Tuesday, August 28, 2018

"Famous Gunfighters of the Western Frontier" by W. B. "Bat" Masterson

Yes, you read that correctly.  This book was written by none other than famous western lawman Bat Masterson himself!  Actually, it's a series of magazine articles he wrote after he'd retired from peacemaking.  He became a newspaperman, you see, and in 1907 (the year John Wayne was born, just FYI), he wrote these little biographies of fellow famous gunmen.  

By far the most interesting to me were his articles on Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp.  You see, Earp was a dear friend of Masterson's, but Masterson couldn't stand Holliday.  You definitely get the sense that he tolerated Holliday only for Earp's sake.  The nicest thing Masterson calls Holliday is "a most picturesque character" (p. 35).  Mostly he writes things like this: "Holliday had a mean disposition and an ungovernable temper, and under the influence of liquor was a most dangerous man" (p. 35).  Yes, totally not a fan.  An you can see why -- the Holliday that Bat Masterson describes is mean, vicious, vindictive, and fond of killing with little provocation.

But Wyatt Earp?  Masterson has only good, laudable things to say about Earp.  He begins by stating, "Wyatt Earp is one of the few men I personally knew in the West in the early days, whom I regarded as absolutely destitute of physical fear" (p. 54).  Masterson describes the now-famous Tombstone gunfight at the O.K. Corral in glowing terms, even giving Doc Holliday his due when it comes to standing up against the Clantons and McLowrys.  He says, "The fight was hardly started before it was over, and the result showed that nearly every shot fired by the Earp party went straight home to the mark" (p. 61).  Now, Masterson wasn't present in Tombstone at that time, so we can only assume he's mostly basing this account off what his friend Earp told him, but he does seem to try to present a fair view of the issue between the Earps and their enemies.  The whole description of that affair alone is worth getting a copy of this book to read.

Masterson's writing only fills up 65 pages of this slim volume, and the rest of the space contains photographs of people and places he talks about.  These aren't interspersed among the articles, as you might expect, but just clumped together at the end.

I greatly enjoyed Masterson's writing style -- he's dramatic, but not florid, and me made me chuckle more than once.  He has a dry wit that uses understatement to great advantage, which is a style of humor I enjoy.  He's a shrewd student of human nature, too, and I found some of his passages about the nature of courage and other deep matters to be revelatory.  I've included a couple of them below.

(From my Instagram)

Particularly Good Bits:

"Mr. Mayor, and the gentlemen of the meetings," said Wyatt; "I guess the report is true.  I came here some days ago," said he, "and, thinking that perhaps something might happen where I would need assistance, brought along some other gentlemen who signified a willingness to join in whatever festivities might arise.

"Moreover," continued Wyatt, "Luke and Bat will arrive at noon tomorrow, and on their arrival we expect to open up hostilities" (p. 18)  (From a story about Wyatt Earp helping his friend Luke Short out of a difficulty in Dodge City.)

Courage to step out and fight to the death with a pistol is but one of three qualities a man must possess in order to last very long in this hazardous business.  A man may possess the greatest amount of courage possible and still be a pathetic failure as a "gun fighter," as men are often called in the West who have gained rputations as "man-killers."  Courage is of little use to a man who essays to arbitrate a difference with a pistol if he is inexperienced in the use of the weapon he is going to use.  Then again he may possess both courage and experience and still fail if he lacks deliberation (p. 25).

I have often remarked, and I am not alone in my conclusion, that what goes for courage in a man is generally the fear of what others will think of him -- in other words, personal bravery is largely made up of self-respect, egotism, and an apprehension of the opinion of others (p. 54).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It: PG, as there's a lot about violence here, but nothing graphic.  HOWEVER some of the pictures at the back of the book could be disturbing to some people, as several of them are pictures of dead bodies.

This is my 19th book read and reviewed for my second go-round with the Classics Club.


  1. Glad you enjoyed this book. My favorite section was the Earp section, naturally, and I used a lot of this in my stories, but I enjoyed it all. I do love his style of writing.

    1. Yes! I really liked it, especially the Earp section. Of course. Is other stuff of Masterson's available? Because I would totally like to read more of his writing -- his style is awesome.


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