How the West Was Spun

Once upon a time, Glenn Boyer made history with his books on Wyatt Earp. Now, critics say he twisted the truth.

Boyer says he soon became the son Bill and Estelle never had, and he reveled in Estelle's tales about the Earp family.

The next year he published his first book, a thin pamphlet titled Illustrated Life of Doc Holliday, which, the cover promised, contained "Sensational Photo Discoveries From Doc's Past by G.G. Boyer."

The newly retired colonel would, years later, reveal that not all of the sensational photos were entirely honest. But for his readers in 1966, there was nothing outwardly evident in the book to suggest that it was anything but the ardent effort of a Western history buff.

Slangy, amateurish, overeager. That the book takes some liberties with the facts seems obvious even to the uninitiated. No reader would mistake certain conversations in the book as anything but pure speculation. On the other hand, Boyer's book lays claim to special, previously unpublished material about Holliday based on material from one of Holliday's friends, identified only as "Peanut," who was said to have recorded his conversations and saved his letters from the famous gambler.

In any case, the pamphlet had little impact on the Earp world; Coleman says very few were sold.

The next year, Boyer published a much more important work with a strange title.

In Suppressed Murder of Wyatt Earp, Boyer set out to resurrect the real Earp, whom he said had been "murdered" by the mythmaking of Lake, the Earp author he had once so admired. Backed with solid research and written in a serious, scholarly style, Suppressed Murder revealed the tale of Wyatt's second wife, Celia Ann "Mattie" Blaylock. Never formally married to Earp, she committed suicide in 1888, several years after Earp had left her for another woman. (To this day, Boyer says, readers think it's Blaylock's death that the title refers to. But Boyer meant that the real Wyatt Earp had been maligned when his legend grew. He acknowledges that it's an unfortunate name for a book.)

By 1967, the year Suppressed Murder came out, Wyatt Earp's image had been battered and bruised. After Lake lionized Earp in 1931, revisionist biographies, notably Frank Waters' 1960 book The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, began to portray the Earps as more outlaws than lawmen.

Boyer claimed to be taking a new tack--using solid historical methods to debunk both earlier portrayals. Earp was neither the plaster saint Lake made him out to be nor the outlaw Waters had constructed, Boyer insisted.

Even Boyer's harshest critics say that Suppressed Murder is a solid piece of historical research and a milestone in Earp literature. And it was sufficient to secure Boyer his next research triumph. Impressed by Suppressed Murder, another set of Earp relatives turned over a treasure to the writer--the so-called Cason manuscript.

In the years following Wyatt Earp's death in 1929, his widow and third wife, Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp, began writing her memoirs with the help of two distant Earp cousins, Mabel Earp Cason and Vinnolia Earp Ackerman. Ackerman was assigned to record Josephine's early memories up to events in Tombstone, including the famous gunfight at the OK Corral in 1881. Cason focused on later years, up to Wyatt's death in 1929.

Josephine, however, proved elusive about matters in Tombstone. It was obvious to Cason and Ackerman that she wasn't being frank, and it frustrated them. Finally, Josephine changed her mind about the entire project and asked the women to burn their papers. They did, but Cason held back a copy of her work, now known as the Cason manuscript.

Josephine died in 1944 and Cason passed away 20 years later. In 1967, on the strength of Boyer's work in Suppressed Murder, Cason's daughter Jeanne Cason Laing gave him her mother's manuscript.

For the next nine years, Boyer worked to turn the manuscript into the memoirs of Josephine Earp. He says he also drew from another manuscript--the controversial missing Clum--which Boyer says Josephine had prepared with other writers and that covered her Tombstone period, including the famous gunfight.

While he was preparing the book for publication, however, Boyer was forced to make what would be the first of many confessions about his literary style and ethics--he'd turned what should have been historical fact into fiction.

In 1974, an astute reader wrote to Boyer, taking him to task for material in the 1966 pamphlet Illustrated Life of Doc Holliday.

"I confess to slightly misleading some people with tongue in cheek," Boyer wrote back to the reader, Susan McKey Thomas. She passed on his letter to historian Gary Roberts.

Boyer conceded in the letter that some of his book was "dandy fiction." For example, he acknowledged that he'd faked a picture that was supposed to be Doc Holliday's sweetheart, Mattie. He didn't come entirely clean, however; he pretended that he didn't know who it was in the picture, although later he admitted it was his own aunt.

Boyer told Thomas that he'd intended Illustrated Life of Doc Holliday to be a spoof that would catch sloppy researchers who all seemed to be stealing from each other. He'd meant to go public with his duplicity, and announce who had been caught by his prank, in 1976, 10 years after publication.

"My secret is now in your hands. I hope you see fit to give my game its 10 years," he wrote Thomas. And he made an interesting prediction: "My chances of having much serious history accepted from my hands after I confess my sins is probably pretty limited--people being what they are."

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