Friday, November 22, 2013

Forgotten Books: WYATT EARP'S TOMBSTONE VENDETTA by Glenn G. Boyer

Author Glenn Boyer (who headed for the last round-up in February) devoted about thirty years of his life to Earp scholarship, writing many magazine articles and four books on the subject. Boyer had a big leg up on other Earp scholars because he sought out and cultivated relatives, descendants and even friends of the people involved.

Wyatt Earp's Tombstone Vendetta (1993) was Boyer's last Earp book, and I found it both fascinating and frustrating.  In the foreword, he tells us that because most of his sources have passed on, he is at last free to tell the whole story, sharing the sum of his research, which he was not allowed to do when they were alive. Unfortunately, some of those folks prefered to remain anonymous, either in whole or in part, even after death.

Boyer's solution was to write what he termed a "nonfiction novel," purportedly based on the diary of a man he calls Ted Ten Eyck (admittedly a phony name), who was acquainted with most of the principle players (those being Wyatt and Josephine Earp, Doc Holliday, Johnny Behan, John Clum, Curly Bill Brocious and others) and privy to an astonishing amount of behind-the-scenes information. Then he murkied the waters even further, stating that "in a few instances" he merged what Ten Eyck wrote with what other sources related to Boyer on the same subject.

By the time I finished the book, I was convinced Ten Eyck was a wholly fictional character, a literary device allowing Boyer to present the results of his research in a continuous narrative. In that respect, it's an effective approach. The problem is that very little of Boyer's information can be verified, and has therefore been shunned by most serious historians.

Glenn Boyer in 2009

I can appreciate his dilemma. Boyer had gained the friendship and picked the brains of a great many well-meaning people, gathering a mountain of information. But in most cases those folks were sharing memories of stories they had heard in their youth or had been been passed down through the family. By the time this information reached Boyer, it was double or triple-hearsay. That doesn't mean the stuff wasn't true, but it could hardly be classified as historical record.

I have to give Boyer the benefit of the doubt. I think he was telling what he believed to be the true story of events surrounding Wyatt Earp and the dust-up near the OK Corral. To do that, he chose to process everything he had heard, combine it with his own knowledge and insight, add a few educated guesses, and present it all as fact. Much of the information in the book sounds like it came from family sources, but in a few instances I suspect Boyer was playing detective and offering his own solutions to historical mysteries. The hardest scenes to swallow involve Wyatt Earp telling Ten Eyck who shot first - and at whom - in the Tombstone gunfight, and Doc Holliday revealing the "true" story of the death of Johnny Ringo.

I'd like to believe this is the way it really happened, but - while this approach to history is great fun to read - it does not inspire great confidence.

More Forgotten Books at pattinase.


Brian Drake said...

As an Earp fan myself, it's hard to mention Boyer's name without stirring the pot. Maybe he indeed made stuff up and mashed other facts together as you describe, but it's safe to say, I think, that without him starting the ball rolling on modern Earp study researchers wouldn't be where they are today, even if most of their work has debunked everything Boyer (and, for the most part, Lake) wrote.

Jeff Smith said...

I agree with Brian Drake. Although I am not an Earp aficionado, I have run into the very same, rolling of the ball, with my own research into my great grandfather, Jefferson Randolph "Soapy" Smith.

My 'Glenn Boyer' is Cathy Spude, author of That Fiend in Hell: The Legend of Soapy Smith of which I have had to dig much deeper into my research in order to prove/disprove her agenda based work. On one hand I wish she would just disappear, yet, I also have to thank her for forcing me to dig deeper for the truth, which, in the end, is what all historians are looking for.

Jeff Smith
author of Alias Soapy Smith: The Life and Death of a Scoundrel

Stephen Mertz said...

Evan is on the mark in his review of this book, and Brian is on the mark in his comments about my good friend, Glenn Boyer. Should you care to peer deeper into the Earpania mire, I suggest Glenn's THE EARP CURSE, which documents his many feuds with many researchers. Glenn just loved a good fight. But the Truth? With Earp, doesn't the mash-up start right at the beginning with ol' Wyatt regaling Lake about how he pistol-whipped Ben Thompson in Ellsworth, so they made Wyatt tiwn marshal...uh, none of which ever happened? As for Tombstone, the various "spins" were starting while the smell of gunpowder still lingered over the fallen bodies...

Evan Lewis said...

Thanks for the tip, Steve. I'll be hunting THE EARP CURSE.