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The Book That Started A Whole New Culture

Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal
Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal 1955 Edition

A unique thing happened to me at an estate sale in Jacksonville, Florida in May of this year that made me write this article. Estate sales are usually filled with lots of items that nobody wants; but, at times, some treasures can be found. While rummaging through the mounds of paraphernalia up for grabs that particular day, I saw an interesting old hardcover book with the dust cover intact. It was WYATT EARP: Frontier Marshal written by Stuart N Lake.

I grabbed it and immediately went to the inside front of the book to check the publishing date: It turned out, I had in my hands a 1955 edition. Shucks! It wasn’t a first edition, but still a worthwhile keepsake, nonetheless. Having never read the book (only hearing about its controversy), I paid the $4 asking price without any haggling.  The story behind the biography is very fascinating, in addition to what has transpired since its publication over 80 years ago. Considered a biography when it first appeared, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal is now classified as a candy-coated historical fiction filled with half-truths and outright lies.

The author, Stuart Nathaniel Lake, loved writing about the Old West. In the mid-1920’s, he tracked down Wyatt Earp to write a magazine story about him. Earp, up to that time, had become a bitter, disillusioned man, disappointed at how history had forgotten him, along with the Tombstone, Arizona gun battle he had engaged in during the autumn of 1881: the infamous “Gunfight at the OK Corral.” There, the Earps, along with Doc Holliday, had taken on the notorious Ike Clanton gang.  Although he was actually a lesser historical figure with a questionable reputation as a peace officer in the Old West (some had even depicted him as a glorified bad guy), Earp told Lake he wanted a biographer, instead, to state his side of his gun-fighting career. Making peace on the spot, Earp and Lake decided to collaborate on the book version.

It was not an easy next few years for Lake. The major roadblock was Josie Sarah “Sadie” Marcus, Earp’s common-law wife. Note: Many people have referred to her as Josie or Josephine, while Wyatt called her Sadie. Sadie and Wyatt had met in Tombstone a few months before the OK Corral gunfight. At the time, Earp was married to Mattie Blaylock, a former prostitute addicted to laudanum, a common pain-relieving drug during the 1800’s. Possibly a former prostitute herself a few years prior, according to some historians but never absolutely proven, Sadie had been the common-law wife of Johnny Behan, the Cochise County Sheriff, who held office in Tombstone.  So, Sadie had a shady past, something that Lake soon discovered and pursued. Upon their very first meeting, Sadie and Earp had fallen in love. During the eventual Earp-Lake collaboration, Sadie (along with Wyatt) wanted her name and her alleged past as well as the same for Mattie not even mentioned in the book.

In total, Lake interviewed Earp eight times up to his death on January 13, 1929 at the age of 80, then finished the book on his own with lots of embellishing to fill in certain spots. Sadie wanted her husband to come out clean as a whistle and demanded this of the author in the finished manuscript. When Lake wavered on certain details, Sadie tried to stop the release of the book. As a result, Lake promised she had nothing to worry about. He would make Wyatt Earp a household name in Old West literature and a “good name” at that. He also promised she would make a decent amount of money off the book. Before Earp’s death, Lake had signed a contract with him that would provide his family with residual incomes from the book sales. This ended upon Sadie’s death in 1945.

Wyatt Earp
Wyatt Earp, 1885 (US Public Domain)

When Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal was released on October 7, 1931, there was no mention of either Sadie or Mattie. The public loved the book and bought it in droves. Wyatt Earp was depicted as the most honest of lawmen. It also brought the Gunfight at the OK Corral to the forefront. A Great Depression year was the perfect downturn in time to bring out a book on this subject matter because it created a hero in an era where heroes were very much needed. Then, after a short while, came the numerous critics who decimated the book. Many details were disputed, including Lake’s mention of the 12-inch-long-barreled revolver that Earp supposedly used to keep the peace: the notorious “Buntline Special.” There is no proof of Earp ever owning the gun, or whether the gun ever existed at all. However, it is known that he fired an eight-inch-barreled .44-calibre Smith & Wesson pistol at the OK Corral.

One particular critic, Old West author Frank Waters, said that Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal was “the most assiduously concocted piece of blood-and-thunder fiction ever written.” Years after, Lake eventually admitted that he did take some poetic license in his writing of the book. Also, here’s something: Earp was never made a marshal in his gun-fighting career, only a deputy, which he was in Wichita, Kansas and later in Tombstone. His brother, Virgil had the more law enforcement experience: At the time of the OK Corral gunfight, he was deputy marshal for Cochise County as well as Tombstone.

Despite the negative reaction to Lake’s literary creation, the mystique of Wyatt Earp and the OK Corral continued on, in several movies and a television series. The first film about Earp was Frontier Marshal in 1934 by 20th Century Fox, produced by Sol M Wurtzel. Prior to the release, Sadie Earp sued the movie company for $50,000 and won, claiming that her husband’s name and character was being used inappropriately. To avoid trouble, 20th Century Fox changed the character name to “Michael Wyatt” instead. George O’Brien played the leading role.

In 1939, another version of Frontier Marshal by Wurtzel and 20th Century Fox was released. Once again, the widow Sadie sued, but this time settling for only $5,000. However, Wyatt Earp’s name was finally exploited. Randolph Scott played Earp. In 1946, My Darling Clementine appeared, based on Stuart Lake’s book of the same name, a retelling of his 1931 “novel.” Whole action scenes from the 1939 movie were used. The Wyatt Earp for this version was the legendary Henry Fonda. Let’s skip ahead to 1957 to a Paramount Pictures picture called Gunfight at OK Corral where Kirk Douglas played Doc Holliday and Burt Lancaster took on the Earp role.

From 1955 to 1961 a very successful TV series ran--229 episodes--called The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp starring the dashing Hugh O’Brian. This was a favorite in our house. My family loved Westerns when I was growing up. And my mother thought O’Brian was so gosh darn handsome!

Then there were the comic books on Wyatt Earp in the Fifties and Sixties. Being a Baby Boomer, I remember them because I bought a few. Back then comic books cost 10 cents, eventually jumping to 12 cents in the 1960’s. Dell Comics catered to the TV series: Hugh O’Brian was on the covers. Other comics were produced by Charlton, Marvel, and Atlas, several under the cover title of Frontier Marshal, Wyatt Earp. Up to this point, almost everything on TV, the silver screen, and in book and comic form about Wyatt Earp wasn’t anywhere close to the truth and were nearly all based on Lake’s original 1931 book, complete with the Buntline Special and his being a marshal, which, of course, he never was.

Wyatt Earp at age 75
Wyatt Earp at age 75, 1923, photo by John H Flood Jr (US Public Domain)

Hour of the Gun, a 1967 movie starring James Garner as Wyatt Earp and Jason Robards as Doc Holliday, finally steered in the right direction. They didn’t quite have it historically, but they were getting close. This movie was interesting because it began with the OK Corral gunfight, followed by the aftermath: the real-life murder charges against Earp, his brothers, and Holliday, and the cold-hearted killing they bestowed upon the Clanton gang associates during their vendetta ride before fleeing Arizona. Then in 1994, all hell broke loose with two movies on Earp that were the most historically correct to date, at least compared to the previous ones: Tombstone starring Kurt Russell and Wyatt Earp starring Kevin Costner. 

That’s what the book, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, started. By writing his mostly fictitious biography on Earp, Lake took an almost forgotten Western figure and turned him into an overrated folk hero; and his literary creation led to the establishment of Tombstone, Arizona as a tourist center. Without the Gunfight at the OK Corral being recognized, the town of 1,300 would have become a ghost town a long time ago.

For more details on the OK Corral gunfight and my visit to Tombstone, you can catch my past blog post, The Making of Tombstone, an article posted in 2014:


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