Who Was Wyatt Earp?

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Late in his life Henry Fonda, at dinner with a producer named Melvin Shestack, recalled meeting an old man who said he had firsthand knowledge of a memorable Fonda character, Wyatt Earp, the legendary frontier lawman of John Ford’s classic My Darling Clementine . The man said he “had met the old marshal several times as a child at the turn of the century, at his family’s Passover seders in San Francisco.” Fonda thought the man was putting him on until years later he read a newspaper story which confirmed that Wyatt Earp was indeed married to a Jewish woman. “I wish now,” Fonda told Shestack, “that I’d talked to the man a bit longer.”

What Fonda might have found out was that Wyatt Earp’s ashes lie next to those of his common-law wife of forty-seven years in the Halls of Eternity Memorial Park, in Colma, California. In October of 1957, when Earp’s fame was at its peak with Gunfight at the O.K. Corral riding high on the box office and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp in the top five on television, some teenagers stole the headstone. Its recovery caused journalists and historians to speculate on whether Wyatt Earp had himself converted to Judaism. (“Hero of the Oy K Corral?” asked one columnist.) After all, Jewish cemeteries do not often admit Gentiles. What was the story?

The story was Josephine Sarah (“Sadie”) Marcus, Tombstone’s Helen of Troy, the most glamorous figure in the American West’s most enduring drama, who had always managed to keep her name out of Hollywood’s versions of the Earp story. She was born in 1859 to German Jewish parents who had emigrated to New York in the early 185Os. Sometime in the late 186Os her father, Hyman Marcus, moved his family to San Francisco. The Marcuses were well enough off to live, she said, “in a tall dark house with big windows, narrow hallways and staircases, fussy designs in the wooden balustrades and around the cornices.” It was to be the last house with fussy designs that Josephine would ever call her own; she knew at an early age that she was an adventuress, and for the next seven decades she lived in hotel rooms, mining shacks, tents, and cottages, “among persons who gladly dropped the pleasures of urban life for the hardship and the adventures of prospecting, or the excitement of boom mining camps.”

Josephine Sarah Marcus knew what she wanted in life and what she wanted in a man.

The San Francisco of Josephine’s girlhood was a sophisticated theater-going town, and when she was eighteen, the city went, in her words, “ Pinafore crazy.” When a friend urged her to join a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan troupe, she signed on with scarcely a second thought. She began a journey that took her to Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and finally Prescott, Arizona, before she ended up in the mining camp near the Mexican border known as Tombstone.

Tombstone was one of the most spectacular boomtowns of the West, nothing like the dusty hellholes of old Hollywood Westerns. It got its name when a prospector discovered silver there in 1877, after soldiers from a nearby post scoffed that “all you’ll find there is your own tombstone.” But wells were dug, and once the desert area became inhabitable, people began to notice its beauty and agreeable climate; the elevation made it much cooler than most of the surrounding territory. By 1881 Tombstone was one of the largest settlements between Kansas City and San Francisco, with perhaps ten thousand residents, French restaurants, Chinese opium dens, a bowling alley, and an icecream parlor.

Sometime in 1880, probably when the Pinafore troupe played Prescott, Josephine met a charming, glad-handing minor politico named John Behan. Behan would become sheriff of the newly formed Cochise County, which contained Tombstone, and Josie became his mistress, a fact that she successfully kept from her friends and family. In the fall of 1880 she was traveling by stage to Tombstone when she noticed a strikingly handsome young man who was serving as shotgun guard. “That,” whispered a friend, “is Morgan Earp, one of the Earp brothers. They all look so much alike you can hardly tell them apart.” Josephine was intrigued.

She knew what she wanted in life and what she wanted in a man. “I liked the traveling sort of man,” she is quoted as saying in a disputed version of memoirs, I Married Wyatt Earp , “better than the kind that sat back in one town all his life and wrote down little rows of figures all day or hustled dry goods or groceries and that sort of thing. . . . My blood demanded excitement, variety and change.” Whether or not the words were actually Josephine’s, those sentiments certainly fit.

Josephine Marcus didn’t just seek excitement, she caused it. Bat Masterson described her as the “belle of the honkytonks, the prettiest dame in three hundred or so of her kind.” Allie Earp, the widow of Wyatt’s older brother Virgil, disliked her intensely. Allie’s biographer, Frank Waters, quotes her as describing Josephine as “full-fleshed” with a “small, trim body and a meneo [shake] of the hips that kept her full, flounced skirts bouncing. Certainly her strange accent, brought with her from New York to San Francisco, carried a music new to the ears of a Western gambler and gunman.”