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Tucson Weekly Earp, Plop, Bring The Mop

A purportedly definitive biography of Wyatt Earp is mostly PR bilge.

By Emil Franzi

Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, by Casey Tefertiller (Wiley and Sons). Cloth, $30.

DECEMBER 8, 1997:  NO ONE FIGURE in the history of the American West arouses more controversy than Wyatt Earp. More hype has been spread and more smoke blown about him than even George Custer and Billy the Kid. Hero, thug and all points in between have been put forth in print and film as the real Wyatt.

Earp experts can all agree on such trivia as where everybody stood and fell at the gunfight in the vacant lot called the OK Corral. It's the big stuff on which there is no consensus, like who really shot Johnny Ringo.

Casey Tefertiller is a former San Francisco newspaper reporter whose book is being hyped by its publisher as the Wyatt Earp book. It isn't. If it's supposed to answer all the questions Earp buffs have had over the years, it doesn't. It raises new ones. Like too many of today's reporters, Terfertiller is prone to accept as gospel official sources.

Part of the publicity package that came with the review copy makes a number of major claims it terms "Shocking New Discoveries." Most aren't:

Tefertiller claims Doc Holliday's girlfriend, Big Nose Kate, met with Holliday enemy Johnny Ringo, and that Ringo gave her money to leave town. The source is a second-hand quotation from a letter purported to be from Kate, which is refuted by Kate's numerous descendants.

He finds it "stunning" that Wells Fargo issued a statement supporting Earp after the famous Tombstone gunfight, while he himself notes, as others have before, that Earp was often on the Wells Fargo payroll throughout his career. Why is the company's defense of someone it regularly employed deemed "stunning"?

Using as his source one article in the anti-Earp Tombstone Nugget, a publication so unreliable that it's been rejected by several generations of historians, Tefertiller claims Earp tried to send a "peace offering" to Billy Clanton. Tefertiller himself concedes the Nugget's bias, and then ignores his own admonition.

The worst example of Tefertiller's gullibility is the claim that John Wayne met Wyatt Earp as a kid on movie locations. The source? One statement by actor Hugh O'Brien, who played Earp on TV in the '50s. O'Brien claims the Duke told him he'd known Earp. Tefertiller inflates that to: "These meetings would help the young actor fashion the persona that would become John Wayne." There is voluminous material on John Wayne, and probably more books about him than Earp. Nowhere else does anyone mention any Earp-Wayne connection or meeting.

But Tefertiller's most unusual--and questionable--action isn't in his book, it's in the PR handout, where he launches a blistering attack on long-time Earp historian Glenn Boyer.

Boyer, who lives deep in Cochise County with his wife, award-winning Western author Jane Coleman, has been chasing down Earpomania for about 60 years. He's met people who knew the Earp brothers. While Boyer's material is sometimes controversial, it's interesting that some of Tefertiller's sources contain material that originally came from Boyer.

That Tefertiller fails to make any references to Boyer, save for quoting one article on Morgan Earp, and then cheap-shots him in a PR handout, indicates a serious flaw in Tefertiller's scholarship. Ignoring Boyer's massive output is bad enough (and Boyer isn't the only Earp source Tefertiller ignores), but to dismiss it in such a shabby fashion without specific refutations destroys the claims of Tefertiller and his supporters that this volume is "definitive."

Putting its many faults aside, Tefertiller's book does have some merit. It's an attempt at a scholarly compilation of Wyatt Earp's life by a major publisher, which contains a multitude of primary source references and an interesting (although incomplete) bibliography.

Regardless of its selection by The History Book Club and the dust-jacket blurbs it receives from such Western history eminences as Evan Connell (Son of the Morning Star), this is hardly the last word in the Earp biography. Had the author analyzed more and been snowed less, had he not exaggerated the relevancy of some of his "discoveries," had he not launched a vitriolic and petty attack on a fellow scholar, and had he fully evaluated all of the secondary as well as primary sources for a few more clues, he would have produced a much better book.


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