It could have been the famous “Gunfight at the Oy Vey Corral,” but history records the shootout between Wyatt Earp and his coterie against the outlaw Clantons as the gunfight at the OK Corral.
None of the participants were Jewish. Not Earp. Not the tubercular dentist Doc Holliday. And definitely none of the Clantons, McLaury brothers or Billy Claiborne. So why the Jewish connotation? Wyatt Earp was Jewish by connection and is buried in a Jewish cemetery in Colma, California, a San Francisco suburb.
Earp was a man of his time, and although he was “married” three times, his last and longest love was Josephine Sadie Marcus, who began life as a practicing Jew and made sure that her husband was properly buried surrounded by gravestones featuring the Magen David and menorahs.
Ask anyone of a certain age who Wyatt Earp was and the answers will come quickly: U.S. marshal, gunslinger, saloon owner, hero of countless TV shows and movies. Ask who Josephine Marcus Earp was and more than likely you’ll get a blank stare in return. That, even though they were together more than half a century until his death. In the few movies where Josephine is portrayed, she comes off rather unfavorably. She is pictured as a prostitute, a drunkard, someone who attached herself to Earp because he was famous as a gunslinger. Some of that brushes on the truth, but for the most part you’d never know the real Josie Marcus Earp without doing some hefty research. In fact, their marriage was an anomaly for the day. They were together from 1882 until his death in 1929.
Josephine was born in Brooklyn, also famous for producing William Bonney, alias Billy the Kid (or William Henry McCarty, the name he was born with). In 1867 her family moved to San Francisco. Her parents (Harry, born Carl-Hyman, and Sophie Lewis) were born in a section of Prussia that is today part of Poland, were both fairly observant Jews. Josephine was known to say prayers on a daily basis and had a solid Jewish education.
After watching a performance of HMS Pinafore she got the acting bug and ran away to join the Gilbert & Sullivan touring company. The route soon took her to famed Tombstone, Arizona where she fell in love with an Earp rival, Johnny Behan, who was then the city marshal and in cahoots with all sorts of outlaws. He made the error of introducing her to Wyatt Earp and she quickly switched affections.
There were unproven rumors that she was a prostitute, but that may well have been mistaken identity. Before meeting Wyatt she went by her middle name, Sadie. At the time there was a well-known “lady of the evening” named Sadie Mansfield. Speculation was that the two were mixed up and there is no evidence that Josephine was, in fact, Mansfield.
She was in Tombstone when she heard shots coming from the vicinity of the OK Corral. Josie knew the Clanton-McLaury gang was in town and it was almost inevitable that there was going to be a clash with the Earps. She ran from her house, jumped onto a fortuitously passing wagon and made it to the OK Corral.
The gunfight lasted a mere 30 seconds. That half minute of Western lore and fame produced scores of hours of television and movie time. Questions still remain about who fired the first shot, but Wyatt was about the only one unscathed. Doc Holiday and the other Earps, Morgan and town marshal Virgil, were wounded. Billy Claiborne and Ike Clanton, head of the gang turned tail and ran. Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton died. And a legend spanning 136 years was born.
Josie said: “I didn’t know who was wounded and I was frightened. I almost swooned when I saw Wyatt’s tall figure very much alive. He spotted me and came across the street and all I could think was that I didn’t have a bonnet on. What will they think?”
Through all the shootings that Wyatt Earp was involved in throughout his career, after his death it was noted that there was not a single bullet wound on his body. That was a testament to his ability to draw fast and shoot first.
Behan, an ally of the Clantons, charged the Earps with murder. The courts thought differently and acquitted them. That spurred a revenge attack by the Clanton gang, led by the cowardly Ike Clanton. In an ambush attack Morgan was killed, spurring a vicious retribution by Wyatt and Doc Holliday along with supporters killing anyone they suspected in the ambush.
Now a fugitive himself, Wyatt, along with Josie, headed for the hills. They moved to Gunnison, Colorado and lucked out when the sheriff there refused extradition on the grounds that Earp could not get a fair trial. Wyatt and Josie became happy wanderers moving from town to town, generally following discoveries of gold, copper or silver. They owned and operated saloons in various Western towns and as far north as Alaska and Idaho. They even moved in with Josie’s parents in San Francisco.
The reconnection with her parents brought about in Josie a reawakening of her Jewish roots. Records don’t indicate if she kept kosher and that probably wasn’t the case. But her studies of Judaism resumed, as did her regular prayers.
Earp became a cornerstone of the early dime novels that glamorized frontier figures such as Kit Carson, Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett. One of those who portrayed him in the genre was Ned Buntline. The writer designed a ferocious looking .45 pistol with a 12-inch barrel that was produced by Colt. Myth in television and movies had Buntline presenting one of the guns to Earp and the lawman using it to bash in a bad guy’s head instead of shooting him. Great story, but there is no evidence that Earp ever owned one of the Buntlines.
Although Wyatt had two previous marriages—to Urilla Sutherland for less than a year in 1870 (she died of typhoid) and Mattie Blaylock from 1878 to 1881 (there was no official record of any such wedding although they were listed in the 1881 census as married)—Josie truly became the love of his life. They were together for many years as a common law marriage and were ultimately married in a civil ceremony, the date of which could not be determined. The union was a happy one in spite of Wyatt’s bouts of heavy drinking and his penchant for chasing other women. Josie not only chose to look the other way, but she became the ferocious gatekeeper of his life and legend. Any writer with the temerity to try and depict either of them, especially Wyatt, had to face the wrath of Josie and her threats of a law suit. As a result Wyatt Earp has become somewhat of a saint of the Old West, a man with no flaws and a strong sense of justice. Maybe it’s partly true, but no one will ever know for sure.
Wyatt became a consultant to Hollywood movie makers working on films about the Old West. He was a close friend to cowboy actors William S. Hart and Tom Mix. Mix was seen openly crying at Earp’s funeral.
Wyatt and Josie’s half-century together came to a close on Jan. 13, 1929, when Wyatt died at the ripe old age for that time of 80. Josie had him buried in the family plot at Little Hills of Eternity. It’s generally accepted that Wyatt had no taint of anti-Semitism and agreed to the burial location, especially since Josie intended to lie next to him when her time came. The original marker was a 250-pound concrete block that Josie had installed. Apparently a Wyatt Earp fan with the strength of Superman wanted a souvenir and stole the grave stone. It was replaced by a double polished granite stone that today bears both their names.
Josie passed away Dec. 19, 1944, at a time and age so distant from the time and place where Wyatt gained fame and the two met and formed a love that outlasted history.
By Bob and Sandy Nesoff