Ring's reflections: 'The Last Gunfight' teaches readers much about Old West

2011-10-13T00:00:00Z Ring's reflections: 'The Last Gunfight' teaches readers much about Old WestOpinion by Bob Ring Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

If you like reading history, especially Arizona history, I have a book to recommend: Jeff Guinn's "The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the OK Corral - And How It Changed the American West," published in May.

Many of us learned whatever we know about the famous gunfight, Wyatt Earp, and Tombstone from the old TV show "The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp" (1955-1961), starring Hugh O'Brian, and two more recent movies, "Tombstone" (1993), starring Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp, and "Wyatt Earp" (1994), starring Kevin Costner.

In what The Wall Street Journal (June 6, 2011) calls an "indiscriminate WikiLeaks-style data-dump," Guinn "aggregates every conceivable scrap of relevant information on the showdown, on the town, on the Old West and American history generally."

And I loved every word of it!

We learn, for instance, that the famous shootout did not actually take place in the OK Corral, but down the street in a vacant lot. And the legendary gunfight was not a clear triumph of good over evil as usually portrayed, but the result of much more complex (and interesting) social, political and economic forces.

Guinn gives us a feeling for the complexity of law enforcement in the 1881 Arizona Territory. The roles of federal, territory, county and town officials were sometimes ill-defined or overlapped and were the product of political infighting that would be depressingly familiar today.

Salaries were minimal but county sheriffs, whose chief duty was collecting taxes from railroads, working mines and thriving merchants, got to keep 10 percent of what they collected.

Guinn traces the career of Wyatt Earp as a farmer, railroad worker, bouncer, saloon-keeper, gambler and highly regarded law-enforcement officer, including early arrests for brawling, horse theft and being found in a house of ill fame.

Earp displayed bravery, loyalty to his brothers and friend Doc Holliday, and an absolute ambition to succeed and "stand out" in the community.

Surprisingly (in view of his exaggerated legend), Earp had never before killed a man prior to the gunfight.

His opponents in the gunfight were four ranchers and cowboys, often town troublemakers, who in the reality of the old West probably cooperated with local cattle rustlers to make their living.

A long-standing feud between the Earps and the cowboys finally led to the gunfight, recreated in "stop-motion" detail in the book, in which three of the cowboys were slain.

"The Last Gunfight" depicts the silver-mining boomtown of Tombstone as a frontier mix of luxury and squalor - with a constant overlay of political turmoil amplified by the town's two newspapers. Details such as squabbles over town lots and the influence of hard rains and bad weather help make the story more interesting.

As a history writer, I appreciated the comprehensive research Guinn accomplished in creating this book. On several occasions he presents alternative positions on a disputed historical issue, cites the reasoning for each viewpoint, then offers his informed opinion.

Because of the availability of electronic books and my regular use of the local library, I buy very few books these days. But I made an exception for "The Last Gunfight"; it currently resides on my "special-book" shelf.

E-mail Bob Ring at ringbob1@aol.com or view his website, ringbrothershistory.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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