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The Essential Books on Wyatt Earp and Tombstone

REVISED FRIDAY MAY 9, 2014:  A poster on BJ’s Tombstone History Discussion Website ( ) asked for recommendations of the ten best books on Tombstone and Wyatt Earp and Tombstone and also a list of books to avoid.  My list of essential books is up to 24, including 4 illustrated books to introduce the unsuspecting to this field. I’d avoid only one book, the late Glenn Boyer’s The Earp Curse. One feels the need for a shower after reading its execrable attacks on anyone who disagreed with his take on the Earp story and his use of hoaxes to tell that story. Plenty of other books have been debunked as questionable history or biography, but I would not avoid them. Earp has a legendary status that has risen and fallen, and the debunked books are a key part of that story.  With that in mind, I’ll leap into the fray of what’s essential reading, even if to be used with caution. My own collection is boxed for a planned move, so I may have missed something.


  1. Walter Noble Burns. Tombstone: Iliad of the Southwest (1927): Wyatt Earp emerges as the central character in this heavily researched but fictionalized account of Tombstone. Earp takes on legendary status for the first time as “The Lion of Tombstone.”
  2. Stuart Lake: Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal (1931): Deeply researched, but much of the evidence was selected in or out and slanted to create a superhuman lawman. One of the most influential biographies of the 20th century. Catapulted Earp to an American icon. Virtually every book on Earp or featuring him, and of course every Hollywood portrayal, as well as the creation of countless fictional characters and stories, have been in reaction to the image Lake created in this book. As for Lake himself, at the April 2014 Arizona History Conference, Anne Collier delivered an eye-opening paper on what made Lake tick and how that translated into his desire/need to turn Earp into the legend he became. Certainly hope she publishes it one day.
  3. Michael F. Blake, Hollywood and the O.K. Corral: Portrayals of the Gunfight and Wyatt Earp (2006): Right from the start, the O.K. Corral was the stuff of cinema. Blake’s book nicely fills a gaping hole in the literature on Wyatt Earp’s transition from itinerant lawman, gambler, miner, horse thief, pimp, and con man to the iconic, legendary, and nearly mythical character he is today. The same goes for the evolution of the sudden and shocking street fight in Tombstone to today’s metaphor for any vicious gun battle, firefight, or other spot where bullets seem to be flying from all sides. Blake addresses at length Hollywood’s role in building, debunking, and shape-shifting the legends of both the “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” and the one participant who remained standing, untouched by lead.


  1. Casey Tefertiller, Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend (1997): After 17 years, still the essential biography. Nothing comes close. Fair minded, acknowledges Earp’s warts. Rightly concentrates on the years in Tombstone. Among other things, still the best book on the involvement of the San Francisco capitalists in the Earp: Cowboy contest. Addresses the important question of what a man is to do to achieve justice when law breaks down.  In great need of a second edition following Peoria and other revelations, but the first edition remains the best life.
  2. Allen Barra, Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends (1998): Nearly equal parts interpretive biography and examination of shifting cultural memory. Barra spends considerable space considering the vastly different takes on Earp by his early hagiographers, his debunkers, the people who knew him, and those who have chosen to use him. Could stand a second edition, but Barra has been quite busy with sport icon biographies.
  3. Gary L. Roberts, Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend (2007):  Far surpasses any earlier Doc biography, and is likely to remain definitive longer than any other book on this list. Dr. Roberts’ challenge was to get inside the head of Wyatt’s nearly-as-famous (and a shade more notorious) friend, a fascinating man who left next to no record of his internal dialogue (other than his Denver interviews and destroyed letters to his cousin). This necessarily meant that nearly all of Doc’s personality and thoughts were filtered through those who knew him, reported on him, and regarded him with decidedly different, strong opinions. Roberts presents and weighs in on the many controversies in both the main text and the many discursive footnotes, which are not to be missed.
  4. John Boessenecker, When Law Was in the Holster: The Frontier Life of Bob Paul (2012): Subject and author are well matched. Bob Paul was possibly the steadiest, most honest, most dedicated, and most reliable lawman of the 19th century American West, and John Boessenecker has become the foremost biographer of lawmen and outlaws working today. A thorough, well-written biography of a thrilling life spent on the high seas, amidst the California gold camps, and across the Madrean Sky Islands and Sonoran Desert trails of Arizona Territory. Boessenecker’s use of court case records reveals that, when it came to the 1880 elections, Wyatt was right: Ike Clanton was indeed a sort of chief among the Cowboys.
  5. Paul Lee Johnson, The McLaury Brothers in Tombstone: An OK Corral Obituary (2012): Equal to the Paul biography in reliable scholarship.  Johnson does not limit himself to the Tombstone years but fleshes out the brothers’ origins in New York State. Intellectually honest, the author sympathizes with the plight of Frank and Tom, but assigns some blame for their too-close association with the rustling element in Pima/Cochise counties. Will McLaury’s not always effective meddling in the court case against the Earps is also addressed at length.
  6. Steve Gatto, Curly Bill: Tombstone’s Most Famous Outlaw (2003): A crackerjack assembly of information on every important thing known about Curly Bill at the time of writing and publication, much of which was uncovered first by Gatto, an indefatigable researcher. While I have disagreed with some of Gatto’s most important interpretations, I have warmed up to the book. His claims, including Curly Bill’s under-indictment flight from Arizona to Texas and survival in the years beyond when Wyatt claimed to have killed him at Mescal Springs are reasonable, stated in measured terms without any flights of fancy, and (despite my disagreement based on the same evidence) are arguably right.


  1. Frank Waters, The Earp Brothers of Tombstone (1960): A preeminent 20th century novelist and historian of the American West opted for a fiction-based smear, if not historical fraud in this much altered memoir of Virgil Earp’s wife, Allie. After his original manuscript based on interviews with Allie was discovered, several scholars revealed that the final book, published after her death, included much altered quotations regarding her views of Wyatt and his brothers. The book was extremely influential during the Earp debunking period of the 1960s-1970s, but should be read only in tandem with the scholarly articles by S. J. Reidhead, Gary Roberts, and Casey Tefertiller, thoroughly dismantling the debunker.  These and related articles are found at
  2. Ed Bartholomew, Wyatt Earp, The Untold Story 1848-1880, and Wyatt Earp: the Man and the Myth, 1879-1882 (1963-1964): Venomous. A great deal of rambling in tiny print, backed by the possibly worst citation system ever invented by man. Nevertheless, if you have the patience, you will find nuggets of information worth exploring.
  3. Glenn G. Boyer, I Married Wyatt Earp: The Recollections of Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp (1976): The University of Arizona Press was taken in by this, as were I and a generation of Tombstone scholars and buffs. Turns out the account of the Tombstone years was largely invented by the author. Boyer’s hoax began to unravel with the 1995 publication of Jeff Morey’s “The Curious Vendetta of Glenn G. Boyer” (NOLA Quarterly, 1994), and the threads came undone with the work of Gary Roberts, Tony Ortega, and others. Their articles can be found at


  1. Paula Mitchell Marks, And Die in the West: The Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight (1989): Like the Guinn book below, follows the course of the OK Corral story, from the founding of Tombstone to after the Vendetta Ride. More than anyone before her, Marks successfully addressed how complex personal, political, economic, and social forces could lead to lawlessness and violence along that stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border. I do not agree with her even-handed treatment of the opposing sides, but her book profoundly influenced me to attempt a similar comprehensive book on the El Paso Salt War. The author innocently relied heavily on Boyer’s work in her first edition, but this has been toned down considerably in a later edition. A fine introduction to the subject.
  2. Jeff Guinn, The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral-And How It Changed the American West  (2012); “The cowboys and Wyatt Earp were on an inevitable collision course. It was a question of when, not if, something dramatic would happen.” So writes Bonnie and Clyde biographer Jeff Guinn in The Last Gunfight. In Guinn’s story, flawed humans drive the action. The ambition, political ineptitude, and impatience of Wyatt Earp, the greed, boozing, and all-around undependability of Ike Clanton, the irascibility of Doc Holliday, the pride of Frank McLaury, and the slickness of charming Johnny Behan all led to the famous gunfight and the killings that followed. Guinn addresses the various gunfight controversies, but you’ll have to read the book. Guinn has been heavily criticized by long-time Tombstone buffs fand some scholars or his heavy citation of conversations with many published Tombstone scholars. My own feeling is that it was a perfect way for a skilled author who has not spent his life picking over the details of the gunfight, etc. to become acquainted with the best thinking in the field, of whatever persuasion, to better inform his own judgments. (Truth in advertising: Guinn included me in the list of scholars. We had one brief email conversation, but he did praise my Martin article to the skies.)


  1. Alford E. Turner, The OK Corral Inquest (1992): Indispensable to any informed discussion of the Gunfight in the Vacant Lot off Fremont Street. The preliminary hearing transcript is incomplete and may include some deviations from the actual testimony, but until some new book incorporates other sources (i.e., the Nugget and Epitaph testimony accounts), this will have to do.
  2. Steven Lubet, Murder in Tombstone: The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp (2006): Nationally recognized trial authority and historic trials author Steven Lubet uses all the available sources to walk readers through the preliminary hearing that followed the gunfight. His assessments of the prosecution and defense are on a level of detail and with a level of legal understanding found in no other book. Agree or disagree with his interpretation and surprising conclusions, you will have to agree that the book was long overdue.


  1. William Breakenridge, Helldorado: Bringing the Law to the Mesquite (1928): Perhaps the most important published reminiscence. As one of Sheriff Johnny Behan’s Cochise County Deputy Sheriffs, Billy Breakenridge got to know the so-called Arizona Cowboys, the rustlers and rancher allies who operated out of the San Simon, Sulphur Spring, and San Pedro Valleys, as well as in the towns of Galeyville, Charleston, and sometimes Tombstone. He worked amiably with them when he had to, and admitted to their criminal and shady doings. Some of his own activities are a bit puffed up and his memories are a bit impaired by the passage of time. Expressed a good opinion of Behan. As for the Earps, not so much.
  2. Lynn R. Bailey, The Unwashed Crowd: Stockmen and Ranches of the San Simon and Sulphur Spring Valleys, 1878-1900 (2014): The newest book on the list presents, for the first time, the remarkable New Mexico capitalist and entrepreneurial origins of the Arizona Cowboys. Also includes other revelations, among them the site of the Sarampion, location of the massacre of the Mexican trade train in July 1881. Calls Wyatt Earp’s claim of killing Curly Bill at Mescal Springs “preposterous.” Presents evidence attributing the end of the Cowboys reign of terror to factors other than the Vendetta Ride, most especially to the rise of corporate ranching in the valleys.

NOTE: Gary Roberts Doc Holliday bio (above) makes best use of the U.S. Customs Service files addressing Cowboy smuggling of Mexican cattle.


  1. William B. Shillingberg, Tombstone, A.T.: A History of Early Mining, Milling, and Mayhem (1999): A great deal of information on the town’s rise and decline. Author concentrates on mining and milling, but can’t avoid the mayhem. The best account of Wyatt Earp’s service as a Deputy Sheriff for Pima County.
  2. Lynn R. Bailey, Too Tough to Die: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Silver Camp, 1878-1990 (2010):  The preeminent historian of southeast territorial Arizona’s mining and ranching history brings his expertise to the study of the greatest silver mining town of them all. Unlike Shillingberg, Bailey brings the town’s history down to late 20th century, including its up and down fortunes as a tourist mecca from the first Helldorado celebration through the heyday of Gunfight at the OK Corral portrayals by Hollywood. Bailey has no use for the lionized Wyatt Earp.


  1. Artist and True West Magazine publisher Bob Boze Bell, assisted by a number of scholarly contributors, has created a trio of the most attractive and best introductory volumes on the subject. Perfect gifts, perfect eye candy by one of my two favorite Western artists, and perfect light reading, packed with facts and plenty of humor. Get all three: The Illustrated Life and Times of Wyatt Earp (4th edition, 2000); The Illustrated Times of Doc Holliday (2d edition, 1995); and Classic Gunfights, Vol. 2, Blaze Away (2005). 25 gunfights leading up to and away from the OK Corral.
  2. Thom Ross, Gunfight at the OK Corral: In Words and Pictures (2001): While Bob Boze Bell’s art is heavily influenced by Impressionism, Ross relies upon both exaggerated angles to create his mythical heroes and villains, and a great deal of humor to puncture the hot air of their legends. His art has been used to grace any number of Western history books, and rightly so. Essential viewing