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Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life

Andrew C. Isenberg

Hill and Wang

Finalist for the 2014 Weber-Clements Book Prize for the Best Non-fiction Book on Southwestern America

In popular culture, Wyatt Earp is the hero of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, and a beacon of rough cowboy justice in the tumultuous American West. The subject of dozens of films, he has been invoked in battles against organized crime (in the 1930s), communism (in the 1950s), and al-Qaeda (after 2001).

Yet as the historian Andrew C. Isenberg reveals in Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life, the Hollywood Earp is largely a fiction—one created by none other than Earp himself. The lawman played on-screen by Henry Fonda and Burt Lancaster is stubbornly duty-bound; in actuality, Earp led a life of impulsive lawbreaking and shifting identities. When he wasn’t wearing a badge, he was variously a thief, a brothel bouncer, a gambler, and a confidence man. As Isenberg writes, “He donned and shucked off roles readily, whipsawing between lawman and lawbreaker, and pursued his changing ambitions recklessly, with little thought to the cost to himself, and still less thought to the cost, even the deadly cost, to others.”

By 1900, Earp’s misdeeds had caught up with him: his involvement as a referee in a fixed heavyweight prizefight brought him national notoriety as a scoundrel. Stung by the press, Earp set out to rebuild his reputation. He spent his last decades in Los Angeles, where he befriended Western silent film actors and directors. Having tried and failed over the course of his life to invent a better future for himself, in the end he invented a better past. Isenberg argues that even though Earp, who died in 1929, did not live to see it, Hollywood’s embrace of him as a paragon of law and order was his greatest confidence game of all.

A searching account of the man and his enduring legend, and a book about our national fascination with extrajudicial violence, Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life is a resounding biography of a singular American figure.

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1
LEX TALIONIS
 
 
On the night of March 20, 1882, at a train station in Tucson, Arizona Territory, Wyatt Earp, a deputy United States marshal, shot Frank Stilwell, an accused stage-robber and murderer. Wyatt aimed to kill, firing his shotgun into Stilwell’s chest at such close range that powder burns encircled the gaping wound. The shotgun blast alone was a mortal wound, but when a railroad worker discovered Stilwell’s body the next morning, he found that Stillwell had been shot multiple times. Members of Earp’s posse, which included his youngest brother,
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REVIEWS

Praise for Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life

“Meticulous . . . illuminat[es] an entire social milieu . . . Beautifully rendered . . . this new biography is a gem, and includes a touching look at Wyatt’s single lifelong friendship with Doc Holliday . . . offer[s] the reader an exciting glimpse into vanished forms of American life. The field of Western history has now entered a phase of precision scholarship, [of] deep research and glorious writing.”
The Wichita Eagle

 

“This brief, well-written, and superbly researched volume reconfigures the life of the western notable Wyatt Earp.... Anyone who reads this important book is not likely to view Wyatt Earp the same way.”
—Richard Etulain, Journal of American History

“Absorbing . . . Isenberg’s brilliance as a historian comes in part from finding the gaps within the myth . . . Wyatt Earp is part biography, part historical nonfiction that reads like a gripping novel. Like David McCollough, Richard Slotkin, Nathaniel Philbruck, and S.C. Gwynne, Isenberg gives us a narrative of the Old West and 19th century America that’s at once edifying and exhilarating in its scope.”
PopMatters

“This is the best dead-on Earp deconstruction I've ever read. At a time when vigilante action is being widely discussed—when we must ask ourselves if standing one's ground after stalking a black teenager translates into justifiable murder—it’s good to know that, in the old days, the issue was even more shockingly unsettled. Not only did Earp slay with impunity, but he also relied on the media to help him wipe the fingerprints and clean up the blood. Isenberg’s book deftly shows how a man of violence remade himself into a man of valor.”
Tucson Weekly

“Masterful . . . [the book] will be applauded by those who like their history to adhere more closely to facts.”
The New Mexican (Santa Fe)

“Isenberg carefully separates the historic from the hysterical, examines documents, evaluates sources critically and eventually scrapes away from Earp’s image the gilding that cultural history has applied . . . Isenberg shows us Earp as an early Jay Gatsby, reinventing himself continually.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Meticulously researched and persuasively argued, this weave of a single life and its constantly changing culture shows how an ambitious, violent man from the Midwest who made his name as a gambler, pimp, and all-around enforcer ultimately took up the cause of remaking his own reputation, with enduring consequences for Hollywood myth and popular lore. No biographer has ever illuminated the origins of Wyatt Earp’s legend or captured his complexities and contradictions as compellingly and with such beautiful prose as Andrew C. Isenberg does in Wyatt Earp: A Vigilante Life.”
—Louis S. Warren, author of Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show

“Even Wyatt Earp must sometimes stand naked. Andrew C. Isenberg’s new biography of Earp shows us the man bereft of his own mythologizing—a cardsharp, a flimflam man, and most of all a ruthless self-promoter. This is a remarkable and revealing portrait.”
—Thomas Cobb, author of With Blood in Their Eyes and Crazy Heart

“This book is quite simply absorbing. That a life as tangled, contradictory, mythologized, and disguised as Wyatt Earp’s could offer such a clear window into the nineteenth- and twentieth-century West is a tribute to Andrew C. Isenberg’s talent as a historian and writer.”
—Richard White, author of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

“With no ax to grind, and showing respect for even the most outrageous attempts at history and biography (which he systematically disassembles), Andrew C. Isenberg has written a reliable guide to Wyatt Earp’s conflicted existence.”
—Loren D. Estleman, author of The Perils of Sherlock Holmes

Reviews from Goodreads

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  • Andrew C. Isenberg

  • Andrew C. Isenberg is the author of Mining California: An Ecological History and The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750–1920, and the editor of The Nature of Cities: Culture, Landscape, and Urban Space. He is a historian at Temple University and lives in Pennsylvania.

  • Andrew C. Isenberg © Elena Isenberg
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