The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 2000, Volume 46, Number 4
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Raymond G. Starr, Book Review Editor

Wyatt Earp: The Missing Years, San Diego In The 1880s.

By Kenneth R. Cilch and Kenneth R. Cilch, Jr. San Diego: Gaslamp Book/Museum, 1998. Photos, maps, notes, authors’ preface +139. $14.95 paper.

Reviewed by Alexander D. Bevil, Historian, California State Parks, San Diego, and author of several award-winning articles on San Diego’s local history.

Wyatt Earp, Wyatt Earp, brave courageous and bold.
Long live his fame, and long live his glory,
And long may his story be told.

As the theme song to the mid-1950’s television western The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp intimates, much has been written and will continue to be written about the famed lawman. Arguably, many “sagebrush scholars” have spent more time studying Earp’s involvement in the famous October 26, 1881 shootout at the O.K. Corral than on the Kennedy assassination. However, only a few Earp fans and biographers have managed to follow his relatively colorful career after the gunfight.

Local San Diego Wyatt Earp aficionados Kenneth R. Cilch senior and junior make the bold claim that they have uncovered Wyatt Earp’s “missing” years in San Diego during the mid-to-late 1880s. According to the Cilchs, Earp was forced to leave the Arizona Territory because of murder charges pending against himself and his brother Virgil for their preemptive strike against Frank Stillwell. After a short sojourn in Colorado. Wyatt and his wife Josephine gravitated toward San Diego, where, like hundreds of others, they speculated in the booming local real estate market. Wyatt and Josephine also invested in a number of businesses, which sought to divest other speculators of their profits. Between 1887 and around 1896, Wyatt operated a number of gambling establishments, located in what is now referred to as downtown San Diego’s Gaslamp District. He was also known to officiate at boxing matches on both sides of the border.

That in a nutshell is the extent of Wyatt Earp’s activities in San Diego. The truth of the matter is that most historians consider Wyatt Earp’s career in San Diego as a mere biographical footnote. If it weren’t for his prior notoriety, Earp’s involvement would have gone unnoticed. The Cilchs, however, have expanded what should have been a pamphlet into a 139-page book, less than 30 per cent of which is dedicated to uncovering Wyatt Earp’s missing years in San Diego, the remainder consisting of approximately 100 pages of biographical information on Earp and his career prior, up to, and after the famous gunfight.

Admittedly, the authors confess that neither are “historians in the academic sense.” Self-admitted “amateur Earp historians,” they were fascinated by western history and had developed an extensive library on the subject. Apparently the bulk of their library consists of books that have been out of print for over 40 years.

The book’s narrative has more holes in it than Billy Clanton. To cite but one example, the authors give short shrift to Clara S. Brown, “who was probably the first woman reporter on the western frontier.” It was through her dispatches as an independent newspaper correspondent or “stringer” in Tombstone that the reading public in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and subsequently the rest of the world knew about Earp’s action at the O. K. Corral. “Efforts to trace her background,” according to the authors, “have been unsuccessful. . . . She remains a mystery.”

There really isn’t too much mystery behind Mrs. Brown. John P. Clum, in his memoir It All Happened in Tombstone (1929, reissued by the Earl Chafin Press in 1999), relates that 25-year old Clara Spalding and her mining engineer husband Theodore Brown were among several dozen San Diegans who set off for the Tombstone Mining District in 1879. A graduate of the Massachusetts State Normal School, Mrs. Brown wrote several letters for the San Diego Union described life in the raw mining town. Clum, who was the editor of the Tombstone Epitaph, as well as the town’s mayor and friend of the Earps, gives Mrs. Brown credit for covering the growing feud between the Earp brothers and the “Cowboys,” which developed into the climactic shootout, and the subsequent inquiries. After the collapse of the silver mines, she and her husband returned to California in 1882, where she continued to write for The Overland Monthly and other publications. In addition to the San Diego Union, Mrs. Brown wrote for the Denver Post and the Detroit Free Press, reporting first hand in 1893 on the Lizzie Borden trial from Fall River, Massachusetts. After her husband’s death she remarried noted writer Edward Sylvester. Clara also helped found and serve as president of the Southern California Women’s Press Club. She was also active as a schoolteacher up until her death in 1935. Her obituary was written in both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. The Earl Chafin Press has collected all of her Tombstone letters, and several of her articles and short stories, which serve as an unbiased view of events during the early 1880’s.

Another level of criticism that must be directed against Wyatt Earp: The Missing Years is its poor production and editing values. Readers may find it difficult to put up with the text’s choppy narrative, and the lack of a bibliography erodes its credibility.

The book would have been more interesting if the Cilchs had followed the basic tenets for making history interesting — tell stories! During their peak, Earp’s gambling establishments offered some twenty-one games of faro, blackjack, poker, keno, and other Victorian games of chance like pedro and monte. For example, what was it like playing those games? While blackjack and poker are familiar card games, the average reader has little idea of the intricacies of keno, faro, pedro or monte. By including them in their narrative, the authors might have given some life and context to Wyatt Earp’s “Missing Years” in San Diego.

The Cilchs should be given credit for enlightening readers to Wyatt Earp’s activities in San Diego. However, these readers will no doubt be disappointed by the paucity of information contained in their book. Except for the chapter on Earp’s short stay in San Diego, other authors have dealt with much of the information. To put it kindly, the book itself is more a minor footnote than as a serious look into the life of one of the West’s more colorful and complex characters.  

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