Wyatt Earp, the most famous lawman of the Old West who was played in the movies with whirling six-gun killing skill by stars such as Henry Fonda (twice), Burt Lancaster, Kurt Russell and Kevin Costner, spent some time in Deadwood.
Earp got there just after Wild Bill Hickok was gunned down in a saloon while playing poker. But there was nothing deadly or shootist or fame-building about what Wyatt did in Deadwood: he hauled firewood.
That’s in Bill Markley’s new book, “Wyatt Earp & Bat Masterson: Lawmen of the Legendary West,” a fun read for anyone into Old West and South Dakota history or just interested in how America’s views of heroes and villains change over time. Markley gives the reader enough history to feel part of his discussion at the end about whether Wyatt Earp was a good guy or a bad guy.
Markley, retired from 40 years as a biological engineer with the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources, has written much about the Old West, including several books and many magazine articles. He and his wife live in Pierre.
He will be talking about his new book and signing copies of it, from 4-6 p.m., Tuesday, May 14, in Prairie Pages Bookstore downtown on Pierre Street.
Markley describes the ordinary parts of Earp’s life that the movies and TV shows obscure, how much of it was farming, driving horses, hauling wood, as well as gambling, fighting and hanging out maybe too much with ladies of the night. Through it all, Earp maintained a reputation that seemed to precede him across the West, long before Facebook or even telephones. He always seemed to be considered a top lawman, even after getting in legal trouble himself.
Three of Wyatt Earp’s brothers, Virgil, Morgan and Warren, were lawmen, too. Of Wyatt’s three lawman brothers, only Virgil survived gunfights in Arizona — he was wounded in a shotgun blast in Tombstone and opened a detective agency in California. Virgil and Morgan were in the shootout at the OK Corral with Wyatt, and both died soon after by violence.
Wyatt Earp’s time in Deadwood was short. He and brother Morgan caught Black Hills gold fever with thousands of others in the summer of 1876, about the time Lt. Col. George Custer was leading the 7th Cavalry regiment to the Little Bighorn River in Montana.
The Earps drove a wagon and team of four horses north from law jobs in Dodge in early September, and crossed paths with Bat Masterson in Sidney, Nebraska. Masterson told them all the good gold claims were taken in the Black Hills, but the Earps had to see the elephant and kept on, to find out Masterson was right.
The two brothers got to Deadwood perhaps six weeks after James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok was murdered by Jack Call while playing poker.
Morgan kept going to Montana while Wyatt decided to winter in Deadwood, Markley writes.
In fact, unfortunately for South Dakota, maybe, Earp’s stay in Deadwood may have been one of the most boring parts of his long life.
“Wyatt was determined to stay and figure out a way to make money. . . As autumn progressed into winter, Wyatt made a deal with a claim owner outside of town who had cut and stockpiled firewood. (Earp) bought the firewood from the man, hauled it to town in his wagon, and sold it there for a higher price. This arrangement kept him busy though out the winter and made him a nice profit.”
We’re still waiting for the new Costner-Russell-Sam Elliot film: “Wyatt Earp’s Winter of Selling Firewood in Deadwood.”
Markley points with pride to his sort of “custom” art, drawn by Rapid City artist Jim Hatzell. Markley met him in 1989 on the set of the movie “Dances with Wolves,” filmed in South Dakota.
Hatzell illustrates incidents Markley writes about, including gunfights and fistfights, on the same pages as the tale.
Markley weaves the tale of the long friendship of Earp and Masterson, which sort of winds from Dodge City up to Deadwood and back down to Tombstone, Arizona, where their fame flamed into kind of an eternal kind, so far, anyway, in American culture, focused around the seconds-long shootout at —nearby, really — the OK corral. .
Markley points out that Earp at times was on the wrong side of the law and perhaps committed murder under the guise of being an official and at times, unofficial, lawman.
He also points out in some detail how much Earp was known for not using his six-gun, at least not shooting it much. Earp was, in the towns where he was police officer, or sheriff’s deputy or marshal, more famous at the time for rapping bad guys upside the head with the barrel of his revolver, according to Markley.
Earp also was good with his fists, often taking down men, sometimes to win bets. Which is hard to believe, because none of the photographs of Earp make him look like a burly fellow.
He was well-respected as a boxing referee for some top-flight fights, too.
Earp was married several times and didn’t always marry women with whom he had lengthy relationships. He also worked in bordellos more than once.
Perhaps less known about Wyatt Earp, who lived such a seemingly dangerous life, is how long he lived and how he ended up in Hollywood, helping to shape his own legend that became part of so many movies and television shows.
Earp became friends with early movie cowboys Tom MIx and William S. Hart, showing him who to draw a revolver, Markley writes.
Earp even lived long enough to befriend “a young man who was working as a prop man and extra whose name was Marion Morrison, who would later change his name to John Wayne,” Markley wrote. “Waye later told Hugh O’Brian, who portrayed Wyatt Earp in the television serious, that he based his Western lawman character on his conversations with Wyatt Earp.”
Earp died in January, 1929, just a few weeks before his 81st birthday.
One aspect of Markley’s book that will stir interest among those who study and follow Old West history is his heavy use, footnoted many times, of the work of Earp’s famous and often considered infamous, biographer, Stuart Lake.
Markley is pretty upfront about the controversial author and his own position about Lake.
“Many historians discount Lake’s biography, “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, but in writing this book, I rely on his version of Wyatt if there is no conflicting evidence.”
Markley will make clear what parts of the Earp legend he buys and which he rejects; but his acceptance of Lake’s material likely will stir debates.
As he’s done in other books, Markley debates the merits of legends. In this book, he adds a fun facet to such a discussion, asking South Dakotans who know about such things who was the better Old West lawman: Earp or Masterson?
One expert witness is retired Hughes County Sheriff Mike Leidholt, who now is running the state’s prison system from Pierre. (When Markley asked him, Leidholt still was sheriff.) As usual with Leidholt, his words were few but firm.
“As someone who has spent over forty-three years enforcing the law and holding people accountable for their actions, I believe Bat Masterson was the better lawman,” Leidholt told Markley. “It appears that he had the best moral compass of the two and was a duly elected sheriff who was accountable to those who elected him.”
Markley gives his own, longer, more complicated answer.
You’ll have to read the book.