In the book “Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind The Legend”, author Casey Tefertiller brings up this “choice” in relating the story of Earp after the murder of his brother Morgan.
The book, which I stumbled upon whilst looking for something else at the local Barnes and Noble, paints Earp and his brothers as flawed, but generally noble men of honor, justice and character. The author researched everything he could find regarding Earp, pouring over newspaper articles, interviews with people who knew him and court records from trials in order to determine what was and wasn’t true about the legend of this man.
Overall, he seemed like a great guy and despite the fact that I’ve always found the Doc Holiday character far more entertaining and interesting in all the various films of that period, in reality I believe I would much prefer to have developed a friendship with Wyatt Earp. In the early days of Hollywood, studios were keen on depicting “the Old West” and would invite people who lived those times to consult and act as extras. Wyatt, who by this time was living in California, would visit sets to chat up some of the people he knew from those days as well as sometimes consult himself. These men would sit around and reminisce about the old days and actors and crewmen would often listen in. (Imagine that!) Amongst those actors was a young John Wayne who was mightily impressed with Earp and the stories the others would tell about him. He based almost all of his western characters on what he learned about Earp. Wayne told Hugh O’Brien, who played Earp on TV, that he was playing Earp in each of those westerns he made, trying to capture and present the man’s highly regarded character, and that O'Brien, too, was capturing the essence of the man in his own depiction.
Most of the mining towns, Tombstone included, were wild but trying to grow into legitimate communities, with businessmen of all sorts hoping to find success. They often were policed by various levels of law enforcement, each with their own jurisdictional duties, but often overlapping. They also had issues with “cowboys”, a term not necessarily respected at the time, as they were not necessarily of the Roy Rogers quality. The cowboys had their value as militia type persons who would gather to fight off Indian attacks, but were also mostly rustlers, robbers and all around troublemakers who made the towns’ business people both money and worried. They made the towns too wild for new investors to risk their money.
These towns also had newspapers and politics. “Fair and balanced” was not common amongst the newspapers. They swung one way or the other with some clearly being Republican papers and the others Democrat supporters. At the time in Tombstone, the Democrat papers leaned toward the cowboys and the cattlemen who profited by their rustling. Other businesses, such as saloons, casinos and whorehouses also tended to support the cowboys since they blew their pay in their establishments.
The Republican leaning papers supported people like the Earps, who proved themselves regularly to be fair in their duties as lawmen and got the job done, far more often than not without the use of their guns. (Indeed, Earp wasn’t known for shooting people in order to be an effective lawman and was praised and greatly respected for this by many.)
Now here is where we got to the “And/Or” conundrum. Due to the profit potential of having rustled cattle provided by the cowboys, it did not help to have any of these guys jailed instead of “working” (many cowboys were in the direct employ of some ranchers—but I was speaking of their less than legal means of income acquisition). These people would use the letter of the law to keep these guys out of jail, and one pretty much had to be caught red-handed to be convicted.
On the other side, the businesses and people working for growth in the community were heavily invested in order. To maintain a reputation as a wild and lawless town was not conducive to growth. Wyatt Earp came to realize, particularly after the shooting of brother Virgil and the murder of brother Morgan, that justice was not easily had while law AND order were not absolutely tied together. It was only after these crimes that Earp took the law into his own hands and began dispensing “frontier justice”, tracking down those he knew were responsible for the shootings, and making any further possibility of crime at the hands of the perpetrators a moot issue. It became an issue of either law OR order. Order was seen by Earp and others as paramount for not only growth of the community, but its safety as well. Law would take a back seat. For the cowboys and their supporters, it was reversed (assuming they cared about the law at all beyond how they could abuse it).
So Wyatt went about with his vendetta and found the justice, and vengeance, he sought. The result was the bad guys acting far more covertly if they acted at all in a criminal manner. Justice AND order were had.
While reading of this story and the distance between law and order, I could not help but think of problems we face in the here and now. We have our cowboys today. They are called “gangbangers”, “bikers” and other forms of organized crime. The worst of these groups, as well as many of the underlings, are known well to law enforcement groups of every level. The law often works against the desire for justice and order. People live in fear in their own homes and communities while the lawless move about without fear of prosecution unless they are caught with the smoking gun in their hands. It makes me wish for a man like Earp, honorable and courageous, but fed up with the ramifications of laws that do more to protect the guilty rather than the innocent. Some would object saying it isn’t how a Christian nation of laws should work. Some would say we’d be using evil to fight evil. Nonsense. If the worst of the worst are done away with, fewer would have the courage to fill the void. More people would be willing to do their parts as citizens to report crime and testify against criminals. It would embolden the law-abiding and discourage the law-breakers. Until then, we must live out a law OR order existence.