Longform

How the West Was Spun

Page 6 of 11

"Right now, I would say the fight over Wyatt Earp is as hot as any fight between those Old West figures," says Etulain, who is president of the Western History Association. All too often, he adds, partisan fights erupt in Western studies because people take their own roles too seriously: "People become mythic sidekicks of these figures."

Journalist Allen Barra says that when he began researching his new book, Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends, he was surprised at how little attention academics have paid Earp.

"It's amazing to me the Earp story has existed as long as it has," he says, noting that Earp researchers lack the kinds of primary material that exist in other fields. Barra suggests Boyer has been "hogging" documents and information on Earp and is unwilling to share it with other academics.

It wasn't until 1989 that an academic researcher took on the story of Tombstone and its famous gunfight. Paula Mitchell Marks' popular book And Die in the West relies on Boyer's work in several areas.

Marks even quoted from one of Doc Holliday's letters to "Peanut," which she gleaned from Boyer's Illustrated Life of Doc Holliday.

And that's about the time in Earp research when, in the words of Wyatt Earp, "the fight then became general."

Iwas suspicious of some of his stuff," says Paula Mitchell Marks, who teaches at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas. "Questions did occur to me, but he was considered the authority in the field, academic or not. All roads led to Glenn Boyer."

Marks decided to include information from a letter, purportedly written by Holliday, in Boyer's 1966 pamphlet, which claimed that Holliday and Wyatt Earp had killed two men in Colorado in 1887 and buried them under a rock pile.

Soon after her book came out, Boyer responded with a reprint of Illustrated Life of Doc Holliday that included a new introduction announcing that the book had trapped its "latest victim." The Peanut letters, he said, were fakes, the murder a "wild story" he had invented.

Boyer's reaction shocked many people in the Earp field, who by now had forgotten about Boyer's "satire"--if they had ever known about it in the first place.

Marks had "haplessly appropriated the same planted story mentioned above of Wyatt and Doc killing Doc's deadly enemy in the Colorado Rockies," Boyer wrote in the new introduction.

Gary Roberts, an academic historian, didn't see the humor in Boyer's prank. "What possible reason would [Marks] have to suspect a 'clever hoax' from one who had been denouncing fakers for a decade?" Roberts wrote in a history association newsletter earlier this year. "She trusted Boyer. For her loyalty, Boyer ridiculed Marks as a fool."

Boyer tells New Times fooling Marks was "sinning on the side of the angels." He calls his Doc Holliday book a "pious fraud."

"It had no other purpose but to set afoot an experiment that would expose these people conclusively for the type of hypocritical goddamn history-faking they were doing. And it worked," he says. He bristles at the suggestion that springing a hoax on the Earp field in 1966 was an inauspicious beginning for someone determined to forge a reputation as a serious researcher.

"I don't want to be taken seriously. You see, your premise isn't worth a shit. I'm not going to be forced into any mold. And my reputation as a writer simply doesn't make a good goddamn to me. How does that grab you?"

Boyer's 1989 announcement shocked the Earp fold, but it was the publication of his 1993 book Wyatt Earp's Tombstone Vendetta that threw the field into chaos.

Boyer had begun work on Vendetta soon after the 1976 publication of I Married Wyatt Earp. In 1977, he gave two very different descriptions of Vendetta's genesis.

That's the year Boyer met Bob Palmquist, an attorney and avid Earp researcher who worked with Boyer for the next several years.

"I saw Vendetta first in 1977, or a portion of it," Palmquist tells New Times. "And at that time he was saying it was a novel in the style of The Flashman Papers."

British novelist George McDonald Fraser had written The Flashman Papers, actually a series of historical novels in the style of a memoir, chronicling the adventures of a Victorian mercenary soldier. Fraser wrote them so convincingly some American reviewers didn't realize they were fiction. "Fraser had to set people straight," Palmquist says.

Boyer's version would be told from the point of view of a fictional Tombstone newspaperman, whom Boyer had named Theodore Ten Eyck.

"The idea was to write a novel in the style of a memoir as if somebody was actually telling the story, in this case Ted Ten Eyck," Palmquist says.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Tony Ortega
Contact: Tony Ortega