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Josephine in Arizona Territory in 1880
March 15, 2022

Wyatt Earp’s Jewish Wife

Wyatt Earp remains one of the most famous figures in the history of the American West. A lawman and a gambler, his life was immortalized in legend, with fact and fiction inextricably woven together. Earp had two famous clashes with other Western legends. The first was Johnny Behan, the sheriff of Tombstone, Arizona, who would later pursue Earp after the latter’s infamous Vendetta Ride against the participants of the shootout at the OK Corral. The second – and most famous – was Doc Holliday,  the renowned gambler, gunfighter, frontier dentist, and friend, with whom Earp split. 

Yet the connecting thread between Earp and the two men from whom he later parted ways has not been discussed much in scholarship on Earp: a Jewish woman from New York named Josephine Marcus. Like Wyatt Earp, fact and fiction are difficult to separate when it comes to understanding the life of the woman who would become his wife. On both counts, this largely is due to Josephine’s attempts to guard the Earps’ legacy. What follows is a brief sketch of her life based on verifiable facts.

Josephine Marcus was born in a Brooklyn tenement in 1861 to Jews who had immigrated from an area of Prussia that is today Poland. When she was 7, her family moved to San Francisco in search of opportunity. San Francisco, though up and coming and booming, was also, like New York, crowded, and full of immigrants. Josephine’s father, a baker, experienced ups and downs financially; at times able to fund things like dance lessons for his daughters, at other times, the family was forced to move in with Josephine’s older sister and brother-in-law.  The stratification of San Francisco’s Jews – Germans at the top, and Poles at the bottom – was a source of struggle for Josephine. Knowing that she would never break into the right society, she decided to leave the Jewish community behind completely. 

Josephine’s interest in theatre was what ultimately put her on the path to Tombstone. In 1879, she and a friend joined a theatre troupe, and ran away to the Arizona territory, where she first became acquainted with Johnny Behan. Josephine’s family retrieved her that year, but Johnny followed her back to San Francisco, where he convinced her parents that his intentions with their daughter were honorable. In 1880, she was back in Tombstone with him, and though she went by Mrs. Behan, they were never legally married.

Wyatt Earp, on the other hand, was married, and had just arrived in Tombstone from Dodge City, Kansas in time for the town’s silver boom. Despite having a common-law wife, he was interested in Josephine, and she in him. By early 1881, Josephine caught Johnny cheating on her and kicked him out. In July of that year, the most famous gunfight in American history would erupt in Tombstone, between the Clanton brothers, part of an outlaw group known as “The Cowboys,” and the Earp Brothers, who were generally regarded as the lawmen. 

By the time of the shootout, Josephine and Wyatt were together. The gunfight itself would pit Behan against the Earps and their ally Doc Holliday. Behan would side with the Earps’ rivals, the Clantons. Though the circumstances surrounding the shootout remain hazy, the Earps’ acquittal of murdering the outlaws in cold blood at the OK Corral so enraged the Clantons, that they sought revenge, ultimately killing Wyatt’s brother Morgan, and injuring his other brother Virgil. In response, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday went on what would later be known as the Vendetta Ride, avenging Earp’s brother, and killing between four and fourteen men they suspected were complicit in killing Morgan Earp.

This officially made Wyatt Earp an outlaw, and also pitted him against Johnny Behan. Even before Josephine and Wyatt got together, tensions had been brewing between Behan and Earp over some political appointments in Tombstone. It’s hard to ignore the possibility that Behan might have had particular animosity towards Earp months after his wife left him for Earp. Behan never caught up with Josephine and Wyatt, who spent much of the next 47 years together roaming from one boomtown to another, dabbling in different investments such as mining and oil, and preparing Earp’s life story for film and print. 

Doc Holliday, who accompanied Wyatt on the Vendetta Ride, fell out with Wyatt in a less glamorous manner shortly thereafter, when they had both arrived in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Wyatt Earp was a guest at the home of Jewish businessman Harry Jaffa, the first mayor of the city. Apparently  over lunch in an Albuquerque restaurant, Holliday asked Wyatt if he was becoming a “damn Jew-boy.” Wyatt left the restaurant, and with it, his friendship with Holliday. Allegedly, Wyatt Earp was known to kiss the mezuzah before entering Jewish homes as a sign of respect to his Jewish wife, and it’s been speculated that this was the reason for Holliday’s jab at Earp.

Earp died in Los Angeles in 1929, and Josephine in 1944. It might come as a surprise that one of the deadliest gunslingers of the Wild West is interred in a Jewish cemetery in the San Francisco Bay area. What is unsurprising, however, is that the man (and woman) and the myth are inextricable. 

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