WESTERN MOVIES are fun to watch, particularly the ones involving the famed Gunfight at OK Corral. Two sets of adversaries squared off, eyes locked on eyes, fingers twitching above holstered six-shooters, all waiting to see which gunman would flinch first.
The dialogue was fun, too; plenty of tough talk and menacing words. And the context was great—layer upon layer of provocations that prompted combatants to want to “set things right.”
Alas, movies, dime-store novels and campfire yarns about Oct. 25, 1881, in Tombstone, Ariz., take great liberties with the truth. In “Ride The Devils Herd,” John Boessecker sets things right regarding the facts of that period in the Old West. These facts alter our notions of what constitutes justice.
Readers who want to learn the true details about what happened before, during and after the gunfight will be rewarded. Boessenecker scoured multi-state archives, earlier biographies, memoirs, newspaper reports, letters, court records and notes from public inquests to give as comprehensible a chronology as possible.
He provides rich detail on the Earp family and its questionable ethics. It turns out the Earp brothers had an early penchant for horse thievery, embezzlement, grifting and pimping. Wyatt Earp had a gambling bug he never could shake.
Boessenecker also gives due diligence to key figures such as Doc Holliday, Bat Masterson, Johnny Behan and Joesphine “Sadie” Marcus.
For their part, the mysterious Cowboys, ruffians and drunkards though they were, don’t truly fit the definition of evil. Yes, the Clantons, the McLaurys, Curly Bill Brocius, John Ringo, et al. are cattle rustlers, horse thieves and stage-coach robbers; they could also be good neighbors, prompt taxpayers and possemen for hire.
Stripped of Western lore, the colorful saga of the Earps–Cowboys dust-up loses its hue. The Tombstone showdown becomes similar to those tales of lawmen confronting Mafiosos in New York, beer barons in Chicago or crack dealers in Compton.
What made Tombstone stand out was the participants’ take on personal honor: stand your ground against all attacks, even verbal ones. Never show weakness.
Boessenecker’s narrative shows he clearly reveres those who uphold the law (his summation suggests he accepts current police conduct others would find deplorable). He argues those who revel beyond the frontier of acceptable norms—even those wearing the badges—will get their comeuppance.