Did you know Wyatt Earp was buried in a Jewish cemetery?
This question was all it took for Ann Kirschner to tug at a loose string in the tightly knit fabric of codified history, unraveling an alternative narrative of the American frontier and opening a window onto Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp, the Jewish common-law wife of legendary Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp.
The result of Kirschner’s research is “The Lady at the OK Corral,” a biography of a woman who never wanted a biography. Kirschner was in Seattle to talk about Josephine at Town Hall on April 18.
“Here was this woman that I never heard about, never read about, and the fact that she was Jewish and married to the man who was arguably the best-known lawman of the American frontier — wow, that was pretty irresistible,” Kirschner told JTNews.
Josephine Marcus Earp lived an exciting life by all accounts, let alone as a daughter of poor Jewish immigrants between the years of 1860 and 1940. Having moved from New York to San Francisco by steamer with her family around 1870, in 1878 she took off for Arizona Territory to become an actress, only to return home a year later with her tail between her legs. But soon she was back on the road to Arizona, this time to marry her suitor, the persistent divorcee and lawman of Tombstone, Johnny Behan.
It didn’t take long for Josephine’s common-law marriage to Behan to go south; meanwhile, the dirty town of Tombstone was succumbing to chaos, with Wyatt Earp competing with Behan for leadership. Tensions mounted until October 26, 1881, the day of the infamous gunfight between Wyatt Earp and his brothers, and Johnny Behan’s cowboy faction. What is lesser known, however, is that Josephine Sarah Marcus may have been at the apex of a love triangle between Johnny Behan and Wyatt Earp.
It’s a Jewish parent’s worst nightmare. Your rebellious daughter comes back home to live with you, only to be whisked away by the nationally known, infamous, gun-wielding goy she’s in love with. For Josephine (and probably many other Jewish girls throughout history) it must have been unbearably romantic.
These are the scrappy pieces of history Kirschner chased around the country, hot on the tail of an elusive woman who never held a permanent address once in her adult life.
Not only that, but Josephine deliberately covered her tracks.
“She had a lot of skeletons in her closet,” said Kirschner. “She was a willing accomplice to the suppression of her own story.”
So many skeletons, in fact, that Josephine put a curse on anyone who dared to tell her story and fought throughout her life to suppress books and films that would expose the unsavory details. Josephine, Wyatt Earp’s fourth common-law wife, was particularly intent to silence the story of Mattie Blaylock, his third wife, the former prostitute he left who became addicted to opiates and eventually took her own life.
But so far, Kirschner has not been crushed by any falling pianos.
“I think Josephine would turn that curse to a blessing,” she said. “I think she would feel that I tried to follow the truth and tell the intimate stories about her life without trying to whitewash it in any way.”
But just because Josephine’s role in history, like many other women’s, disappeared, does not necessarily mean she should become a heroine.
“She’s a complicated figure,” said Kirschner. “I guess most biographers have a love-hate relationship with their subjects.”
But Josephine is a hero to Kirschner in some ways. “She was an artist of reinventing herself,” she said. “I love that about her. I love her love of the unconventional. I also admire her fierce love and loyalty for her husband, and the incredible modern and smart way that way she understood celebrity, and how to control the legacy of Wyatt Earp.”
Now, the answer to the question you’ve been waiting for: How did the non-Jewish Wyatt Earp’s cremated remains end up in the Marcus’ Jewish family plot in the Jewish Hills of Eternity Memorial Park?
It’s a question Kirschner gets at every talk. “The answer, I think, is just California,” she said. Josephine’s remains are also cremated and rest beside Wyatt’s and near her parents and brother.
Kirschner’s visit to Seattle coincided with an event related to her first book, the opening of “Sala’s Gift” on stage at Seattle Pacific University. Before undergoing open-heart surgery, Kirschner’s mother, a survivor of seven Nazi slave labor camps, handed her a box with a diary and 350 letters she’d received during her imprisonment. (Indeed, the Germans were organized enough to enslave a population without letting mail service slide.)
Kirschner says the letters were a way for her mother to save the lives of family and friends, most of whom were killed. “It was an act of resistance on her part, and also an act of tremendous spirituality and faith.”
Kirschner is proud of the stage adaptation, another venue for education.
“These letters were extraordinary,” said Kirschner. “But like Josephine, my mother didn’t think her story was particularly relevant or important. And she had other reasons for keeping silent. She thought that the letters might harm us, that they might make her children frightened, that we might be intolerant ourselves.”
Like the thrilling nuggets of history Kirschner obtained in her research, including a box of recorded interviews from 1960 with people who remembered Josephine clearly, the box of letters was a gift for posterity.
“[They’re] a time capsule,” she said, “a bridge back to the past.”