Never Let the Truth Get In the Way of a Good Story

Lincoln County, New Mexico became famous shortly after the shooting William Henry McCarty Jr, more commonly known as Billy The Kid after Sheriff Garrett wrote a biography of McCarty, the hugely sensationalized The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid. The book was the first of many accounts that would turn the young outlaw into a legend of the American frontier.   According to wikipedia "McCarty had a slim physique, sandy blond hair and blue eyes and wore a signature sugar-loaf sombrero hat with a wide decorative band. He could be charming and polite one moment, then outraged and violent the next, a quixotic nature he used to great effect during his heists and robberies. According to legend, he killed 21 men during his days as an outlaw, one for each year of his life, though he likely killed far fewer than that number."

There are nine pieces of literature, 23 films including Young Guns and Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid, 11 songs (including one by Bob Dylan), and a couple of TV and radio shows about him.  

McCarty and his brother got involved in petty theft as teenagers.  According to the Biography Channel, McCarty was "on the run from the authorities, and moved to Arizona briefly before joining up with a gang of gunfighters called The Boys to fight in the Lincoln County War. Known as "The Kid," McCarty switched to the opposition to fight with John Tunstall under the name "the Regulators. 

Barely escaping with his life, McCarty became an outlaw and a fugitive. He stole horse and cattle until his arrest in 1880 for the killing of Sheriff Brady during the Lincoln County War. After being sentenced to death, he killed his two guards and escaped in 1881. He was hunted down and shot dead by Sheriff Patrick Garrett on July 14, 1881 in Fort Sumner, New Mexico."

Relatively unknown during most of his lifetime, Billy was catapulted into legend in 1881 when New Mexico's governor, Lew Wallace, placed a price on his head. In addition, the Las Vegas Gazette (Las Vegas, New Mexico) and the New York Sun carried stories about his exploits.  Other newspapers followed suit. After his death, several biographies were written that portrayed the Kid in varying lights. The most famous one was the previously mentioned biography by Sheriff Garrett.

Further south, in the neighbouring state of Arizona is Tombstone, one of the last wide-open frontier boomtowns in the American Old West.  According to wikipedia "from about 1877 to 1890, the town's mines produced USD $40 to $85 million in silver bullion, the largest productive silver district in Arizona. Its population grew from 100 to around 14,000 in less than seven years. 

Far distant from any other metropolitan city, by mid-1881 Tombstone boasted a bowling alley, four churches, an ice house, a school, two banks, three newspapers, and an ice cream parlor, alongside 110 saloons, 14 gambling halls, and numerous dancing halls and brothels. All of these were situated among and on top of a large number of dirty, hardscrabble mines. The gentlemen and ladies of Tombstone attended operas presented by visiting acting troupes at the Schieffelin Hall opera house, while the miners and cowboys saw shows at the Bird Cage Theatre."  

The Tombstone town website tells us what happened to that boom town. "As the mining slowed down, the people of Tombstone started leaving, but not before $37,000,000 worth of ore had been taken from the many mines in the area. It is estimated that by the early 1930's Tombstone's population dwindled to around 150 people.

Today, Tombstone is home to around 1500 year round residents who enjoy the wonderful climate that Cochise County's high desert has to offer and believe in preserving the history and heritage of the Wildest Town in the West."

Now people go to Tombstone because of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the legendary Wyatt Earp.  There are about 12 films and TV programs about Wyatt Earp.  

Two of the most famous films are My Darling Clemintine (1946) and Tombstone (1993) (A second film was made in 1993 by Kevin Costner called Wyatt Earp, it just did not make as much money as Tombstone.)

My Darling Clementine was directed by John Ford, and based on the story of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral between the Earp brothers and the Clanton gang. It features an ensemble cast including Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature, Walter Brennan, and others.

The movie was adapted by Samuel G. Engel, Sam Hellman, and Winston Miller from the book Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal (1931) by Stuart N. Lake. This book has since been determined to be a largely fictionalized biography.  According to Wikipedia "After the movie Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was released in 1957, the shootout came to be known by that name. Since then, the conflict has been portrayed with varying degrees of accuracy in numerous Western films and books."

The fact is that a great deal of the plot of the film significantly deviates from the actual history. Clementine Carter is not a historical person, and in this script appears to be an amalgam of Big Nose Kate and Josephine Earp. The actual Earps were never cowboys, drovers, or cattle owners. Important plot devices in the film, such as the death of James Earp (who actually died in 1926), the death of Old Man Clanton (who actually died in a cattle drive ambush in New Mexico two months before the O.K. Corral confrontation, and probably never met the Earps or Holliday), and personal details about Doc Holliday (who was a dentist, not a surgeon, and actually died 6 years later of tuberculosis in Glenwood Springs, Colorado), are all very liberally and fictionally portrayed.

This is not the only film to take liberty with the facts. That stalwart Wikipedia comes to the resuce again with some facts and figures "Tombstone is based on events relating to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, along with the Earp Vendetta which followed it soon after in Tombstone, Arizona during the 1880s. It depicts a number of western outlaws and lawmen, such as Wyatt Earp, William Brocius, Johnny Ringo, and Doc Holliday as it explores crime, political corruption and law enforcement in the old American West.

The legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral, in which Billy Clanton (Church), Frank McLaury (Burke), and Tom McLaury are killed, Virgil and Morgan are wounded, and the allegiance of county sheriff Johnny Behan (Tenney) to the Cowboys is made clear. As retribution for the Cowboy deaths, Wyatt's brothers are ambushed: Morgan is killed, while Virgil is maimed.

Despite its name, the gunfight actually occurred in a narrow lot six doors west of the rear entrance to the O.K. Corral on Fremont Street, and also in the street. The two opposing parties were initially only about 6 feet (1.8 m) apart. About thirty shots were fired in thirty seconds.

The film portrays Doc as the killer of Ringo.  Doc confronts a surprised Ringo, saying they are just finishing their previous challenge "to play for blood". Doc gets the first shot off, hitting Ringo, and killing him. Wyatt runs when he hears the gunshot only to encounter Doc. They then press on to finish the job of eliminating the Cowboys, although Ike Clanton escapes their vengeance after he throws down his red sash.

However the fact is that  Ringo's death is given as July 14, 1882, and according to court documents of Pueblo County, Colorado, Doc and his attorney appeared in court on the 11th, 14th, and 18th of July.  That is one magic bullet.

At the end of the film, Doc is later sent to a sanatorium in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. After a visit from Wyatt, Doc looks at his bare feet and the condition of the bed in which he is lying: realizing he is about to die with his boots off, he passes away peacefully, muttering "I'll be damned. Oh, this is funny." At Doc's urging, Wyatt pursues Josephine, locating her in Denver. Robert Mitchum narrates an account of their long marriage, ending with Wyatt's death in Los Angeles in 1929.

The truth is that Wyatt never even visited Doc at the sanitarium. He did not learn of Holliday's death until seven years later. Wyatt did marry Josephine Marcus in later life and they moved to Hollywood where Earp became friends with early Cowboy actors."

They say that history is written by the victors.  But in the case of the legends of the American Old West it is the case of never letting a couple of facts get in the way of a good story.