Casey Tefertiller is an American author who formerly worked for the San Francisco Examiner. While he has covered sports such as MLB baseball teams, his passion has been in history. Specifically, old west history.
In 1997, Tefertiller released his book, “Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind The Legend.” The book is one of the most researched and referenced publications to date on the life of the former frontier U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp.
American entertainment is no stranger to the old west days. For years, western movies and TV series ruled both the small screen and Hollywood. Actors such as John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, James Garner, and others made their living portraying the heroic cowboy.
Television shows like “Bonanza,” which ran for 14 seasons, “Gunsmoke,” which went for an impressive 20 seasons, and the “Virginian,” that captivated audiences for nine years, ruled the small screen.
Americans have often been fascinated by the old west time period. It’s often romanticized in entertainment. He’s generally the good guy in the white hat fighting off the bad guy in black. Americans have always loved the hero riding to the rescue. But is any of this how things truly were back during those days?
Tombstone, starring Kurt Russell, Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot and Bill Paxton, hit the movie theaters on December 24,1993. The film tells the story of Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, the Earp brothers, and the most famous shoot-out in old west history; the gunfight near the O.K. Corral.
The movie has since become a cult classic. It portrayed a reluctant hero in Wyatt Earp. In the movie, Earp is a retired lawman heading to Tombstone to meet up with his brothers and strike it rich. Through a series of ensuing events, Earp is eventually forced to pin the badge back on and clean up the cowboy corruption once and for all.
While the movie made for great entertainment, how much was historically accurate? What was Wyatt Earp the historical figure like?
Tefertiller tackled this question and provided answers based upon his meticulous research of the Earp’s. I had the chance to sit down with Mr. Tefertiller and ask the questions old west enthusiasts want to know!
Daily Planet (DP)- You wrote for the San Francisco Examiner from 1981-1995 and covered baseball. When did you realize you wanted to pursue writing as your career?
Casey Tefertiller (CT)- When I was a kid I got involved in reading and I read all of [John] Steinbeck’s works in junior high school. Steinbeck’s ability to command readers I thought was just incredible. It was something I thought was amazing and what could be a better life than writing?
DP- You left your job to write freelance and to write your book, Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind The Legend, which was first published in 1997. When did your interest, and more specifically Wyatt Earp, begin?
CT- When I was a little kid, my grandfather had been a working cowboy and later was with the police in Santa Cruz. His time as a working cowboy was in the early 1900s and he was living in bunk houses.
One of the old Arizona guys had drifted up and had been working there and they would sit around the bunk house and tell stories. Some of those stories were about Wyatt Earp and some of the stories told were that Wyatt Earp was not such a great hero but that he was big villain.
So my grandfather and I would sit around and watch reruns of the Wyatt Earp TV show (1955) in the early 1960s and we would see this great, heroic portrayal of Wyatt Earp and my grandfather would tell me how that stuff wasn’t true.
Since my grandfather had been an honest cop, the worst thing anyone could be a bad cop. He did not like Wyatt Earp. From the stories he heard, he thought Earp was a big crook.
By this time ‘True West’ magazine was always in the house and I’d read the stories there about Earp and they were back and forth. Sometimes it was Wyatt Earp the hero and sometimes the villain.
I was absolutely fascinated that one man could have such a contradictory legacy. About the time the movies (‘Tombstone’ 1993 & ‘Wyatt Earp’ 1994) were cranking up, I wrote a big story for the Examiner Sunday magazine on Wyatt Earp and the contradictory legend.
After writing that article, I got a call from someone in New York to ask if I’d be interested in doing a book, but that never came about. I took a leave of absence from my job to work on that book and I quickly realized I had a story of a lifetime.
I started doing research and much to my surprise, a lot of the lingering questions about Wyatt Earp, could be answered. All of a sudden I had information that had never appeared in any Wyatt Earp books or magazine articles and I’m a journalist so I knew I had found the story of a lifetime.
DP- Wyatt Earp was arrested multiple times in 1872 by his brother Morgan for “keeping and being found in a house of ill-fame. This was after he had already worked as a lawman in Lamar, MO. Was this a common thing for that time period to have men operating on both sides of the law?
CT- I’ll have to go back a little bit for that one. After I had written my book, I realized it had a lot of groundbreaking information. About 2 years after completing the book, a genealogist found something about the prostitution issues and that’s why it’s not in my book. I wish I had known it before, but this genealogist found all this information on what Wyatt Earp had been doing. It’s a big part of how we should approach his legacy.
My book set off a whole new stage in researching Wyatt Earp. It’s almost like starting over with one of the most well-known figures in history. “A Wyatt Earp Anthology: Long May His Story Be Told” came out in 2019. (Gary L. Roberts, Casey Tefertiller, Roy B. Young) These are mostly major discoveries in the last 20 years of Wyatt Earp research. It’s like 800 pages of new material and evidence.
These figures operating on both sides of the law were probably more common than they should have been. Bill Tilghman, for instance, as we look back, was one of the greatest lawmen of all time. He was on both sides of the law. He had gotten involved in horse stealing early on. This was long before we had police academies and standards of operations. What makes Wyatt Earp so interesting is that he is such a hard to define character.
During that time period, there was a lot of debate on if prostitution should be legal or illegal. Wyatt was not a higher world person. He was involved with gambling, prostitution, and from his perspective prostitution wasn’t so much a crime as something that should be legal.
DP- In 1931, Stuart Lake had his book, “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal” published. You discussed in your book how Lake’s book portrayed a lot of misinformation on Earp. Was his source largely Wyatt Earp’s widow, Josephine (Sadie) Earp, or did he make his information up?
CT- A lot of the information is exaggerated and we know a lot more about that now than we even knew in 1997. Lake’s main source was Wyatt Earp and he conducted a series of perhaps 7 or 8 interviews with Wyatt. There’s also a bunch of letters between Lake and Earp where Earp tells him a bunch of stories. Unfortunately, Earp died before he could complete the interviews.
After that, Lake took trips to Kansas and Arizona and did interviews with people who knew Wyatt. He then came back and put together his book. What we’ve found is that many of the stories have a basis in truth, but they are grandly exaggerated. Lake enlarged the Earp story greatly and he made him a hero.
Sadie Earp asked him to make sure the book would not be a negative story about Wyatt Earp. Imagine this whole concept. Sadie gets on a train in Los Angeles and she makes stops in various cities. In some of them she’s interviewed. That’s part of why Lake’s job was so difficult. He was dealing with a bereaved and somewhat crazy widow at the same time he’s trying to put out a book.
DP- Movies like “Tombstone” (1993), while entertaining, have also perpetuated myths about events in Tombstone, Arizona. Have you seen the film and how much of it would you say is accurate?
CT- I certainly have seen the film! It’s like a classic modern movie because it’s so well written. Kevin Jarre was the writer, and he was fired as the writer because he took too much time. Jarre’s historical advisor was Jeff Morey, who may be the most knowledgeable person on Wyatt Earp in the country. Jeff did an enormous amount to make the movie as accurate as it was and it was things that were more accurate than anything before it. Of course there was an enormous amount of inaccuracies. Hollywood films almost could never be accurate, they’re entertainment and not documentaries.
I think what’s so good about “Tombstone” is it gives you a sense of what the real story is, even though the details aren’t accurate. There’s a sense of what the story is all about. Jarre came up with the red sashes [that the cowboy gang wore] and all that. The cowboys [gang in Tombstone] were never that organized.
They actually used close to the real lines. Doc Holliday is in the middle of a gunfight, he’s going back and forth with the Clanton’s and McLaurey’s and someone yells at him, “I’ve got you now”, Holliday’s response is, “you’re a daisy if you have”. Holliday then shoots him. Holliday actually said that [in real life] in the middle of a gunfight. A lot of the really great lines in the film come directly from the real story. That was the genius of Kevin Jarre and Jeff Morey. They created a script that has a lot of the real lines.
DP- Stuart Lake mentioned in his book about a Colt Bluntline Special gun that was supposedly given to Wyatt Earp. Has there ever been any evidence of this being true? Does this gun exist?
CT- That’s a very difficult question, what we know is [Stuart] Lake sent a series of letters to Alaska trying to track down this gun, the long barrel Colt, and he was trying to find it. The belief was that [Wyatt] Earp had left it in Alaska. From the letters, it seems likely that [Wyatt] Earp did have a long barrel Colt at one point in his life. As far as where it came from, we don’t know. I talked to an elderly writer who wrote some books in the 1950s on [Wyatt] Earp and she told me she had seen some documents at the Smithsonian that would verify the existence of the Bluntline Special. This is just one of the questions we don’t have good answers for.
DP- In his later years, Wyatt Earp made some statements taking credit for killing Johnny Ringo. He reportedly even drew a diagram to back up the claim. In your opinion, do you find this allegation plausible at all?
CT- No, it’s not plausible that he could have done it. This is actually quite a story. After I finished the book and it was out, [ “Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind The Legend”], I never thought he had taken the blame for the Johnny Ringo killing. I thought it had come from other places. It would have taken a miracle for [Wyatt} Earp to have returned and killed [Johnny] Ringo. It is so unlikely that you have to look at it and say that he couldn’t have done it. Had he made the trip from Colorado to Arizona, and then returned to Colorado without being seen or leaking it to anybody that he was there, then keeping it secret for the rest of his life, even when he is having his autobiography written, and he never tells about it?
So, I didn’t believe he ever done it. Then after the book is out, I find out he actually had taken the blame for killing [Johnny] Ringo. Wyatt [Earp] had actually made this claim to several different writers, and each time he made this claim, he said he killed [Johnny] Ringo on the way out of Arizona and of course that’s impossible because he left Arizona two months before [Johnny] Ringo was killed. At some point, [Wyatt] stopped telling this, and he never made this claim to [Wyatt Earp biographer] Stuart Lake. So it seems pretty clear that Wyatt Earp lied about killing [Johnny] Ringo.
DP- Despite the years that have passed since the shoot-out near the OK Corral, are you surprised by the obvious bias towards one side or the other still exists? For example, the book by Paula Mitchell Marks, “And Die in the West: The Story of the OK Corral Gunfight” [University of Oklahoma Press Sept. 15, 1996], which reads like a letter from a defense team for the Clanton’s and McLaurey’s?
CT- Does it surprise me? No. It’s one of the most fascinating stories in the west. It was a debate in 1832, it was a debate in 1932, and it’s a debate to this day. Did the Earp’s fire first and did they have good cause for what they did? I think at this point, we know more than we’ve ever known before, and there’s people trying to resurrect the image of the outlaws, so this doesn’t surprise. When Paula [Mitchell Marks] wrote her book [And Die in the West], which was before mine, and when I got it I was just blown away. I thought she answered most of the questions, and did a fantastic job, but then I started learning more and realized that there were a whole lot of problems with her book that she didn’t know about.
One of the important things I was able to do, with the help of Jeff Morey and Bob Palmquist, was the [Judge Wells] Spicer hearings. Paula [Mitchell Marks] had the Spicer hearings, but we found a far greater collection of records than Paula [Mitchell Marks] had access too, and we found out the way she had used them had been [inadvertently] taken out of order.
You couldn’t tell who the prosecution witnesses were or who the defense witnesses were. When you go through it, as it really happened, the prosecution case was quite good in making it sound like the Earp’s were guilty, but during the defense case, everything just unravels while the defense case is being presented.
Ike Clanton [prosecution witness] falls apart, they come up with witnesses who contradict the prosecution witnesses, it was like a “Perry Mason” episode. I have tremendous respect for Paula [Mitchell Marks] and she fell into every trap without knowing it and because she did, I was able to avoid them. She paved the way for me and I greatly appreciate what she did.
DP- If you had to pick the one biggest misconceptions about Wyatt Earp or his wife, what would it be?
CT- That’s a hard question! One that stands out is a picture of Josephine [Sadie] Earp, the one where she looks like a dance hall girl and in some versions of it, you can see her breasts, it looks like she’s wearing a negligee, that’s a fake picture. As far as Wyatt [Earp], some see him as one of the greatest villains of all-time.
In my opinion, he’s not a villain, he’s a very flawed hero who made some real mistakes in life. His life is so interesting because he is so far from perfect, yet, for one period of time in Tombstone, he did stand up, when it took a hero to stand up.
DP- On March 18, 1882, was when Morgan Earp [Wyatt’s brother] was shot and killed. That seemed to be the catalyst for Wyatt Earp that caused the “Vendetta Ride”, in which he hunted down and killed those he deemed responsible. Had that not happened, had Morgan Earp not been killed, would Wyatt’s legend be as big as it is today?
CT- No, I don’t. What happened after that, the vendetta became a headline in papers across the country. It became known as the Arizona vendetta. That’s what put Wyatt Earp’s name out to the public at that time. It was something people were aware of and knew what was going on. The newspapers had covered the OK Corral fight, but people around the country could read their papers and follow this ongoing Arizona vendetta.
It put Wyatt Earp’s name into the forefront. The vendetta is an important part of Wyatt’s legacy. Realize as you go through this, Wyatt Earp is a flawed man. He’s been on the other side of the law. He hangs out with the gamblers and the prostitutes. He is on terms with some of the outlaws and during his early years in Tombstone, he’s opposed to vigilantes.
He saved Johnny-Behind-the-Deuce [Michael O’Rourke] from vigilantes. He is outspokenly opposed to the vigilante commission and he is a guy who takes them to court [criminals he caught]. He didn’t dispose of them himself. When he arrived in Tombstone, he may have killed one man before.
He thought he had killed a man in Dodge City, Kansas, but several other men were also shooting at him. So prior to the OK Corral gunfight, he may have killed one man, ever. Then there’s the aftermath of the gunfight, [brothers Morgan Earp killed and Virgil Earp shot and maimed in the arm] Wyatt goes to Tucson, AZ to send Virgil home, the train pulls out and Wyatt sees gun barrels pointed at the train and goes after the men [Frank Stillwell & Ike Clanton].
Wyatt catches Frank Stillwell, and remember that to this point, Wyatt Earp has done everything to avoid killing people, he’s been anti-vigilante, he’s been for legal enforcement [of the law], Wyatt Earp, the anti-vigilante, walks up to Frank Stillwell, sits
a double barrel shotgun in his chest and pulls the trigger. That is contrary to everything Wyatt Earp had been [previously].
As author Casey Tefertiller has revealed, the real Wyatt Earp was a very complicated man. He did some heroic things and he also found himself on the wrong side of the law in some situations. Wyatt was always seeking his desired fortune, so after Tombstone would come the Alaska trip where Wyatt and Josephine Earp went for the gold rush. Wyatt would eventually serve as a consultant on some early Hollywood westerns. He used events from his life to help early stars like Tom Mix and William Hart.
Despite seeking fortune for most of his life, Wyatt was broke when he passed away, but his wife, Josephine, was still by his side. Wyatt Earp died in Los Angeles in 1929. Tom Mix was openly emotional at Wyatt’s funeral and several Hollywood stars served as pallbearers.
Josephine Earp would pass away in 1944 and spent the final years of her life just as she had when Wyatt was still alive, defending Wyatt and trying to make his legacy a heroic one.
“Tombstone” (1993) and “Wyatt Earp” (1994) are both fantastic movies, but the real-life story of Wyatt Earp, is far more entertaining.