Tag Archives: gunfighters

Wyatt’s weapons

A few days ago, somebody paid $225,000 for a revolver carried by Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, perhaps the one he used in the O.K. Corral gunfight. The gun came from the estate of Glenn Boyer, a controversial Earp researcher and collector who died last year.

Was this the revolver Earp carried to the Old West’s most famous gunfight? Maybe, maybe not. The serial number’s been removed, but X-ray tests indicate that it matched a weapon Earp owned. That doesn’t mean he used it at the O.K. Corral, of course. Western researcher Bob Boze Bell writes, “Wyatt Earp owned over two dozen weapons while he was in Tombstone.” Still, any Earp-owned gun is an extremely cool thing to have.

Probably the only eyewitness description we have of Earp’s weaponry on the day of the gunfight comes from a Tombstone butcher named Bauer who witnessed some of the events leading to the shootout. At a hearing held a few weeks later, he claimed under oath that Earp was carrying “an old pistol, pretty large, 14 or 16 inches long, it seemed to me.”

Wyatt Earp in the 1880s. Wikimedia Commons

That’s pretty darned long for a revolver, and way too long for the standard single-action Colts that most people associate with frontier gunslingers. Maybe Bauer was mistaken. Or maybe his testimony reveals a kernel of truth at the core of some gunfighting folklore.

Stuart Lake, one of Wyatt’s early biographers, claimed that dime novelist Ned Buntline was so grateful to Earp and a few fellow Kansas lawmen for providing him with material that he gave each man a custom-made Colt revolver with an extra-long barrel. Put a ten or twelve-inch barrel on a Colt, and you’d end up with a gun long enough to fit Bauer’s description.

The problem is that Lake was to Wyatt Earp what Parson Weems was to George Washington–a biographer who wrote down as much legend as fact. There’s no solid evidence that the “Buntline Special” existed, let alone that Earp had one with him in Tombstone. Colt has no records of any such order.  Some folks have accused Lake of making the whole thing up, but he apparently believed the Buntline story, because he tried to track down the pistol’s whereabouts.

Interestingly, a Tombstone gunfighter named “Buckskin” Frank Leslie ordered a special long-barreled Colt in 1881, the same year as the Earps’ showdown near the O.K. Corral. Did he see Wyatt carrying an extra large pistol and decide he wanted one of his own? Some writers have raised the possibility.

Bauer also testified that Wyatt was wearing a short coat that day, and that he drew his pistol out of one of its pockets, which indicates that he had the gun tucked in his waistband and pulled it through a special pocket slit. But at least one O.K. Corral researcher has argued that Earp put on a specially modified overcoat before the gunfight, one which had deep, customized pockets lined with leather to make a less conspicuous holster for a longer pistol.  And some Earp scholars think he didn’t use any kind of Colt six-shooter at all during the Tombstone shootout, but a Smith & Wesson instead.  As you can tell, there’s quite an extensive secondary literature on the O.K. Corral gunfight, with incredibly minute analyses of who carried which type of gun, who was wearing what, who shot when, and who said what before the shooting started. I’ve seen reconstructions of the armaments and tactics in that tiny Arizona lot that are so painstaking and thorough they’d put any study of Antietam or Gettysburg to shame. It’s a fascinating little historiographical niche.

We’ll probably never know for sure whether Earp owned a souped-up Colt, or which of his guns he used at the O.K. Corral fight. But the uncertainty hasn’t stopped showbiz from customizing Wyatt’s sidearms on the big or small screen. ABC’s Wyatt Earp TV series featured the Buntline, and in the movie Tombstone Kurt Russell’s Earp goes to the shootout armed with a special long-barreled revolver.

Many years ago I got to hold the six-shooter Russell used in the movie, one of many singular experiences that resulted from having a mom who enjoys researching about gunslingers. Maybe someday I’ll blog more about all that. For now, I’ll just say that if you think the Civil War enthusiast community is colorful, you should spend some time in Earpdom.

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Here be dragons

I’m going to indulge in a little reminiscing about historic sites, summer vacations, dinosaurs, and gunfighters.  Normally these subjects wouldn’t be sharing the same space, but in my case they share a complicated autobiographical conjunction.  If that sounds bizarre, well, that’s life for you.

For most people who love history, geography evokes the past.  Visiting a region or looking at a map will cause your historical mind to kick in and make associations with past people, events, cultures, and so on.  The deeper your historical knowledge of a particular place or region, the more richly detailed the mental historical map that you can impose on the actual one.  When I look at a map of South Carolina, I see the Revolutionary War playing out.  When I drive across Virginia, I see Union and Confederate armies.  You probably have your own historical associations that you impose on particular places or regions.

For me, having this tendency is a comparatively recent development.  My passionate childhood encounters with history were pretty few and far between.  I didn’t turn into a full-fledged history nut until I was old enough to vote.  Dinosaurs took up all the neurons I could spare.  Most young dino fanatics start to cool in their enthusiasm when they become teenagers, but that was the age range in which my dino-fever intensified.  Hollywood had a lot to do with it.  The first two Jurassic Park films bracketed my high school years; the first movie opened the summer before I became a freshman, the sequel on the weekend I graduated.

In 1993, the same year that Jurassic Park whipped my dino-fixation into a fever pitch, my mom decided to start writing about gunfighters in the Old West.  For the next few years, our family vacations coincided with her research trips to the western U.S., a part of the country where none of us had spent much time before.  Since the West is also home to some of the greatest dinosaur graveyards in the world and scores of natural history museums, I’d have the chance to indulge my dinosaur obsession along the way.  Furthermore, my dad was a history teacher, so we also planned to hit some battlefields and other sites.  Something for everybody.

Thus was born a venerable Lynch family tradition, the Great Summer Western Circuits of the 1990’s.  My parents and I would stockpile books, snacks, and maps into a minivan, generally with one or two other bystanders in tow, and head across the Mississippi to spend two or three weeks at a time on the trail of gunslingers.  We usually went southwestward through Arkansas and Texas and then into Arizona and New Mexico, and then made a loop north toward the Canadian border before turning eastward and heading back home, by which point we were all ready to strangle each other from days of close confinement.

We paid homage at the usual tourist Meccas—the Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore (which was overrated, I thought), the Alamo—but given Mom’s interests, most of the places we visited were gunfighter locales like Tombstone, Dodge City, Deadwood, Coffeyville, Northfield, and Fort Sumner.  We saw more restored saloons, dance halls, penitentiaries, and courthouses than I could count if I tried, and paid our respects at every outlaw’s last resting place between Montana and Arizona.

Now that I’ve had time to look back on it, these were my first sustained experiences with historical travel.  I had visited historic sites as a kid, but never so many of them in so short a period of time as I did on these vacations.  The thing is—and I didn’t realize this until recently—these early ventures as a heritage tourist were very unconventional.  Sure, I got to see some “mainstream” historic sites, mostly battlefields along with a smattering of forts and writers’ homes. (Mom is a former English teacher, so Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder were on the itinerary.)  But most of our destinations involved the West that you see in the movies, the one populated by gamblers, lawmen, train robbers, and all those other figures who cast such a long shadow across the American imagination.

Just as these characters straddle the boundary between history and myth, so the historic sites where people came to walk in their footsteps were hard to categorize.  These gunfighter attractions tended to be small, offbeat operations, lying somewhere on the spectrum between legit historic site and outright tourist trap and often much closer to the latter.  They had the kind of charming roadside aesthetic you don’t get at a place like Mount Vernon or Antietam.  The interpretation was heavy on folklore and melodrama, and collections policies were practically non-existent.  In New Mexico, we visited a Billy the Kid museum that boasted a stuffed and mounted two-headed calf as one of its artifacts. The small courthouse on the plaza in Mesilla where the Kid was (unsuccessfully, as it turned out) sentenced to hang, and where the Gadsden Purchase was signed, had become a souvenir shop; I bought an acrylic paperweight with a dead scorpion encased inside of it there, and kept it on my dresser for years afterward.  The old Birdcage Theater in Tombstone, AZ had become a quirky museum, crowded with every kind of antiquarian bric-a-brac you could imagine—an 188o’s barber chair, old medical instruments, racy photos of Victorian-era prostitutes, and (most bizarre of all) a Fiji mermaid, that staple of nineteenth-century sideshows.

Tombstone was always on the itinerary.  What Gettysburg is to the Civil War, Tombstone is to the Old West—a great tourist Mecca where you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some historic attraction or gift shop.  The main attraction was the O.K. Corral.  The proprietors had walled in the vacant lot behind the stables where the gunfight actually took place, so you had to pay admission and walk through the corral gate to get to it.  Garish mannequins representing the participants marked the spot, and a recorded spiel with sound effects played at the push of a button.  A small fee got you into Boot Hill, where a map handout guided you to all the notable graves.  You could drink a Coke in some of the old saloons, or take a stagecoach tour through the streets.  You could buy a different Wyatt Earp or Doc Holliday t-shirt for every day of the month.  One of the souvenir apparel shops was in a former pool hall where Earp’s younger brother took a fatal bullet in the back.

Allen Street in Tombstone, AZ. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The historic West I saw as a teenager was the semi-mythical West, but at the time, I didn’t really distinguish between the conventional historic sites and the kitschy tourist attractions.  It was all just filler between the dinosaur stops.  I didn’t care too much about cowboys, Indians, and vast herds of buffalo; I wanted vast herds of Triceratops.  The only history that really excited me was the history of fossil hunting.  Indifferent to Mt. Rushmore and the Truman Library, I flipped out when we drove past Como Bluff, WY, one of the nineteenth century’s most famous dinosaur burial grounds.

Como Bluff, WY. Some of the most spectacular dinosaur discoveries of the 1800's were made here during the famous "fossil feud" between rival paleontologists O.C. Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

My mental map of the West was very sketchy, my appreciation of its history negligible.  It was similar to those old maps that have vast expanses of terra incognita populated by monsters.  The difference is that the dragons on my mental map had once been very much alive.  I had been to these blank spaces, but they remained blank anyway because the dragons were all I really noticed at the time.

Detail from a 1570 map. Image from The Old Map & Clock Company, http://www.old-map.com

When I looked over the atlases that my dad used to navigate our western trips, and when I watched the landscape zip past the window, I associated places with the dinosaurs that once lived there: sauropods and stegosaurs in Utah, tyrannosaurs in Montana.  If geography evoked human history at all, it was only the history of paleontology, as at Como Bluff.  What seems funny to me now is how much my frame of reference has changed since then.  These days, when I look at a map or drive across a landscape, I see associations with the 1700’s and 1800’s. The ways I make sense of the world have evolved.

So although I got to travel throughout much of the West, I knew almost nothing of its rich history while I was seeing it.  Indeed, the history of the West remained a hazy subject for me even after I finished my master’s degree.  When I got assigned to teach a survey course on the post-Civil War U.S., I had to do a lot of boning up on the settlement of the trans-Mississippi before I could put a decent lecture together.

My mental map of American history doesn’t have quite as many blank spaces now as it did when I was a teenager.  I can look at an atlas of the United States or drive through a region and make connections with important people and events; the landscapes I see around me are filled with the bones of people as well as the bones of dragons.  Old habits die hard, though, and the dragons are still lurking around.  As a history major I had to take a methodology course and complete a major research project, so I wrote my paper on a feud between two nineteenth-century paleontologists, a feud in which the dinosaur graveyard of Como Bluff figured prominently.

I’m a little sorry that, when I had the chance to appreciate the historic West firsthand, I was so obsessed with the prehistoric one that I didn’t pay very close attention to anything else.  I’d like to spend some more time out there now that I’m armed with some sort of historical sensibility, and pay the dinosaurs a visit while I’m at it.  The map isn’t blank anymore, but I think there’s still enough space for the monsters.

Allosaurus takes on Diplodocus at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, from Wikimedia Commons

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