Post #4: Law and Order: Wild West

Dun Dun.

Anyone who has ever watched the show Law and Order, or any of it’s spin-offs Special Victims Unit or Criminal Intent, will be intimately familiar with that sound. It serves as punctuation, signifying more that just a change of scene but a change in the case, a notice to the viewer that what they expect is about to be thrown for a loop.

It is a sound I am certainly quite familiar with. My mother is a trial lawyer, and her passionate interest in all things legal remains as high today as it was when she served as a Public Defender for the Los Angeles County Superior Court when I was a child. She even would read her case files to me when I was a baby, which I’m sure must have been highly amusing to any bystander. And, of course, mother adores watching Law and Order.

I mention this because as I was reading the latter half of Steven Lubet’s book Murder in Tombstone: The Forgotten Trial of Wyatt Earp, I increasingly felt not like a graduate student reading a historical work but like my mother watching Law and Order. The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is perhaps the most famous gunfight in history, and has been thoroughly analyzed to death by historians. However, along with focusing on the trial afterwards as opposed to the gunfight itself, Lubet, an attorney, often takes the time to highlight pieces often overlooked by historians, from legal minutia to the background of judges to the hottest new practices in lawyering. Lubet, more than any historian I have read, shows one thing above all: how the Earps’ (and Holliday’s) defense completely and utterly demolished their opponents.

The opening of the book sets up the conflict, giving background on the major participants and their interconnected relationships, before continuing to give a rough sketch of crucial events on the day of the gunfight. But it is after about fifty pages–just a quarter of the way into the book, after the gunfight, that Lubet’s account really comes into its own. Like the television show, the “crimes” have been committed, and the suspects caught; now the case must be brought to court.

Lubet masterfully starts in with the prosecution, laying out their arguments against the accused, with the defense biting at the witnesses in cross-examination. They open cracks and expose flaws, but the defense does not overreach, not even when one prosecution witness practically self-destructs on the stand. To make matters worse, despite the cracks and the flaws, the prosecution seems to have a fairly good case. Lubet points all this out: the defense has these roads open to them, and they desperately need to crack open the prosecution’s firm case; why not go in for the kill?  After all, both sides are playing for keeps. But then, as the prosecution rests, and the defense rises, it happens.

Dun Dun.

Throughout the book, from the background to the gunfight to the prosecution, Lubet had noted, pointed out, left hanging, numerous different threads and tidbits, leaving the reader well aware of their presence yet frustratingly seeming to forget them. But now, as the defense makes its arguments, all these mentioned-and-forgotten elements start coming together at once, taking out not bits and pieces but entire chunks. His attorney background well on display, Lubet has lead the reader as well as he would a witness and as well as the television show would a viewer, and the reader can only grin as one watches everything fall into place, from the history of the judge to obscure legal statutes to the prosecution overreaching in desire of revenge, before the judge finally rules in favor of the defense.

Lubet, by taking an entirely different perspective from established history, achieved any historians dream: producing original research. Murder in Tombstone is not merely a book of what happened in the aftermath of the gunfight by the O.K. corral, but how and why what happened did. Lubet not only brings up previously dismissed facts but explains why they are important both legally and historically, and explains how each tiny piece contributed to the larger whole. The result is both informative and entertaining: a documentary with the feel of a courtroom drama. Law and Order: Wild West. Hell, I’d watch it.

Dun dun.

I commented on Carol’s blog.

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6 thoughts on “Post #4: Law and Order: Wild West

  1. Really great post about how Lubet’s attorney background really comes out in his analysis of the trial of Wyatt Earp, and brings a focus that perhaps others couldn’t bring. I find that context interesting in light of the question of who is most qualified to write particular histories. Should people with legal training be the ones to write legal histories? What of people with military training writing military histories? People from a place writing a history of that place? I don’t have any answers to those questions but would be curious for your thoughts and those of our classmates. Discussion questions, perhaps? 🙂

  2. I also found Lubet’s perspective interesting. Not very often does a lawyer write about history events and break down the proceedings to explain it to non-lawyers. Dont know if you have to be super qualified to write about a specific event, but using life skills to analyze an event thru an alternative viewpoint is refreshing.

  3. David’s question is a good one… I think there are positives and negatives to an “expert” in a particular area writing a history. The positive comes when it is added to the existing corpus of work, but an “experts” opinion should not be taken as gospel truth because it is certainly heavily influenced by the culture and biases of whatever profession is examined whether it be legal, military or history. But, that being said, his analysis as a lawyer fits well into the “New Western History.” I think the fact that he focuses on the court case as well as the changing opinion of the community shows the “non-individualistic” spirit of the “Wild West.” Most people want the stability that comes with a functioning legal system and the fact that much of the community turns on the Earp’s shows that stability is much more important than the worship of a gunfighter standing for rugged individualism.

  4. Pingback: Post #4: Combating the Myth of the West | History 616: American West

  5. Pingback: comments on readings | CaptureHistory

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