This Day in Jewish History

1944: Wyatt Earp's Common-law Jewish Wife Dies

Some facts may have been lost in pampered, restless Josie Marcus' efforts to control the narrative of their lives, but they were together until the end.

Josephine Sarah "Sadie" Marcus at about age 20, c. 1881
Camillus Sydney Fly, Wikimedia Commons

On December 19, 1944, Josephine Marcus Earp died, 15 years after the passing of her legendary husband, the gunfighter, gambler and lawman Wyatt Earp.

It is in large part due to Josephine’s efforts to build and burnish the reputation of her common-law spouse that he has been depicted in books and movies as a champion of justice and keeper of the law, when the truth was far more ambiguous. Her own life story, too, has many lacunae in it, also thanks to her attempts to control the narrative.

Wyatt Earp
Wikimedia Commons

Lady at the O.K.Corral

It is known that Josephine Sarah Marcus was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1860. Both her parents, Henry (born Carl-Hyman) Marcus and the former Sophie Lewis were from the Posen region of Prussia, in what is today Poland, and came to the U.S. in 1850.

In 1868, the family moved cross-country to the boomtown of San Franciso. There, Henry found work as a baker, and prospered until about 1880, when the silver of the Comstock Lode began to run out.

Until then, Josie supposedly reveled in dancing lessons and enjoyed the services of her own personal maid. At the same time, her restless, adventurous personality meant that she was in regular trouble at school.

An opportunity to escape a prosaic life appeared in the form of the Pauline Markham Theater Company, whose production of “H.M.S. Pinafore” she joined. That’s how she came to Prescott, Arizona, in 1879. There, she took up with a deputy sheriff named Johnny Behan, a married man known for his philanderering.

According to Glenn Boyer, author of a 1976 biography of Josephine, “I Married Wyatt Earp,” she was the subject of a famous semi-nude photo of a woman in Tombstone in 1880, taken by Behan, that graced the cover of that book. It’s a nice idea, but the photo appears to have been shot as late as 1914, when Josie would have been 53, and in any case, the voluptuous young woman depicted therein doesn’t resemble her.

Photogravura of a semi-nude woman used by Glenn Boyer on the cover of I Married Wyatt Earp. He insisted it was a picture of Josephine from 1880 but could provide no proof.
Pastime Novelty Company, NY, Wikimedia Commons

According to Ann Kirschner, author of “Lady at the O.K. Corral,” a 2013 biography of Josephine, Behan and Wyatt Earp both participated in the gunfight on October 26, 1881, on opposite sides. Behan was allied with the Cowboys gang, three of whose members were shot dead in the fight. Earp was part of the posse that had been tracking them down, together with two of his brothers and “Doc” Holliday. Kirschner does not believe, however, that the men’s rivalry for Josephine’s affections was a cause for the shootout.

Kirschner also does not agree with the hypothesis held by several other historians, that Josephine, though she did go by the nickname of “Sadie,” was the same person as Sadie Mansfield, a performer and prostitute who lived and worked in Prescott, Arizona, in the mid-1870s, and who apparently also had a relationship with Johnny Behan.

Following the money

Marcus and Earp seem to have begun their relationship after the famous gunfight, and they remained together for the next 47 years, until Earp’s death, in 1929. It was, however, a tempestuous relationship, punctuated by Earp’s frequent womanizing, his drinking sprees, and his gambling.

The couple followed the money, in the form of gold rushes in Eagle City, Idaho, Nome, Alaska, and Tonopah, Nevada. In each of those places, they ran saloons and had other investments. Finally, in 1911, Earp began mining in several plots in Vidal, California, while Josephine lived in Los Angeles. He also owned and raced horses.

It is known that Josephine made great attempts to control both her own and Wyatt’s stories, and she even threatened writers with lawsuits if their reporting took them in directions she preferred to remain unexplored. She also developed amnesia about certain periods in her own life.

Josephine Earp died at the age of 84, in Los Angeles. By that time, she had alienated most of her old friends, and was in debt all over town. She was buried in the Marcus family plot in the Jewish section of Little Hills of Eternity cemetery, near San Francisco, where Wyatt’s ashes had been interred.