For more than 20 years, I Married Wyatt Earp has influenced Western history and the popular imagination. Supposedly the memoirs of Earp's third wife, Josephine, the book has been taken to be a verbatim, first-person account by a woman who witnessed Old West history. Her account has been studied in classrooms, cited in scholarly texts, and drawn upon by filmmakers. It is the fourth all-time best-selling book by the University of Arizona Press; only one other book about Wyatt Earp by any publisher has ever sold more copies.
In recent years, however, some Earp experts have claimed that the man who produced the book, Glenn Boyer, used dubious sources for Josephine's account, particularly of the famous gunfight at the OK Corral, and may have invented large portions of it.
Boyer himself now admits that the book is "100 percent Boyer."
The president of the University of Arizona, meanwhile, describes the book as a "fictional format."
And the woman who edited Boyer's book for the University of Arizona Press says that from the start she doubted Boyer's sources. "I think it's a shame anyone took I Married Wyatt Earp literally," says the former editor.
But what has Western historians hopping mad is that after admitting that the book is a muddled blend of fact and fiction, the University of Arizona seems to have no compunction to do anything about it.
And those same historians are shocked at new evidence that the University of Arizona Press itself may be implicated in what some are calling a significant literary hoax.
Jack Burrows says he was surprised at admissions Glenn Boyer made about his book I Married Wyatt Earp in a recent New Times article ("How the West Was Spun," December 24, 1998). Boyer admitted that Josephine Earp's supposed memoirs were not really a first-person account, that he had inserted his own theories about Wyatt Earp in Josephine's voice, and that he couldn't produce disputed documents he claimed would vindicate his methods.
Burrows--himself the author of John Ringo, a book about Tombstone published by the University of Arizona Press--worries that Boyer's work could hurt the credibility of other books put out by the press.
He wrote a letter to the university's president, Peter Likins, asking him to investigate the controversy over I Married Wyatt Earp.
Likins wrote him back, promising that he would do just that.
But when New Times asked Likins to comment on Boyer's book, Likins downplayed the controversy, characterizing it as a squabble between non-academic authors hoping to promote different interpretations of Western history. It might take years, Likins said, for scholars to decide which version of Earp events was correct.
Besides, the university president explained, the book makes plain that Josephine Earp's voice is not a first-person account but a blend of secondary sources. Not that Likins has read the book or, despite his assurance to Burrows, done any investigation of it.
"I'm not referring to the text here," Likins tells New Times, "I'm referring to a paragraph that was prepared for me in order to respond to questions like yours, that the text as it has been published indicates to the reader that this is not a first-person narrative."
Likins went on to say I Married Wyatt Earp has a "fictional format."
"It's not as though [Boyer] presents the book as being a lost manuscript," Likins said. "He presents the book as being a creation that is synthesized from a variety of source materials. And you know there's a lot of that now in contemporary historical accounting. And it's controversial as a class of activity, when you write in a kind of a fictional format, using your imagination blended with historical information. And then the poor reader . . . has no way to separate what in the text is based on well-researched historical material and what in the text is kind of an interpolation, you know what I'm saying? But that's a scholarly dispute. That's not something the University of Arizona or certainly its president is properly involved in."
After offering this description of the book as a confusing blend of fact and fiction, Likins asked that a reporter read him the book's actual epilogue, which describes the book as a memoir based on the writings of Josephine Earp herself.
Likins' response baffles Paul Hutton, a history professor at the University of New Mexico.
"Pick up the book, buddy. Read it yourself. He's probably got a Ph.D.," Hutton says of Likins.
Hutton, who serves as executive director of the Western History Association, says he is amazed that the University of Arizona would now claim that I Married Wyatt Earp is partly fiction after selling it for 23 years as a memoir and an important historical document.