Date of Award
Master of Arts
In any argument that might arise concerning the question of who were the greatest gunfighters of all time, the qualifications of four men to this hallowed position will never be questioned. Indeed, the names of Billy the Kid (Henry McCarty), Wyatt Earp, John Henry "Doc" Holliday, and William Barclay "Bat" Masterson, have become symbols for the turbulent and lawless days of the 1870's and 1880's in the Southwest. In addition each man has been raised to a position alongside Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill in the evolution of the great American legend.
What were those men really like? Is their story actually as colorful and mythical as it has been made to appear? The very nature of the West with its tendency to exaggerate an actual happening and to give its inhabitants a somewhat glorified position must in part shut the door to the answers to the above questions
In addition to the problem of validity of the sources writers of' western history must plow through the enormous amount or material written on the West. The writings and writers, themselves, for the most part, can be classified into three categories. One school has sought to portray only the finer points or a gunfighter's life. The subject is seen not as a superman but rather as one who was justified in every action that he undertook. A second group or writers takes the exact opposite approach, that of emphasizing only the evil deeds and maliciousness which surrounded tho life of the gunfighter. Still a third class has concerned itself not merely with sticking to actual situations as far as they are known but rather to make the subject under consideration into a western legend.
With few exceptions the treatment of Messrs. McCarty, Earp, Holliday, and Masterson has fallen into one and not more than two or these classifications. The true picture of these men or the frontier seems to defy historical writing. For this reason this study is undertaken.
The full and complete biographies of these four men are beyond the scope of this work. The study seeks rather to evaluate what has been written about these four controversial figures in the hope that a more complete man will emerge. The combining of the three categories aforementioned will be used in attempting to set down the rourth consideration -- the real gunfighter. The biography of each man is comprehensive only in that it seeks to introduce human being to the western scene. This study in treating these men will be primarily interested in the life of each man during the 1870's and 1880's when the West was in its turbulent, lawless, and transitory stage. Early life and subsequent death will be considered only in so far as it may throw some light on the nature of the gunfighter, and in order to give the biography a unity.
Cheek, William F., "A historical study of four famous Western gunfighters" (1957). Master's Theses. 120.