The crowded Earp field has turned up a wealth of information about Wyatt and his brothers, their involvement in the infamous October 26, 1881, fight near the O.K. Corral and their lives afterward. But not all details have been revealed, and some never will be no matter how much research takes place. Ann Kirschner was a newcomer to the field, which she came to dub “Planet Earp.” The university dean of Macaulay Honors College at the City University of New York, she is known for her work in Victorian literature and her book Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story. She admittedly knew little about the Earps until after a friend happened to ask her, “Did you know that Wyatt Earp was buried in a Jewish cemetery?” That question set her off on a quest that led her to the story of Wyatt Earp’s third wife, who was Jewish, and resulted in the 2013 biography Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp [see review in this issue). Nobody had put a book-length focus on Josie since Glenn Boyer’s 1976 book I Married Wyatt Earp, sold as a memoir but whose authenticity has been seriously challenged. Ann Kirschner recently spoke to Wild West about her research and book.
What makes you say “The gunfight at the O.K. Corral was a love story, fought over Josephine Marcus, a woman of beauty and spunk barely out of her teens, escaping the restrictions of birth and seeking adventure, independence, and romance.”?
Josephine had a lover on both sides of the warring factions in Tombstone. She had been living in town as Mrs. [John] Behan, and was soon to be spending the next 47 years as Mrs. Earp. Of course, the gunfight was also a story of politics, power, and money—but let’s not forget that at various times, Johnny Behan and Wyatt Earp were both sleeping with the same gutsy, busty broad: Josephine Marcus.
You gained access to letters and documents that have not been previously published?
To my knowledge, I am the only person who had access to the largest group of Josephine’s original letters, which were sold at auction by John Gilchriese’s estate and have changed hands several times since. I located them through some complicated detective work and many lucky breaks. It helped that I could offer my first book, Sala’s Gift, as evidence that I was serious, honest, and professional.
How about Glenn Boyer’s papers?
Glenn Boyer [who died last February] gave me permission to read the original “Cason” manuscript in its home at the Ford County Historical Society, and also provided me with hours of recorded interviews with the Cason family, many of them dating back to the 1970s, when recollections of their encounters with Josephine were not ancient history, as well as other recorded interviews with Marcus family descendants who knew Josephine.
What items were particularly crucial to your biographical sketch of Josephine?
[Wyatt Earp biographer] Stuart Lake’s papers at the Huntington and Houghton library were invaluable, of course, for understanding how the legend of Earp was shaped by Josephine and the early Western chroniclers. But for hearing Josephine’s voice and capturing her personality, nothing gave me greater insight than her own letters and the recorded anecdotes of the Cason and Marcus families. Josephine talked about some, but not all, of her experiences in Tombstone to Mabel Earp Cason and Vinnolia Earp Ackerman. She never revealed the time and place of her first meeting with Wyatt because she did not want to raise the Cason family’s suspicions about her previous dalliance with Johnny Behan or Wyatt’s marital status.
Planet Earp can be a bit rough-and-tumble at times. Any back-alley stories you could share about your venture into that subject?
I came with clean hands to Planet Earp—no feuds, no fights, no flaming on any listservs to tie me to any particular point of view. My own loyalty was to history: who was Josephine Earp and what can we learn from her? Most Earpists were incredibly generous with their time, documents, ideas. To my publisher’s consternation, I probably have the longest Earp Notes on record, as I felt so strongly about acknowledging the librarians, collectors, and fine writers who helped me. Back alley stories….well, a few people blew smoke in my face, proffered false theories or phony documents. Others could not hear the subjectivity and stale old arguments that were distorting their judgment, or the taint of anti-semitism that clung to their attitudes. On a lighter note, it was pretty funny to hear rumors rumbling around Planet Earp that Ann Kirschner was keeping company in Alaska with Jeff Guinn, author of Last Gunfight. As Jeff likes to tell me now, “We’ll always NOT have Nome!”
You use the term “yarn of Tombstone” could you elaborate?
Tombstone is a Rorschach test. People interpret the rise and fall of the town, the Gunfight, the closing of the American frontier, violence in American culture in accordance with their own perspectives and prejudices. One of my goals has been to put the women back in the picture—Josephine, Clara Spalding Brown, the Earp wives, and others. Recently, I’ve been learning more about Molly Fly and wishing I’d written more about her!
Why do you believe Josie/Sadie Marcus is a separate person from “Sadie Mansfield?” What evidence is there to support (or refute) claims that Josie was a prostitute?
Reasonable people can study the same research and come to different conclusions. A biographer collects data, weighs different theories, reviews the facts in their historical context, and draws conclusions. I added it all up and drew a portrait of Josephine as unconventional, flirtatious, wildly romantic, but more likely to have been serially monogamous. I’m sure that in years to come, there will be new discoveries, and I will be delighted to see other people draw new and perhaps different conclusions. The only people who don’t make mistakes are the ones who don’t publish. The bottom line is that historians must be honest—and humble.
What didn’t you find that you would desperately like to know about Josephine?
I’d like to have two days with Josephine—Tombstone, October 27, 1881, and Tombstone, February 20, 1937. I’d like to wear a Harry Potter Cloak of Invisibility and accompany her as she walks around Tombstone on the day after the Gunfight, and then again when she returns to those streets for the first time to prepare her memoirs. Where was she living and what did she say to Wyatt, to her friends, on that tumultuous day? And what did it feel like to walk down Fremont Street after Wyatt’s death and encounter the ghosts of 1882?
What likelihood is there that you would have researched and written about Josephine Marcus Earp if your friend had not asked you the question of why Wyatt Earp was buried in a Jewish cemetery?
I might never have written Lady at the OK Corral if my friend hadn’t piqued my interest that day. But most books begin that way—an idea plants itself in a writer’s head and sinks deep roots into the imagination. My friend’s question connected me to a powerful memory of watching Wyatt Earp with my older brother, who died of brain cancer in 2004. I dedicated my book to him and often wished we could laugh together at the wide gulf of history that separated our favorite TV show from reality.
In what ways does this biography expand the record of Jewish women in the 19th Century American West?
Little of historical fact was known about Josephine and her role in shaping the legend of the West, so I’m honored to expand the record. In the course of writing Lady at the OK Corral, I learned so much about the history of Jewish communities and businesses in the West—the Tombstone Hebrew Benevolent Association, for instance, or the fact that there were Jewish men on the inquest jury in Tombstone after the gunfight. The highly stratified Jewish society in San Francisco had a powerful impact on Josephine’s decision to leave home. My favorite Jewish stories were probably those in Nome, however, where many of the businesses were owned by the Alaska Commercial Company, a firm owned by Jewish businessmen, and where the Jewish New Year was celebrated with great gusto in the remarkable autumn of 1900.
Did it frustrate you that Josephine paid little heed to her Jewish heritage?
As far as Josephine’s relation to her Jewish heritage, she was just plain indifferent. Not hostile, not deceitful, but not engaged in any way. That was her choice. I considered it part of her profile, interesting since it illuminated her character and the choices she made. There are no particularly right or wrong ways to be Jewish, in my opinion.
What do you believe was the underlying connection between Josephine and Wyatt Earp that kept them together for half a century?
Love, laughter, and respect, ladies and gentlemen, kept Josephine and Wyatt together. I think those are the not-so secret ingredients of any long-lived marriage.