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Tucson Weekly Riding Shotgun

In spite of a few historical misfires, John Grey's memoir is a worthwhile read.

By Leo Banks

JUNE 1, 1998: 

When All Roads Led to Tombstone, by John Plesant Grey; edited by W. Lane Rogers (Tamarack Books). Paper, $19.95.

ALL MEMOIRS written by old-timers suffer from a kind of historical senility. They look back through a lens that exaggerates happy events, romanticizes the bad, and invariably paints their own role bigger than it was. Sometimes they make stuff up. Think of it this way: If your subject is Tombstone in October of 1881, it sure sounds better to say you were a damn-straight witness to the OK Corral fight, rather than admit that you were taking a nap on that overcast afternoon.

I strongly suspect that John Plesant Grey never saw the gunplay he describes in his memoir, When All Roads Led To Tombstone, published by Tamarack Books, of Boise, Idaho. Even though he did his writing in 1940, before the 30-second encounter had fully captured the American imagination, Grey was surely aware of the success of Stuart Lake's 1931 book, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. That biography made big use of the OK Corral in building the myth.

But if Grey really saw the encounter, why did he devote only four paragraphs to it? Why wasn't he called as a witness at the legal hearing that followed? And how, if he was there, could he have gotten so much about the fight wrong?

Similarly hard to understand is how four paragraphs can justify the bombast in writer John Duncklee's introduction, in which he says the "discovery" of Grey's manuscript in the archives of the Arizona Historical Society is "to Tombstone and southern Arizona history what finding the Dead Sea Scrolls was to theology."

Not even close. It's also a stretch to say that Tucsonan W. Lane Rogers, the editor and annotator of this volume, "discovered" the Grey manuscript at AHS. Truth is, historians have been referencing it for some time, from Tombstone's Ben Traywick to Paula Mitchell Marks, in her 1989 book And Die In The West.

Those problems are less vexing than Grey's ineptness with facts. The most egregious of several examples is his declaration that Morgan Earp was assassinated in March of 1882 in retaliation for the killing of bad guy Johnny Ringo. Fact: Ringo still had four months to go before his body was found on Turkey Creek, a bullet hole in his temple.

But Grey is no worse than others who've written long-after-the-fact Tombstone books. Old lawman Billy Breakenridge had a fair amount of nonsense in his book, Helldorado: Bringing Law to the Mesquite, and so did Fred Dodge in Undercover for Wells Fargo.

At least Grey has editor Rogers to correct many of his errors. He does so in well-written footnotes that appear in smaller type on the same page, so that interested readers don't have to flip to the back of the book to get the real dish. The book's layout is pleasing, and historical photos are used wisely to keep the show moving.

Grey's promiscuity with the facts aside, the book is valuable for its small insights into everyday life. Only one who was there can really capture the mores of a frontier town. If a man appeared on Tombstone's Allen Street wearing a derby, some mischievous miner would knock it off his head, and another would kick it along the sidewalk, and so on until the hat wasn't worth recovering. "But the owner generally took this playfulness good naturedly, soon falling in line wearing the regulation soft cowboy headgear," Grey writes. "Often the crowd would chip in the price of a new hat for the tenderfoot."

One day a gypsy-looking man with big hoop earrings showed up in town leading a cinnamon-colored bear by a chain. Miners lined up at $5 a throw to wrestle the beast. The wisdom of that gamble became apparent when the bear stood on its hind legs and towered over the tallest man by a foot. "The five-dollar bills fell on the gypsy like rain," Grey writes.

Interesting, too, is the realization of how little some things have changed. Grey was a rancher in Rucker Canyon, and he tosses off occasional remarks that sound as if they could've been uttered by a cowman from the 1990s, rather than the 1890s. He complains about the government, specifically a decree outlawing fences on federal land, and he voices Sierra Club-sounding sentiments about the old days, when Arizona's flatlands were covered with grasses.

"As things now stand in many sections, neither farming nor cattle raising can succeed," he writes. "The passing of our grasslands in the West is the tragedy of this once fair land, and seems wholly inexcusable."

But the best pages deal with Grey's remarks on the difficulty of quelling the Apaches. Movie history tells us the renegades were wily and tough, but the troopers chasing them were stalwart and even tougher. Well, not always.

First, a lot of experienced officers, when they picked up Apache sign on patrol, simply ignored it and went the other way. Why bother? Second, veteran officers pulled every string they could to stay out of Arizona. It was too damn hot. So the officers posted here during the Apache campaigns were often spit-and-polish tinhorns.

One day an unnamed West Point lieutenant rode into Grey's cow camp and announced that he'd disciplined a soldier for getting drunk on mescal by turning him loose to make his own way back to Fort Bowie. The lieutenant asked Grey and his men to keep an eye out for him.

Two weeks later, Grey found the trooper dead from the heat, and a lack of food and water. The body was remarkably well-preserved, almost mummified, and Grey knew why. His father had always told him that Mexican dead on battlefields were never touched by coyotes and vultures because of the mescal they'd consumed before the fight.

To me, that kind of folklore is rich, and the story preceding it sounds dead-on genuine, too small to make up. Such anecdotes and observations make When All Roads Led to Tombstone a worthwhile book.

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