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The Story of a Jewish Woman of the West

Author Ann Kirschner explores the life of Wyatt Earp’s wife.

By Sue Tomchin
Spring 2013

Wander through the Hills of Eternity Jewish cemetery outside San Francisco, and you’ll come upon an unexpected sight: the grave of Wyatt Earp, famed frontiersman, lawman, gambler and the only person to emerge unscathed from the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. No, Earp, that archetype of Western manhood, was not Jewish, but he lived with a Jewish woman for nearly 50 years: Josephine Marcus. Her story, like many of the women of the West, has seldom been told. That is, until now. Just in time for March, Women’s History Month, comes Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp (HarperCollins, $27.99) by Ann Kirschner. Kirschner is university dean of Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York and the author of Sala’s Gift.

The pair “lived together for 47 years,” Kirschner writes, and Josephine “drew her strength from him, but she was the one who managed his business, signed his letters, and entertained his friends. He was buried with tears and eulogies and coast-to-coast headlines, while she died practically destitute and friendless.”

The daughter of a Jewish family that emigrated from Prussia to New York and on to San Francisco, Josephine ran away from the predictable future she saw for herself in her parents’ orbit. Headstrong and adventurous, she left home at 18 and wound up in the boomtown of Tombstone, Arizona Territory. Living first with Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan, she soon met the charismatic Earp and eventually became his common-law wife. They traversed the West, moving frequently as Earp sought business opportunities in California, Nevada, the rough-and-tumble world of the Alaska gold rush and, ultimately, Hollywood. Josephine is resourceful and feisty, reinventing herself in each situation. Earp, despite his heroic TV persona, was often a controversial figure, yet Josephine stuck with him and worked to safeguard his image against detractors.

Kirschner traveled to Tombstone to survey the places Josephine and Wyatt once frequented and also perused the many versions of Earp’s story by professional and amateur historians, including an unpublished manuscript of Josephine’s own memoir. Kirschner is the first to gain access to “the greatest number of Josephine’s original letters, many of which are still in the hands of private collectors.”

Josephine is by no means a saintly or uncomplicated figure, and Kirschner does an admirable job of placing her in the context of her times. Ultimately, she creates a realistic picture of the economic and social challenges faced by a woman on the frontier, even one with a husband whose name was well-known in the annals of the West.

Two recent novels by Jewish women are set in the West. Read about them at jwi.org/womenofthewest.

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