Immortality

According to an 80’s song, the yearning to live forever is the major attraction of fame.  Unfortunately, it also paints a target on your back that can last as long as the fame does.

I posted an entry the other day about three famous figures who made names for themselves in Kansas, or who at least added to their reputations while they were here, and whose legacies took a long downswing before finally rebounding in recent years.  They all had at least one other feature in common.  The Wild West was fully aware that the world was watching, and George Armstrong Custer, William F. Cody, and Wyatt Earp all played an active role in molding their own legends.

Putting his idle hours to good use after his 1867 court-martial, Custer proved himself not only a lively writer, but a fearless one, tweaking the nose of his own boss, General Winfield Scott Hancock, in one of his articles for an outdoorsman’s magazine, Turf, Field and Farm.  William F. Cody was all of thirty-three years old in 1879, when he first turned his pen to writing an autobiography.  By that ripe age, his highly-embellished adventures had been devoured by readers for a decade.  At twenty-six he had even played himself on stage, alongside his friend and fellow legendary Kansan “Wild Bill” Hickok.

While he was literate, Wyatt Earp generally let others do the embroidering of his exploits.  He handed an outline of his activities in Tombstone to a ghost writer for the San Francisco Examiner in 1896, later shopped around a memoir produced by his personal secretary, and kept up a brisk correspondence with Stuart Lake, the man who would publish Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshall in 1931.  The book would lead to over two dozen movies, a long-running TV series, and a library of other volumes, few of them as flattering as Lake's.  It had been a long road to Western immortality, since Wyatt first attracted the national spotlight back in 1878, mentioned in the Police Gazette in connection with the shooting of a "cow-boy" in Dodge City.    

This city is a great cattle centre, and bears a pretty bad reputation abroad.  Although we have an efficient police force who are always quick to quell any disturbance, considerable excitement was occasioned last night, which had its origin in this manner: Wyatt Erpe, a good fellow and brave officer, had an altercation with a "cow-boy," when the latter, getting worsted, went for assistance and revenge, which was obtained from a number of mounted Texans who rode by a variety hall run by Dick Brown and Ben Springer, and fired a volley into the hall, which is a frame "frontier theatre," and was beautifully perforated with bullets.

It was not the last time Earp’s name would be misspelled, but it may have been the last instance during his lifetime when a positive mention in the press wasn’t followed by a flurry of contrary opinions.  From Dodge City, Kansas, Wyatt traveled to Tombstone, Arizona, and into a whirlwind of controversy.  However, even the famous gunfight near the O.K. Corral probably didn’t spew out as much newsprint as the decision he rendered while refereeing the Sharkey-Fitzsimmons fight in San Francisco fifteen years later.  Earp called a foul on Bob Fitsimmons and awarded the bout to Tom Sharkey in the eighth round, setting off an argument that continues to this day.

A public relations campaign was launched on Wyatt Earp’s behalf following the contested prizefight, an operation which reached even rural Kansas, where Earp's history as a frontier peace officer was printed in small-town newspapers to bolster his credibility as a man of unimpeachable integrity.  The effort may have backfired, inciting a hatchet job that dredged up half-baked rumors from Tombstone, most of them sheer nonsense.  Even mundane family relationships were mangled beyond recognition in a long, rambling piece of lurid tripe.

Taking his place beside slain brother Warren Earp, a fictional brother named Julian was invented for the purpose of being shot dead by Ike Clanton in Gunnison, Colorado.  Wyatt and Virgil Earp were then supposed to have tracked down Ike Clanton and killed him at Socorro, Mexico, in revenge for killing Julian, as well as for the offense of marrying their sister Jessie, another manufactured Earp sibling.  The Earps and Doc Holliday were presented as well-known stagecoach bandits, preying on southwest Arizona in competition with a gang of rustlers, ramrodded by Curly Bill Brocius, who was revealed to have been a cousin of the Earps.  It was, if nothing else, a head-spinning series of tall tales, accompanied by an unflattering cartoon of Wyatt Earp, with the caption “Look at His Phyz. (Physiognomy) Wyatt Earp a Bad Man and He Looks It.”

The story resides in the archives of at least one Republic County newspaper, and probably appeared in a few others.  The item may have been in the back of Thomas Lovewell’s mind twenty years later, when a newspaper editor pulled up to his farmhouse and offered to write the story of his life, to make him immortal.  Lovewell politely declined, explaining that he didn’t want the publicity.  By then, he must have been aware of just how dangerous immortality could be.   




© Dale Switzer 2016  dale@lovewellhistory.com