Meet the Jewish "Lady at the OK Corral"
Josephine Marcus Earp would really hate being on this page. Yes, the woman who lived with famed lawman Wyatt Earp for nearly 50 years was Jewish, and yes, she had plenty of attitude. But she had little interest in anything related to religion, cultural heritage, or history, and she may seem to be anything but a feminist.
But fresh from nearly five years in her company, researching Lady at the OK Corral, the True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp, I’m quite sure she belongs here.
I first became interested in this story when I discovered that nearly everything I knew about Wyatt Earp was incomplete—or downright wrong. Wyatt Earp was the Deputy Marshal of Tombstone, Arizona, but there was a Mrs. Earp there, too. I knew about the “Gunfight at the OK Corral,” a bloody confrontation with the lawmen on one side and the cowboys on the other, but I didn’t know it was a conflict of jealous revenge as well, a love triangle with our Josephine in the middle. And I thought Wyatt Earp was always the good guy. Turns out that it was Josephine who devoted her life to burnishing his image, making sure that the skeletons in his closet—and hers—never saw the light of day.
You couldn’t make this up, right? A Jewish family flees to America around 1850 in search of economic opportunity and religious freedom. Their teenage daughter runs away from home around 1878 to join a traveling theatre company. Instead of becoming an actress in cosmopolitan San Francisco, she heads for the Arizona Territory where she hooks up with the sheriff of Tombstone. When she figures out belatedly that he wants a mistress and not a wife, she has an affair with his archrival, the other lawman of Tombstone, Wyatt Earp. With a face and figure that turns heads wherever she goes, Josephine is a player in the most famous shootout in American history.
What followed her year in Tombstone was nearly 50 years of adventure that took her from the Arizona Territory to San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, and a few unforgettable years in Alaska.
Her hourglass figure was old-fashioned, but Josephine’s choices were modern. Hers was a marriage of equals. A tireless adventurer, this Mrs. Earp never said “I do,” only “I will.” She and Wyatt never had a permanent address and pushed on from boomtown to boomtown, following the mining sensation of the day.
Her story has never been told. The glare of history has been on the macho men of the old West. And in fairness, Josephine never wanted the limelight—she wanted the focus to be on her more famous husband, and she worked hard to polish up his reputation and suppress her own story. She was ashamed of being the consort of a man with a violent past and a history running saloons, brothels, and gambling tables. Most of all, she wanted no one to know their darkest secret: for love of Josephine, Wyatt left his previous common law wife, who descended into prostitution, drug addiction, and suicide.
All women have the right to their own story. Josephine’s is the story of American history from the Civil War to the birth of Hollywood, from the great migration to the closing of the western frontier. She went from a time when prostitution, gambling, and saloon-keeping were legal, to the era of prohibition of all three. She rode on horseback and in stagecoaches and then on trains and automobiles. She saw the advent of modern communications by telegraph, telephone, and motion pictures.
She never hid her Jewish identity and remained close to her family. However, even in the relatively Jewish-friendly world of the frontier, she shunned Jewish organizations. And yet, at the greatest crisis of her life, Wyatt’s death, she returned to her family in San Francisco and buried him next to her parents and brother in a Jewish cemetery.
Josephine’s greatest concern was Wyatt’s reputation, the only legacy that would survive the childless couple, and survive it has, through dozens of biographies and films.
In today’s era, when reputation often hinges on a Google search, Josephine’s history is riddled with misinformation and downright falsehoods. It’s time to set the record straight.
Although Josephine wanted you to know that she was the legal Mrs. Wyatt Earp, that she was the daughter of wealthy Germans, that she was well respected by important people, that she associated only with highest levels of society, and that she was a delicate, vulnerable lady, none of that was true!
What is true is that Josephine Marcus Earp was one remarkable Jewess with attitude, a true woman of the West who has much to say about history, marriage, and the varying touchstones of women’s roles across the centuries.