Ever since Oct. 26, 1881, the gunfight at the O.K. Corral has been central to what Americans believe about frontier justice in the Old West.
Dozens of feature films have depicted it, along with documentaries, plays, television series, and books.
Author Mary Doria Russell sought Oct. 5 to unveil the importance behind the legendary 30-second street fight, digging into the history of gamblers Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.
“I wanted to understand why we keep telling this story over and over, generation after generation. Why — out of all the brutality and confrontation of the frontier — did that half-minute of violence become so important?” she said at the 13th Annual Authors Luncheon hosted by Friends of the Amherst Public Library.
“I wanted to understand those 30 seconds in their cultural and historical context, and in the context of our own times, which are so similar politically and economically.”
The gunfight was the result of a long-simmering feud, with cowboys Billy Claiborne, Ike and Billy Clanton, and Tom and Frank McLaury on one side and town marshal Virgil Earp, officers Morgan and Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holliday on the other. About 30 shots were fired in 30 seconds, killing the McLaurys and Clanton.
Russell began reading biographies of Earp and Holliday and was interested in their lives before the gunfight, and she realized that she could tell their story in a way that hadn’t been done before.
Her novel “Doc” and it’s sequel, “Epitaph,” are not about the legendary gambler and gunman that myth and movies have made of Holliday, but an educated man and Atlanta dentist who was diagnosed with advanced tuberculosis at 21.
Russell said she wanted to provide an honest portrayal of his weaknesses, strengths, mistakes, regrets, and sorrows.
A detailed legal finding cleared Holliday and the Earps of wrongdoing in the deaths, but the emotional response to their exoneration is “exactly what it feels like today every time a cop kills a civilian and walks away with what seems like impunity,” Russell said.
She asked the library Friends audience to reflect upon the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch coordinator who shot him.
“Now, imagine dozens of movies portraying George Zimmerman as a handsome hero and Trayvon Martin as a violent gangbanger who deserved to die, and you’ll understand why the McLaury family is pretty bitter about that four generations later,” Russell said.
Our sense of justice begins to develop in infancy, Russell said, and even in adulthood, we are outraged when someone gets away with wrongdoing.
“Like the McLaury family and the family of Trayvon Martin, the overwhelming majority of those bereaved by violence wait patiently as the wheels of justice grind. They accept the rule of law, even when they are bitterly disappointed in the findings of the court,” she said.
“I, for one, am grateful to them for their restraint, dignity, and decency in the face of shattering loss. Wyatt Earp’s story makes better drama. Theirs makes a better world.”
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.