The Jewish First Lady at Legendary Lawmaker Wyatt Earp's O.K. Corral

Josephine Marcus Earp Finally Gets Her Due

The Lawmaker’s Heartbreaker:  Josephine Marcus Earp was Wyatt Earp’s common law wife for 46 years.
Courtesy of HarperCollins
The Lawmaker’s Heartbreaker: Josephine Marcus Earp was Wyatt Earp’s common law wife for 46 years.

By Hilene Flanzbaum

Published March 02, 2013, issue of March 08, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

Another difficulty of writing this biography stems from Marcus Earp’s determination to protect her husband’s reputation (and by extension, her own). She spent a great deal of energy, especially in the last 20 years of her life, whitewashing events. She told outsized lies to her biographers and to Earp’s — one being that Earp never owned gambling saloons; later in her life, when she finally talked about the saloons, she denied that he housed prostitutes upstairs. (He did.)

Marcus Earp seemed less concerned with her family’s disapproval than with how history would judge Earp. Her consuming passion was to keep hidden from the world that Earp’s abandonment of his second common-law wife led to poverty, depression and eventually suicide. As for the famous “vendetta ride” of 1882 in which Earp killed at least three people to avenge the murder and maiming of his two brothers, it is great stuff for movies, but certainly, at that time, it was not perceived by all as moral or admirable, as it is today. Today, in fact, you can relive the Wild West and buy tickets to “retrace Earp’s heroic Vendetta ride” — evidence perhaps that Earp has emerged as a hero rather than as the villain many thought him to be while he lived.

As would appear true for most wives of that day, Josephine Marcus Earp could not imagine an identity separate from her husband’s. Although Kirschner tries to find one for her, the facts, at least as presented here, do not support it. Though Marcus Earp had to be adventurous in order to leave her parents’ conventional San Francisco home at the age of 17 (to go on the stage), and then eventually travel with Earp to unsettled and primitive terrain in Tombstone and Nome, Alaska, the reader gets precious little of her own adventures — other than her faithful attempts to make her husband’s home comfortable.

Earp was building saloons and gambling parlors, and his wife was housekeeping, all the while feeling resentful about being left out of the action, and angry at her husband for engaging in illegal activities. Her reactions are understandable enough, but hardly the stuff of fascinating biography.

There’s an inherent problems with biographies of the wives of famous men. For such books to be successful, the subject herself has to emerge as a character of substance. Memories of Marcus Earp’s character leave the reader wondering. By some accounts, she was sneaky and shrewish, a compulsive gambler and a burden to Earp; others described her as charming, clever, a great hostess and a loyal companion to the famous sheriff. I suppose such traits are not mutually exclusive, but most of the time, I wondered what Earp saw in her — other than her looks. By all accounts, she was unusually beautiful: thick, dark hair; black, vivid eyes, and really stacked. Regardless, she does not emerge as a character that can stand alone. Rather, the reader learns a great deal about Wyatt Earp and the history and mythology that surround him, as well as the worthwhile story of the disappearance of the American frontier.

Perhaps it is a tribute to Kirschner that I am left wondering about Earp’s wife: how her parents really felt when their 17-year-old left home for such uncharted territory; how she coped with Earp entertaining prostitutes while she was left alone in a little hut in Nome, arranging furs on their bed. How many mistresses did Earp really take? And was she really a compulsive gambler? Marcus Earp’s story and its holes will remain with me. If I were a fiction writer, I would jump on this opportunity to re-create the woman’s story. Novelists out there — I see a best-seller in the making.

Hilene Flanzbaum is the Allegra Stewart Chair of Literature at Butler University, where she also directs the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing. She writes frequently about Jewish American culture.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks? http://jd.fo/d4kkV
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.