Friday, January 03, 2020

Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride from Hell - Tom Clavin

Tombstone is the third book in Tom Clavin’s almost inadvertent “Frontier Lawmen” trilogy that began in 2017 with Dodge City and continued in 2019 with Wild Bill. Clavin does not seem to have had a trilogy in mind when he began writing about the period, but with the addition of  Tombstone he has now effectively covered the 15-20 years following the Civil War that were  dominated by the stereotypical gunslinging frontier lawman. It all seems to have started with Wild Bill Hickcok’s adoption of that style of law enforcement after the war, and what happened in Tombstone in 1881 seems to have brought the era to a close.

What happened there was the famous “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” a thirty-second battle during which thirty shots were fired at almost pointblank range, three men were killed, and three others wounded. That was bad enough, but as it turns out, more men one way or another associated with the gunfight, including friends, allies, and relatives of the actual participants, would be gunned down after the fight than during it. 

But why did it all happen the way that it did? How did nine armed men end up facing each other across the few feet of a vacant city lot (not in the O.K. Corral at all) prepared to shoot it out despite the high odds against any of them walking away from the fight unscathed? It’s a long story involving politics, rivalries between U.S. marshals and local sheriffs, clashes between out-of-control cowboys and the Tombstone citizens who feared them, and even romantic rivalries between some of the players. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the gunfight between the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday on one side; and the Clanton brothers, the McLaury brothers, and Billy Claiborne on the other is that it occurred only because no one on either side really understood what was happening on that fateful day in 1881. Either side could have stopped the gunfire before it started – but neither did.

Tom Clavin
A big part of the story is the blood-feud that developed just days after the gunfight, a vendetta in which the Earps became the targets of those wanting to avenge the deaths of relatives and friends who were killed at the hands of the three Earps and Doc Holiday. Having learned their lesson about what happens in a head-to-head gunfight with the Earps, the avengers decided that ambushes and back-shooting offered their best chance at vengeance. Wyatt Earp, the only man to walk away completed whole from the gunfight, could not just wait for his family to be wiped out by the cowboys who wanted them all dead – nor would he run. And in the resulting  revenge ride from hell, Wyatt and his personal posse disposed of as many of his enemies as they could find. 

Bottom Line: Tom Clavin Tombstone is a well-researched chronicle of how Tombstone, Arizona, earned her place in American history. It’s a story that borders on the farcical at times: who the good guys were and who the bad guys were was a matter of opinion; the Earps spent as much time locked up as did the cowboys trying to kill them; some cowboys demanded to be jailed because they felt safer from the Earps in jail than walking the streets; and the posse chasing the Earps and Holiday often included some of the most vicious killers in the state. This is not the story you may think you already know from all the movies, television shows and novels produced about the Earps, Doc Holiday, and the mislabeled “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.” But, as it turns out, the real story is every bit as fascinating as any of those movies or novels. 

Uncorrected Digital Galley Courtesy of St. Martin's Press 

5 comments:

  1. Sometimes the real story is an adjustment, isn't it? Thanks, Sam, I might check Tom Clavin out!

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    1. It really is, sometimes. The real truth is that the good guys and the bad guys of the old West were pretty much interchangeable. Lots of "outlaws" wore the badge after moving from one state to another - and no one seemed to think that was strange at all.

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  2. That old "history is written by the victors" saying really is true, isn't it?

    Clavin is a very readable writer of American history, Jen. I've read three or four of his books now and have enjoyed all of them.

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  3. Can you believe I've lived in Arizona for 20 years, but have never visit Tombstone? I need to.

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    1. I think it would be fun, even if a bit touristy, to give Tombstone a look. I drove a lot of Arizona in the summer of 2018 and really enjoyed it. Beautiful state with a whole lot of history.

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