The (near) Trial of Wyatt Earp

Even before he hunted down and slaughtered three cowboys on his 1882 “vendetta ride,” many throughout the west considered Wyatt Earp a bona fide murderer. At no other time was this speculation put more to the test than the Tombstone, Arizona preliminary hearing of brothers Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, and their friend Doc Holliday. Following a chaotic face-to-face shoot-out in which Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank Mclaury wound up fatally wounded, Tombstone was suddenly divided. Some called it a vulgar display of power on the part of City Marshal Virgil Earp, a convenient excuse to settle old scores once and for all, while yet others argued the Clanton-McLaury gang had it coming. On Halloween, 1881, Judge Wells Spicer opened up hearings to decide the merit of this dispute.

Tom McLaury

Going into the hearing, the prosecution had a convincing case. They had lead witness Billy Allen who testified to having seen most of the fight. According to Allen, as the Earp-Holliday party met with that of the Clantons and McLaurys, Wyatt Earp seethed, “You sons-of-bitches, you have been looking for a fight!” In response, Tom McLaury opened his coat and declared himself unarmed while William Clanton raised his arms and said, “I do not want to fight.”. A split second later, the Earps and Holliday, as if it had been their intentions the whole time, opened fire.

But perhaps most damning of all for the Earps and Holliday was the fact that Virgil Earp, in response to word that the Clantons and McLaurys were walking illegally within town limits while bearing arms, enlisted the service of his two brothers and friend, the disreputable Doc Holliday. Instead of settling the problem with other local lawmen Virgil Earp seemingly chose to make the problem more personal, not to mention dangerous.

Thomas Fitch

The case for the prosecution was compelling. But unfortunately for them however, their tactics were not. Witnesses for the prosecutors found themselves debased and tongue-tied during defense attorney Thomas Fitch’s cross-examinations. Fitch showed Allen to be unsure of what exactly he saw of the gunfight and brought into question his dubious character. When questioning Sheriff Johnny Behan, Fitch made the argument that Doc Holliday, who normally carried a nickel-plated pistol but during the shooting bore Virgil Earp’s shotgun, shot first seem incredible. He raised the defense’s assertion that Behan told the Earps and Holliday that he had disarmed the cowboys, which if true was dangerously deceiving, and then brought forth a witness who had overheard Behan assure Virgil Earp after the shooting that, “You did perfectly right.” And in an instance of brilliant, patient maneuverability, Fitch capitalized on Behan’s use of the word “cowboys” in describing the Clanton-McLaury gang, the word being, as even Judge Spicer knew, an inference of lawlessness.

Frank McLaury

What would ultimately seal the prosecution’s fate however was Behan’s initial encounter with the Clanton-McLaury gang. After demanding that the men surrender their weapons, Billy Clanton lied and claimed he was on his way out of town while Frank McLaury refused outright, insisting on his guns, “without those other people [the Earps and Holliday] being disarmed.” It was a statement that even Ike Clanton, the gang’s lone survivor, could not dispute.

On November 30th Judge Spicer exonerated the three Earp brothers and Doc Holliday of all criminal wrongdoings and the case ended. In explanation of his decision, Spicer cited the gang’s refusal to give up their weapons, saying, “…and at the same time for men to parade the streets armed with repeating rifles and six-shooters and demand that the chief of police and his assistants should be disarmed is a proposition both monstrous and startling!” The judge acknowledged that Virgil Earp had reason to suspect the gang meant severe violence, stating, “Virgil Earp, the chief of police, honestly believed… that their purpose was [either] to attempt the deaths of himself and brothers [or] at least to resist with force and arms any attempt on his part to perform his duty as a peace officer…”

Virgil Earp

The Earps were not off the hook completely though, at least not Virgil. Spicer would add in his decision that the City Marshall had committed a “censurable act” in enlisting his brothers and Holliday in his handling of the affair and that, “Whether or not ‘Doc fired first’ his presence in the posse was a needless provocation, providing significant evidence that Virgil and the others acted improperly in a ‘spirit of revenge.’”

What is known for sure is that the infamous 1881 Tombstone gunfight was a result of hot heads and bad judgment on both sides. Still, as was decided by Judge Spicer, hot-headedness and bad judgment does not always translate to criminality. Most likely the full story of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral will never be known. The narrative is too befuddled by too many narrators – all with different convictions as to who shot first, whose hands were up, who said what. Thus to some it remains doubtful that Wyatt Earp and his posse were entirely innocent, even if their arguments are not so convincing.

Sources used:

Lubet, Steven. Murder in Tombstone: the Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004. Print.

The Origin of the Texas Rangers: A Review of Robert M. Utley’s “Lone Star Justice”

Robert M. Utley’s Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers is a thorough yet readably non-didactic history of the early Texas Rangers. Beginning with their inception shortly after Mexican Independence and spanning to 1910 and the reorganization of the Rangers into the unit of state lawmen recognizable today, Utley, in this first of two volumes on the subject, presents both a story of a vast and tumultuous frontier desperate for order, as well as a close study of the nature of the men that brought it. It confronts the two dichotomized perceptions of these men – one mythically heroic the other disdainfully condemning – and then presents an engaging narrative that gives credence to both.

Coahuila y Tejas flag

In the few years following Independence, Mexico’s northern province of Coahuila y Tejas was a sparse land largely uninhabited save for raiding bands of Comanches, Apaches, Cherokees, Kiowas, and Kickapoos. Envisioning a buffer between these marauders as well as added economic revenue, Mexico granted Stephen F. Austin and three hundred-some Anglo-American migrants large tracts of land to settle. For this buffer to work (and it never really did) Mexico granted Austin civil and military powers over his fellow settlers. With the memory of a temporary and short-lived mounted militia that preceded it, plus what would appear to be inspiration from the English colonial units that “ranged” the eastern wilderness before America’s own revolution, Austin implemented a system of citizen soldiery in which landowners served for a time based on acreage owned. It marked the beginning of the Ranger tradition, and its primary purpose of protecting Anglo settlers from Indians became a hard-fought struggle that would last for more than sixty years. It was not until July of 1835 however that the Ranger corps would finally sanction by law its first Ranger captain, Captain Robert M. Coleman, and, in effect, officially “fix the origins of the Texas Rangers to a time and a person” (Utley, 19).

Jack Hayes

With Texan Independence came tension with the country it broke from. Even after Santa Anna’s defeat and Texas’ declaration of sovereignty, Mexico was rue to recognize Texas as independent, let alone its boundary claims to the Rio Grande, and in the years leading up to the Mexican-American War the Rangers found yet another steady foe in their neighbors to the south. The character of the unit evolved, and under the notable leaderships of men like Jack Hayes, who introduced to his Rangers the now-synonymous Colt revolver, the Rangers became a roaming force of predominately young, healthy, bold, adventurous, and short-fused marksmen. They scrapped opposing Mexicans with the same vehement non-discretion that they did hostile Indians, and even after annexing themselves to the U.S. and joining forces in the War, the Rangers maintained a style of fighting all their own.

Over the next sixty-two years the Texas Rangers were ever-changing and oftentimes struggled to secure an identity. As the state budget webbed and waxed so fluctuated the number of Rangers employed. Following the Mexican-American War the unit gained national notoriety and at the turn of the century was finding itself widely romanticized through comic books, ballads, dime novels, and even feature films. By 1881 the Indians were nearly whipped and Mexico had let go its lost daughter, focusing increasingly inward on domestic problems. These respites in violence gradually allowed the Rangers to become less a militia and transform into the well-oiled, model division of state lawmen they are today. But despite these numerous successes, the Rangers simultaneously suffered many embarrassing incidents that would over time accumulate and tarnish its legend. Various accounts emerged of unprovoked, racially-charged attacks on Indian tribes. Mexican prisoners, under the dubious pretext of trying to escape, were killed or brutalized. Atrocious lapses in judgments, such as the killing of Sam Bass or the political skirmish that, with the help of the Rangers, escalated into the El Paso Salt War, were widely printed. These incidents and others became fodder for a strong anti-Ranger sentiment referred to by Utley as “revisionist.”

Utley’s objective then – to recount a heavily-researched and accurate first history of the Texas Rangers – is also his thesis; that the Rangers were not always men of “sterling character” and neither were they uniformly deplorable. Rather, “the historical reality lies somewhere between the extremes” (Utley, xiii).

In writing Lone Star Justice, Utley drew upon nearly four-hundred books, articles, and government documents from institutions across the West. This exhaustive research amounts to a history meticulously supported (as evidenced by the thorough chapter notes) and objective since Utley does not hesitate to include the Rangers’ less proud moments along with those admirable. Thus, by the end of his book Utley has both dispelled the mythically-impeccable image of the Texas Ranger as well as challenged the blanketing defamations posed by revisionists. It is tempting to search Utley’s words for hints of bias, he being an Anglo Texan and well-written author of Texas history, but the effort turns up fruitless. There are too many acknowledgements of the things regrettable in the Rangers’ past to call Utley subjective or romantic, too many allowances that yes, the revisionists have some ground to stand on.

Still, Lone Star Justice does not reduce the legend of the Texas Rangers. Conversely, the book bolsters it. Through well-supported facts working into a well-presented narrative, Utley explains how what began as a small-yet-resilient band of citizen soldiers matured into an agency of law enforcement that would inspire the justice systems of nearly every state in the Union. We discover that the history of the Rangers is in many ways the history of Texas – even, to some extent, America. They contained real-life heroes in their ranks as well as a few villains. Ultimately, the Rangers brought law and order to an enormous stretch of land where such things once seemed impossible. And perhaps that is what’s so remarkable; that they did it despite being only human.

Utley, Robert. Lone Star Justice: The First Century of the Texas Rangers. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2003.