“Dodge City” Peels Away Myths About Outlaws

Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson.
Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson.

By Joan Baum

Who knew that Broadway’s main guy in “Guys and Dolls,” Sky Masterson, was named after Bat Masterson (1853-1921), the famous law man in the notorious Wild West, or that his good friend, the more famous Wyatt (Gunfight at the O.K. Corral) Earp (1848-1929), was a boxer and abstained from hard liquor? Both legends star in Tom Clavin’s engaging bio-history “Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West,” and are joined by a secondary cast of colorful characters including Doc (the dentist) Halliday, Billy the Kid, gun-toting Earp and Masterson kin and various respectable and dubious lady loves (neither Wyatt nor Bat had children).

A handsome, well researched book (with attractive maps and family photos) “Dodge City” peels away myths surrounding these two outlaw heroes, while generously quoting sources and offering personal comments that suggest that truth lies “somewhere in the middle” between those who romanticize Wyatt and Bat and those who vilify them as “gunfighters,” a word that enters the language relatively late, the going term at the time being “shootists.” Incidentally, it was Wyatt Earp who was responsible for popularizing the verb “to buffalo,” meaning smacking an opponent hard on the head with a gun butt rather than shooting him, a tactic that in effect served as a peacekeeping measure. As for Bat’s name, Mr. Clavin concludes it was likely a shortening by his family of “Bartholomew.” And Dodge? It was named for a military man, possibly two men, named Dodge, in charge of a fort.

Tom Clavin.

He “attempted to follow the example of the Western Writers of America,” Mr. Clavin writes in an email, “whose members over the years have found the unique formula of combining strong scholarship with entertaining writing.” But though his narrative persuasively counters “exaggerations, embellishments, rumors and outright falsehoods” about Wyatt and Bat, “Dodge City” is essentially a fascinating look at life on the frontier in the 1870s-1880s, the golden decade, as some historians have called it, and especially at life in the “keystone” town in the Kansas-centered area of the expanding West. Dodge City (originally known as Buffalo City) was where the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe extended; where the buffalo still roamed, when they weren’t being slaughtered by whites and Indians (by 1870 it’s been estimated that over 50 million buffalo could still be found on the prairie and plains west); and where the smelly, dirty but financially rewarding Texas long horn drives wound up, thus accelerating the disproportionate number of saloons, gambling palaces and brothels in town (in Wichita, prostitution was legal if the ladies were licensed). It’s hard to believe that Mr. Clavin’s two protagonists in their heyday were barely out of their twenties when they took on — by accident and default — taming a city that was a “free-for-all of cowboys, gunfighters, gamblers, prostitutes, entrepreneurs, prospectors, and others just passing through.” He saw the overall Dodge story “as a play,” Mr. Clavin adds — “its beginning, its wicked days, the taming of it and by extension the American West and the final act of Dodge as a cow town. With the scenic backdrop and the striking cast of characters, I think the story is much like a theater production.” And so it is that the book is structured as four “Acts.”

Why the book at this time? Mr. Clavin says that his “original interest” was in doing a biography of Bat Masterson as the lesser known of the dynamic duo and possibly the poorer in accurate representation on the screen. Though Bat’s life, more than Wyatt’s, was “one long adventure,” Mr. Clavin says that space forced him to leave “most of Bat’s post-Dodge adventures on the cutting room floor” (including more on his stint as sports editor of The Morning Telegraph in New York, where a protégé was Damon Runyan). Focusing on both men’s younger days “seemed like a fresh trail to follow” in coming up with new information and upending myths. But as he followed Wyatt and Bat as they went their separate ways then reunited, Mr. Clavin saw them not only in the context of their time but as characters with “universal relevance to today.” Wyatt and Bat “represented that first generation of law men on the post-Civil War American scene who chose to uphold a system of law and order that was, at best, evolving.” What “Dodge City” exemplifies is how “the justice system and its peace officers were being tested constantly.” Though uneducated, Wyatt and Bat “were intelligent men who risked their lives for a system they came to believe in that initially did not give them much support.” That system included the U.S. Army,” filled as it was after The Civil War with “a lot of riff-raff . . . and not many quality soldiers and officers.” Forget the familiar cowboys vs. Indians motif. The prevailing conflict on the frontier was between the Army and Native Americans, the Army violating so-called agreements Native Americans didn’t understand and in effect acting on a view that Native Americans were “sub-human savages who should be killed and swept out of the way of the expanding white-is-right civilization.” As Mr. Clavin adds, “Atrocities were committed by both sides as they continually retaliated against each other.”

The book, which debuted Sunday as number 13 on The New York Times hardcover best seller list, is long and some might say overly detailed, as skirmishes pile up, alternative hypotheses are considered, and many minor characters, though noteworthy, crowd onto the stage. Still, there’s no denying the attraction of the story as history told in a conversational style and as a nostalgic look at a time when lone individuals, outlaw types so prevalent in American literature and cinema, could still act heroically and make a difference in the growing life of the country.

Tom Clavin will be reading and signing books at BookHampton in East Hampton on March 25 at 5 p.m. and at the Shelter Island Library on March 31 at 7 p.m.            .