Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp, by Ann Kirschner, 2013, HarperCollins, $27.99.
The title is catchy, but, no, Josephine—former lover of Johnny Behan (she called herself Mrs. Johnny Behan for a time) and future lifetime companion of Wyatt Earp—was not involved in the famous Fremont Street gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, on October 26, 1881, nor was she waiting in the nearby O.K. Corral to see how it all came out. While Kirschner says Josephine “put on her bonnet” and raced to the "thunder of the gunshots" to check on Wyatt, most people who have written about the gunfight aren’t even sure that Josephine was in Tombstone that day. Whether Josie was there or not for Wyatt during those infamous and much written about 30 seconds seems of little matter, though, since they would spend nearly a half-century together.
Getting to the bottom of Josephine’s true story is harder than getting the “facts” absolutely straight about Johnny or Wyatt. New York City-based author Kirschner (see Interview) makes a point of saying she is Jewish, and that was what drew her to the Jew Josephine. "I quickly became far more interested in Mrs. Earp than in her famous husband," she says. Early on Kirschner provides a statement that grabs one’s attention almost as much as that seminude picture of voluptuous Josephine (see cover of the late Glenn Boyer’s controversial 1976 book, I Married Wyatt Earp) that most everyone now agrees is not actually her: “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." Outlandish? Perhaps, but Wyatt Earp biographer Stuart Lake said something similar about “Johnny Behan’s girl” being “the key to the whole yarn of Tombstone”—in a letter, not in Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal.
There are plenty of holes in Josephine’s early years and that has allowed for two distinctly different pictures of this beauty from San Francisco. Kirschner discounts the theory that prostitute Sadie Mansfield and Josephine "Sadie" Marcus were one in the same person, adding that “given Josephine’s pride and the option of appealing to her parents, it is unlikely that Josephine would have risked even a temporary stint as a prostitute.” Back in 2001 author Carol Mitchell suggested the two Sadies were the same person, and in 2013 author Roger Jay expanded on that not-so-strange notion. In the February 2013 Wild West History Association Journal Jay writes: “In 1874, at the age of 14, Josie Marcus fell in with a San Francisco madam Hattie Wells. Late in November 1874, using the alias Sadie Mansfield, she arrived in Prescott, Arizona, and went to work in Hattie’s brothel.”
Whatever the truth about her past, Josie at some point stopped being Mrs. Behan and took up with Wyatt. The author does a good job of detailing (though in some places details will always be sketchy) the many post-Tombstone years, with the couple’s time in gold rush Nome, Alaska, overshadowing their travels in California, Arizona, Colorado and Nevada. Wyatt ran saloons way up north, while Josephine worked hard to withstand the cold. “Mr. and Mrs. Earp had at last made their fortune, enough to follow their inclinations [prospecting in the desert, mostly],” the author writes. Los Angeles (Hollywood especially) was their last frontier together. One of the more interesting facts is that Albert Behan, son of the Cowboys’ sheriff, remained friendly with both of them. After Wyatt’s death, Josephine’s trail alone mostly involved a flood of manuscripts and would-be manuscripts about Wyatt (she wanted her man to come across as something of a saint) and even herself. Kirschner provides a good read even for those already familiar with most of Josie’s “love story” and even though the author really shouldn’t take credit for “writing her [Josie] back into American history.”