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It has been a difficult year or so, so a deacon left a book on my desk for “vacation reading”. It was The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral- And How It Changed the American West. This was a book I’ve seen in looking for other historical books on the American West. It looked interesting to me, and I had planned on buying it. It is also of local interest to me since we live about 90 miles from Tombstone.

Virgil Earp

The author, Jeff Guinn, begins the morning of the shootout in his prologue. The night before there had been a long poker game which included Virgil Earp, the police chief. During the night Ike Clanton had gotten into an altercation with Wyatt and Doc Holliday, threatening them. Virgil’s assessment at the time was that Ike needed to sleep off his drunken rage. Ike was known to be lots of talk and little action. Clanton was tied to the Cowboys, who rustled cattle in Mexico (among other places)and Clanton allowed them to fatten them up on his land.

“Much of history results from apparently unrelated dominoes tumbling over one another.”

Location of Louisiana Purchase

Louisiana Purchase

Guinn begins with his book explaining the West including the political and social climates at work. He begins with Daniel Boone and the quest for land in the West. American territory was expanded by the Louisiana Purchase, the freedom and statehood of Texas, and the Gadsden Purchase. The earliest settlers were mountain men or trappers, individuals wanting space and isolation. The first big wave of settlers was largely people looking for find land to farm since most of the land in the East was not available. Some wanted a new start, and even a new name because they were running from the law. Most of the early settlers were from the North and had a more Republican view of government. Prior to the Civil War, gold and other precious metals were discovered and a new wave of settlers, mostly men went west in search of a fortune. With the trains and statehood for Kansas came the Buffalo hunters.

After the Civil War, many from the South went west to escape the Yankees and their more restrictive government. With railroad towns in Kansas, herds of longhorn cattle began to be driven up north to supply meat to the east coast. Those town thrived on the business, selling booze, sex, gambling and food to the weary cowhands.

This population shift meant conflict at times as Democrats moved into territories run by Republicans. Most deaths in the westward movement were from disease (90%), particularly cholera. Fewer than 400 people were killed by Indian raids on wagon trains. Of course, if that was your wagon train it didn’t seem statistically insignificant. Unless they were married, women were frequently prostitutes hoping to find a partnership, which was difficult when you sell your body for a living. They often turned to drugs like morphine and laudanum.

The West was not an easy place to live. But we also see some similar political and social tensions today: trouble on the border with Mexico, differing political philosophies, drug and alcohol abuse, sex trafficking and some violence.

Most of the cowtowns prohibited guns in the city limits. This meant most fights were fistfights. The idea of the old West with gunfights breaking out is erroneous. Gun violence was mostly in the form of ambushes, not duels to discover the faster gun.

James (Sir not appearing in the films) Earp

Tombstone was mining town, as well as the territorial seat. That meant there were plenty of miners hoping to strike it rich who came and went. There were tunnels under the town. There were saloons with gambling to blow off steam or relax after time in austere conditions. There was also a Red Light district with prostitutes. The sheriff, John Behan at the time, collected taxes particularly from the saloons and bordellos. Wyatt hoped to run for sheriff which offered an excellent salary. Virgil kept the peace, and sometimes his 3 brothers (Wyatt, Morgan and James who ran a saloon) helped out.

Guinn then shifts to the Earp family, obviously with a focus on Wyatt. His grandfather Walter and father Nicholas passed down a heritage of restlessly seeking success and position. Most of the Earp brothers suffered from this malady. Wyatt often exaggerated his accomplishments and overlooked his failures. He was endlessly seeking fame and fortune, which typically eluded him.

After the death of his first wife, Wyatt was a bit wild. He was accused of crimes. While he fled jurisdiction, his alleged accomplices were found not guilty. He was known as a “bummer” in Illinois- generally a lawless person. He was connected with brothels and arrested and fined a few times.  We are uncertain whether he was a bouncer or a pimp. Eventually he was mostly straightened out, spending his time in Kansas in law enforcement, as a bounty hunter and a buffalo hunter for stretches.

Wyatt and his brothers were very mobile in search of wealth and position/power.

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt met Doc in Fort Griffin Texas while trying to hunt down some railroad robbers. Doc had left his dentistry practice due to tuberculosis. Both men were not easy to get along with, and they weren’t immediately friends. Later, when Wyatt was back in Dodge, Doc showed up hoping to make money off the Texans who had herded cattle to Dodge. Wyatt had shot a Texan and a mob of undetermined followers sought to kill him. Doc came to help Wyatt out and their friendship was born. Wyatt was loyal to a fault, and this was true with Doc who came with lots of baggage. He seemed to have a death wish, never backing down from confrontation even though he was not a big or strong man.

Guinn shifted his attention, and ours, to the founding of Tombstone as a mining town. In the next chapter about the Earps’ arrival he has accounts of how filthy it was. The winds blew constantly, covering everything in dust. Sanitation was an issue, particularly in light of the animals. Rats infested the town. The population growth was rapid, but amenities began to pop up so people enjoyed good meals. With the trains now stopping in Tucson, many items were now available to be shipped in.

One of the dangers in the area was the Chiricahua Apache. They would make raids to get supplies. Most of those raids were into Mexico, but people lived in fear of what might happen. Since many people in Tombstone came from Texas there was a fear of Native Americans and prejudice against Mexicans.

Doc Holliday in Prescott AZ.jpgWhile Virgil caught on as a Deputy Marshal, Wyatt’s plans initially fell through. Eventually he became a Deputy Sheriff to bide his time until he could become sheriff and enjoy the money and position that came with it. Virgil was building relationships with the town’s powerful in his position. The Earp’s wives, especially those who were formerly prostitutes and generally common law wives, were not accepted by the city leaders and kept to themselves.

With the reformation of the Texas Rangers, many of the outlaws aka cowboys were pushed out of Texas. Many of them moved to New Mexico and Arizona to continue their generally lawless ways. They weren’t anti-social so much as anti-government and the wealthy. They focused on rustling cattle, primarily from Mexico, which they could sell to feed the growing populations of places like Tombstone and the growing military presence. Among those who arrived in Tombstone were Curly Bill and, separately, Johnny Ringo.

“As the frontier contracted and crimes such as rustling began attracting more notice, “cowboy” became a generic term to describe habitual thugs or lawbreakers.”

These men were not like the cow hands Wyatt was used to dealing with. Those men would head back to Texas shortly after the drive was over and once the money was spent. The cowboys remained in the area, and hard feelings would grow. Incidents with some of the ranchers who allied with them also fostered the bitterness that culminated in the famous gunfight.

“Wyatt understood cards much better than people. He was expert in calculating the odds in poker games, but had little comprehension of the infinite number of ways in which human beings try to get even.”

His problem was not just the cowboys, but also his rival for the position as the new sheriff of the newly formed Cochise County. The political tension between Republicans and Democrats had led to a voter fraud problem for the sheriff of Pima county. Wyatt had quit to take sides with the Republican. He even talked a jailed Curly Bill, who’d accidentally shot and killed the marshal, into admitting the fraud on account of the Democrat but the case got caught up in appeals. Behan was skilled in politics, but Wyatt was not. Behan played Wyatt and got the appointment. He displayed his savvy political nature by having Curly Bill help collect taxes instead of robbing his deputies.

“As far as the Earps were concerned, John Behan had lied to Wyatt, and an insult to one brother was taken as an attack on them all. They never forgot or forgave.”

Soon there was an attempted coach robbery that resulted in the death of the driver and a passenger. When the one robber they caught escaped from Behan’s jail, the sheriff spread the rumor that the Earps and Doc Holliday were involved despite the robber fingering other cowboys. Tensions grew. Wyatt’s plans kept coming up empty. With water appearing in mine shafts, the days of mining were numbered as well. Nearby Bisbee was becoming a better investment and growing. The summer heat of 1881 was unrelenting- the town was a powder keg of broken dreams and pent up frustrations.

After a fire burned down 4 square blocks, and squatters descended upon the now empty lots, the chief of police left town under fire. Virgil was named the temporary chief, and 6 days later made the permanent chief of police, added to his role as deputy marshal. His by the book methods led to a number of arrests to clean up the town under pressure from the town leaders.

“The cowboys still did not think of themselves as criminals. They had rowdy fun north of the border, and taking Mexican cattle was pleasant business rather than theft because Mexicans had no rights.”

Behan’s cooperation with the cowboys now threatened his position as sheriff. His window of opportunity came when an angry, drunk “Big Nose” Kate Elder swore Doc had been part of the robbery. If he could get Doc convicted before the election, he might keep his job. But when the charges were dropped after investigation, Behan experienced more embarrassment.

JohnnyBehan.jpgBehan had romantic issues too. He never kept his promise to marry Josephine, and kept getting caught with other women. With his political clout dropping, she began to look for another future. The man she set her sights upon was Behan’s political and professional rival: Wyatt Earp. Meanwhile Wyatt knew that if he actually captured the coach robbers and killers, he’d raise his chances to win the election. He approached the local ranchers Hill, Clanton and McLaury with a plan that would net them the reward (secretly) and him the glory. The plan failed when it was discovered that two of them had been killed in New Mexico.

This failed conspiracy led directly to the gun fight. Clanton was afraid the cowboys would discover his betrayal. He kept accusing Wyatt of telling others, including Doc. The argument the night before was about that issue.

The chapter on the actual gunfight covers the events that morning that led to it. Fear, political pressure, pride and the attempt to save face in front of others and other additives created the deadly cocktail that resulted in Clanton’s brother and two McLaury brothers being killed, while Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded.

Guinn then moves into the inquest and trial in which the Earps were exonerated. This triggered the attacks on Virgil and Morgan in subsequent months. While they shot and killed Morgan in the billiard parlor, their shots missed Wyatt. An angry, vengeful Wyatt would form a posse and kill three cowboys over the next week, including Curly Bill. For killing Frank Stilwell by the train station in Tucson, Wyatt and his posse were wanted for murder.

As Guinn examines the following years and how the mythology of the old west developed, stories like this were sanitized. In fact, there weren’t many white hats and black hats. The men were all flawed and driven by a variety of sinful motives. The men involved in the events of Tombstone scattered as the town struggled and legal problems mounted. It all seems so inglorious rather than the triumph of good over evil that is often portrayed.

This was a very interesting book to read. He reveals the ambiguities for us, stripping away the mythology or veneer that has obscured the real events from our view through books, TV shows and movies that distorted reality and sometimes just plain ignored it.

I’ll end with the words that end the book:

“Historian John E. Ferling has observed that “events by themselves are unimportant; it the perception of events that is crucial,” and Earp mythology may be the best proof of how perception trumps fact and history is subsequently distorted. The October 26, 1881 shootout on Tombstone’s Fremont Street was an arrest gone wrong and the result of complicated social, economic, and political issues that left eight men dangerously mistrustful of each other. In a very real sense, the confrontation did change the West; because of national publicity regarding the subsequent trial, it became clear that, in the future, on the remaining frontier the rule of law would ultimately be enforced by the courts rather than gunplay, Wyatt’s subsequent actions on the Vendetta Ride notwithstanding. But many have come to consider it an ultimate showdown between clear-cut forces of good and evil, when Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday defined the best of the wonderful Old West- and America- by shooting down the Clantons (Virgil, Morgan and the McLaurys have faded into supporting roles). …

“As for Wyatt Earp, who was  both more and less than his legend insists, we can feel certain of this: He would be pleased by the way everything turned out, except for the face that he never made any money from it.”

 

 

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Year ago Charles Barkley made all kinds of waves with his “I am not a role model” commercial. It makes a pertinent point. Athletic ability is not to be confused with character. Although this commercial is over 20 years old, we still struggle with this concept.

Some athletes appear to be teflon. Their indiscretions and/or alleged crimes are quickly forgotten, or never earnestly discussed. Others face a lifetime of disdain from the public for their indiscretions and/or alleged crimes.

I used both terms because some people do some things that are morally evil but which are not crimes. For instance, when Tiger Woods crashed his car that day we learned that the man who is possibly the greatest golfer in history is also a sex addict and deviant. As far as we know he didn’t break any laws. His actions, however reprehensible, were between consenting adults.

And then there are the allegations against Kobe Bryant. Only God, Kobe and the hotel worker know what actually took place that night in Colorado. He managed to avoid criminal charges but it ended up costing him quite a bit of money, including that huge diamond to make atonement to his wife.

Neither Tiger nor Kobe are reviled today. At his last All-Star game this weekend, Kobe was applauded and honored. He was a great basketball player, and should be honored for that. Yet it also seems that we’ve somehow forgotten about that night in Colorado (and I’m sure he’s glad about that). Mike Tyson has some how become viewed as popular and desirable again even though he was convicted of rape (the actors in The Hangover were reported to be excited to work with him, but despised Mel Gibson). Director Truman Capote remains in Europe an admired artist with a statuary rape charge hanging over him. Bill Clinton survived numerous allegations and impeachment to remain a celebrity President.

Other athletes don’t have it so easily. Pete Rose is a divisive figure. There is a small group that wants to move on from his gambling on baseball, but most people seem to want his role as pariah to continue. Barry Bonds is still not liked by most baseball fans. John Edwards became politician non grata.

Why is it that we give some people a pass, and make others pay the rest of their lives?

It isn’t about how nice the celebrity or star appears. Tiger was never known for being congenial. Kobe doesn’t have a reputation for being an all-around great guy.

It isn’t about talent alone. Bonds was the greatest player of his generation but remains a largely hated figure.

This is quite the confusing conundrum. Why do we disremember (choose to forget) the indiscretions and crimes of some celebrities and public figures, but not others? We somehow omit these events when we talk about them. This is not just compartmentalization- separating their personal and professional lives. We don’t say x is a great athlete/politician/actor but a horrible person. We extend their greatness to include their character, even if it is not warranted.

Another interesting conundrum is the tipping point for particular celebrities and public figures. For years the rumors regarding Bill Cosby were ignored. Suddenly they began to matter. The man behind many beloved figures- Fat Albert, Dr. Huxtable and more- was suddenly one of our most hated men. Why do we suddenly re-remember, making those events a part of that person’s history again?

Some of that is shifts in public perceptions regarding the alleged offense. Sexual assault is now taken more seriously. But this doesn’t explain everything. The example would be Kobe. So perhaps it was the overwhelming number of allegations that sunk Cosby.

Another factor is the advent of social media. Stories that died rather quickly in the past can take on a life of their own now as people share information (whether fact or rumor) on Facebook, Twitter or blogs. This can impede our attempts to disremember. Or, in some cases, aid them thru mass disremembering as people reject the allegations.

We all have actions we regret; parts of our personal history that we want to omit. Some of us are haunted by them. Some of us are able to deceive ourselves into thinking those events never happened. For instance, in 2003 Val Kilmer played adult movie star John Hughes in Wonderland, which was about the murders in Hollywood connected with Hughes. The premise of the movie was that Hughes played a role in leading the killers to the house, and actually participated in the robbery and murders. He dis-remembered, telling himself it didn’t happen until he actually believed it. Some of us have mastered it in our personal lives.

As a Christian I have to deal with those parts of my story that are unpleasant. I can’t be haunted by them, but I can’t pretend they never happened either. Confessed to God, they are pardoned because of the work of Christ. When I remember them I have to also remember His pardoning work precisely so they don’t haunt me and control me. But I don’t pretend they don’t exist. I acknowledge them as a part of my story, the ugly part which displays the mercy and patience of God with me in Christ. I incorporate not only my sin but Christ into my story.

Public figures who are Christians can be honest about their pasts. They speak with regret, not gladness. But they have no need to hide it. They don’t need, nor do they need us, to disremember it.

We need to change our relationship with our heroes, and celebrities. Rather than compartamentalize or disremember, we can integrate their stories. We can see their virtues, and their foibles. We don’t have to expect them to be perfect, and we don’t have to deny their wrong-doing. But we can evaluate their wrong-doing. It is okay to get rid of your Aaron Hernandez shirt. There can be points beyond which you can’t go, so to speak. Our desire should be to know, and act upon, the truth. It should not be to deny the truth. We don’t need to “shut down” allegations, but rather evaluate available evidence as best we can.

The issue for us isn’t the avalanche of noise created by social media, or the media. The issue should not be the shifting sands of public morality. We don’t have to follow the crowd like a pack animal. We can be principled, wise and gracious. Being gracious is not ignoring the offense, but acknowledging it while determining this isn’t the sum total of the person. This also means that we treat others fairly, not favoring particular people and castigating others who’ve been alleged (or have actually done) far worse. This means we don’t ignore the allegations against Christians who are famous. In all cases we let the evidence speak, and then evaluate how we will respond to them. This is because no one is “all good” nor “all bad”.

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I’ve enjoyed sports and history as long as I can remember.  As a kid I would read lots of sports biographies- including some of the dreaded Yankees.  My dislike for the Yankees didn’t keep me from appreciating the skill of some of their players.  Of course most of the ones I appreciated were from eras when the Red Sox were essentially uncompetitive.

Sometimes books come along that allow me to revisit sports and history.  Sean Deveney’s The Original Curse is one of those books.  Deveney puts the 1918 World Series into its historical context, and that context is vital to his main thesis.  His thesis, which he admits cannot prove, is that the Cubs threw the 1918 World Series.  This is particularly intriguing as a result of the futility that plagued both teams since that World Series.  The Red Sox’ futility has only recently ended, but the Cubs’ continues.  Such utter inability to win championships is astounding to say the least- particularly since they were both so successful before that time.  This was the 5th World Series victory for the Red Sox.

“Prosperity tends to provide a pretty big blind spot.”

Deveney focuses on a few things outside of baseball.  World War I wrecked havoc on the world economy.  While ball players were well paid, inflation in the few years leading up to the 1918 World Series was about 55%.  Their good paychecks did not go as far as they used to go.

World War I put pressure on the players themselves as well as the game.  Some of the players were drafted during the season.  There was controversy as to whether or not to end the season.  Players were viewed as slackers because they were not directly assisting the war effort.  The War Department had underestimated what it would take to get fully involved in the conflict.  They put off requests from baseball for clarification repeatedly.  Some players left the pros to work in the shipyards which often had ball teams.  Many of these guys didn’t work but just played ball.

(more…)

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