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Wyatt Earp Biography Separates Myth From Reality

The book cover for "Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and the Wickedest Town in the American West" by Tom Clavin.
St. Martin's Press
The book cover for "Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson and the Wickedest Town in the American West" by Tom Clavin.
Wyatt Earp Biography Separates Myth From Reality
Wyatt Earp Biography Separates Myth From Reality GUEST: Tom Clavin, author, "Dodge City"

People are fascinated by stories of the old West for longer than the old West existed. The stories we have come to know our ward legends and historical facts. A new generation of Western historians are trying to separate fact from fiction to give a more accurate picture of the wild West. In that vein is Tom Clayton's new book, Dodge city and the wickedest town in the American West. Among other western traditions, it really is true that Wyatt Earp lived in San Diego. Joining me is Tom Clayton. Just to place your story in the timeframe, most people might be from a year with, Wyatt Earp went to Dr. city several years before he to tombstone and was involved in a gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Why did you want to focus on his early time in Dodge city. They know the gunfight. I felt that story have been told and retold any times. The story I did not think have been told was what was Wyatt Earp before he became the figure in tombstone who was a law man in seem to know what to do to be on the right side of law. Wyatt Earp was somebody who was a flaw man who was trying to figure out if he was a good person or a bad person not long before he came to Dodge city. He was in jail for being a worth the. He did not always know what to do. He had to figure it out, which side he was going to be on. Arch city was a port part of his life. What made it the wicked city of the west? House. They used to call the town out bullying in some of the others, they were Cowtown's. As the railroad connected them to points north and east, the ranchers would bring thousands of cattle up from Texas. When the railroad came to Dodge city, it was the hub. It was well located. They could bring towels up and they could put them on the trains in the trains would take off. You had how hands being paid off. They had cash and they went to use on various kinds of entertainment. They tried to provide as much entertainment as possible. Law and order got in the way of entertainment. It became a wicked place because it was the place to party. This was the place that you say Wyatt Earp made the decision, that he wanted to go with the angel instead of the devil. He got into law enforcement. Why was that? He had a very difficult previous three years. One of the things that happened to Wyatt Earp which is not reported on later, he fell in love with a woman in Missouri and married her and she was pregnant. He bought a piece of property. He settled down and was going to be the constable in Missouri. His wife died in the baby with her. He was grief stricken and devastating. He got into trouble. He was in prison -- prison for being a worse the he saw it as a chance for redemption. Dodge city needed people who were going to wear a badge and put people in jail and stop the killing. Wyatt Earp was hired as an assistant arsenal to do that. As he became more comfortable as a law man, you started to see a vision for himself is not just being a common or or riffraff or a potential outlaw. He started to see that being a law man is almost like a calling. Especially with him teaming with bat Masterson, they were good friends. They became a very effective team. One of the legends about Wyatt Earp was he survived all kinds of gunfights. Do we know how many men he killed? One. One man. Even that is in dispute. He got the job and they put the team together in Dodge city because it was out of control, he said, they hired me not to do killing but to do less killing. What the law men did in those days, you got $2.50 per arrest in a dead body did not count. You needed a live body. If you were killing people, you could not make a living. Plus, PI -- the idea was to make it a safer place to live. In the years that Wyatt Earp was in Dodge city, one person was fleeing an arrest. It is believed that his bullet was the one that killed the fellow. Otherwise, they really took being a police officer seriously. They needed to decompress Dodge city and make it a place that people felt that -- save. Since you are in San Diego, I have to ask about his time here. After tombstone, he was called the urban vendetta when he was out to track down people that killed his brother and wooded virtual. He started to spend the rest of his life wondered around. He was looking for ways to make money, to become a wealthy man. He never found it. One thought was, he and his wife Josie lived in San Diego. I believe it was four years. Yet properties here. He did some real estate speculation. It did not work out the way he planned. It was time to move on. I am speaking with the author of Dodge city, Wyatt Earp, bat Masterson and the wickedest town in the American West. He will speak at his book -- about his book tonight. Thank you. Thank you very much. Watch the evening edition at 5:00 and 6:30 tonight. Join us tomorrow for KPBS Midday Edition at noon. If you miss a show, you can check out the podcast at www.kpbs.org . I am Maureen Cavanaugh and thank you for listening.

The Old West lawman Wyatt Earp has had his story told in at least a half-dozen movies, played by Burt Lancaster, Henry Fonda and Kevin Costner, among others.

The stories that have survived in pop culture are often more legend than historical fact. But a new generation of Western historians are trying to separate fact from fiction to give a more accurate picture of the Wild West and its most famous characters.

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"The legend that Earp, (Bat) Masterson and their colleagues were frequently in gun battles, that was untrue," said Tom Clavin, author of "Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West." "Wyatt Earp in his entire career is credited with maybe killing one man. His way was you hit someone with the butt of your gun and they woke up the next morning in jail. He was a very tough lawman, but was dedicated to being a genuine peace officer."

Clavin will be speaking at Warwick's on Monday at 7:30pm. He joined KPBS Midday Edition on Monday with more on Earp's life before the O.K. Corral and how his post-marshal career brought him to San Diego.