Being married to one of the Wild West’s most famous lawmen has got to give you a bit of street cred, but Josephine Earp was an icon in her own right. This fascinating woman was always enveloped in a cloak of mystery, though. Even during her own lifetime, she worked to obscure the truth about her mysterious past. And now, eight decades after her death, it’s difficult to tell exactly where the facts end and the fiction begins.
Known by several different names over the course of her long life, Josephine is most famous as the wife of Wyatt Earp — one of the central figures in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
But from her early years in Arizona to her time camping out in the Sonoran Desert, she had plenty of adventures of her own.
But who really was Josephine? Was she, as she claimed, an innocent girl who ran away from home to work as a dancer — finding plenty of love and excitement along the way? Or did she actually live a far more salacious life? And what was the truth about her relationship with the man whose name is synonymous with the Wild West?.
Unlike her later years, the early life of the future Mrs. Earp is actually fairly well documented, with few disputing the basic facts.
Born Josephine Sarah Marcus in either 1860 or 1861 in New York City, she was the daughter of Prussian immigrants who had arrived in the United States some years before.
In New York City, the Marcus family struggled to make ends meet. So when they heard about all the new opportunities on offer in the boomtown of San Francisco, they decided to relocate.
When Josephine was seven years old, she boarded a ship with her parents and siblings and made the long and arduous journey to the west coast.
But San Francisco wasn’t quite the paradise that it had promised to be. In fact, the city was a shadow of its former self, having been devastated by an earthquake in October 1868.
Despite finding themselves in an unexpected situation, though, the Marcus family soon settled in their new home.
It’s at this point that Josephine’s version of events begins to deviate from what the records suggest. After Wyatt passed away in 1929 two of his relatives attempted to make a record of the famous Wild West couple’s life.
And later, this document — dubbed the Cason manuscript — would partially inspire the 1976 book I Married Wyatt Earp.
According to these allegedly first-hand sources, Josephine’s father found success in the city’s burgeoning mercantile industry, becoming a prosperous member of Californian society. But census data suggests that the family actually remained in poverty for some time.
And that’s far from the only discrepancy in this long and convoluted story.
Whatever the truth, it seems clear that Josephine developed a love of theater from an early age. And according to her, the family paid for her to have lessons at a local performing arts school, where she learned ballroom dancing and the Highland Fling.
But soon, she grew restless with life in San Francisco.
What happened next is, again, a matter of some debate. If Josephine’s own testimony is to be believed, she ran away from home at the age of 18 to join a touring theater troupe led by dancer Pauline Markham.
Taking a role in a production of the popular hit Pinafore, she traveled first to California before winding up in Tombstone, Arizona.
According to Josephine, the date of the troupe’s visit to Tombstone was December 1, 1879. And she wasn’t the only future Wild West legend to arrive in town around that time.
That month, the frontier community also welcomed three new residents in the form of Wyatt Earp and two of his brothers, Virgil and James.
Some years earlier, Wyatt had worked as a lawman in Wichita, Texas, before moving 150 miles west to Dodge City. There, he took on the role of assistant city marshal.
And early on, he developed a reputation as the go-to man when it came to tracking down criminals on the run from the law.
Of course, that meant Wyatt often ran into trouble wherever he went. And not long after his arrival in Tombstone, he fell afoul of a group of outlaws known as the Cochise County Cowboys.
While he was busy making enemies, though, Josephine was falling into some entanglements of her own.
According to Josephine, she met her first husband, Johnny Behan, while on the road to Tombstone. Apparently, the pair wound up in the same ranch house while taking shelter from a bunch of renegade Yuma-Apaches.
And while it wasn’t exactly love at first sight, the deputy sheriff certainly made an impression on the young girl.
Allegedly, Josephine wrote later that Johnny was “young and darkly handsome, with merry black eyes and an engaging smile.” And the feeling appears to have been mutual. She added, “My heart was stirred by his attentions in what were very romantic circumstances.
It was a diversion from my homesickness though I cannot say I was in love with him.”
But not everyone agrees that Josephine met Johnny as an innocent, 18-year-old damsel in distress. In fact, there is lots of evidence to suggest she actually traveled to Arizona when she was just 14 years old.
And instead of a dancer, she was a prostitute going by the name of Sadie Mansfield.
Apparently, records show that both Sadie and Josephine shared a birthday — and other personal details are a match too. On top of that, both were documented as having traveled to Arizona in the company of a maid named Julia.
And if that wasn’t enough, the two young women both wound up in Tombstone around the same time.
Did Josephine try to erase details of her past career as a prostitute by wiping any reference to Sadie from her memoirs later in life? While we may never know the truth, we do know she returned to San Francisco in 1880, seemingly tired of a life on the road. But soon, she began craving adventure once more..
It was around this point, Josephine claimed, that Johnny — now divorced from his wife — tracked her down and convinced her to return to Arizona with him. But once the couple were back in Tombstone, he soon returned to his womanizing ways.
And there is some evidence to suggest that Sadie — or at least her professional life — may have made a reappearance as well.
According to records of the time, Josephine regularly sent gifts of money to her family back in San Francisco — something which should have been beyond the couple’s modest means. Had her return to Tombstone meant a return to life as a working girl? Or was she getting rich through other, more mysterious, means?.
Sadly, Josephine and Johnny’s relationship didn’t last long. And in 1881, after allegedly finding him in bed with another woman, she showed him the door.
It’s around that point, most believe, that Wyatt came into her life. But like much of the couple’s time together, the facts of their early relationship have been obscured over the years.
In fact, both Wyatt and Josephine would refuse to discuss how their relationship began for the rest of their lives. And perhaps for good reason.
When the pair first met, you see, he was still married to a woman named Mattie Blaycock. And even though the lawman eventually split from his first wife, she is said to have resented him to the end of her days.
While there’s no solid evidence that Josephine and Wyatt socialized during this period, we do know he shared a workspace with Behan at Tombstone’s Crystal Palace Saloon. So, the pair are certainly likely to have met.
And many believe that they were in an illicit love triangle that contributed, at least in part, to the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral in October 1881.
For years, tensions had been simmering between brothers Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt Earp and the Cowboys, a group of outlaws that included Ike and Billy Clanton, Billy Claiborne, and Frank and Tom McLaury. And on the afternoon of October 26, a short but brutal shootout broke out between the two factions in the streets of Tombstone..
Although the Earp brothers survived the gunfight, Frank, Tom, and Billy Clanton were all killed. And that wasn’t the end of the bloodshed.
Five months later, Morgan was shot to death through the window of a saloon — likely by a Cowboy bent on revenge. And two days after that, Wyatt, who had recently been made Deputy U.S. Marshall for the county, tracked down the man that he believed had pulled the trigger.
On March 20, 1882, Wyatt shot and killed Frank Stilwell in Tucson, Arizona. In response, the local authorities issued a warrant for his arrest.
And the cause was taken up by none other than Johnny Behan, who set off in pursuit of the wanted man. But was he motivated by something more than justice?
If Johnny was still in love with Josephine — and Wyatt was now her new man — this might explain why he was so keen to take up arms against him. But if this really was his reasoning, he never got to exact revenge on his love rival.
And eventually, the tensions that had followed the gunfight dissipated as the Earps left Tombstone behind for good.
What happened to Josephine next is, like so many other parts of her story, unclear. According to some, she headed back to San Francisco to reunite with her family once more.
But the records hint at a different story. Apparently, Sadie Mansfield made several journeys between California and Tombstone in the weeks following Stilwell’s death.
Around this time, Mattie was packed off to stay with the Earp family in San Bernardino, California, ostensibly for her own safety. Apparently, the plan was for Wyatt to send for his wife once things had calmed down — but he never did.
Instead, she became a prostitute in Pinal, Arizona, where she took her own life in July 1888.
In July 1882 Wyatt made his way to San Francisco, where he reunited with his alleged lover. And from this point onwards, the pair appear to have made little attempt to hide their relationship.
In fact, soon after her beau’s arrival in town, Josephine began using the name Mrs Earp. And according to reports, the couple tied the knot in 1883.
Later, Josephine would claim the pair didn’t make things official until 1892. But given that Mattie was still alive until 1888, this may have been an attempt to hide the adulterous nature of their relationship.
After all, most historians agree that she left San Francisco with Wyatt in 1883, making her way east to Gunnison, Colorado.
For the next two decades, the Earps bounced from town to town, following the gold and silver booms across the western states. But things were far from perfect behind the scenes.
Apparently, Josephine developed something of a gambling problem, frequently losing large sums — and selling her jewelry to fund the expensive habit.
After a handful of ventures failed and succeeded to varying degrees, Wyatt struck gold in the Sonoran Desert. And Josephine followed her husband to Vidal, California, where they swapped bustling boomtown life for the quiet of a desert camp.
By this point, though, the events that had played out in Tombstone had begun to take on a life of their own.
Ever since 1883 Buffalo Bill Cody had been touring the country with his live show — and slowly spreading a romanticized ideal of the Wild West. And in response, journalists were clamoring to find out more about the Earps and the gunfight at the O.K.
Corral. But not everyone wanted the truth to be told.
Apparently, Josephine became greatly protective of her and her husband’s legacy, attempting to suppress the truth about what really happened in Tombstone. Was she embarrassed about the overlap between their relationship and their respective entanglements with Mattie and Johnny? Or was she trying to paint Wyatt as more of a hero than he really was?.
Whatever her reasoning, Josephine successfully forced a number of publications to withdraw stories about the couple. Meanwhile, Wyatt rubbed shoulders with Hollywood stars such as John Wayne and director John Ford, adding his own influence to the legacy of the Wild West.
So it’s hardly surprising that the truth is difficult to pin down.
When Wyatt died in 1929 Josephine continued to mythologize her role in his life. According to some reports, she had spent her husband’s final years gambling away their money while he starved slowly in bed.
And when the time came to bury him, she didn’t even bother to attend the funeral.
According to Josephine herself, though, she was too grief-stricken to attend. But she wasn’t too upset to profit from her husband’s death.
And soon after, she began negotiating with writer Stuart Lake for a stake in his biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. When it was released in 1931 it became an instant hit — netting her a tidy sum.
But Josephine wasn’t done attempting to control the narrative yet. And it was towards the end of her own life that she collaborated on the Cason manuscript, laying the foundations for the many myths that would take hold over the years.
And even then, she refused to elaborate on the early years of her relationship with Wyatt and her time in Tombstone.
So was Josephine also moonlighting as Sadie Mansfield, a working girl who engaged in a number of illicit affairs? Or was she who she claimed to be — an innocent drawn into the wonder and romance of the Wild West? Although she was married to one of America’s greatest folk heroes, the whole truth of their story will probably never be known..