I first became acquainted with the town Tombstone after watching the movie Tombstone in the summer of 1998.
I had never been a big fan of western movies or considered myself a cowboy at heart, but I found the movie inexplicably compelling, and I immediately set out to learn more about The Gunfight at The O.K. Corral.
In the process, I learned much more about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and just about everyone in the movie Tombstone. I learned that most of the movie is pretty accurate, although there are a few unforgivable, glaring flaws.
I also learned that there was a supporting cast in the real-life town of Tombstone who were almost as interesting as the people in the movie.
Click on a name in the table below to learn more about that person.
|Wyatt Earp||Doc Holliday||Virgil Earp|
|Josephine Marcus Earp||John Behan||Billy Breakenridge|
|Johnny Ringo||Curly Bill Brocius||Morgan Earp|
|Ike Clanton||Fred White||Big Nosed Kate|
|Other Prominent People...||Selected Reading||Tombstone Links|
|That OTHER Wyatt Earp Movie||Tombstone Memorabilia||Email Doug Johnson|
John H. "Doc" Holliday was a dentist by training, who
contracted tuberculosis and came west for his health. How much he ever
actually practiced dentistry is debatable, but there is no disputing his
credentials as a dentist (Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery, 1872)
or his pedigree. He was
born into a wealthy Georgia family, but they were too ashamed of him to
acknowlege him until the last few years. There had been claims that he
killed dozens of people during his meandering ride through the west, but
this appears to be a great exageration. He had quite a temper, but he didn't
kill people for looking at him wrong, as some have claimed.
The portrayal in Tombstone seems to be a fair one, although the "quarrelsome" side of Doc Holliday (an adjective that keeps coming up in books and actricles mentioning him) is minimized. Perhaps a more accurate portrayal might been seen in Dennis Quaid's Wyatt Earp Doc.
There are two interesting books I would recommend, "Doc Holliday" by John Myers Myers, was written in 1955, but it holds up to modern scrutiny. "Doc Holliday, A Family Portrait" by Karen Holliday Tanner is a well-researched book by an apologetic family member, long on footnotes and familiy papers and portraits.
Virgil Earp was one of Wyatt Earp's older brothers. He seems to have actually been person that Hollywood and the authors of popular fiction tried to turn Wyatt into. I can't imagine why Wyatt became the stuff of legend, and Virgil became a historical footnote, but that's what happened. Virgil seems to have embodied many of the qualities that made Wyatt famous, but he seems to have been a more decent man.
Josephine "Sadie" Marcus Earp was Wyatt's third "wife."
A flighty young girl from San Francisco, she found her way into Tombstone
with a travelling theatrical troupe. When she hit town, she hooked up with
Sheriff John Behan, and lived as his wife for a time, before she took up
with Wyatt Earp. This caused some understandable friction between the two
She never officially married Wyatt, but she stole him away from his second "wife" to whom he wasn't married either. (Wyatt's first, and only legally recognised wife died [probably] in childbirth when he was 21.) She stayed with Wyatt through the myriad of get-rich-quich schemes, most of which involved mine speculation.
After Wyatt's death, she tenaciously defended his reputation, refusing to allow biographers to mention anything she deemed inappropriate. For example, her relationship with Behan was strictly off limits, although it provided an important backdrop for many of the events in Tombstone.
In her later years, she grew into a very unpleasant woman, ostracised by her family. She was a compulsive (and very poor) gambler, and lost most of Wyatt's money in poker games and at horse races. Her book "I married Wyatt Earp" is dismissed as puffery by historians.
became the Sheriff of Cochise County when it was carved out of nearby Pima
County in 1881. Wyatt Earp had hoped for the job, but lost out to the politically
savvy Behan. The Office of Sheriff was a lucrative one, and Behan made
more than $40,000 in some years collecting taxes. Not surprisingly, history
shows Behan to be a successful but corrupt politician and lackluster lawman.
Too busy with revenue collection to devote much time to law enforcement,
Behan left most of the actual policework to his deputies.
On the few occasions where he couldn't get out of doing real policework, Behan was a coward. He chased a fugitive Wyatt Earp through the desert, then turned away when he knew he was close enough to capture him.
Breakenridge was Behan's loyal deputy. In Tombstone, he is played
as a mincing homosexual by Jason Priestly. The real-life Breakenridge was
an able lawman who's main shortcoming appears to have been a blindness
to the ineptitude of his boss. Breakenridge's allegiance is understandable,
since deputies served at the pleasure of the sheriff, and so is his dislike
for Behan's enemy Wyatt Earp.
Breakenridge wrote (or dictated) a book, "Helldorado" in 1928. In a conversational tone, he reminisces about his youth and his time in Tombstone. He recalls being friendly with many of the outlaws of the period, although he seems to have been an honest man in a time when dishonesty didn't preclude a law enforcement career. Historians have debunked many of Breakenridge's recollections, specifically those surrounding Johnny Ringo, with whom he was friends. Even with it's faults, Helldorado is an interesting period piece.
In Tombstone (and many other western books and movies...), Johnny
Ringo was supposed to be a romantic character, the "educated scion
of a prominent Southern family..." who became a brooding gunfighter
that quoted the classics. In real life he was a grade school dropout who
came west with his poor family in the 1860s. He watched his father die
in a horrible shotgun mishap while en route, and his mother eventually
settled the surviving family in San Jose. Like the aristocracy story, falsehoods
abound concerning his education, his alleged Civil War valor, even his
real name. (It's not "Ringgold" as some have said.) There is
still some confusion over Ringo's death, some say suicide, others say murder.
In any event, he wasn't killed in a shoot-out with Doc Holliday.
There is an excellent book about Johnny Ringo which dispels much of the larger-than-life rumors that have grown up around his memory. I wholeheartedly recommend "John Ringo, The Gunfighter that never was" by Jack Burrows.
The leader of The Cow-Boys was not Curly Bill Brocius, although you wouldn't know it from the movie. The loosely knit clan of outlaws was unquestionably led by Newman H. "Old Man" Clanton, father of the pitiful Ike. Curly Bill did kill Marshall Fred White, but he was aquitted after a lenghty trial. Marshal White lingered on his deathbed for several days after the shooting, and exonerated Curly Bill before dying, saying the shooting was an accident. Historians are divided as to whether he was actually killed by Wyatt Earp, or whether he orchestrated his own "death" and lived his remaining years in Montana.
Morgan Earp was another of Wyatt's younger brothers. Like the
movie character, he was fun-loving and lived to no small degree in Wyatt's
considerable shadow. Morgan was murdered by the cow-boys, and it was that
crime that set Wyatt's "Vendetta Ride" in motion.
He worked primarily as a Shotgun Messenger for Wells Fargo (Essentially an armored car guard), and was usually only deputized when the need arose.
Joseph Isaac "Ike" Clanton was a man with no redeeming qualities. He was a drunk, a braggart, a liar, a thief and a coward. In Tombstone, he provides a handy villian who is easy to dislike. In real life, he was much the same. He even looked remarkably like the actor playing him.
Marshal Fred White was in fact killed by Curly Bill Brocius, in a manner similar to that depicted in Tombstone. Unlike the movie Marshal, the real Fred White was not a kindly old man, but just 32 years old when he was killed. Marshal White was a capable and honest police officer, in a time and place where neither was the norm.
Kate Harony, also known as "Big Nosed Kate" and "Kate Elder" was Doc Holliday's significant other, for want of a better term. They endured a tempestuous relationship for many years, one which was often marred with violence. She was of Hungarian descent, but certainly not an attractive woman as the movie would suggest. She worked periodically as a prostitute, and this occasionally bothered Doc. They travelled the west, sometimes as "Dr. and Mrs. J.H. Holliday" although they were never married.
Now...Who are THESE guys, and why weren't THEY in the movie?
Judge Wells Spicer Except for a passing mention by Fred White and later another by Wyatt Earp, there is no mention of Judge Wells Spicer. Spicer was one of several judges in Tombstone, and he presided over the trial of Curly Bill, plus several of Wyatt's scrapes with Sheriff Behan. While certainly not as colorful as Judge Roy Bean, Spicer was, by wild west standards, an excellent jurist. His judgement in the O.K. Corral matter was wise and well thought-out, and it placated a divided town which was used to solving it's problems with violence.
Diarist George Parsons No one man is responsible for as much unvarnished Tombstone information as George Parsons. During the boom years, Parsons meticulously kept a diary, from which much of Tombstone's history has been gleaned. Although he was aligned with the Republican/Merchant faction, Parsons presents a mostly unbiased slice of Tombstone life. He worries about things like lawlessness the way any citizen would, and he records minutiae the way no one else bothered to. Historians owe much to this forward-thinking man.
Fred Dodge The most compelling law enforcement officer in Tombstone might not have been Wyatt Earp, but rather Frederick J. Dodge, who was an undercover agent for Wells, Fargo & Co. In the 1800's, Wells Fargo agents were de facto law enforcement officers, given the nature of their duties and the power of their employer. The fact the Dodge managed to stay undercover for so long is remarkable, given the atmosphere around Tombstone. It was Fred Dodge's pistol that Wyatt borrowed to arrest Curly Bill after the Fred White shooting.
Dave Neagle Another interesting law enforcement personality, Dave Neagle worked in Tombstone for the Sheriff's Office under John Behan. Neagle managed to do his job well, despite being only 5'8" tall, and was well-respected by almost everyone. Neagle was once ordered to arrest Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday for carrying concealed weapons in violation of Tombstone's ordinance, and managed to do so without incident. Charges against Wyatt were dropped because he was a U.S. Marshall, and Neagle went on to become chief of Tombstone's police department.
Dr. George Goodfellow was Tombstone's doctor. Unlike the inept character in the movie, Goodfellow was well respected, and became the nation's leading authority on gunshot wounds, having dealt with so many. He authored an academic paper on "The Impenetrability of Silk to Bullets" based on his observations where silk hankerchiefs had actually stopped bullets. He possessed a dark sense of humor, once describing the bullet riddled body in a coroner's report as "Rich in lead, but too badly punctured to hold whiskey."
Rev. Endicott Peabody founded Tombstone's Episcopal Church, which still stands today. Rev. Peabody answered a call to serve in "The rottenest place on Earth" and soon won over the townspeople, charming the women and impressing the men with his physical strength. One of the few larger-than-life characters in Tombstone that everyone had a favorable opinion of.
Tombstone's Epitaph By Douglas Martin Although the cover features a Kurt Russellesque Wyatt Earp, this book is about the famous newspaper, and not just the O.K. Corral. The Epitaph-Nugget rivalry is reminiscent of the equally acrimonious Verisimilitude-Big Rag news wars.
John Ringo, The Gunfighter Who Never Was By Jack Burrows A very interesting and well-researched book which dispells the myths surrounding enigmatic John Ringo. Well-written and entertaining.
Helldorado, Bringing The Law to The Mesquite By Wm. M. Breakenridge One of the first of the so-called "anti-Earp" books; this is little more of a self-indulgent autobiography of a man who happened to be in a very interesting place during a fascinating time. The anti-Earp passages aren't even that inflamatory .
And Die in The West, The Story of The O.K. Corral Gunfight By Paula Mitchell Marks This book delves into the politics and background of the gunfight, and the legal aftermath. Mercifully brief in it's examination of the post-Tombstone lives of the participants.
Inventing Wyatt Earp, His Life and Many Legends By Allan Barra and Wyatt Earp, The Life Behind The Legend by Casey Tefertiller are similar books in that they both examine the whole life of Wyatt Earp, and the legends that grew-up around him. Obviously the Tombstone Years are a significant part of the Wyatt Earp Legend, but he lived for another 50 years, and his life didn't always mirror the legend.
The Earp Brothers of Tombstone By Frank Waters This is another anti-Wyatt Earp book, based in large part on the recollections of Virgil's wife Allie. Allie dispised Wyatt, and blamed him for everything that happened to Virgil and Morgan. Waters' opinions are less-biased, but clearly he is no fan of Wyatt.
Tombstone was being filmed, another movie was in production that
depicted the same basic story with the same cast of characters.
Wyatt Earp, starring Kevin Costner, was a ponderously long (3+ Hours) but generally accurate depiction of Wyatt Earp's life. Unfortunately for the Wyatt Earp people, it was trounced at the box office by the Tombstone, despite having more bankable stars and a bigger budget.
Wyatt Earp traces Wyatt's life from childhood to middle age, and for the first time, shows that Wyatt Earp had human frailties like everyone else. Dennis Quaid played Doc Holliday, and his snide portrayal in Wyatt Earp was probably closer to the unpleasant real-life Doc than Val Kilmer's Tombstone Doc. In general, the entire movie was far more historically accurate than Tombstone, but Wyatt Earp lacked the panache and quotability of Tombstone.
To add insult to injury, production of Wyatt Earp was held up because Tombstone had tapped all the local resourses for period clothing and equipment.
Email Doug Johnson