Wyatt’s Apologia

January 14, 2009

Find time to write interesting and well-researched articles about the Wild West and American History is often challenging. I do find time on occasion, however, to write fiction set in the Wild West. In particular I write from the point of view of Wyatt Earp, Morgan Earp, and other historical characters from 1881 Tombstone, Arizona in my role play collaborative fiction ‘novel’ at the community web site Pan Historia. I also write in Deadwood where I have taken on the roles of Al Swearengen, Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp, and Morgan Earp.

While both of these role play collaborative ‘novels’ (this is what we call our ongoing stories at Pan Historia) do owe some inspiration from the 1992 movie Tombstone and the HBO series Deadwood neither are Fanfic. In both of these stories I delve deeply into the history of the period and what really happened, and for the fiction we add a great deal of ‘what if” and ‘it could have happened’. I’m very particular about period detail as well, and I like to remember that these people were Victorians, and not cowboys in big silly hats with trained trick ponies.

In main the reason I do so much research into the period is in order to write colorful and believable fiction set in the Wild West. My articles here are an offshoot of that passion. So if you’re interested in what truly motivates me please check out my Tombstone stories as I’m posting them at my writing blog Wyatt’s Writing. You’ll also find my other stories there, but just click on the Tombstone category and you can follow my Tombstone adventures as far back as 2004.

General “Fighting Joe” Hooker by Guest Writer Winfield Grant

December 28, 2008
Oct. 31, 1879 Garden City, NY

Joseph Hooker, Born: Nov. 13, 1814 Hadley Mass.,Died: Oct. 31, 1879 Garden City, NY

Hooker’s famous nickname, “Fighting Joe” was due to an error; an itinerant journalist forgot to place a dash before Hooker’s name in a dispatch. Hooker’s remaining career in the Union Army can be seen as a desperate attempt to live up to this illustrious sobriquet.
Hooker graduated from West Point in 1837.  After serving in the Seminole War and a stint as an Adjutant at the Point, Hooker served as a staff officer during the Mexican War, earning three brevets.  Unfortunately, for his later career, he testified against General Winfield Scott before a court of inquiry on the Mexican War. Hooker resigned from the army on February 21, 1853, following a protracted leave of absence, to settle in California.
As the war began, Hooker became a colonel of the state militia; soon after he offered his services to Washington.  Here his anti-Scott sentiments came back to haunt him.  After witnessing the disaster at 1st Bull Run (Manassas) as a civilian, Hooker wrote directly to Lincoln complaining of the mismanagement as well as advancing his own claim for a commission.  Hooker was made Brigadier General of Volunteers on August 3, 1861.
Hooker’s first assignment was to lead a brigade and then a division around Washington. It was at this time that legend has it that Hooker’s name was forever linked to prostitutes stemming from his attempted removal of them in Washington’s infamous “Murder Bay” area.
Next Hooker was assigned to McCellan and his Army of the Peninsula, earning a reputation for looking after his men. During this time he was involved in several battles including Winchester(where he  distinguished himself greatly), Seven Days, and he earned a minor victory at Malvern Hill. Transferred to Pope, he was involved in the defeat at 2nd Bull Run (2nd Manassas).
Hooker was given command of a corp for the Antietam (Sharpsburg) Campaign, where he was wounded in the fighting. Three days later he was made Brigadier general in the regular army.
When Burnside took command of the Army of the Potomac, Hooker commanded the central Grand division during the debacle at Fredricksburg. Burnside was relieved of command after his disastrous Mud March, and Hooker given Command of the Army of the Potomac.
Immediately Hooker instituted several much needed reforms, most importantly abolishing the Grand Divisions and reinstituting the Corps. Hooker’s headquarters at this time was soundly criticized as part bar and part brothel.
Hooker then moved forth to challenge lee at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Before the battle Hooker made what would become a foolish boast-“May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.”  Lee would soon make Hooker eat those words.
After executing a brilliant maneuver around Lee’s flanks and crossing two rivers, Hooker was bested and outmaneuvered by Lee and Jackson, leading a force scarcely half the size of Hooker’s army. As a result the Army of the Potomac sustained 17,000 casualties; and Hooker was shown to be yet another commander of the Army of the Potomac who had hesitated and lost his nerve.
When Lee invaded Pennsylvania, Hooker followed but asked for more troops before clashing again with lee. Washington refused and in disgust for his perceived slight by the high command, resigned on June28, 1863.

General Hooker on his horse. This picture is by Matthew Brady and was probably taken just prior to Hooker's resignation as Commander of the Army of the Potomac. Circa June of 1863.

General Hooker on his horse. This picture is by Matthew Brady and was probably taken just prior to Hooker's resignation as Commander of the Army of the Potomac. Circa June of 1863.

Three months later Hooker was sent by rail in command of the 11th and12th corps to help General Rosecrans, besieged at Chattanooga. There he won the “Battle above the Clouds” on Lookout Mountain. In Grant’s official report of the battle, however, Sherman overshadows him.
The next spring the two corps were combined into the new 20th Corps with Hooker commanding. Hooker fought well in the Atlanta campaign, but was denied promotion, and asked to be relieved. This was granted and Hooker finished the war in Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
Hooker stayed in the Union Army until sickness forced him to resign his commission in 1868 at the rank of Major general. He died in New York and is buried in Cincinnati.

What to Wear in the Wild West

December 27, 2008

When people think of the Old West the most persistent image in their mind will be what they learned from western movies and many episodes of Bonanza. They see cowboys in chaps or colorful characters like Wild Bill Hickok in buckskin and fringe with long hair like a dime store Indian. These images are not entirely unreal as evidenced by my first image: a line of cowboys taking a drink at a bar: this is exactly what most people expect when they think about the Old West. Wild Bill did dress up in buckskins on occasion, just as Calamity Jane did, or other Wild West scouts. Of course at a certain point the cowboy serials and movies became a bit ridiculous and unlikely with our heroes all ‘dudified’ in rhinestones and huge ten gallon hats as they began to reflect the mythos rather than the reality.

The second photo I present, a fairly well-known image from Tombstone, Arizona of the bar at the Crystal Palace shows a far more diverse array of gentleman partaking of libations. In this case you can clearly discern that many of the men are wearing suits and bowler or derby style hats. This would be the far more common view of fashion in the nineteen hundreds in the American West. It was the Victorian and then Edwardian era and just like their contemporaries in the East and in England and Europe men and women bought their clothes to look like everyone else’s clothes. I think you could easily dress modern men in those suits and they wouldn’t be completely out of place as men’s fashions have a tendency to be far more slow moving than women’s. The garb of the cowboy was a working man’s outfit. The Levi jeans crept into our common sartorial parlance from these images of the working man in movies, TV, and then advertising; it certainly wasn’t considered elegant in the Old West. In 1880, for example, a man would only wear jeans for work and never to church. Many of the images of a cowboy show him partially undressed, according to the mores of the time, for instance in his undershirt rather than fully dressed in shirt and vest. A vest, in fact, was required and considered part of the shirt and not the suit and jacket. Unbuttoned shirts with no collar, such as Al Swearengen wears frequently in the HBO show Deadwood, would have shown a man of extremely lax habit and certainly not have been meant to be seen by the ladies.

My final picture, from 1893, from an advertising image, shows a typical man’s suit. This would be worn to the office, behind the counter at the general store, or if freshly pressed could be worn to church. Note the high starched collar and Windsor knot. In the movie Tombstone, which had a fair degree of accuracy when it came to costumes and props, Wyatt Earp is often seen wearing such a collar and tie – as he would have in real life, not a string tie or Stetson as in the early movies and TV shows.

Looking at images of the Old West either from old photographs or advertising art is a great resource and an excellent way to really imagine the daily life as people lived it rather than as movies imagined it. I love leafing through old reproduction Sears & Roebuck catalogues, probably almost as much as they were loved at the time. Without access to television or radio someone living out in Tombstone, Arizona in 1880 would have been starved for news of the world and fashions. Knowing that they were wearing the right tie or frock gave them a passport to their culture even when they were in unfamiliar frontier territory.

Tom Mix : Cowboy Movie Star

December 23, 2008

Tom MixEven if you have heard of Tom Mix today (and few have) it’s unlikely that you’ve seen one of his movies. Even though Tom Mix was one of the biggest box office draws from the teens to the thirties and supposedly made 926 silents, most of his films have been lost. A mere handful remain (though I have read rumors that there are some in storage in what was Czechoslovakia and Denmark); a small legacy for such a Hollywood legend. The only movie I have found is his serial from the 1935’s The Miracle Rider. Ironically this remaining documentation of this silent star is a talkie.

Tom Mix was successor to silent cowboy star William S. Hart, an actor who practically created the genre. Mix’s style was a very different version of the cowboy and the west than Hart, who came from a generation of cowboy actors that had actually seen the West before it was tamed. Hart’s portrayal was gritty. Tom Mix took on more of a ‘dude’ persona, becoming the first of the glamorous cowboys in fancy shirts and sequins, precursor to Roy Rogers and is ilk. He rode his favorite horse, Tony (actually a number of horses throughout his career), and often appeared with his dog ‘Duke’.

Hollywood and Mix put out a lot of information about Tom, most of it wildly exaggerated, but that was the style of the times. Image was everything and factual truth counted for little. It’s hard to imagine in our modern world of near religious belief in facts (not that we adhere to it with any more stringency in practice than they did in Mix’s day) – but back then, you could say what you liked about Tom Mix on Tonyyourself and it didn’t make you a liar. Mix was billed as a genuine Texas Ranger and ex-U.S. Marshal, but it’s doubtful he actually held either of those positions since no records at the time can confirm it. Studios even had him riding up San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt and fighting in the Boer War. What is known for certain is that Mix was born in Pennsylvania in 1880 and that his middle name might have been ‘Hekeziah’ but if it was Tom hated it and dropped it in his teens. He served briefly in the army and may have done some cowboying, but circus and rodeo was his real background. You could see it in the flamboyant style cowboy hero he presented to the movie audience and they lapped it up; making him one of the biggest movie stars of all time up to that point. Translated into our terms today, his popularity would put him right up there with the likes of Tom Cruise and Clint Eastwood.

An interesting footnote in Mix’s movie history is that he made friends with the notorious lawman Wyatt Earp when Wyatt came to Hollywood to advise on the sets. The two men hit it off and apparently often read Shakespeare together, according to Adela Rogers St. John (a Hearst journalist); perhaps egged on by their friend, William S. Hart, in order to further their education. While it’s interesting that the two cowboy actors became friends with Wyatt, it certainly didn’t improve the veracity of the image of the West and the cowboy hero shown up on the silver screen. It must have been something of an irony to the aged lawman and gambler. He was apparently something of a cult celebrity in Hollywood in his later years. When Wyatt died Tom Mix was one of the pallbearers. Adela noted that Tom Mix wept. That was in 1929. In 1985 Blake Edward’s released his movie Sunset which told the fictionalized story of Tom Mix and Wyatt Earp in a Hollywood caper together after meeting on the set of a silent movie. It is by no means a good film, but entertaining nonetheless, starring James Garner as Wyatt and Bruce Willis as Tom.

Wyatt Earp's Funeral
Left to right: W.J. Hunsaker, George Parsons, John Clum, William S. Hart, Wilson Mizner, and Tom Mix.

1929 couldn’t have been a good year for Mix in general. The talkies had come and so had the end of his career as silent movie actor. Tom went on to other things, such as the circus. But the heyday of his success ended and he appeared in fewer and fewer movies, ending his cinematic career in serials. He had made a phenomenal amount of money for the time and lived a riotous life of excess in Hollywood, apparently having had six wives. He died in 1940 in a freak automobile accident, his head crushed by his flying suitcase as it came off the rack of his roadster during the crash. In one of the weirder of America’s tributes to its rich and famous, the suitcase is enshrined at a Tom Mix Museum in Oklahoma.


THE MIRACLE RIDER (1935-Mascot)🙂 Directed by B. Reeves Eason and Armand Schaefer. Cast: Tom Mix, Joan Gale, Charles Middleton, Jason Robards, Edward Hearn, Pat O’Malley, Robert Frazer, Wally Wales, Chief Standing Bear, Charles King, Tom London, Ed Cobb, George Chesebro, Lafe McKee and Tony, Jr. Action packed 15 chapter serial of men trying to run the Indians from their lands. 295 minutes

The Amazing Tom Mix by Richard D. Jenson

Inventing Wyatt Earp by Allen Barra

William S. Hart : Every Inch a Man

December 22, 2008

William S Hart in Every Inch a ManWilliam S. Hart didn’t like Westerns when he first saw them. You might think this was because he was a Shakespearean actor of the New York stage. It wasn’t. It was because Hart had seen the genuine West, mingled with real cowboys, and he knew that the wild fantasy he saw on screen wasn’t authentic. Right there and then he hatched the idea to create a true Western entertainment for movies. For the rest of his career he made Westerns; directing and even writing some of his movies. He created his own wonderful Western monikers for his characters, designed his own foppish and yet authentic outfits.

Bill Hart was born in New York State in 1865, his father a grist miller from England. During his childhood his family actually spent time pioneering out West and Bill had much rich experience to draw on when he began his Western movie crusade. In his twenties he returned east to work on the stage, appearing in Shakespeare. He was so fond of the Bard of Avon that his friends joked that the middle initial of his name stood for “Shakespeare”. Hart was a popular stage actor, even playing Messala in Ben Hur.

For someone who enjoyed success as a classical actor, it came as something of a surprise when he switched to playing Western characters on stage. It was, however, equally a pleasure to Hart as it was to his audiences. He never turned back. Hart had a genuine love of the West – a place that was just as much geography as a state of mind. Even in Hart’s lifetime it was already a romantic ideal. He appeared in a stage adaptation of The Virginian.

William S. Hart said of Western movies made early on:

I saw a Western picture. It was awful! I talked with the manager of the theater and he told me it was one of the best Westerns he had ever had. None of the impossibilities or libels on the West meant anything to him – it was drawing the crowds. The fact that the sheriff was dressed and characterized as a sort of cross between a Wisconsin woodchopper and Gloucester fisherman was unknown to him. I did not seek to enlighten him. I was seeking information. In fact, I was so sure that I had made a big discovery that I was frightened he would read my mind and find it out.

Here were reproductions of the Old West being seriously presented to the public, in almost a burlesque manner – and they were successful. It made me tremble to think of it. I was an actor and I knew the West…. The opportunity I had been waiting for years to come was knocking at my door. Hundreds of ideas seemed to rush in from every direction. They assumed form. It was engendered – the dye was cast. Rise or fall, sink or swim, I had to bend every endeavor to get a chance to make Western motion pictures.

William S Hart
William S Hart

Hart’s Westerns were far grittier than the ones that would follow; more intense and complex. His classical training came into play in the depth of character he sought. His endings were never a forgone conclusion – the good guy didn’t always get the girl. Hart was interested in showing the complexity of the human condition in his movies. His heroes often started off as villains and then found themselves fighting on the side of right. But then nothing about Hart and his career matches our conception of the natural progression of an actor’s career. He started making his Westerns with the New York Motion Company in 1914 when he was already 48 years old. Still at 6′ 2″, 180 lbs, and cool blue eyes with a piercing gaze he cut a dashing figure, especially in his romantic western garb. Audiences lapped it up.

Hart sported a number of authentic cowboy hats for his parts, as well as leather wrist-cuffs, fancy cumberbunds, hand-tooled boots, embroidered vests, long kerchiefs, and fringed gloves. He had glorious dime novel names for his characters like: Jack ‘O’ Diamonds, Shark Monroe, Frosty Blake, Truthful Tulliver, and Blue Blazes Rawden. He played cowboy, gambler, lawman, outlaw, and even Indians. He hired real Native Americans to appear in his movies when he could. His commitment to realism was often at odds with the formulaic, but Hart stuck to his guns.
He had the advantages of working with talented people, too many to mention for this article, but fell out with his biggest partner, old friend and head of the New York Motion Picture Co., Thomas H. Ince. What had been a lucrative and friendly arrangement between the two men ended in terrible acrimony when Hart learned Ince was skimming his profits.

As Hart aged he had to compete with the likes of Tom Mix; who’s more youthful exuberance and feats of horsemanship and rope tricks thrilled audiences. The two men were by no means antagonistic, even maintaining a friendship with celebrated lawman Wyatt Earp. According to Adela Rogers St. John (a journalist for Hearst) Hart got Mix and Wyatt to read Shakespeare. Hart and Wyatt enjoyed a voluminous correspondence and Wyatt was hopeful that Hart could correct some of the myths about him. Wyatt correctly guessed that it would be movies that would leave a more lasting impression on the public mind and hoped that Hart would be the mastermind of such an endeavor. Alas, it would not happen in Wyatt’s lifetime and not at the hand of William S. Hart. Perhaps it was Hart’s fading star that put paid to a possible collaboration. One can only speculate, with avid curiosity, what kind of movie Wyatt Earp would have made with Hart’s assistance. In 1923 Wyatt wrote to Hart:

“Many wrong impressions of the early days in Tombstone and myself have been created by writers who are not informed correctly, and this has caused me a concern I feel deeply.”

Hart’s success at the box office eventually faded, but his commitment to his work never did and his last film Tumbleweeds is also considered one of his best. It didn’t do well at the box office but it remains a sterling example of Hart’s work. It was made in 1925 when Hart was 60 years old. He retired to a ranch in California, dying in 1940.

Inventing Wyatt Earp by Allen Barra.

Originally this piece was written in 2001 or 2002 and also used Hart’s own memoir for the piece.

Welcome to Wyatt’s Wild West

December 21, 2008

This is my western history blog.  I started researching the history of the American West in order to write fiction set in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881 on the collaborative fiction site Pan Historia.  It quickly became a passion and while the fiction is still a huge part of what I do armchair research is another riveting past time.  I have had the opportunity to collect and read a large number of authoritative texts on the subject of Wyatt Earp, Tombstone, and a number of other fascinating characters of the Old West including Doc Holliday, John Clum, Wild Bill Hickock, and many others.  In addition my research has led me down fascinating back alleys such as the culture of boom towns, gambling, saloons, prostitution, as well as the daily lives of everyday yet largely unremembered folk.  I love to collect images of the past and hope to present to my readers much of my extensive knowledge and collection in the hope that you will enjoy it too.

It’s not necessary to love the Western to love the era to which I devote most of my research.  This is quintessential American History, part of our national myth, and also part of the Victorian era.

I hope also to collect all the best links to other great sites around the WWW to share with other history enthusiasts.  My focus tends to be Wyatt Earp but I hope to include a lot of other great topics, and look forward to comments and suggestions.  I will also be hoping to add guest writers on diverse western history topics as time goes by.