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The Invisibly Adventurous Life of Josephine Marcus Earp

josephine marcus earp
Josephine Marcus and Wyatt Earp at their desert camp in 1906. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

When Josephine Marcus Earp died in Los Angeles on December 19, 1944, her small memorial attracted little attention and few visitors. The woman who spent more than 45 years with “The Lion of Tombstone” faded into history penniless, alone and shrouded in the mystery of her own half-truths.

A brief three-paragraph obituary in the Los Angeles Times summed up Josephine’s time as Wyatt’s partner “when the famous peace officer was restoring law and order from Dodge City to Tombstone.”

In death, as in life, Josephine’s story was glossed over and only partially true: she was by Wyatt’s side, but not in Dodge City, and in Tombstone, their relationship was never fully understood or revealed.

Even toward the end of her life, as Josephine began to reveal her story to Mabel Earp Cason and Vinnolia Earp Ackerman, the daughters of one of Wyatt’s cousins, she was never fully forthcoming with how she and Wyatt began their life of adventure.

“We finally abandoned work on the manuscript because she would not clear up the Tombstone sequence where it pertained to her and Wyatt,” Mabel wrote to the Arizona Historical Society, according to Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend, by Casey Tefertiller.

Josephine would never truly reveal what happened between her and Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, and later in life she would go to great lengths to cover up their early years in Arizona. She sent scathing letters to magazines that ran “blood and thunder” articles about Wyatt, and threatened to sue movie studios when she believed they weren’t getting the Earps’ story right. She also feared writers and researchers digging too deep into her murky Tombstone past.

josephine marcus
Possible photo of Josephine Marcus, circa 1880. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

To this day, what Josephine was hiding isn’t completely known. Ann Kirschner, author of Lady at the O.K. Corral — what seems to be the most accurate book about Josephine — believes she was covering up her past entanglements with Johnny Behan, and the fact that Wyatt left his Tombstone-era wife, Mattie Blaylock, for Josephine. Mattie would later overdose on laudanum, blaming Wyatt for the way her life unfolded.

Then there are the juicier theories.

Western historian Roger Jay, among others, believed Josephine was a prostitute under the name Sadie Mansfield, a working gal who shared many of the same life details as Josephine, and who followed Behan around the Territory.

Whatever her early roots, Josephine’s story eventually became part of the larger Earp legend, and her efforts to clean up and suppress certain aspects of their life — that Wyatt was a gambler, saloonkeeper and an adulterer — also robbed her of a fuller picture in frontier history.

She was adventurous, bold, and willing to meet the demands of a nomadic life of mining and gambling with Wyatt, but the full story of Josephine Earp may be forever in that gray area between western fact and fiction.

Related read: 29 Most Iconic Quotes from Tombstone

The Early Life of Josephine Marcus

Josephine Sarah Marcus was born in New York City to Hyman Marcus and Sophia Lewis, Jewish immigrants who arrived from Prussia in the mid-1850s. Her life of mystery started early: though her brother Nathan and sister Henrietta each have confirmed birthdates — 1857 and 1864, respectively — there was no official record of Josephine’s birth. She believed she was born on June 2, 1860, though it could’ve been 1861.

Looking for better opportunities, the Marcus crew headed to San Francisco in the late 1860s, because that seemed like the thing to do, and Hyman took up his craft as a baker in the booming city. The gold rush days of San Francisco had given way to a steady and thriving economy, and the Marcus fam moved around town often over the next few years as they attempted to find footing in the city.

They remained in the lower-class tier of Jewish citizenry, something Josephine would later attempt to rewrite in her memoirs. They did well enough to send Josephine to a local dance academy, however, where she fell in love with song and dance and probably jazz fingers.

In 1878, more than 5,000 miles away from the Bay Area, the opera H.M.S. Pinafore opened to raving audiences in London, and soon theater troupes around the world were performing the popular play.

H.M.S. Pinafore poster
This looks like a good time. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Pinafore companies sprang up everywhere, matched to every slice of the American demographic: black, white, German, Italian, professional, amateur, children,” wrote Kirschner in Lady at the O.K. Corral. “With over a hundred different opera troupes active in the United States, the marketplace for performers was brisk.”

That was Josephine’s cue, and when a troupe recruited her and a friend, Dora Hirsch, from their dance academy, the two girls joined up and left San Francisco with actress Pauline Markham’s company. They toured through California and the Arizona Territory, arriving in Tombstone in December 1879, the same month a trio of tall, well-mustachioed brothers rolled into town.

It would be years before Josephine got to know the Earps more intimately, but the historical stage was set (note: I do not apologize for theater puns).

Related read: Is Tombstone a True Story? Here’s What’s Accurate (and Not)

An Alternative Timeline

Years later, as Josephine recounted her life to Mabel and Vinnolia, she told a different tale of arriving in Arizona. She and her friend, Josephine claimed, took a stagecoach with the troupe from Santa Barbara to Tucson, and somewhere in the Territory they were stopped by famed scout Al Sieber as he was on the lookout for Apaches who had recently left their reservation to roam the desert — you know, where they lived for hundreds of years.

Sieber safely led the travelers to a ranch, where they apparently stayed for ten days as Sieber and his scouts patrolled the area. One of those scouts was supposedly Johnny Behan, and that’s where Josephine first laid eyes on the dapper man who was 16 years older and probably owned fancy hats.

Johnny Behan
Johnny Behan, with a slight case of bedhead. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The only problem: Josephine’s tale doesn’t match up to historical record. According to Roger Jay, Al Sieber wasn’t scouting in the area in 1879, when Pauline Markham’s troupe was documented arriving in the Territory.

But he was there in 1874, and there’s a theory that suggests Josephine actually came to Arizona that year with a group of prostitutes, and further, that Josephine was also Sadie Mansfield, a prostitute who tagged along with Behan around the Territory for a few years.

It’s possible that Josephine took several trips out to Arizona in the 1870s, first in 1874 with a bunch of soiled doves, and then in 1879, with the Markham company. It’s also possible that Josephine used several names during this time, and the similarities between Josephine and Sadie Mansfield are striking, to say the least.

But I am simply a confused writer attempting to review the life of Josephine Marcus, so I will leave it at that.

Related read: 8 Things You Might Not Know About Morgan Earp, Wyatt’s Favorite Bro

The Courting of Josephine

However it happened, Josephine found herself in Tombstone at the end of 1879, and she stayed there until Pauline Markham’s company broke up in early 1880. She headed back to San Francisco, but it wasn’t long before Johnny Behan came a-courting, attempting to woo her back to southern Arizona to wed once and for all.

Despite the cultural differences between Behan and the Marcus household, he must’ve done something right, because Josephine was back on the road to Tombstone by the end of 1880, and he was probably twirling the greased ends of his mustache in anticipation, though I cannot find evidence of this in any historical documents.

Josephine would eventually move in with Behan and his 10-year-old son, Albert, whom she would stay in contact with throughout her life. She became the unofficial Mrs. Behan around Tombstone, but the honeymoon stage didn’t last long. By spring 1881, Josephine was questioning Behan’s commitment to marriage — he enjoyed other ladies’ company, let’s say — and by summer she had broken things off.

This was also around the time she met Wyatt Earp, allegedly, though she never revealed when and where they mingled with each other, and neither did Wyatt, who mostly avoided talking about his time in Tombstone later in life. As bustling as Tombstone was, it wouldn’t have been hard for Wyatt to notice Josephine around town, and vice versa.

wyatt earp
Who wouldn’t fall in love with Wyatt Earp’s mustache? Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Further, the Earp wives, including Mattie, generally stuck to their homes on the outskirts of town — they weren’t high-class and didn’t peruse local stores — so Wyatt and Josephine could’ve conversed without making a scene.

It’s not exactly clear if the relationship between Wyatt and Josephine was common knowledge in town, but some sources claim that it was known well enough. Stuart Lake’s Frontier Marshal, despite being largely fictionalized, offers a believable scenario.

“As Wyatt Earp followed the run of Tombstone’s social activities with no particular pretenses, Tombstone was considerably amused to learn that the object of Johnny Behan’s most ardent affections had given Johnny the mitten and was publicly exhibiting a decided preference for the marshal’s company.”

Frontier Marshal, Stuart Lake

Lake went so far as to say that the events of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral in October 1881 were due in part to the “Helen of Troy of Tombstone,” though he left out Josephine’s name or specifics in his Frontier Marshal, a book which eventually solidified the myth and legend of Wyatt Earp. She approved of her anonymity in Lake’s book, though she still quarreled with him over the book’s finer details.

Josephine left no paper trail in Tombstone after her breakup with Behan, though Casey Tefertiller claimed that local old-timers “would accept as gospel that she had whored in Tombstone.”

Whatever Josephine did through the rest of 1881, it probably involved meeting up with Wyatt to some degree, and it’s likely they began planning their future together.

Related read: The Wives of Wyatt Earp, from Aurilla Sutherland to Sadie Marcus

Love Triangle at the O.K. Corral

For Wyatt, 1881 was an eventful year. In addition to a budding romantic affair and a classic gentlemen’s rivalry with Johnny Behan, he also dealt with the cowboys of Cochise County, a loosely affiliated gang of rustlers, thieves and ne’er-do-wells that hustled stolen cattle in and out of Southern Arizona, Mexico and New Mexico.

Tensions between the cowboys and the Earps came to a head on October 26, 1881, when the Clantons and McLaurys shot it out with Wyatt, Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday in a quick-lived fight in a lot near the O.K. Corral. The McLaury brothers both died in the shootout, as did Billy Clanton, after his brother Ike Clanton fled the scene.

dead cowboys ok corral
Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton memento mori photo. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Virgil, Morgan and Doc were all shot during the melee, and Wyatt was the only one who came out unscathed. Unfortunately, this was just the start of Wyatt’s problems in Tombstone: in the following months, the cowboys would attempt to assassinate Virgil, and would successfully murder Morgan in a billiards parlor.

Because she was the “side lady” at the time, Josephine didn’t play much of a role, if any, in Wyatt’s chaotic life during and immediately after the gunfight, despite the name of Kirschner’s book. On the day of the fight, Josephine claimed to have run down to the scene, checking in on her future husband from a distance.

“Once she saw that Wyatt was alive, she melted back into the crowd and retreated,” wrote Kirschner in Lady at the O.K. Corral. It wasn’t the first or last time she faded into the background of a larger event in Wyatt’s life, and there’s no record of their relationship immediately after the gunfight.

In the following months, the Earps faced public scrutiny and potential revenge from the cowboys, so they laid low and Wyatt likely didn’t spend much time with Josephine. In late 1881 or early 1882, with a failed engagement and summer affair in her rearview mirror, Josephine left Tombstone “unnoticed,” claimed Kirschner, and returned to her family in San Francisco — just as she had in early 1880.

After Morgan’s murder, Mattie Blaylock, Wyatt’s probably-not-too-happy wife, was sent with Bessie, James Earp’s wife, to live with Wyatt’s parents in San Bernardino for safety reasons. Mattie waited for Wyatt to appear and plan their life post-Tombstone, but it never happened. Years later she would return to Arizona — and to prostitution — and on July 3, 1888, an embittered Mattie died from a laudanum overdose.

In April 1882, after his infamous Vendetta Ride, Wyatt and his band left the Arizona Territory for New Mexico, then headed north to Colorado, where the crew went their separate ways. Wyatt avoided extradition to Arizona for the vendetta-driven murder of Frank Stilwell, and in late 1882 headed west with Warren to San Francisco, where Virgil was still recuperating from his gunfight injuries.

It sounds like an excellent excuse to go live in the city where your boo lives and if anyone questions your motives, you can say you’re there to help your brother recover from a gnarly wound, which Virgil’s definitely was.

It didn’t take long for Josephine and Wyatt to reconnect, and by early 1883 they left San Francisco, now allegedly married, heading for destinations unknown, but probably involving saloons and mines and soiled doves.

After false starts with the Pauline Markham company and Johnny Behan, Josephine was finally on her way to legit frontier adventures.

Featured Read

Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp

“This book does not paint Josephine as a lady or a harlot, but rather a woman caught between the sophistication of San Francisco and the rough and tumble of a lawless Tombstone. In a time when adventurous behavior by a woman was frowned upon, she created an exciting life out of both necessity and desire.”

– Amazon review

Read Now

Life on the Boomtown Circuit

Josephine and Wyatt supposedly married in early 1883, though she would later claim they didn’t marry until 1888 — probably as a way to avoid the issue of Mattie Blaylock.

In any case, their life of adventure began in 1883, when they made their rounds across Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Texas and other western destinations. In each place, they looked for opportunity, often exploited it, and when the boom was over, moved on to the next one.

Most times, boomtowns were short-lived and for years the Earps were largely nomadic, going where the rumors were and only settling for months at a time. In 1885 or 1886, they ran into Doc Holliday at a Denver hotel, where Wyatt and Doc had their final embrace. Doc would die from tuberculosis in 1887 in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

As the frontier became more civilized, and trains connected what had been more remote locales, the Earps found themselves in San Diego, where Virgil and Allie had earlier discovered the city’s growing opportunities.

Hotel del Coronado san diego
Early San Diego was a vibe. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

In San Diego, Josephine and Wyatt enjoyed some degree of success, as Wyatt became more of a real estate investor and “capitalist,” wrote Kirschner. It was likely a stark contrast to their dusty days on the trail, and Josephine enjoyed the couple’s newfound higher-class status in the city.

Wyatt soon operated horseracing ventures and a few gambling spots, including the Oyster Bar and Gambling Hall, which had an upstairs brothel that wasn’t exactly Josephine’s idea of fun. But she did embrace the horseracing vibes in SoCal — maybe a little too much. Her gambling eventually became something of a problem, and Wyatt had to cut her off from her friend and bookie Lucky Baldwin. I think we’ve all been there.

By 1890, San Diego’s thriving economy began to cool, and city officials cleaned up some of the shadier establishments in town, like brothels, proving the classic adage that city officials are no fun.

The Earps eventually headed up to San Francisco, rendezvousing with Josephine’s family and making side quests, like to the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, where the old west was being mythicized by Buffalo Bill Cody and his wild west show mates.

Adventures in Alaska

By the late 1890s, big gold strikes were fewer and farther between, and then Alaska came on the scene. The Klondike gold rush brought thousands of prospectors to Canada in 1897, and a few summers later, the Nome gold rush attracted folks even farther north, into Alaska.

In typical Earp fashion, Josephine and Wyatt were all about the next big boomtown, so they headed north in the fall of 1897. Their sojourns were hardly smooth, and before reaching Nome in the summer of 1899, they spent time in Rampart and St. Michael, both smaller communities used as outposts on the way to Nome.

Eventually they made it to the city, which was bursting at the seams with its influx of prospectors and new merchants. Gold found on the beaches of Nome made it seem like “easy money,” though thousands of prospectors competed on the same small stretch of coast, and conditions were more than rough.

dexter saloon in nome alaska
The Dexter, left, was the place to be in Nome. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

In the fall of 1899, Wyatt and his business partner Charles Hoxie opened up the Dexter, a saloon that quickly became a popular Nome watering hole. As Lady at the O.K. Corral explains, Josephine’s social status once again took a backseat to Wyatt’s financial success. The Dexter was rakin’ in the money, but it reinforced his role as a saloonkeeper and gambler, hardly in the same social tier they enjoyed in their San Diego days, when Josephine viewed him more as a businessman and entrepreneur.

In Nome, Josephine didn’t have the same social support she had in other communities, and at one point the city outlawed women in saloons, so she lived a relatively behind-the-scenes lifestyle there, as she had in Tombstone. Like Mattie Blaylock in Arizona, Josephine was mostly a faceless presence behind Wyatt’s growing reputation.

Toward the end of 1899, Josephine and Wyatt left Nome and headed back to the states to prep for the next year’s summer boom. The following June, they headed back to Nome to revitalize the Dexter, and that summer, thousands more prospectors flooded the crowded streets and beaches of Nome.

Their days in Alaska were considered a financial success, and when they finally left the great north toward the end of 1901, they supposedly returned to the states with about $80,000 in saloon earnings. Not too shabby.

The harsh realities of the Alaskan frontier, however, likely took a toll on their relationship. “Wyatt would later complain to his friend Charlie Welsh that Sadie had gambled heavily on the boat trips to Alaska,” wrote Tefertiller in Wyatt Earp. “Sadie would later say that Wyatt had affairs with other women. It is likely that there were separations and disruptions during the Alaska years.”

The New Media Frontier

After Alaska, the Earps bounced around the southwest, with stops in California and Nevada, where Virgil and Allie lived in Goldfield. Eventually, they settled on a semi-nomadic lifestyle that included summers in Los Angeles and seasonal stays at their camps near Vidal, California, where they had nearby mining claims. They were kind of like frontier snowbirds.

Their camp life in Vidal was simple, a far cry from the hectic gold rush of Nome or the real estate boom in San Diego. But they fully embraced “sleeping under the stars, the smell of rain on the desert, and nights that induced such a profound sense of serenity,” wrote Kirschner.

Eventually, their savings from Alaska dwindled, and they pursued various mining interests and opportunities throughout California. But by the 1920s, it was clear that the frontier was no longer what it used to be, and as their earnings dwindled, Wyatt’s reputation as one of the west’s last true gunfighters began to take on a mythical status.

josephine marcus earp
Josephine Marcus and Wyatt Earp at their trusty desert camp. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Newspaper accounts, magazine articles and various news stories published all sorts of stories about Wyatt, many of which were untrue, and nearly all of which misconstrued what happened in Tombstone. Josephine soon found a new role to play, as a public relations person of sorts: she took it upon herself to make sure that the stories being told were up to her standards.

The only problem? She wanted a sanitized, family-friendly version of Wyatt that didn’t really exist. For all his bravery and bravado, Wyatt was as flawed and error-prone as anyone on the frontier, but instead of portraying him in a realistic light, Josephine sought to downplay the less-than-savory aspects of their life together.

This is also where Josephine made efforts to suppress her own story in Tombstone, including how she met Wyatt, what happened between them, and who fell to the wayside — namely, Mattie Blaylock and Johnny Behan.

Her PR efforts met with mixed results: some publications, like the Los Angeles Times, retracted information after incurring the wrath of Josephine, where others simply ignored her criticisms. In her waning years, Josephine became more vocal about how Wyatt was being portrayed, and lamented the fact that a booming industry of Western media — movies, novels and the like — profited off her husband’s name.

But Wyatt wasn’t completely uninvolved, and in Los Angeles he would meet stars like John Wayne — still known then as Marion Morrison — Tom Mix, director John Ford, and William S. Hart, all of whom were influenced by Wyatt’s history, true or not.

Toward the end of Wyatt’s life, he finally committed to writing a biography, a project taken up by John Flood, who was apparently a terrible writer and not up to the task. Later books would be written by Walter Noble Burns (Tombstone : An Iliad of the Southwest) and Stuart Lake (Frontier Marshal), who Josephine and Wyatt began meeting up with the year before Wyatt died.

wyatt earp frontier marshal stuart lake
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Burns’s book was popular, though the Earps would share in none of its financial gains, so Lake’s biography became one of Josephine’s priorities after Wyatt passed away in 1929. With her usual tenacity, she negotiated half of the royalties of the book’s sales, which turned out better than expected.

“The saga met with instant success, selling out the first two print runs totaling seven thousand copies almost immediately,” Tefertiller wrote in Wyatt Earp. “The sales made Lake and Sadie Earp solvent in the midst of the Depression, and Sadie kept planning.”

Much of Josephine’s planning involved managing her dwindling money, visiting family — including her older sister Hattie, whom she had become close with after their mother’s death — and attempting to critique how movies and articles continued to portray Wyatt. As she aged, she grew more paranoid and suspicious of others, perhaps due in part to dementia, which was listed as a “contributing factor” to her death in 1944, along with a heart attack.

In her final days, without the company of Wyatt or Hattie, Josephine was lonely and largely forgotten by those who had known her over the years. “A terrible silence followed her death,” wrote Kirschner.

She spent her twilight years attempting to control a narrative that seemed to be a moving target of fact and fiction, and in the end, Josephine likely took many truths to her grave.

The Quiet Legacy of Josephine Marcus Earp

Josephine was the daughter of immigrants, swept west with the times in search of opportunity and a better life. In that respect her story was hardly different than thousands of emigrants who trekked west in the name of progress, but the company she kept and the places she called home, however temporarily, made her an eyewitness to some of the frontier’s most infamous stories.

She was well into her 70s when she met with Mabel Earp Cason and Vinnolia Earp Ackerman to tell the story of her life, but the scrubbing she did to polish Wyatt’s legacy also doomed her own biography, which was mostly a biased highlight reel, and avoided the real juicy stuff Earp enthusiasts wanted to know.

Josephine eventually scrapped the whole project altogether, burning the manuscript that took years to put together, though Mabel and Vinnolia both kept separate copies, now known as the Cason manuscript, which is where Kirschner focused her research in Lady at the O.K. Corral.

We’ll likely never know if Josephine was a teenage runaway and wide-eyed prostitute in the Arizona Territory, or simply an adventurous young woman looking to blaze her own trail. Though her story lacks specifics, it’s clear that Josephine was more than willing to go her own way, even — or especially — when the path wasn’t clear.

Though she often painted it differently, her decades of adventure with Wyatt Earp were full of gambling, saloon girls, horseracing, affairs, drinking and failures of all sorts. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t a fairy tale ending, despite her efforts to glamorize many of their life’s chapters.

In the end, that might be the most typical Wild West thing Josephine Marcus Earp did: to mythologize, disguise, hide and reconstruct in a positive light the people, places, and events that made up an imperfect life on the frontier.

What’s more American than that?

Explore the Old West

D.T. Christensen is the founder and editor of OldWest.org, a history website committed to sharing and preserving stories of the American West. He was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, studied journalism at Northern Arizona University, and lives in Massachusetts with his wife and kids.

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