Review: Old West famous feud comes to life in ‘Tombstone’

Tombstone The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, And The Vendetta Ride From Hell,” By Tom Clavin (st. Martin’s Press)

Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride From Hell,” by Tom Clavin (St. Martin’s Press)

“Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride From Hell,” by Tom Clavin (St. Martin’s Press)

In 1881, five Earp brothers gathered in hopes of finding their fortunes in Tombstone, Arizona, the last boomtown in what was still left of the untamed American West. They were relatively young men—Wyatt, the middle brother, just 31—when they joined a growing community of shopkeepers, prospectors, gamblers, prostitutes, and rustlers drawn by a silver strike in the nearby Dragoon Mountains.

As some popular accounts, including “Tombstone,” the 1993 movie starring Kurt Russell, would have it, Wyatt and his older brother Virgil had forsaken their previous profession as lawmen, but that’s not exactly true. Virgil was still a deputy U.S. Marshal, and he remained a lawman for nearly all of his time in Arizona.

Myths surrounding the Earps, Wyatt’s pal Doc Holliday (who was far from the deadeye shot he’s been made out to be), and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral are not the only obstacles facing a writer intent on telling the true story of Tombstone. Primary sources, including witness testimony in court proceedings and reports in the boomtown’s two rival newspapers, are contradictory and laced with lies. And other accounts by observers and participants, including several books, are largely self-serving.

But in researching “Tombstone: The Earp Brothers, Doc Holliday, and the Vendetta Ride to Hell,” western historian and former newspaperman Tom Clavin had a lot of additional material to draw on including previous histories of the town and well-researched biographies of many of the participants.

Readers who have a passing familiarity with the story will recognize the names of the key players including Billy and Ike Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury, Johnny Ringo, Frank Stilwell, Curly Bill Brocius, Texas Jack Vermillion, Sherman McMasters, Henry Hooker, Bat Masterson, Fred White, John Clum, Big Nose Kate Elder, and John Behan. Clavin explores where they, and many others, came from and what they were doing before they arrived in Tombstone. He also describes the cultural and political climate of Arizona that contributed to the town’s troubles.

With a former newsman’s nose for the truth, Clavin has sifted the facts, myths, and lies to produce what might be as accurate an account as we will ever get of the old West’s most famous feud.

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Bruce DeSilva, winner of the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Award, is the author of the Mulligan crime novels including “The Dread Line.”