October 26, 1881
It may not be a date that you had to memorize for your American History class in school, but what happened that day in small mining town of Tombstone in the Arizona Territory has had a very large impact on the national imagination. Almost one-hundred-thirty years later, what is now known as the gunfight at the O. K. Corral is still making news.
The shootout and its participants have also been the inspiration for numerous films, documentaries, television shows and books. Here are four of my favorites, two fiction and two nonfiction, which you can read while you’re waiting for the latest to come in.
Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends / Allen Barra
Buffalo hunter, gambler, lawman, security guard, capitalist, prospector, boxing referee, and Hollywood movie consultant, in the eighty years of his life Wyatt Earp had been all of these, and depending on your point of view he was either one of the most fearless and unbiased peace officers of the West or a ruthless killer who used his badge as a legal shield for murder. Barra presents both his life, and the controversies that swirled about his character during his life and that have grown and continued after his death in 1929.
And Die in the West: the Story of O.K. Corral Gunfight / Paula Mitchell Marks
The half-minute of history, where three men were “blasted into eternity,” as the headline of the next day’s Tombstone Daily Epitaph put it, would also make legends of the participants. It was also just the beginning of a series of bloody revenge killings first against the Earp brothers and then against their rivals. Marks details all that led up to the confrontation and all that followed afterwards in a lively narrative history, while sifting through the many contradictory accounts, as she puts it, “In part… the distorted narratives and caricatures stem from the fact that nobody at the time of the confusing fight could agree on who the good guys and the bad guys were.”
Doc / by Mary Doria Russell
The pre-Tombstone adventures of Doc Holliday, dentist, gambler, pianist, and soon to be horse racer and gunfighter, transplanted from his native Georgia by way of Texas to the boomtown of Dodge City, Kansas in 1878. Russell seamlessly blends history and fiction to provide an imaginative feast of intertwined stories. And what a cast of characters: Wyatt Earp and his brothers, Bat Masterson, Katie Elder, Eddie Foy, all of them step out of history to befriend, scheme, joke, fight, feast, listen to the piano player, enforce and break the law, and have their dental work done. For fans of Western history and fiction, this is a treat not to be missed.
Warlock / by Oakley Hall
The Citizens’ Committee made up of the prominent merchants and professionals in the mining town of Warlock want some law and order. The territorial governor and the county sheriff are miles away and they don’t seem to care. So they hire a notoriously fast shootist from out of town to act as marshal. Any trouble-making cowboys, like a few rustlers from nearby San Pablo Valley, will be told to get out of town and stay out! Wonderfully full of characters and action this intricately plotted novel appropriates some of the historical events and characters of several famous western conflicts: the Lincoln County (New Mexico) and Johnson County (Wyoming) Wars as well as the gunfight behind the O. K. Corral, and turns them into a meditation on social conflict, political power, and the law as well as a powerful narrative tale.