Longform

How the West Was Spun

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"I am hoping to locate living relatives of Wyatt and his brothers and trace the wider family influence," Boyer wrote. "You must have clues and contacts which can save me many hours of fumbling for the information I seek. I feel from the integrity and reverence for accuracy which characterized your book, Frontier Marshal, that you must be sympathetic to this point of view."

Later, Boyer would promote a very different assessment of Lake's integrity and reverence for accuracy. But in 1955, Boyer still admired the novelist, who didn't bother to respond.

Over the next 10 years, Boyer would pick up Earp information wherever he could; his Air Force career took him many different places and didn't allow much full-time Earp sleuthing. In 1965, he retired in San Bernardino, California, and began studying the Earps in earnest. Luckily for Boyer, there was a large collection of Earp material at the library in the nearby town of Colton, where Wyatt Earp's parents had settled during the Civil War. Boyer was excited to learn from the curator of the collection that two Earp descendants lived nearby.

"The trail started in earnest for me in 1965 when I met Wyatt's niece, Mrs. Estelle Miller. . . . Estelle and her husband Bill eventually provided access to a great deal of the important material for my subsequent Earp writings," Boyer wrote later.

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 On the other hand, Boyer's book lays claim to special, previously unpublished material about Holliday based on material from one of Holliday's friends, identified only as "Peanut," who was said to have recorded his conversations and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.

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Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega