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Tucson Weekly Wyatt Bother?

The Latest Book In The "Earp Wars" Lends Little To The Debate

By Emil Franzi

FEBRUARY 1, 1999: 

Inventing Wyatt Earp--His Life and Many Legends, by Allen Barra (Carroll and Graf). Cloth, $27.

ALTHOUGH SOME may be written in crayon, there appears to be a never-ending market for Wyatt Earp books, with more on the way. Allen Barra's effort follows closely after that of his ally in the Earpomania wars, Casey Tefertiller (Wyatt Earp--The Life Behind the Legend, Wiley, 1997) and has many similar thrusts, sources, preconceptions and shortcomings. It differs primarily in attempting to be less of a biography and more of a history of the Earp legend.

There are several other major differences. Barra is both a better writer and a less meticulous researcher than Tefertiller, whose sins are primarily those of omission and a gullible acceptance of questionable source material. Both Barra, who is from New Jersey, and Tefertiller, from San Francisco, are primarily sports writers, with decent credits in that area. Like Tefertiller, Barra blunders repeatedly and in full view. Unlike Tefertiller, Barra pontificates, often without back-up notes, and arrogantly expects the reader simply to accept his often controversial statements.

Both Tefertiller and Barra share similar research and lean on what has become the "Chafin faction" of Earp history. Both depend on questionable research and documentation accumulated by Carl Chafin, a vociferous and controversial Tombstone researcher. And both Barra and Tefertiller are leaders in a jihad to destroy the work and reputation of another long-time Earp writer, Glenn Boyer.

Unlike Tefertiller, Barra at least has the guts to put his questions about Boyer's works in his book, as opposed to sniping from attached documents. But Barra's attempt to destroy Boyer's reputation as a researcher flops miserably upon his own mistakes.

Three of many examples of Barra's sloppiness occur on page 93 alone. He places Yavapai County's Fort Whipple near Tucson, and discourses at length about a supposed "Bermuda Triangle" of western events bordered by Tombstone, El Paso, and Fort Sumner, New Mexico, which he describes as being 22 square miles in area. He ends this rhapsodic theory with the sentence, "Has any other area of the United States produced so much folklore in so small a space?"

Fort Sumner is about 180 miles northeast of El Paso, which is about 200 miles east of Tombstone. Barra should use as his first research source the American Automobile Association, which would give him maps of the west for a nominal charge.

In another example of his lack of attention to relevant detail, he refers to the well-known Texas gunfighter John Wesley Hardin as Harding. While there is some evidence that Harding was his original name, Barra doesn't present it. He erases reasonable doubt that this might be another typo by spelling it that way elsewhere, and in the index.

Others have problems with Barra and his methods. In a review in the December issue of True West, the distinguished--and usually imperturbable--Robert DeArment, the biographer of Bat Masterson, points out his own discovered shortcomings in Barra's work, including the author's failure to consider anybody but Arizona cartoonist Bob Boze Bell as a competent biographer of Doc Holliday. DeArment wonders why Barra ignores Ben Traywick's John Henry, and Karen Tanner's Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait (for which DeArment wrote the foreword). The answer is that both Traywick and Tanner are friends of Boyer's, and have used some of his research material. For Barra, Tefertiller and others, that apparently disqualifies them without any further discussion.

What makes this even more interesting is that both Barra and Tefertiller, while claiming Boyer is "discredited," rely on information provided by Carl Chafin, who, with his flaky twin brother Earl, for years has been peddling over-priced pseudo-documents, and retyped, often incoherent copies of public domain manuscripts. Barra somehow considers this fourth-hand material not only more legitimate than the originals, but uses it to refute some of Boyer's claims.

Even if Boyer had made up, as has been charged, his entire output--even were he to claim that Josephine Marcus Earp was in reality the seventh Earp brother, Zeppo, in drag--it wouldn't matter. The guys leading the charge to debunk him, like Barra, are so inept at presenting a real case for their own pet theories, whatever their "rivals" present as evidence becomes superfluous.

Here's one final example of why greenhorns who live on either coast, as well as their New York publishers, should stay away from early Arizona history: Barra, discussing at length the theories concerning the death of Johnny Ringo, doesn't do badly until he points out that evidence indicates there were no powder burns on Ringo's temple. That fact would tell just about anybody who knows anything about guns that the suicide theory is false. But Barra states: "I don't know black powder weapons well enough to know if one would still leave powder if pressed against the object it was firing into."

Ka-boom! His credibility as a western scholar is shot to hell. With enemies like this, Glenn Boyer really doesn't need a lot of friends.

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