Roundup: December 11, 2019

Our Speaker: Brian Dervin Dillon, Ph.D.
His Subject: Wyatt and Josie Earp: Fact, Fiction, and Myth

Brian Dervin Dillon, Ph.D., Past Sheriff of our Los Angeles Corral, just received his 8th consecutive Coke Wood Award from Westerners International for his historical publications, one of which (2015) was on Wyatt and his wife Josie Earp. Brian’s family has a distant connection with that of the famous lawman, and Brian’s younger brother and co-author has worked for 30 years in the cemetery in Colma, California, where Wyatt and Josie are buried.

Dozens of Hollywood movies and hundreds of hours of T.V. programs have been devoted to Wyatt Earp. Almost every Tinseltown leading man, over the past 70+ years, has portrayed the hero of the O.K. Corral shootout. Earp himself was an advisor to early Hollywood “horse operas,” and both William S. Hart and Tom Mix were pallbearers at his 1929 funeral. But what just about every last big or small screen portrayal of Wyatt Earp has in common is an almost complete absence of facts. With the recent revelation that the supposedly definitive biography of Josie is fraudulent, it seems that no aspect of the lawman’s life was left untouched by fictionalizers and mythologizers. This promises to be a fascinating program to end our year.


Roundup Synopsis

Taken From Branding Iron 297 Winter 2020. 
The Los Angeles Corral’s very own Brian Dillon was the speaker for the December roundup. Brian regaled us with the truth, lies, and legends about Wyatt and Josie Earp. Wyatt Earp has been portrayed as a hero in various forms of media for many years. He is represented as a lawman who seeks justice first and foremost. This is mostly fiction though. Earp was a deputy sheriff and deputy marshal, but he was also a pimp, a gambler, and, when he was young, a horse thief. So how did Earp get his good reputation while hiding his negative side? Enter Ned Buntline, the pseudonym for a hack fiction writer named Edward Zane Carroll Judson.
Buntline never wrote about Wyatt Earp, but he did start the American obsession with the Wild West that inexorably led to Earp’s stardom. His first creation was Buffalo Bill. The famous Wild West Show started on a stage in New York and expanded to the giant spectacle with which we are all familiar. From there the mythologizing moved onto the big and small screens. Earp worked as a consultant on some of these movies adding an air of legitimacy to the lies being fed to the public.
With all of the twin six shooter twirling cowboys running around on screen and in books, people started to actually believe what was being sold to them—even those feats that violated common sense or the laws of physics. Reenactments and theme parks perpetuate the fictitious version of the Old West. Ever present among the movies, books, and especially TV shows was Wyatt Earp, the steadfast lawman, keeping the west safe for women and children everywhere in nightly reruns of his shootout at the O.K. Corral.
Josie Earp was not immune to telling lies about her husband and his exploits. After Wyatt’s death in 1929, she sold off various guns that she claimed belonged to him. She was also not safe from lies being spread about her. A photograph of a woman in a very sheer dress was said to be a photo of Josie taken in the 1880s. But the photo was originally taken in 1914 in New York when she was 53 years old and 2000 miles away. That didn’t stop it from being used on the cover of an entirely fake biography of Josie.
Legends can be good as entertainment but that good goes away when they are presented as fact. A man who did a lot of bad things in his life portraying himself as an upstanding lawman isn’t good. When it leads to various authors and filmmakers embellishing, not just that man’s life, but also the world he lived in, that can be dangerous. A case in point being the downright stupid way most movie and television cowboys handle their guns, which they treat like stage props rather than deadly weapons. It can lead to unsafe behavior at the best and death at the worst. Pistol twirling cowboys are fun to watch but they aren’t real. They should remain in the land of make believe and stay out of history books.
— Aaron Tate


Photos from the Roundup