Who Was Wyatt Earp?

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In recent years The Earp Brothers of Tombstone has come to look like dubious history in which Waters imposed his own views on Allie. His tape-recorded interviews with her, if they ever existed, are in the hands of shadowy Earp collectors, and no one is quite sure where Waters’s notes and various drafts are. Josephine’s I Married Wyatt Earp , edited by Glen G. Boyer and published in 1976 by the University of Arizona Press, is now dismissed by many historians as fraudulent.

Boyer, in his own words, found that Josephine’s own unfinished manuscript (which is well documented) “lacked the necessary detail on Tombstone, so it was essential to couple it with [an] earlier, more frank manuscript before a complete narrative could be achieved.” But that earlier manuscript, supposedly containing a Tombstone chapter and shocking revelations, such as the gunfight’s having been started by Doc Holliday and Morgan Earp, is now thought by nearly all Western historians to be a fiction. At various times Boyer has ascribed his added material to a combination of Josephine Marcus and Jack London, Rex Beach, and even Dashiell Hammett, and for years he has insisted that he has the documents on file to prove that I Married Wyatt Earp is solid history. But last July he told the Tucson Star that many key documents were lost years ago in a “messy” divorce settlement.

Josephine outlived Wyatt by fifteen years. The money she received from Frontier Marshal , and a little later from films loosely based on it, alleviated the state of genteel poverty she had lived in with Wyatt in his last years. In her seventies she fought to become the guardian of his legend, storming movie lots and trying to halt productions of the first Earp movie, Law and Order (1932), starring Walter Huston, and, later, Frontier Marshal (1936), starring Randolph Scott. She relented on both films but still felt they put too much emphasis on the few violent moments in Earp’s life. He would no doubt have concurred. She died content that she had kept herself from becoming a character in a Hollywood movie about Wyatt Earp.

A newspaperman in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance says, “This is the West, sir. When the past becomes legend, print the legend.” Probably the reality of Wyatt Earp and the shootout can never be finally disentangled from the legend. Now even the story of the woman who was at the center of the West’s most enduring legend seems to have quickly been absorbed, and overcome, by legend. Someday an enterprising university press will put her actual memoirs into print, and Josephine will finally have her day.