The Last Gunfight by Jeff Guinn: a review

Short summary: Guinn’s book’s a decent overview of the events which led up to and followed from the Earp/Clanton/McLaury gunfight at Tombstone in October of 1881, though the title and the subtitle exaggerate the book’s scope. If you’re already familiar with the story, you’ll learn little from this book, but it has value as an introduction.

I’m pretty sure I first heard the phrase “revisionist history” in relation to the “OK Corral” story. Revisionist History is always a pejorative characterization. People who use it don’t understand how historians think or why historians do what they do.

The odd thing is that the label is a poor fit for the Tombstone story. Right from the beginning this has been a contested story, and it’s always supported multiple interpretations. Those few weeks in Tombstone are among the best-documented events in American history. The basic facts are largely agreed upon, and few of the disputed points have much impact on the overall narrative. The most common interpretations were already in play in 1881, and have kept resurfacing. That people still feel obliged to take sides about a gunfight that occurred well over a century ago likely tells more about people than the gunfight.

One rendition–that which prevails in Hollywood’s tellings of this story–casts the yarn in terms of law and order. Ike Clanton’s behavior was certainly provocative, as was the reluctance of the ranchers to surrender their weapons. Subsequent events certainly demonstrated that the Earps were being targeted. One can easily regard these particular cowboys as outlaws, and view most of the Earps’ efforts as legitimate law enforcement under trying circumstances. The manifest problem with this interpretation is, of course, Wyatt’s Vendetta; it’s also complicated by the life histories of the participants, especially Holliday.

The bigger problem, say other interpreters, is that casting the cowboys as outlaws oversimplifies the reality, and it’s not entirely obvious that the Earps (and Holliday) were unmistakably in the right. While it’s difficult to portray the Clantons as good guys, it’s probably not unfair to describe the McLaury family as fairly innocent ranchers who had some tolerance for lawbreaking and some unfortunate friends. It’s also reasonable to argue that the offenses which preceded the shootout didn’t justify the shootout–and it’s not a long step from there to suppose that those who died in the gunfight were victims of an assassination. Indeed, it’s quite clear that a significant portion of the folks living in or near Tombstone saw it that way at the time.

This yarn gets retold and reinterpreted partly because of the context, and partly because of the backstory. 1880s Arizona was the last western frontier, and this story is usually construed as a clash resulting from civilization arriving in the wilderness. There are elements of city vs. country, of lingering post-Civil War resentments, of pure American opportunism, and of Big Business encroachments on local autonomy. The story has and has always had political overtones which echoed national discussions. Heck, there’s even a love triangle. When you throw in Doc Holliday, and Earp family’s checkered past, this story has a complicated supporting framework, and presents opportunities for endless interpretation.

Which brings us back to Jeff Guinn’s The Last Gunfight. If you’re seeking an adequate overview of the events which caused and followed from the Tombstone gunfight, this book should meet your need. Guinn sticks closely to the verifiable facts, and takes pains to show where, and often why, interpretations differ. While his unsympathetic portrayal of Wyatt Earp will offend some readers, there’s no principal character this book flatters. In this telling Virgil Earp’s nearly the only consistently good actor, though Guinn shows unusual empathy to John Behan’s difficult situation. Guinn views newspaperman/politician John Clum as an irresponsible provocateur.

Guinn’s telling is about distrust. In the end, neither side backed down because neither group expected the other to behave reasonably. There are other theories, many of which are plausible, but this book’s a satisfactory explanation for what happened in Tombstone.

Guinn’s endnotes deserve some comment. While it’s quite clear that he examined some primary documents, it’s also clear that the author mainly researched the book by reading other books and interviewing nearly everyone who’s written about Tombstone. Jeff Guinn’s been a newspaper reporter and columnist, and this is a newspaperman’s method. That the research worked is indisputable, but when you check a note to discover that his source was “Jeff Morey interview” it doesn’t really tell you much. Nor does it provide a useful lead for further research. That said, Guinn’s endnotes are often explications of the text; they are delightful reads.

In sum, The Last Gunfight is a good starting point for someone trying to understand the Gunfight Near the OK Corral because it offers a sensible interpretation and points to places where other writers disagree. It is not more than that, regardless of the subtitle. Readers who’ve read other authors’ work in this field may find the book useful, but they won’t find much that’s new. Those readers who worship Wyatt Earp will likely prefer Allan Barra’s Inventing Wyatt Earp.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.