Travesty: Frank Waters Earp Agenda Exposed
The following material is copyright by SJ Reidhead. They may not be used without the author’s written permission. Like all my books, TRAVESTY is not available on Amazon.
Tombstone Travesty, (TT) the original draft of Frank Waters’s acclaimed The Earp Brothers of Tombstone: The Story of Mrs. Virgil Earp, (EBOT) was based upon prevarications, character assassinations, and the psychological battleground that was the brilliant, narcissistic mind of its author. The original draft, like the final version, was a flawed creation, allegedly based upon the memoirs of Alvira Sullivan Earp. Very little of ‘Aunt Allie’ exists within either version, and that is the biggest lie of all. Instead, they are the almost Oedipal-like ramblings of a man desperately searching for the truth. Unfortunately, Frank Waters’ version of truth had nothing to do with the concepts of true and false, fact and fiction. He was looking for his own version of reality. It was a reality that had little resemblance to documented fact.
While it may be difficult at this late date to fully understand the complex reasons for Frank Waters’s deliberate misrepresentations of Alvira Sullivan Earp’s remembrances, new information, including the key earlier drafta of his book containing Allie’s “actual words,” has come to light. This is the first major study and critique of Tombstone Travesty.
Is Frank Waters’ original title, Tombstone Travesty, a Freudian slip? The possibility has interesting implications, considering Waters’s fascination with Jungian psychology. In his arrogance, did he realize the play on words, the actual travesty he created? Tombstone Travesty was unwittingly the perfect title for what became Frank Waters’ The Earp Brothers of Tombstone: The Story of Mrs. Virgil Earp. This is because the book, in its final form is, quite simply, a travesty. Travesty is defined as caricature, charade, mockery, pretence, farce, or sham. As a definition of what Frank Waters did to the cherished memories of Allie Earp, travesty is perfect, absolutely perfect.
Frank Waters made a mockery of Alvira Sullivan Earp’s simple, hard, and in some ways, tragic life. He turned thirty seconds of life and death into the ‘farce at the OK Corral.’ His portrayal of Virgil Earp, Allie’s beloved husband, was nothing but caricature. The state of near insurrection that existed in Cochise County during the Earps sojourn in Tombstone was made into a charade. His writing style is full of arrogant pretense and although acclaimed by scholars and critics alike, has proved to be a sham.
Perhaps taking on a writer with the reputation of Frank Waters is not the best idea in the world. He has a loyal cult following, the respect of academia, and is considered one of the greatest writers the Southwest has ever produced. He is a legend in some circles. It is not my intention to attempt to destroy that legend. It would be foolish to try. Why would I wish to destroy a man who could turn mere words into sheer poetry? He was a genius, but his genius was flawed. In the end, one question must be addressed: Why would he risk his entire career and his considerable reputation on a book he knew was based on misrepresentations of Allie Earp’s words?
As I delved into Waters’ past, red flags started to appear. I noticed a pattern in his work. While he was writing about the West, his work was almost lyrical in its beauty, sheer art. But, when he would attack the Earps, his writing style changed. He changed from a skillful writer to a hack who couldn’t compose a decent sentence. And Waters was a man who loved the art of writing. Why would he compromise his art, his reputation, and his principals for such a shoddy piece of work not up to his usual standards?
I was surprised, even shocked, by the number of errors, spelling, grammatical, syntactical, and more, that appeared in Waters’ manuscript. Rather than clutter up this book with even more footnotes, I have chosen to ignore all but the most egregious of errors, respecting the reader’s ability to understand that the focus of this book is not on Waters’ surprising inability to construct a coherent text, but on his unconscionable manipulation of the words of an elderly Earp family member in order to suit his own agenda.
The deeper into the story I went, the more I realized there was something else at work, something almost pathological. I sincerely wanted to know why he would write such horrible things about the Earps, and why he would betray Allie, a very special elderly lady he sincerely admired and for whom he obviously felt genuine affection. I started with a simple genealogical check to see if his family ever clashed with the Earps. While doing this background research I discovered Frank Waters did not tell the truth about his family and his past. That’s when I realized I needed to ask for some psychological help in profiling his personality. If a writer cannot understand a subject and develop some empathy for that person, the writer fails. I somehow needed to develop empathy for Frank Waters, a man I was beginning to truly dislike. If I did not, I would be as guilty as was he, and I was not going to do that. Somehow I had to be fair to him.
I forced myself to feel sorry for him. He was a person to be pitied. Something happened to him when he was a child, something so horrific it tainted his entire worldview. The traumas of his childhood bubbled to the surface in The Earp Brothers of Tombstone: The Story of Mrs. Virgil Earp, tainting every part of the story. Wyatt Earp becomes the object of an almost Oedipal attack. In all probability, sometime in his past, Frank Waters admired Wyatt Earp almost to the point of hero worship. Wyatt Earp may have been something of a father figure to Waters, a father figure who had to be killed, exorcised in fact, in order for Waters to get on with his life.
In writing this book, I’ve consulted several psychologists and several priests. I wanted to understand what was going on in Frank Waters’ head. The psychological study I’ve done of him is, in the end, purely speculation, but based on some well thought-out assumptions.b By the end of this book, I felt truly sorry for him. In many ways, he was a complete failure in life. He was truly, pathetic caricature of a man.
While I realize in writing this book I open myself up to censure and criticism from Waters’ legion of admirers, it is important to know why a man with credentials as impressive as Frank Waters would risk everything on a book like this. And, why he was allowed to get away with it. I want to know why the academic world, and his publishers, would allow a book like this to be published.
Anyone interested in the history of Tombstone or the life of Wyatt Earp who brings up in discussion the books The Earp Brothers of Tombstone: The Story of Mrs. Virgil Earp and Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, gets one of two reactions. Either the former is the true story and Wyatt Earp was one of the worst human beings ever to walk the face of the Earth, or the latter is true, and Wyatt Earp was someone who had a permanent seat at the Round Table.c
Frank Waters, in The Earp Brothers of Tombstone: The Story of Mrs. Virgil Earp, presented a picture of Wyatt Earp as an evil man. He asserts the book was based on the story of the words of Alvira Sullivan Earp, widow of Virgil Earp, as she dictated them to him. At the time the book was published in 1961, Waters was well on his way to becoming the darling of academia. Within a few years of the publication of the book, Waters would be nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature for the entire body of his work.d Entire college courses would be based on his writings. He became the leading literary light of the entire American Southwest. The Earp Brothers of Tombstone: The Story of Mrs. Virgil Earp was hailed as a masterpiece, embraced by an adoring academic world. Waters’ credentials became such that no one would dare reproach him, question his sources, or critique his writing style. Indeed, when Frank Waters was good, his writing was a thing of absolute beauty. Unfortunately, in The Earp Brothers of Tombstone: The Story of Mrs. Virgil Earp the more bitter he became, the more he attacked, the more his writing suffered.e
Stuart Lake was the antithesis of Frank Waters. His book, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal was published during the depths of the Great Depression. People needed heroes. Wyatt Earp fit the bill. Unlike Waters, who at this point had reaped only modest financial rewards from his books, Lake realized his wildest financial dreams with Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal. The book was a career maker. It vaulted him to the pantheon of Hollywood movers and shakers. He became one of the first great success stories of an infant television industry.f
Unfortunately, success sometimes breeds contempt and envy. Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal made Wyatt Earp a household name. His Hollywood image graced billboards, lunchboxes, mugs, plates, dolls, books, and comic books. His name could be found on boulevards, streets, and roads. If Frank Waters could not realize a piece of the action through a positive portrayal, then he would seek financial reward through a negative one.
While the rewards may not have been lucrative, and the screenplayf never went anywhere, Frank Waters found immortality with a generation who loathed heroes. Just three short years after its publication the nation would be forced to deal with the assassination of a very popular president who epitomized all the hope of that generation. His death did something to this nation, removing any veneer of optimism. The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, the Story of Mrs. Virgil Earp was the perfect example of historical and biographical revisionism in a nation wallowing in as much cynicism as it could stomach, a nation whose innocence had been lost. The Earp Brothers of Tombstone, the Story of Mrs. Virgil Earp is a product of that cynicism. Heroes had feet of clay, which had to be exposed and shattered. The book is a product of an era when the popular slogan was make love not war. American soldiers were evil and cops were ‘pigs’. Wyatt Earp was a lawman. In the 1960s that made him a pig in Waters’ circle. And, The Earp Brothers of Tombstone reflects this.
Anyone who had studied the life of Wyatt Earp and the history of Tombstone instinctively knew this was not true. But, there was no way to prove it. No one would dare take on the great literary icon, Frank Waters. And so, for nearly a half-century, those who knew the truth gritted their teeth every time another book would come out, citing The Earp Brothers of Tombstone: The Story of Mrs. Virgil Earp. It was a short book. There was no index. Footnotes were scanty. A bibliography did not exist. Neither did documentation or notes. But Frank Waters became a literary master! His book became proof positive that Wyatt Earp was a two-bit tinhorn con man; a gangster; a card shark; an itinerant lawman; and a poorly educated bully. The fact that Waters could not provide documentation for his theory was never called into question. He had a reputation beyond such petty formalities.h
Ironically enough, as The Earp Brothers of Tombstone: The Story of Mrs. Virgil Earp gained in literary prominence over Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, researchers discovered that Stuart Lake, in one of the greatest gifts to students of Wyatt Earp, left copious notes and mountainous correspondence to the Huntington Library. A book that the academic world had pilloried, as fiction could be backed up by Stuart Lake’s extensive paper trail. By comparison, the Waters book that academia had hailed as masterful, is indeed more fiction than fact, as befits its lack of bibliography, notes, documentation or index.
Unfortunately, because there was no paper trail nothing could be done to debunk Frank Waters. That all changed in the mid-1990s when I discovered there was an earlier manuscript that found its way to the Frank Waters Collection at the University of New Mexico, Center for Southwest Research, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Much to my delight, I discovered there was an earlier version, slightly different, one obviously rejected by several publishers. Tombstone Travesty, as it was called, was unknown, untouched, and was an extremely important document relating to the history of the American West.
Consequently, I was the first to publish on the subject. Perhaps it is right that I am the one to risk my reputation trying to right a great wrong. The moment I discovered Tombstone Travesty was public domain, its implied natural copyright having expired, I realized I had to act.i
Very soon, after re-reading the first few pages of the manuscript, I realized Waters fell into the same trap that was used to crucify Lake. He put extensive words into Allie’s mouth, words that can’t possibly be accurate or be documented. With Lake, there are thosej who argue the quotations in Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal preserve the original essence of Wyatt. We have enough of Wyatt Earp’s own writings to draw this reasonable conclusion. The ‘quotes’ reflect Earp, the way he talked, who he was, and what he thought. Lake left enough of a paper trail for those of us who are honest in our assessment of his methods. One must conclude he put a tremendous amount of effort and primary research into his book.k
We have no such notes for Tombstone Travesty. This is one of the problems. There are rumors that the late John Gilchriese has the original notes, but as with much of what Gilchriese is rumored to have had, it is just that, unproven rumor.l
In an interview, Allie’s niece, Hildreth Halliwell,m was once asked the question, “Why was Waters so vindictive?” Her reply was, “I don’t know. I’ve never seen him more than three or four times.n Gave him all this first hand information. Then he told so many lies. I don’t see how he could have had a vested interest…emotional…in the story.”
There are myths about Allie’s family that need to be dispelled, and will be in a chapter about the Sullivan family. The Sullivans were one of those great American tragedies. It is likely her father deserted the family sometime during the Civil War. Allie’s mother died around the same time. She became an unpaid servant, going from family to family, unable to find an anchor until Virgil stepped in, like a knight in shining armor, and saved her from that life.
Allie came from abject poverty. Her parents were either illiterate themselves, or placed no value whatsoever on education. She received none. There were probably eight children. Frank and a baby twin brother died. Only Allie, Lydia, and Melissa kept in touch with one another. We never know what happened to Mary, and two of Allie’s little sisters. The saddest thing, though, is the fact that, after Virgil died, she spent the remaining forty-two years of her life alone, wandering from one family member to another, never finding another anchor. All she wanted out of the waning years of her life was a book about Virgil. Frank Waters stole her past. He took her stories. He took Virgil’s honor. He betrayed her.
Frank Waters’ mendacity was only the tip of the iceberg of Earp and Tombstone authors. Billy Breakenridge, erstwhile ex-Sheriff of Cochise County, and self proclaimed ‘colonel’, started it all with Helldorado, where he greatly exaggerated his role in cleaning up Cochise County, whitewashed his role in the Sand Creek Massacre; and coveredup the illegal shenanigans of his associates.
William McLeod Raine, ghostwriter for Breakenridge, and hack author of westerns, had no use for the Earps or their associates. Neither did Eugene Cunningham or Ed Bartholomew. They were a threesome who had completely succumbed to the romance of the outlaw. The Earps were lawmen, ergo they were ‘bad guys’. They also absolutely detested the Wyatt Earp portrayed by Stuart Lake in Frontier Marshal. Their cronies and associates, and their successors, staunch supporters of Cochise County Sheriff John Behan’s faction, were very uncomfortable with Wyatt Earp. The potential was there to expose their past, Behan’s role in the illegal activities, and the source of his fortune. Consequently, The Earp Brothers of Tombstone: The Story of Mrs. Virgil Earp was exactly what the doctor ordered. It fit perfectly in their worldview. It was a keeper. Stuart Lake’s version needed to be debunked and discredited.
The revisionist status quo ruled for a few more then a few years, until Glenn G. Boyer burst onto the scene with one “exclusive” Earp book after another. All material in these books supposedly came directly from the mouths, archives, and scrapbooks of the remaining members of the Earp family. I Married Wyatt Earp, the memoirs of Josephine Marcus Earp, allegedly based on the memoirs of Wyatt Earp’s third wife, became an overnight sensation. Boyer spent the next twenty years of his life basking in the limelight, and doing anything he possibly could to discourage further inquiries into the life of Wyatt Earp.o
While Boyer was actively blocking any and all efforts of other researchers, Gary Roberts and Jeff Morey were like salmon swimming against the current, beset by every possible barrier to their life-long research. Gradually, over a period of years, people began listening to their story. Something was rotten in the hamlet of Tombstone. Finally, by the time Casey Tefertiller arrived on the scene, using his impressive credentials as a journalist to secure a highly respected publisher, insuring his success as a best seller and eventually a Pulitzer nominee, Boyer’s problems were just beginning. It was becoming more and more obvious the record had been tampered with. He couldn’t allow his mistakes to be exposed.
he Earp Wars began. Allan Barra, another highly respected writer, with important New York contacts, emerged onto the scene. Boyer struck, doing whatever he could to blacken the character of Barra, Tefertiller, and Morey. He began a war of slander,p lawsuits, and threats, and he prodded his fans into acts of malicious mischief. Nevertheless, in the late 1990s he was forced to admit his perennial bestseller, I Married Wyatt Earp, was not what it appeared to be, and was not the actual words of Josephine Earp.q
All the while, behind the scenes, another nefarious force was still at work, sneaking around the archives of Arizona, New Mexico, and Southern California, waltzing in and out of historical societies, records offices, and anywhere he so desired. Decades ago, John Gilchriese made a career out of allegedly pilfering and allegedly confiscating public records, family histories, and perhaps actual Earp memorabilia, all under the auspices of the University of Arizona Special Collections. It is also alleged that very little of the material he ‘collected’ ever reached its final destination, much of it going into his private collection. He did his best to discourage some writers, encourage others, and corrupted anyone who tried to deal with him, promising them exclusive entry into the magical world of Earp history. There are some sources who also claim he has the Frank Waters notes for The Earp Brothers of Tombstone: The Story of Mrs. Virgil Earp and for Tombstone Travesty. Waters’ footnotes him. He discusses the Gilchriese collection. But, because of this octogenarian’s paranoia, we have no earthly idea what is or isn’t.r
You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.
This book is an attempt to, in Wyatt’s own words, “Set the record straight.”s All I am attempting to do is tell the truth and expose the lies. Wyatt, Virgil, and Allie Earp deserve that much.
When Frank Waters wrote Tombstone Travesty and The Earp Brothers of Tombstone: The Story of Mrs. Virgil Earp, he cheated. He wanted to win. He wanted to make money. He wanted to destroy the character and reputation of an entire family, and Stuart Lake. In order to do this he prevaricated, stretched the truth, and cheated by misrepresenting his sources. Cheating, prevarications, and misrepresentations of the truth are terms synonymous with lies. Lies are not only immoral, but they are illegal. They are a deviation from the established norm of behavior. Waters could not write the kind of book he wanted without committing the immoral acts of lying and cheating. Society tries to hold cheaters accountable for their actions. Unfortunately, Frank Waters was never held accountable for these actions. Instead he profited, greatly, achieving a semblance of immortality through his canards.
Waters twisted the truth so masterfully in the way he presented Allie Earp, I found myself not liking her. Instead of changing my footnotes throughout the book, I’ve left them as originally written. The farther along I went, the more respect and affection I acquired for her. I hope this comes through in the end.t
A great injustice has been committed against not only the Earps and, as we shall see, Doc Holliday, but also, more importantly, against a very special elderly lady who trusted Frank Waters, the son of her next-door neighbor. This book is an attempt to right a wrong done over two score years ago. I hope it provides some vindication for Alvira Sullivan Earp. All she wanted was for Virgil to be portrayed as a hero. When one realizes how he lived his post-Tombstone life, the pain he suffered, daily, and his determination to live as normal a life as possible, Virgil Earp truly was the hero Allie claimed him to be. Allie, I hope this helps settle the score!
S. J. Reidhead