Six decades ago, a young writer stumbled into a story he found stunning. While books and movies glorified Wyatt Earp into one of America's greatest frontier legends, the surviving old timers from Tombstone's notorious era told a much different tale: that of a crooked lawman; a murderer who hid behind a badge to cover up his own misdeeds. The old timers knew - they were there and they lived to tell the stories - or at least they presented a convincing case. Frank Waters believed he had the truth' even if he lacked the evidence, to show that the greatest of frontier heroes, Wyatt Earp, had feet of clay.
Waters did his research back in the 1930s and put together a manuscript for a book which he later revised into the classic, The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, finally published in 1960. A generation would grow up on this revisionist story of Wyatt Earp as a villain, and the book would help convince a nation not to believe in its heroes, who might be nothing more than public relations bilge. Frank Waters produced one of the most influential books of the decade of American upheaval, not just for what it said about Wyatt Earp, but for what it said about heroes as a whole: they are not to be trusted.
Waters would grow into a literary hero in his own right, receiving major endorsements for the Nobel Prize in literature and recognized as one of the great 20th century novelists for his depiction of life among oft-ignored Native American and Hispanic cultures. He would be toasted in Europe and canonized in America. It would not be until the summer of 1998 that, just as with the frontier hero whose legend he had castrated, it would be shown that this literary hero also had feet of clay.
While writing Wyatt Earp: 'The Life Behind the Legend', I had searched in vain for the original draft of Tombstone Travesty. Both Jack Burrows and Pat Jahns had read the original draft during the 1950s when it was at the Arizona Pioneers Historical Society. Both told me that the original draft was far different from the book itself, though four decades later they could not recall the specifics. Both assured me that the original was so different from the final product that I could not trust the accuracy of the published book itself.
I interviewed Frank Waters before his death in 1995. I liked him and I admired him, and he told me that he believed in the accuracy of Allie Earp's comments. He told me where his papers had been donated, but I could locate no record of the original manuscript. After much thought, I decided Allie Earp's account as presented in Earp Brothers could not be trusted as fact and chose not to use it as source material, as I did with various other questionable memoirs.
It was not until the summer of 1998 when Earp researchers S. J. Reidhead and Jeff Wheat separately located the original Tombstone Travesty, manuscript in the Earp Brothers of Tombstone file the Frank Waters Papers. Waters died in June of 1995 and progressively more of his collection was made available to the public through the years.
Nothing that I had been told by Jahns or Burrows had prepared me for the shock I would have when I read the original Tombstone Travesty manuscript. Most stunning was not the information contained in the manuscript, but what was missing from the draft done in the 1930s.
The Earp Brothers of Tombstone stands as a wonderfully woven work, combining the supposed comments of Allie Earp with various old-timer quotes to show convincingly the darkness of Wyatt Earp's personality and activities. Quotations from Allie build to show the character of an adulterer, criminal mastermind and pompous jerk. He is neither likeable nor heroic, and he certainly is not the substance of legend. Strangely, very little of this showed up attributed to Allie Earp in the original manuscript, and the dark-side touches came only in additions for the 1960 book, thirteen years after Allie's death. It would be difficult to imagine Frank Waters, with his vision of Earp-as-all-evil, omitting this material had it ever actually streamed from the mouth of Mrs. Virgil (Allie) Earp.THE ELUSIVE SADIE
Most noticeably missing from the original manuscript is any mention whatsoever of an adulterous affair between Wyatt Earp and Josephine Sarah Marcus in Tombstone. Since Earp Brothers first appeared, this has been one of the most graphic elements of the Wyatt Earp story - the dapper Earp squiring around a lovely young dancer while his wife, Mattie, sat home taking care of the chores and longing for his company. Waters told dramatically how the Earp women gossiped about the affair and consoled poor Mattie about her husband's dalliance.
Waters referred to the consort only as ~'Sadie," through the course of Earp Brothers, then told at the end that Sadie the dancer was actually Josephine Sarah Marcus, Wyatt's third wife who remained at his side from December of 1882 until his death in 1929. Waters wrote in the book: "...the family skeleton who had now talked out of the closet after nearly eighty years. Everything was quite plain now: why Aunt Allie and all the remaining Earps had refused talk about the reason for Wyatt's desertion of his second wife and Mattie's suicide..."
By Waters's account in Earp Brothers, The affair between Wyatt and Sadie was a public scandal, common knowledge in Tombstone and well known to the Earp women. Waters wrote: 'We all knew about it and Mattie did too," said Allie. 'that's why we never said anything to her. We didn't have to. We could see her with her eyes all red from cryin', thinkin' of Wyatt's carryin' on. I didn't have to peek out at night to see if the light was still burnin' in her window for Wyatt. I knew it would still be burnin' at daylight when I got up.
Everything Wyatt did stuck the knife deeper into Mattie's heart. Polishin' his boots so he could prance into a fancy restaurant with Sadie. Cleanin' his guns to show off to Sadie. You never saw his hair combed so proper or his long, slim hands so beautiful clean and soft."
In Earp Brothers, Waters went on to quote Allie telling of horrible fights between Wyatt and Mattie, and accompanying Mattie on a visit to a Tombstone store in which they sighted the strumpet Sadie. By Frank Waters's account, this was a public spectacle that left the Earp women hiding in their homes in embarrassment.
For nearly four decades - longer than Morgan Earp's lifetime - Waters's writing has provided the compelling picture of the cold-hearted Wyatt Earp who could leave his loving wife home agonizing while he rubbed her face in his affair. It is a portrait that could not help but touch every mother's son' every woman's lover. It is an Earp so heartless that not only did he cheat on his wife, he did it with affectation.
Stunningly, there is no mention of any such Wyatt-Sadie affair in the original version of Tombstone Travesty, not by Allie or anyone else. Reading the pages of the original manuscript, one is led to see Wyatt Earp as a faithful husband to Mattie, though preoccupied by the circumstances around him. There is no hint of infidelity, no mention of his walking the streets with Sadie, or of the loyal Mattie's humiliation at the public atrocity. There is not even an indication that Allie was aware of any goings-on between Wyatt and Sadie in Tombstone.
The Wyatt Earp-Josephine Marcus affair has grown in legend through the years since Waters took a grain of truth and embellished it into a love affair with a cruel dimension. The legendary affair has even spawned the ugly stepchild, I Married Wyatt Earp, which further embroidered upon Frank Waters's imaginings. Despite a fictional basis, the story of a public affair between Wyatt and Sadie has permeated Earp research for years.
Whatever the relationship between Wyatt and Sadie in Tombstone, it appears to have been done circumspectly, without drawing either the attention of the public or of the Earp wives. They may well have flirted enough to receive notice from John Behan, Sadie's former lover, but it was no public spectacle as has been portrayed in these fiction-masquerading-as-fact accounts.
WYATT EARP, STAGE ROBBER?
It is impossible to escape Earp Brothers without reaching the conclusion that Allie knew Wyatt had really been the mastermind behind criminal operations in Cochise County. In a memorable section of Earp Brothers, Waters represents Allie as telling of Big-Nose Kate, Doc Holliday's paramour, coming to visit and raging about how Wyatt was the cause of Doc's misfortune. Then followed with a moment of high drama:
"'It's that sneakin' con-man of a husband of yours what's the trouble!' Kate said, flippin' around to spit out at Mattie. 'He's got an evil power over a poor sick man that ...'"
"Then it happened. Kate had been leanin' against the closet door, her hand on the doorknob; As she flipped around, the door flew open. There was a bang and a clatter. Out of the closet tumbled a big suitcase, spewin' out on the floor some things that made my eyes pop out. Wigs and beards made of unraveled rope and sewn on black cloth masks, some false mustaches, a church deacon's frock coat, a checkered suit like drummers wear, a little bamboo cane - lots of things like that.
"Mattie gave a startled little cry and fell on her knees in a hurry to gather all those things up, but Kate just gave them all a big kick into the closet.
"'Wyatt's disguises! I told him if he didn't get them out of Doc's room, I'd throw 'em all out into the street ... That two bit tinhorn's caused enough trouble already. It won't be long until he's got that stupid Virge under his thumb like Morgan."'
To support his point of view Waters even includes a footnote. 'Wyatt's disguises are not only mentioned by Mrs. Virgil Earp, but by Mrs. Kate Holliday in a deposition in the John Gilchriese collection of Earp data, and by Anton Mazzanovich in a review of (Stuart) Lake's book in the Brewery Gulch Gazette, April 29, 1932." In the Gazette column, Mazzanovich quotes Kate Holliday telling how she found a trunk containing rope masks during the trip West, from Las Vegas to Prescott, however, there is no mention of Kate seeing the masks at any time in Tombstone.
The rope masks take on a whole different meaning after one of the most dramatic and important incidents of the Tombstone saga. In March of 1881, robbers attempted to stop the stage between Tombstone and Benson and steal the Wells, Fargo strongbox. Gunfire was exchanged, and driver Bud Philpott and a passenger were killed. After the robbery, rope beards were found in the vicinity, apparently used as a disguise. Waters, in his own words in Earp Brothers, accused Doc Holliday of being one of the robbers and wrote, "Details of the circumstantial evidence flooded the house on the corners of First and Fremont. Allie did not need to listen to them. Her intuition convicted him at first rumor."
Frank Waters painted the portrait of Wyatt Earp as the kingpin, the mastermind behind the stage robbery racket. He used the stories supposedly from Allie to build the circumstantial case against Earp that seemed tight. However, there is no mention of the rope beards or any other such disguises in the original manuscript. In fact, Allie makes no indication whatsoever that would connect the Earps in any way with the stage robberies; It is clear that she did not particularly enjoy the company of Doc Holliday, but she never accused him of stage robbery.
It seems apparent that Waters located Big Nose Kate's letters to Mazzanovich and rearranged Kate's comments into Allie's mouth. For Kate to say that Wyatt carried rope masks on the trail West is of little consequence. Such items could be ordered through mail-order catalogs and were not particularly unusual among those who fancied themselves as being detectives. In fact, Allie never quotes Kate Holliday through the course of the whole Tombstone Travesty manuscript.
The absence of comments from Allie linking the Earp brothers to the stage robbery is blockbuster material. Rumors of an Earp connection have lingered through the years, but the basis had been a series of old-timer stories repeating unsubstantiated tales. One old-timer told another old-time story can never carry the weight attached to a direct link from the wife of Virgil Earp.
The importance of this information is that it should, forever, put to rest any connection between the Earps and Cochise County stage robberies. The accusations against the brothers were illogical on the face of them, but this negates the single most powerful accusation tying the Earps to the robbery.
What makes this even more enticing is that throughout Earp Brothers, Waters often tells of Kate's constant visits to the Earp women and makes it appear as if she was part of the knitting circle, in on all the secrets. There is no such indication in Tombstone Travesty. Instead, she is mentioned just once by Allie, who says, "With him came the woman he lived with, Kate Elder. She was called Big Nose Kate on account of that very thing."
Never does Allie discuss visits from Kate or surreptitious conversations conveying secret information. This would be a later addition that appears only in the published Earp Brothers of Tombstone, when the story changes dramatically.
THAT FAMOUS LINE
Perhaps the single most quoted line from The Earp Brothers of Tombstone is the comment supposedly made by Allie Earp. "We didn't get out when the getting' was good, and now I didn't know when we'd ever get away." This haunting comment typifies the perception of Allie Earp as presented by Frank Waters: A woman who loved her husband and was fed up with the treachery surrounding her, almost as if she were being held a prisoner in Tombstone by the evil and conniving Wyatt Earp. It is a statement that almost bursts from the pages of the book, giving a sense of foreboding and despair.
Allie Earp never said any statement like that in the Tombstone Travesty manuscript. There was no prescience of evil, no foretelling of forthcoming disaster. There was nothing of this sort in Waters's original manuscript. There is not even a hint of anti-Earp feeling in this manuscript. With all this, the two main precepts of The Earp Brothers of Tombstone collapse. Frank Waters tells no story of Wyatt Earp flaunting his adultery on the streets of Tombstone, nor is there an family implication involving the Earps in stage robberies.
The discovery of the Tombstone Travesty manuscript will force a frill re-evaluation of the Earp story by those who have accepted The Earp Brothers of Tombstone as authentic. Without the stage-robbing charges, the open adultery and the cold persona portrayed by Frank Waters, the very character of Wyatt Earp must be reconsidered to gain an understanding of the man and his role in one of the great dramas of American history.
As we end one millennium and begin a new one, we are in a remarkable time for finally understanding the Tombstone story. During the last year, two of the most revered books on the subject -The Earp Brothers of Tombstone and I Married Wyatt Earp, edited by Glenn G. Boyer - have lost credibility and their falsehoods can never again be presented in legitimate historical works. Only by weeding out the false material can we gain a grasp of what is real.
If Frank Waters's deception is to be understood, it is the curse of a crusader who believes he knows the truth no matter the evidence or lack thereof. The Arizona old-timers seemed to know the facts, and how could so many wise elders be wrong? They could have been wrong by recycling false stories from phony sources, to be told and retold to one another. The challenge for a new generation of researchers must be to reach past the false tales to search for the truth.
It will remain the height of irony that Frank Waters set out with a passion to show that the Wyatt Earp legend had feet of clay, only to grow into a legend himself with his own feet of clay.