Sunday, March 31, 2013


What was a nice (?) Jewish girl doing cavorting around with the legendary Wyatt Earp?

Wyatt Earp’s fourth wife was a doe-eyed, adventurous Jewish girl from San Francisco

By Mark Yost

The Wall Street Journal
March 29, 2013

They say that the winners get to write the history books. That hasn't really been the case with Wyatt Earp, the one man to walk away from the O.K. Corral unscathed. Over the years, volumes have been written about the events of Oct. 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Ariz.—when the Earps and the Clantons shot it out. The Clantons were associated with the cowboys who came into town to carouse and occasionally rob silver shipments, the Earps with the townsfolk who were trying to build a frontier settlement into a city. A series of events between the two groups ended in a classic episode from American legend—a showdown that settled matters in minutes and created heroes and villains for years to come.

Though supposedly cast in the hero role, Earp has come in for his share of criticism. He held various law-enforcement posts, but rather than being a figure of admirable character and a noble upholder of the law, he often bent the law to his advantage—in Tombstone and other boomtowns—running casinos and brothels, throwing his lot in with dodgy land speculators, and, in his spare time, chasing women. Wyatt Earp was, in short, a flawed man. Except in the eyes of Josephine Marcus Earp, a buxom, doe-eyed, adventurous Jewish girl from San Francisco who ran away from home with a traveling stage show and ended up falling in love with one of Tombstone's most prominent residents.

When Earp was asked about the shootout in later years, he often replied: "Surely we have better things to talk about." According to Ann Kirschner's splendid "Lady at the O.K. Corral," Marcus, Earp's fourth wife, had no such hesitation. Making people see her husband as one of history's good guys was something of an obsession with her.

"Wife" may be going a bit far. As Ms. Kirschner explains, Earp was formally married only once. After his first wife's death in childbirth, he had three common-law wives. Marcus was the last—and most long-lasting. What most people today know about her, if anything, they probably gleaned from the 1993 film "Tombstone," which got the outline of the story right. Yes, Marcus had been an actress. Yes, she had come to Tombstone to perform and had been much sought after by Earp's chief rival for Cochise County sheriff, Johnny Behan, a prosperous man connected to the cowboy faction. And, yes, Earp was co-habitating at the time with his second common-law wife, Mattie, a laudanum addict. But the full story is richer than that. Ms. Kirschner has dug through archives and family papers to tell it.

The biographies of most women who lived before 1900, no matter how famous or accomplished in their own right, are inextricably linked to their (typically) more famous husbands. That was certainly true of Marcus, whose story might be rather unremarkable except for the fact that she was Earp's constant companion for nearly 50 years—and his champion.

Born to Prussian immigrants who landed in New York but migrated to San Francisco, Marcus saw the stage as her best chance to be more than a hausfrau. A traveling production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "HMS Pinafore" brought her to Tombstone, where she met Behan and began an affair with the still-married man-about-town

When the road troupe fell apart, Marcus returned to San Francisco, but Behan showed up on her doorstep and lured her back to Tombstone with promises of marriage and a life of privilege. Life with Behan, however, proved anything but a domestic idyll. "She had been slow to acknowledge the reality behind Johnny's reputation as a womanizer," Ms. Kirschner writes, noting that "there may have been several lovers and prostitutes competing with Josephine."

By most accounts, it was roughly at this point that Marcus, who was just 18, took up with Wyatt Earp, 32, Tombstone's other notorious womanizer. The Behan-Earp contest for her affections is sometimes viewed as a cause of the shootout. Ms. Kirschner doesn't think so. Even though Earp and Marcus "had been circling each other for the better part of a year," they were "quite discreet. There was no general awareness that they were together, or even that Josephine had broken up with Behan."

There is no record of Marcus being near the shootout when it happened. The event haunted her even so. She lived in fear that, with the shootout-legend exciting more and more interest, it would become common knowledge that she broke up Earp's third marriage and was at least somewhat responsible for his third wife's spiraling further into addiction and turning to prostitution to support her habit before committing suicide. By telling tall tales, Ms. Kirschner believes, Marcus hoped to mask the true genesis of her relationship with Earp. She talked of their (fictitious) grand wedding on the yacht of Lucky Baldwin, the Los Angeles oil-and-gas tycoon. She claimed that she was never involved with Behan but was merely governess to his son. She said that she lovingly ran to Earp's side at the sound of gunfire.

After Tombstone, the Earps moved from boomtown to boomtown—San Diego, Nome, even Hollywood in the early days of the motion-picture business—always chasing the next fortune. When Wyatt Earp wasn't keeping the peace, he was catering to fortune seekers with various ventures. He made quite a bit of money in land speculation and horse racing in San Diego (money that would help sustain Marcus after Earp's death in 1929). Marcus loved the energy of the boomtowns but most loved calling herself "Mrs. Earp" and speaking of her husband as a paragon of virtue.

When more careful accounts of the shootout began appearing after 1900, Marcus worried all the more that some researcher would stumble on deeds or other official records that would unearth Mattie's existence and unravel the fairy tales that Marcus had been telling. To keep her secret, she even tried to sabotage favorable accounts, such as 1931's "Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal" by Stuart Lake, which portrayed Wyatt and his brothers as nothing short of saviors of all that was good in Tombstone. She successfully discouraged Allie, the widow of Earp's brother Virgil, from cooperating with a writer. "The world would not find out about Mattie's suicide or Wyatt's perfidy from Allie," Ms. Kirschner writes.

It took two intrepid women, Mabel Earp Cason and Vinnolia Earp Ackerman, daughters of Wyatt's cousin William Harrison Earp, to coax at least part of the truth out of Marcus. "They knew that Josephine's portrait of Wyatt was idealized and incomplete," Ms. Kirschner notes. But it wasn't until 1955, 11 years after Marcus's death, that the truth came out. One of Mattie's descendants donated a trunk to a museum in Dodge City, Kan., and the world learned that his "Aunt Ceely" was Celia "Mattie" Earp. "That is what Josie was covering from us," Mable Cason realized, but added that Marcus "seemed to be truly conscience-stricken" about Mattie's demise. Sadly, Ms. Kirschner concludes, "it would have been little comfort to Josephine to know that Mattie herself blamed Wyatt most of all."

1 comment:

bob walsh said...

There are some excellent quality rather racy photos of her out there. She was reputed to be a hooker before she hooked up with Wyatt.