Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp
1861 – 1944
Impulsive, adventurous, and outspoken, Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp ran away from home when she was seventeen years old. Two years later, she joined destinies with western lawman, gambler, and entrepreneur Wyatt Earp. For forty-seven years, they roamed the West, mingling with well-known westerners on both sides of the law. Her name was rarely in print until her published memoir revealed an overlooked western folk female hero, long on daring, short on propriety, and, of all things, Jewish.
The third of four children, Josephine Sarah (Marcus) Earp was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1861 to German-Jewish immigrants Sophie and Hyman (Henry) Marcus. When she was seven years old, the family moved to San Francisco. In 1879 the Pauline Markham Theater Company came to town, and Josephine slipped away with the troupe. In the Arizona Territory, she fell for Johnny Behan, a divorced, bankrupt politico. Her family retrieved her, but Johnny followed and convinced her gullible parents of his honorable intentions. In May 1880, she joined him in Tombstone, Arizona, but they did not marry.
Her gaze shifted to thirtyish, tall, handsome, and laconic Wyatt Earp, who, despite his common-law wife, stared back. Their romance blazed through the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral (the Earp brothers were key participants) and related trials and vendettas. After Tombstone, the couple lived in other western boomtowns, Nome, Los Angeles, and intermittently, San Francisco, at times with Josephine Earp’s parents. In the 1920s, financially aided by her sister, Henrietta, the couple seesawed between mining and oil ventures in southern California, promoting a movie about Wyatt Earp’s lawman exploits and writing his life story. The unpublished manuscript intrigued journalist Stuart Lake, who projected his own Wyatt Earp biography. After Wyatt Earp died in 1929, warfare exploded between Josephine Earp and Lake. Issues included his commercialized depiction of her husband and unflattering portrayal of her. Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal—deleterious passages stricken—came out in 1931 and fueled fifty years of Wyatt Earp mania, pro and con, in print and film.
Josephine Earp’s contribution, I Married Wyatt Earp, written with Mabel Earp Cason and Cason’s sister Vinola Earp Ackerman, and edited by western writer Glenn Boyer, was published in 1967. Boyer had fine-tuned her facts, and now other researchers are working on his facts. Notably, the cover photograph, a discreet cameo of young Josephine Earp, is in dispute. Boyer long maintained that Johnny Behan took the photo of her in Tombstone in 1880. Challengers say Boyer adapted it from a full-length, near-nude portrait of early twentieth-century vintage, copyrighted in 1914 and circulated by a novelty card company.
When her husband died, Earp buried his ashes in the Marcus family plot in the Little Hills of Eternity, near San Francisco. Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp died in 1944, and her remains now rest with his. But the collision of Jewish and cowboy cultures that epitomized their union goes on. Wyatt Earp enthusiasts have made the gravesite the most visited in that Jewish cemetery and once even stole the tombstone.
Boyer, Glenn G. Wyatt Earp: Facts Volume Two, Childhood and Youth of Wyatt’s Wife, Josephine Sarah Marcus (1966), and Wyatt Earp’s Tombstone Vendetta (1993); Earp, Josephine Sarah Marcus. I Married Wyatt Earp, with Mabel Earp Cason and Vinola Earp Ackerman. Edited by Glenn G. Boyer (1967), and Papers. American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Stuart N. Lake Collection, The Huntington Library, Department of Manuscripts, San Marino, Calif.; Hutton, Paul Andrew. “Showdown at the Hollywood Corral: Wyatt Earp and the Movies.” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 45 (Summer 1995): 2–31; Lake, Stuart N. Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal (1931); Marcus, Jacob R. The American Jewish Woman: A Documentary History (1981); Marks, Paula Mitchell. And Die in the West: The Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight (1989); Morey, Jeffrey J. “The Curious Vendetta of Glenn G. Boyer.” National Association for Outlaw and Lawman History, Inc. Quarterly 18, no. 4 (October–December 1994); Rochlin, Harriet, and Fred Rochlin. Pioneer Jews: A New Life in the Far West (1984); Tefertiller, Casey T. “Wyatt Earp: O.K. or Not O.K.” Image Magazine, San Francisco Examiner, October 17, 1993; Tritten, Larry. “Looking for a Legend and Finding Wyatt Earp.” Washington Post, June 20, 1993, E1, E8, E9; Waters, Frank. The Earp Brothers of Tombstone (1962).