An authorized biography of the legendary marshal describes the Old West exploits and law enforcement career of Wyatt Earp, his brothers Morgan and Virgil, and his sidekick, Doc Holliday. Reprint. Movie tie-in.
As for my skepticism, I came away wondering first of all; did all this really happen? Perhaps it did but our hero (and I am not trying to be facetious, Wyatt Earp truly is a hero) does it all seemingly with one hand tied behind his back. My other reservation has to do with the politics of the times and places. There are only good guys and bad guys and no exploration as to the motivations of either side except for good and evil. I found myself wondering if I were the only source of information about the events of my time and I had to relate to the world in 50 years or so the events I had witnessed. Take the Invasion of Iraq, the presidential election of 2000, or the impeachment of President Clinton. I certainly could make a claim as to who was the "bad guy" and who was the "good guy" while somneone else of a different political persuasion could make the opposite claim. There is no one to speak for the opposing view in this book. The author quotes frequently from the Tombstone "Nugget" but always prefacing the unreliability of the source. I found myself wondering if there might not have been something of another side to the events in Tombstone. The labor strife in mining communities of those days was very significant; just study the history of Butte, MT. Is it possible that Earp supported the powers that be and the miners looked for support from wherever they could get it? Maybe not, but it would have been helpful if the author tried to give a bit of an impartial look at the motives of the opposing side in Tombstone. That said, and realizing that this is about Wyatt Earp, not the miners, this is a book well worth the time of any fan of the American West.
Although, as the years passed, Lake's acquaintance with Wyatt miraculously expanded to several years and his publisher billed him as "the man who knew Wyatt best" the relationship actually dated from an initial letter from Lake dated Christmas 1928, until Wyatt's death on January 13, 1929. Lake, from their letters in the Huntington Library, first met Wyatt personally in June 1929. He took over an abortive autobiography that Wyatt had paid indifferent attention to, done with an amanuensis, John Henry Flood, Jr. (Later Lake claimed he had never seen this ms., probably because his relations with Flood were abrasive, but his letters with the Earps, which can be found in Lake's files, belie this.) This ms. was the starting point for his first effort. The Flood Ms. was the object of searches by historians for years, since it seemed all copies had been lost, but letters between Earp and Western film star, Wm. S. Hart verified there had been such a Ms. since Hart attempted to help Wyatt and Flood get it published, and apparently planned at one time to make a movie based on it. I finally stumbled across two copies in the possession of Wyatt's widow's grand niece, Peggy Greenburg, and after unsuccessfully attempting to have a historical repository buy them, ended up buying them myself. (This may cause some confusion, since one copy was pirated by an impostor. People have asked why I didn't sue. My attorneys advised that this would be a risky undertaking, since such people, projecting a [misleading] image [of] ignorance, often gain the sympathy of juries, in addition to which there would be no satisfactory monetary return, under the so-called "turnip rule" which is well-known to the legal profession. I.E. You can't get blood out of a turnip.)
I published the Flood Ms. in a limited edition of 99, leather bound and linen cased in 1981.
Lake indicated in his letters to the Earps that he had substantially completed his book shortly before Wyatt's death. However, upon Wyatt's death it is obvious that he saw an opportunity to "punch up" his story for greater sales appeal. Wyatt died in January 1929 and Lake's final product wasn't published until Oct. 1931, and the record shows that Lake was traveling Wyatt's back trail researching during the intervening years. In time his activities brought him into conflict with Wyatt's widow, who wasn't too successful in curbing him, managing at least to get the title changed from "Wyatt Earp, Gunfighter" to the now well-known "Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal." This was a fortunate change since the catchy title was sales gold. The book eventually was the basis of several movies from which Wyatt's widow profited, as well as from a series of articles in Saturday Evening Post. However, her sour pronouncement was that the book was more "blood and thunder than a biography." It is a blend of both.
Wyatt and later his widow, Josephine, managed to conceal from Lake unsavory, or at the least embarrassing episodes in his past, some of which have only recently been made public, such as his obvious career in Illinois in the early 1870's as a brothel operator, pimp and all around "whoremaster." There was also a horse stealing episode shortly after he left Lamar, MO where he'd held his first law position as constable. There his first wife, Urilla Sutherland, had died and their first child died with her. Most damning of all was desertion of his second wife, who later committed suicide.
Lake was unaware of [most] of this, and if his editors had been [aware of it], we would not have the fabled lawman, whom I refer to as St. Wyatt the Just, a true Boy Scout. One wonders if Lake would have been above concealing these facts, if he'd been aware of them.
All of this aside. Lake's book is well-researched and has the main facts correct. The book, and Lake, do not deserve the blanket criticisms made of it. If it had been the matter-of-fact story John Flood had written it would never have been published. (One editor called Flood's work "stilted and florid and diffuse.")
So Lake punched up his story, and shares laurels with writer Walter Noble Burns as a master myth maker. I suspect from accounts I have had from those who knew Wyatt personally, largely members of his own family, that no one would have been more surprised to find himself a Folk Hero than publicity-shy Wyatt himself.
Among the fabrications that Lake used to dramatize his work are invented encounters of Wyatt with famous Mountain Man, Jim Bridger, at Ft. Bridger in 1864 when the record shows that Bridger was scouting for the army on the Bozeman Trail, the arrest of bad man Ben Thompson in Ellsworth, KS in 1873, and a highly dramatized encounter with Wm. Raynor, a Texas blowhard badman, in El Paso, etc. The record is clear that none of these events took place. Many wish to believe that Wyatt arrested ace gunman, Ben Thompson, but lack of mention in the Flood Ms. indicates that Wyatt never made that claim, and local newspapers do not report his involvement.
However, I do not fault Lake for any of this. He was complying with editorial ethics of his day (and our own, unfortunately) and simply doing what was necessary to feed a wife and child in the tough early Depression years. I suggest that his critics read Lake's Collection, and more thoroughly research other sources.
[THIS IS A MUST RESEARCH BOOK AND A GOOD READ FOR ANYONE.]