How Hollywood Saved Wyatt Earp

On-Screen, He Was a Wild West Lawman. In Real Life, Earp Was a Horse Thief with a Gambling Problem.

In May 1883, after an absence of four years, Wyatt Earp returned to Dodge City, Kansas. He had spent most of the intervening years in Tombstone, Arizona, where he had briefly made national news for his participation in 1881 in what has become known as the “Gunfight at the OK Corral.” But the National Police Gazette, reporting on his return to Dodge, referred to the peripatetic Earp as neither a Kansan, nor an Arizonan, nor an Illinoisan (where he had been born 35 years before), but as “Wyatt Earp, of California.”

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As a description of where Earp—a professional gambler and occasional lawman—had spent the notable moments in his life before 1883, this made little sense. Earp was not a stranger to California; he lived on a rented farm in San Bernardino as a teen after his family had trekked there from Iowa in 1864. But he had left San Bernardino by 1868. If he returned to California before 1883, it was only for brief visits.

But as a prediction of where Earp would spend most of the last 55 years of his life, the tabloid’s identification of him as a Californian could not have been more accurate.

Not only would Earp live out his days in California, but two of the most important developments in his life happened there:

1.) His participation in 1896, as referee, in a reputedly fixed heavyweight championship prizefight in San Francisco that tarnished his reputation.

2.) His friendships with Hollywood filmmakers, beginning in the late 1910s, that restored his reputation. Though we think of Earp as an artifact of the Old West, he was much more a product of the New West. And of an urban, 20th-century media culture based in California.

When Earp first settled in California in 1887, he chose San Diego as his home, shortly after the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad extended a branch line to the city. In San Diego, Earp speculated in real estate, ran several gambling halls in the rough Stingaree district south of downtown, and promoted bare-knuckle prizefights and horse races both in San Diego and Tijuana.

By 1891, however, the real estate bubble in San Diego had burst, and Earp, virtually penniless, had relocated to San Francisco, where he trained racehorses. There, in 1896, his longtime association with gamblers—and his reputation in boxing and horse racing circles as a man willing to fix matches or races to win a bet—led to his 11th-hour selection as the referee of a heavyweight championship prizefight at the Mechanics’ Pavilion in San Francisco. In the eighth round, the champion and favorite, Robert Fitzsimmons, knocked the challenger, Tom Sharkey, to the mat and appeared to have won the bout. Yet Earp ruled that Fitzsimmons had struck Sharkey with a low blow, and awarded the fight and championship to the challenger. In the days after the fight, rumors circulated that Sharkey’s camp had paid Earp $2,500 to ensure his victory.

The Sharkey-Fitzsimmons controversy was the biggest gambling scandal in championship sports until the Chicago White Sox threw the World Series in 1919. It was unsurpassed in boxing until the infamous “long count” in the heavyweight championship fight between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey in 1927. Earp’s boxing decision may have inspired Ernest Hemingway to write the short story “Fifty Grand.”

And, not least of all, the fight vaulted Wyatt Earp into national prominence. Before the bout, the violence in Arizona in the early 1880s had been mostly forgotten. After the fight, newspapers printed and reprinted stories of the infamous gunfight in which Earp, two of his brothers, and his friend Doc Holliday killed three cowboys—and of the vigilante violence that followed, in which one of Earp’s brothers and two other cowboys were killed. The papers also circulated stories—some credible and some not—of Earp’s alleged misdeeds as a gambler and con man.

Stung by the criticism, Earp sought to remove himself from the public eye. He left California for a few years and ran a saloon in Nome, Alaska; he also made the rounds of mining camps in Nevada, dealing cards. But by 1911 he was back in California; the Los Angeles Police Department bunco squad arrested him that year for running a crooked card game. His reputation as a scoundrel seemed secure.

In 1914, while living in Los Angeles, Earp took a step toward repairing his image by visiting Paramount Studios—the first of what would be many visits to Hollywood. He charmed Raoul Walsh and Charlie Chaplin, regaling them with largely invented tales of his past. He established himself as an informal adviser on Westerns, and became a close friend of the most prominent Western film star of the 1910s and early 1920s, William S. Hart.

Hart encouraged Earp to collect his tales into a memoir that could provide the basis for a film script. Earp took to the task enthusiastically, starting over from scratch three times with new writing partners when results proved unsatisfying to him. In each new iteration of his life, he tweaked his account, editing out his missteps and embarrassments, neglecting to mention his 1911 arrest in Los Angeles and his arrests in the 1870s for horse theft and consorting with prostitutes.

He modeled the character he created in his memoir—tough and taciturn—on Hart’s screen persona. Earp cast himself as a lifelong proponent of law and order, an avenging angel of justice. His was a story of the redemptive power of violence. But Earp’s real story is about the redemptive power of the media.

Earp’s as-told-to biography was published in 1931, two years after his death; Frontier Marshal, the first film based on the book, was released in 1934. Screened and broadcast repeatedly, the film rooted Earp in American collective memory.

Ever since, Earp’s adventures have been decontextualized through time and repetition. The manipulations started with Earp but continue to this day because of the work of generations of actors and filmmakers. Earp’s stories are now open to manipulation by all; they have become part of our collective memory’s invented tradition. Ironically, the media culture that Earp so resented after 1896 because it foisted on him an unwanted celebrity became, after his death, the engine of his ongoing redemption.


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