Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson are two of the most famous names from the history of the American West. As lawmen and adventurers, they sought to bring a measure of order to frontier towns known for chaos and killings.
A new book, “Dodge City,” tells the story of how Earp and Masterson met and put their lives on the line in a hostile environment, during the wild and lawless days of the 1870s. Author Tom Clavin will talk about his work and answer questions during a luncheon at the Rancho Santa Fe Library on Monday, March 13. (That evening, Clavin will speak at Warwick’s book store in La Jolla.)
The 11:30 a.m. event is sponsored by the Rancho Santa Fe Library Guild, and members can purchase tickets for $45, which includes a light lunch, the author presentation and a signed copy of the book, which was published Feb. 28 by St. Martin’s Press. Non-members can attend the talk on a space-available basis, and copies of the book will be available for sale. For reservations or to become a Guild member, visit www.rsflibraryguild.org, or call 858-756-4780.
Earp, who is best known for the shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Ariz., met Masterson when the two were buffalo hunters, said Clavin in an interview. After shooting the beasts, they had to skin them and sell the hides.
“It was rotten, dirty, smelly, disgusting work but it paid very well,” Clavin said.
Later, they became lawmen - Earp as assistant marshal for Dodge City, and Masterson as sheriff of Ford County. Both men were in their 20s when they began their law enforcement careers.
Their job was to tame an essentially lawless place, Dodge City, Kansas, where people were literally shooting each other in the streets.
“They were most visible ones given the task to clean this place up,” Clavin said.
One of the toughest tasks they faced, Clavin said, was protecting prisoners from mobs that wanted to string them up for their crimes. In one instance, he said, Earp had to brandish a shotgun to keep an angry group of riders at bay and escort the prisoner to relative safety in the jail.
“That was one of the things that showed they really meant it, they chose to be good guys over being bad guys,” he said.
In addition to the inherent dangers of being a lawman, Earp and Masterson also had to put up with low pay and no benefits. The myth that they shot their way out of tough situations was overstated - one steady source of income was the $2.50 bonus they received for each successful arrest. The lawmen were not paid if the suspect ended up dead.
“One thing that I point out in the book, was there were very few times that Wyatt and Bat resorted to gunplay to arrest someone,” Clavin said. “If you killed them you didn’t get paid.”
Both men went on to live long lives. Earp later settled in California. He lived for a time in San Diego, then settled in Los Angeles, where he died in 1929. Masterson went the other direction, to New York City, where he worked for many years as a newspaper reporter.
One story in the book concerns the legend, which turned out to be false, that Masterson had killed 22 people. When drinking in New York’s saloons, he brandished a Colt .45 with 22 notches carved into it. When a drinking buddy insisted on buying the weapon as a keepsake, said Clavin, Masterson would reluctantly agree. The next day, he would go to a pawnshop, purchase another Colt and mark it with 22 notches.
“He loved to go to sporting events and saloons and that helped pay for his lifestyle,” Clavin said.
In reality, Clavin said, Masterson had actually killed only two men in two separate incidents. One of them had shot and killed his older brother.
Clavin said he took care not to repeat the tall tales that surrounded Earp and Masterson, but instead sought to authenticate information through primary sources, such as news accounts from the day.
“If you look carefully with the best of intentions you start to see what is authentic and what you should avoid,” he said.
Clavin, a former journalist and a resident of Sag Harbor on New York’s Long Island, said he worked on the book for three years.
The book tells the tale of two rough-and-tumble young men who took on the difficult task of trying to make the frontier town of Dodge City a safer place. “That’s what I focused on, these two close friends who had each other’s back,” Clavin said.