DODGE CITY: WYATT EARP, BAT MATTERSON, AND THE WICKEDEST TOWN IN THE AMERICAN WEST
By Tom Clavin
St. Martin’s Press, $29.99, 400 pages
For those of us who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s, popular TV programs were our introduction to Dodge City and Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, two of the Wild West town’s legendary lawmen.
As a kid I was a huge fan of Hugh O’Brian’s portrayal of Wyatt Earp and Gene Barry’s portrayal of Bat Masterson. I was also a fan of the long-running TV series “Gunsmoke,” which featured Dodge City as the town where James Arness’ fictional U.S. Marshall Matt Dillon had his many adventures. A new generation of fans now watch and enjoy the old reruns of these shows on cable stations.
Although the TV shows were entertaining, as I grew older and read history I learned that the shows about Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson were historically inaccurate and they were based in large part on books that had exaggerated their life stories. Mr. Earp and Mr. Masterson in their golden years also told exaggerated tales about themselves and each other.
The odd thing is that no exaggeration was truly necessary, as the true exploits of Mr. Earp and Mr. Masterson are certainly dramatic and interesting enough, as we learn from Tom Clavin’s excellent book, “Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West.”
The two Western icons were young men when they became friends and fellow lawmen in Dodge City, Kansas in the 1870s. They were not yet famous, but it was in this wide-open cow town that their legends began.
“There have been many books and films that feature Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. Almost all of the books are largely fiction, including the ones published as nonfiction,” Mr. Clavin informs us. “They contain exaggerations, embellishments, rumors, and outright falsehoods. The same goes for the on-screen efforts that began in 1932 with Walter Houston playing a character based on Wyatt Earp.”
Dodge City itself is a place of legend. The dusty frontier town, which began as an Army outpost, was the place where buffalo hunters and Texas cowboys converged for a night or two of entertainment. Gamblers, prostitutes and barmen were on hand to remove the visitors’ hard-earned money. The mixture of bent-up energy, alcohol, card games and wild women was toxic and there were many fist and gunfights, as well as playful “shoot ‘em up” vandalism.
Although the rowdy visitors were more than welcome in Dodge, as they brought in buffalo hides, Texas longhorn cattle and spending cash, the town’s residents and merchants needed able lawmen to control them.
Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson were two of the able lawmen.
Mr. Clavin offers a true account of the early lives of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson and how they came to be lawmen together in Dodge. The book also offers a colorful cast of Western characters who lived or passed through Dodge during these years, some of whom are familiar figures like Doc Holiday, Billy the Kid, Belle Star, Eddie Foy and Wild Bill Hickok, to name only a few.
Wyatt Earp is described as tall, lean, blonde and taciturn, while Bat Masterson is shorter, darker and much more outgoing. Both were experienced with firearms and were strong and able fighters. Both had brothers who also served as lawmen in Dodge, as well as other towns in the future. Although they were different types of men, they became friends for life and learned to back each up when trouble occurred. Although famous for fast draws and sure shooting, both men much more often used the handle of their guns to “buffalo” — knock out — offenders of the peace.
Neither saw “lawing,” as they called it, as a life-long pursuit. Both of these young men saw themselves making it rich in other ways, such as gambling or in various business endeavors. Yet it was as lawmen in Dodge that the two became part of American history and folklore.
“Already in the imagination of some of the American public back east they represented the toughest of the frontier lawmen, an undefeated duo who had been in any number of gun battles and had rescued the infamous Dodge City from being a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah filled with desperadoes, drunks, and fallen women. (All three remained: they were just better at behaving themselves.),” Mr. Clavins writes. “By doing so, Wyatt and Bat, their respective brothers, and the men they rode with had created the blueprint for law and order and justice throughout the frontier.”
Mr. Clavin effectively debunks the popular myths about Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson and presents a vivid and enlightening portrayal of Dodge City, the quintessential Western frontier town. This well-researched and well-written book is as entertaining as any Western novel by Louis L’Amour, Larry McMurty or Elmore Leonard.
• Paul Davis is a writer who covers crime, espionage and terrorism.