've been fascinated by this story ever since I was about twelve years old; have tried to keep up with the research into every facet of the fight that has gone on without surcease during my lifetime; and have always hoped to write a huge panoramic novel about the subject that would, finally and unalterably, explain what happened and why in an objective, nonpartisan way, portraying it as an inevitable tragedy in the Shakespearean or ancient Greek mode.  I saw it as a clash of two parties composed of men hardened but principled (in their own minds), each possessed by different mixes of good and bad qualities--in other words, recognizable human beings--each driven by different socioeconomic forces into confrontation and too proud to show weakness by backing down.  I never wrote the novel because the story has kept changing over the years by virtue of new discoveries and, regrettably, the chicanery of a few bogus "scholars" who poisoned the well so badly that serious researchers were, and some still are, perplexed about what is factual and what is not.

It was with my notion of objective inquiry in mind that I recently joined a chat room dedicated to debates over the Earp-Clanton feud.  I have not fared well.  Objectivity is not looked upon with favor among most of the posters on this "Board," as they call it.  I fear I've come off as naive and possibly stupid.  But I've been deeply concerned to find that so many of the posters seem influenced by a "good guy vs. bad guy" mindset which, to me, lacks a mature understanding of the complexities of the real world.  As anyone who's read my work knows, the villains in my novels are portrayed (I hope) as neither all good nor all bad but as a bedeviled, conflicted mix of all sorts of qualities, from Webb Darling's amused and nearly contemptuous self-awareness in The Cock's Spur to Bridgeman the Bushwhacker's admiration/hatred of Judge Curtis in Hiwassee to G.G.M. Weatherby's divided feelings about wealth and class in Where the Water-Dogs Laughed.  Humans are what life has made of them, and seldom are they absolute representations of good or evil.

Anyway, point is, that approach did not endear me to many of the posters on the Board.  They seemed to regard me as the naive one.  As a result I have been largely ignored--possibly with good reason.  My downfall, I think, was that I came out on the wrong side of a spirited discussion about the provenance of an old group photograph, ca. 1876 or so, purporting to portray all the Earp males gathered together in one place, Dodge City, KS--an amazing find, if legitimate. The picture was up for auction at an astoundingly high starting price, which might've been justified if in fact the item was what it was advertised as being. Shown in the picture were, supposedly, the patriarch of the clan, old Nicholas Porter Earp (born in Lincoln County, NC, by the way); his son by his first marriage, Newton; and his sons by his second marriage, James, Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan and Warren.

I thought--and still think--that I recognized the image of Old Man Earp because of its similarity to other, later likenesses--he had the same long patriarchal beard, if a little more unkept than usually seen, and was carrying his cane, as in other, later representations.  The only mark against him was that he was smiling, and I'm pretty sure Old Nick Earp never smiled once in his entire life.  But I thought, hey, maybe he's happy to have his whole male progeny--notorious wanderers one and all--arrayed in one place at one time.  I thought I could also recognize the sons although it was true they didn't much resemble their pictures taken in later life.  But who does?  In my imagination I tried to visualize the sons as they might've appeared when several years younger than when photographed a decade later, when their most-often-seen likenesses were taken.  But the one who I thought was Wyatt was scowling and looking off to the side and the features of the one one I took for Warren were blurred, evidently because he moved his head while the shutter was open.  Admittedly it was hard to see any resemblance between the fellows in the photo and their later portraits.  My faith in the validity of the photo was generally traduced and discounted, and my status as a poster on the Board declined precipitously.

Still, I think the main reason for the rejection of my opinion was that the information the auction-house provided was faulty on several grounds--I won't bore you by going into those details, but will say that it did not lend confidence to the legitimacy of the photograph.  But I focused on the artifact itself--the picture and the men in it.  And I was, and remain convinced, that it very well could be a portrait of the males in the Earp clan.  But the inadequate factual material put forward by the auction house was the death knell of the picture; in the end nobody bid on it and it was withdrawn.  So, like Seinfeld, this blog is, in the end, about nothing.  But I thought I'd share it with you anyway, along with the picture, which is below.  FYI, my identifications are:  Seated, left to right, Old Nick Earp; James; Morgan; and half-brother Newton.  Standing, left to right, Virgil, a scowling Wyatt, and Warren with his features obscured.  If you care, see what you think.  (Click on the image to magnify it.)

1 comment:

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