Dodge City in the early 1870s. With the coming of the boom town came a need for calm but firm law enforcement.EXPAND
Dodge City in the early 1870s. With the coming of the boom town came a need for calm but firm law enforcement.
Courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society

Two Men and the Taming of the Wild, Wild West

Dodge City: Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, and the Wickedest Town in the American West
By Tom Clavin
St. Martin's Press, 400 pp., $29.99.

In this thorough, compelling and entertaining book, Tom Clavin separates fact from fiction in the tale of two men and a place that entered popular mythology during real time. And a time when the Wild West certainly lived up to its name within the city boundaries of this rough-and-tumble Kansas town in the 1870s and 1880s.

Dodge City’s rep as the “wickedest town” stems from its place as an epicenter of buffalo hunters and cattle drivers (surprisingly, the term “cow boy” was derogatory in its original context). As various stores, brothels, bars and gambling houses arose to take care of the needs of both permanent and passing-through residents, so did lawlessness and chaos. And, as Clavin notes, the Texans coming to town were often the worst offenders.

The myth of the city and the famous lawmen, of course, outstripped the reality as dime-store novelists wrote about Earp and Masterson’s often highly fictionalized exploits while they were still very much meting out justice on the streets of Dodge City.

But according to Clavin, despite their differing personalities – Earp was a flinty, quiet and imposing figure, while Masterson chose a more engaging and flashy demeanor – the pair were highly effective at their job.

They adopted a sort of “Batman and Batman” approach as they floated in and out of Dodge City, sometimes with various and tenuous connections to “official” duty. At one point, Earp was thrown in his own jail by county authorities, despite his federal badge. And the pair often literally had each other’s back during confrontations, stakeouts and shootouts, all mostly while they were in their twenties and thirties.

Throughout, Clavin sprinkles in fascinating tidbits about life and culture in the Old West.

Early “interventions” for alcoholics were a bit more harrowing than friends and family sitting in a circle talking about how hurt they were. A drunk would be approached in a bar by friendly strangers who offered to buy the target more drinks. After passing out, the party would be carried to a room while others put white powder on his face and placed him in a coffin with a mirror affixed to the lid while friends and family gathered round to sing religious songs and bemoan the “passing.” Needless to say, waking up in the midst of one’s own “funeral” was often very effective in creating new teetotalers.

And as Jane, Mary and Alice were favorite noms de plume of practicing prostitutes (or “soiled doves” in the language of the time), they were often distinguished with Mafia-like nicknames such as “Squirrel Tooth Alice” and “Big Nose Kate.”

Other well-known Wild West figures in these pages include Jesse and Frank James, Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill Cody, Belle Starr (who performed in a Wild West show during the time she was actually robbing banks on the side), Wild Bill Hickok, Billy the Kid and even Teddy Roosevelt.

Of most interest is dentist/lawman/gambler/alcoholic Doc Holliday, who often put down the bottle just in enough time to help out Earp and Masterson perform duties despite his own harrowing and consistent health issues.

Oh, and one more cherished myth imploded? Those posters claiming outlaws were wanted “dead or alive.” A dead suspected criminal was useless to authorities, and the arresting officers could not collect the additional $2.50 offered per arrest. The taller-than-most-men Earp’s solution was to pioneer a technique called “buffaloing” – that is, quickly and without warning cracking the bad guy on the head and knocking him out for easier transport to jail and his journey through the judicial process.

In Dodge City, Clavin vividly re-creates a time, a town and an era that it seems incomprehensible occurred less than 150 years ago. In it, he provides a reality check to the countless books, TV shows and movies about the Old West.

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