Sometime in the winter of 1882–83 Josephine Sarah “Sadie” Marcus crossed Market Street and stole into San Francisco’s Chinatown to reunite with her lover and hoped-to-be husband, Wyatt Earp. Several months earlier brothers Wyatt and Warren had slipped out of the mountain fastness of Gunnison, Colorado, where they had been lying low and, with the connivance of state politicians, evading extradition to Arizona Territory to face a murder charge. Perhaps they preferred the congenial climate of San Francisco to the bone-racking cold of the Rockies and anticipated a hearty welcome from their eldest brother, Virgil, who was residing at 604 Pine Street and had staked out territory nearby to front a faro layout. Perhaps, though, there was something more to the choice of San Francisco as a refuge and spa, and in Wyatt’s eyes that something took the shape of petite 22-year-old Sadie, she of the saucy sashay and robust bosom. Come springtime she would be off on her “wanderings with Wyatt,” as she called them, rallying with him to the cause of his crony, Luke Short—a fellow member of the gamblers’ mutual aid society—in the Dodge City War, really a turf skirmish between sporting men and politicians. This marked the first of many notable moments she and Wyatt would share during their 46-year partnership. They closed the books on it only with his death at age 80 on January 13, 1929.
Around Christmas 1880 Sadie had boarded a South- ern Pacific train at Tucson and struck out for the silver-mining camp of Tombstone, Arizona Terri- tory, caught up in the “taut excitement” of the latest bonanza. She was en route to meet the man who had promised to marry her: John Behan. He had relocated to Tombstone in September, abandoning his saloon in Tip Top, a mining enclave between Phoenix and Prescott. Behan was a natty combination of canny and convivial, a onetime sheriff and member of the territorial legislature, a politician head to toe. He quickly melded into Tombstone’s fluid power structure, tending bar at the brand new Grand Hotel and latching on to a position as a Pima County deputy sheriff in November 1880. Once he was well fixed, he sent for Sadie to join him.
At first she was dazzled by the glitter of silver and the romance and promise of the boomtown. But as she told the tale, Behan continued to evade the subject most on her mind—that promised wedding—the glamour faded, and in a moment of depression she wrote to her family back in San Francisco and expressed her anxiety concerning the intentions of her fiancé. Her father, whom she described as a prosperous merchant, was supposed to have responded by sending her $300 to pay for her fare home, or for living expenses if she decided to stay on in Tombstone. This was a real stretcher. In fact, he was a down-at-the-heels baker, who sometimes peddled buns and bialys door to door, shuttled his family from tenement to tenement at yearly intervals and would have grown faint at the thought of forking over such a cash outlay. Finally, she did move into a house with Behan, though without benefit of clergy—shape (maiden to mistress) shifting, so it seemed. Situated at Seventh and Safford streets, the house was his—whatever her contribution—but by February 1881 he had rented it out. Where she and Behan stayed after that is a mystery, but stay together they did, for a while.
Despite Sadie’s reluctance later in life to discuss her Tombstone experiences, and her tendency to prevaricate when goaded to touch upon the subject, sufficient documentation exists to draw an outline of what she was about in 1881 and 1882. The initial item is a notice—printed in the April 16, 1881, edition of The Tombstone Epitaph—of a letter waiting for Josephine Marcus. That she was addressed as “Josephine” hints, through its formality, at correspondence from a family member, not from anyone who knew her informally as “Sadie” or by the identity she assumed when she first came to Arizona Territory. Then, on June 11, someone issued a postal money order from Tombstone to Sadie’s mother, Mrs. H. [Henry] Marcus; the registered sender was Josephine Behan. By then she purported to be John’s wife, even though at this late date in their relationship no record attests to their marriage. Of course, unsanctified cohabitation was far from a rare occurrence on the frontier. But the idyll of the lovers, at least their stab at domesticity, came to an end on July 29 as “Mrs. Behan” rode out of town on Kinnear & Co.’s stagecoach. Very likely Johnny’s serial fornication was the cause of the breakup. One thing is certain: References to “Miss Marcus,” “Mrs. Behan” and “Josephine” were heard no more.
On August 13 a letter for a Sadie Mansfield was waiting at the Tombstone post office. This was the name by which Josephine Sarah Marcus had been known at her several residences in Arizona Territory prior to 1881. That the letter was collected proved she had not left town permanently but had resumed her earlier identity and let the fact be known. More of Sadie Mansfield ensued. On November 11 she was on a train that passed Colton, Calif. (the home of the Earp brothers’ parents), bound for Arizona Territory two weeks after the sensational shootout between the Earps and Doc Holliday on one side and the Clantons and McLaurys on the other. Again, on February 23, 1882, the day after Wyatt’s common-law wife, Mattie, checked into Tombstone’s Cosmopolitan Hotel, where the Earp clan and their allies had taken refuge from the menace of the assassin’s bullet (with Mattie the last family member to be ensconced in this castle keep), a newspaper noted that S. Mansfield of Tombstone had passed Fresno from San Francisco, her train due in Arizona the next day. On these occasions Sadie’s returns coincide with heightened tension in the Earp drama, moments of extreme peril for Wyatt.
By the end of April 1882 all the Earps had left Tombstone, Wyatt on the run from a murder charge generated not by the famous gunfight near the O.K. Corral but by his Vendetta Ride, an exercise in outlaw elimination that ended as badly as possible for several suspects in the murder of his brother Morgan. Sadie, however, remained in Tombstone through July 1882, as her name on P. 34 of a special census proves. What her state of mind was at this time is open to speculation. Had she made a clean break with Behan, no longer calling herself his wife, sheltering under his roof, sleeping in his bed, no longer Josephine but reincarnated as Sadie and still heeding the siren song of adventure borne on the desert winds, surviving again by her wits in her old profession? Open to speculation as well was her relationship with Wyatt, though evidence of his pimping in Peoria, Ill., and Wichita, Kan., leads to the conclusion that a working prostitute, especially one as attractive as Sadie, would stimulate his interest, erotic or otherwise.
Eight years earlier, seeking a new life and sporting a new name, Sadie first set her restless feet on the powdered desert of Arizona Territory. The November 20, 1874 issue of the Prescott Arizona Weekly Miner carried the following item:
Special Dispatches of the ARIZONA MINER by Western Union and U.S. Military Lines
Named passengers who left Wickenburg this morning en route to Prescott from San Francisco: Miss Hattie Wells, Miss Ella Howard, Miss Saddie [sic] Mansfield, Miss Minnie Alice and Mrs. Julia Burton and servant.
This party was traveling by stagecoach to a town platted a decade earlier to serve the military outpost of Fort Whipple. By 1874, the population of Prescott, preponderantly male, was growing apace as soldiers under Brig. Gen. George Crook’s command battled native Yavapais and Tonto Apaches for control of that swath of the territory, and miners worked a wealth of promising strikes. The women were under the tutelage of madam Hattie Wells. About 1870 she set up a brothel in the 1000 block of Clay Street, San Francisco, a five-minute uphill stroll from Chinatown. She had cruised into the Bay Area with a similar group in 1868, after rounding up six women from Chicago’s treacherous 2nd Ward—where she had been turning tricks as early as 1860—and herding the soiled sisters westward to profit from the bonanza of the Comstock Lode that established San Francisco as a transit point and financial center.
No physical description of Sadie Mansfield is extant, yet among these women she must have stood out. Hattie was in her 30s; Julia (identified in census records as “mulatto”) in her mid-50s; Ella and Minnie Alice were hardened by service in Western brothels—while Sadie was a mere 14 years of age.
In her unpublished memoir, known asThe Cason Manuscript, Sadie Marcus likewise recounted a stagecoach ride from San Francisco to Prescott, supposedly accompanying a troupe of “actresses” and a black maid,“Aunt Julia.” This trip became a pivotal event in Sadie’s life, introducing her to men and places that would shape her future. Yet no one who has given her version more than a cursory hearing believes it as told.
In 1879 Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera, H.M.S. Pinafore; or, The Lass That Loved a Sailor—with its witty lyrics and hummable tunes, popular quotations (“never…well, hardly ever”) and commercial tie-ins, such as advertising cards for Sapolio soap—had become a phenomenon in the United States, with close to 150 productions up and running from coast to coast. By October promoters had assembled a cast in San Francisco, headlined by the well-known and -endowed British beauty Pauline Markham, and sent it into the Arizona badlands. Sadie Marcus claimed to have been a member of the troupe, but it is clear she was not. First, Markham’s players traveled by train to Tucson, while Sadie recalled going by stage to Prescott. Second, California and Arizona newspapers named all the actresses in the production, and none of them was Sadie. And third, hostile Apaches threatened Sadie’s stagecoach, prompting a 10-day layover at a ranch house, while Markham’s cast rode the rails from San Francisco to Tucson in two days, without interruption.
Sadie’s fictional account serves to divert attention from what she was really doing in Arizona Territory. The resemblance between her journey and Sadie Mansfield’s—specifically the route, the mode of transportation by stagecoach and, above all, the black woman named Julia who was a fellow passenger—cannot be attributed to coincidence.
By December 1874, only weeks after arriving in Prescott with Hattie Wells, Sadie was working in a brothel on Granite Street, not far from the county courthouse. She entertained one client in particular, a glad-handing politician named Johnny Behan, who had filled several municipal and territorial offices, among them county sheriff. A perpetual office-seeker and married man with two children, Behan was also a womanizer, and his flagrant trysts with Sadie and others caused a scandal that spread beyond the confines of household and neighborhood.
His indiscretions resulted in a divorce decree issued to his wife, Victoria, several months later. To obtain it, she produced a witness, one Charles Goodman, who testified, “I saw the defendant [Behan] at a house of ill-fame…at which resided one Sada [sic] Mansfield, commonly called Sada, a woman of prostitution and ill-fame, and the said defendant did at that time and at the house spoken of stay all night and sleep with the said Sada Mansfield.”
In her memoir Sadie Marcus elaborated on an incident that occurred while she was confined to the “ranch house,” allegedly waiting for the U.S. cavalry and civilian volunteers to clear the road to Prescott of Apaches:
I can now speak casually of meeting one of them. He was young and darkly handsome with merry black eyes and an engaging smile. 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. I was in a state of too great confusion to allow for any such deep feeling.
His name was Johnny Behan. I do not know how he happened to be in that place at that time, though I am under the impression that he was a deputy sheriff engaged on some official errand. This affair, unimportant as it appears, was to have a far-reaching effect upon my life.
A notice in the Los Angeles Daily Herald of November 2, 1875, listing Miss S. Mansfield as a passenger on the steamer Mohongo, sailing from San Francisco to Los Angeles, belies any notion that 15-year-old Sadie was a prisoner in a Prescott bordello. While Hattie Wells undoubtedly exercised control over her house and what went on within it, as any madam would, the residents were free to come and go as they pleased as long as their accounts were square. Nothing suggests Sadie was an unwilling participant in the flesh trade, despite her tender years.
Additional documentation reinforces her status as a free agent. The Herald, on February 8, 1876, noted that a “Miss Mansfield” from Prescott had checked into the Pico Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. It is likely this was the same woman who had sailed from San Francisco the previous November. Neither the federal censuses of 1870 and 1880 nor the San Francisco city directories for the decade 1870–80 identify another Sadie Mansfield living there. But even if by chance it is not the same woman, the available records for Prescott —significantly, an 1876 census conducted by John Behan— offer no possibility other than Sadie Marcus for the Miss Mansfield who registered at the Pico Hotel.
It is known from The Cason Manuscript that Sadie was back in San Francisco by March 6, 1876, when she attended the grand opening of the sumptuous Baldwin Theater on Market Street. But soon afterward she suffered serious physical consequences from her experiences in Arizona Territory: “The fear and excitement, the weeks of exhausting travel, chagrin over my own foolishness, all together proved too much for my strength. I developed St. Vitus’ Dance.” Resulting from an autoimmune response triggered by a bacterial infection, St. Vitus’ Dance, or Sydenham’s chorea, is characterized by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements of the body. It most often affects girls under the age of 18. Sadie, who was 16 and had endured more than a year of the physical and mental stress that was the lot of the frontier prostitute, made a likely victim.
It took her two years to recover, placing her return to health sometime in 1878. She recalled that Behan came to visit her after the disease had run its course. If they had been in contact by letter while she convalesced, as must have been the case, then the date of their reunion in San Francisco would have been March 1879. The Arizona Weekly Miner of February 28, 1879, announced that Johnny had left Prescott the previous Saturday for San Francisco, reportedly to seek medical advice about the condition of his hearing-impaired son, Albert. On that trip, Sadie claimed—on no greater authority than her own word—Johnny proposed marriage. Possibly he intimated a betrothal to pique her interest, though it would be much later—and after Sadie had prostituted herself in the bleak barrens of the Tip Top mining camp—that the couple would essay a none-too-successful experiment as husband and wife.
By late 1879, sensing his future—his political future, that is, which is all he could count on—was no longer assured in Prescott, Behan had set up a saloon in the roaring camp of Tip Top, and Sadie, reinvigorated as a “normal healthy girl,” was more than ready to answer his summons. As she admitted: “Life was dull for me in San Francisco. And in spite of my sad experience of a few years ago, the call to adventure still stirred my blood.”
From her childhood, boundless—though often way- ward—energy had characterized Sadie. Her memoir begins, “From the moment that my restless feet first touched the hospitable Embarcadero at San Francisco, life has been a fascinating and often exciting adventure.” Born in New York City in late 1860 or early 1861, Sadie, along with her mother, two sisters and a brother, voyaged to California by way of the Panama Canal in 1869, meeting with her father, who had gone ahead of the family to secure work. They found lodgings in an apartment at 1211 Powell St., while her father, Henry, took a job in a bakery on the same block.
For five years Sadie lived an itinerant life, as the Marcuses made at least four moves, packing their belongings and going downhill, crossing Market Street toward the docks and warehouses, the slums of the city, called “South of the Slot,” where she faced a daily round of soul-eroding challenges. Her playmate much of the time was her younger sister, Henrietta, an honor student and dutiful daughter, in many ways Sadie’s opposite. Yet Henrietta was loyal and steadfast. Following her marriage to a successful businessman, she for many years provided much-needed monetary support to Sadie and Wyatt. To compensate for the struggle of getting along, Sadie’s remembrances of her childhood are lyrical—playing jacks with Henrietta, exploring the sandalwood-scented crannies of Chinatown, being treated by her older sister to theatrical spectacles by such matinee idols as James O’Neill (father of playwright Eugene).
The only other companion of her youth about whom she wrote at length is the girl she called “Dora Hirsch,” whose real name was Leah Hirschberg. She and Sadie were best friends at that critical period when they began to lengthen their skirts and consider themselves grown up. For Victorian girls the process of lowering their hems signified a rite of passage out of childhood and commenced at age 12 or 13—in Sadie’s case 1872–73. Meaningfully, the girls were best friends only at that crucial moment, parting ways in 1874.
Sadie precisely described certain attributes of her friend: Leah yearned for a career on the stage and did earn renown as an actress later in the decade; she had an excellent singing voice; her mother was a music teacher, one of whose students landed a role in Pauline Markham’s Pinafore, an accomplishment Sadie hijacked for her own biography decades later. But Sadie also made claims that are undeniably false: Leah was not two or three years older than Sadie but a year younger; Leah did not “lure” Sadie into show business; the two of them never belonged to the Pinafore troupe. The role in which Sadie casts Leah is that of a scapegoat, bearing the blame for Sadie’s running away from home, permitting Sadie to portray herself as a “good girl” led astray whenever it suits her purpose.
Sadie found Chinatown “a never-ending source of interest,” and Hattie Wells’ brothel loomed over its border. A bold and impressionable young girl such as Sadie proved to be might well wander into the adjoining red-light district, her fancy drawn by the garishly attired women. She described her fellow Pinafore “actresses” (in reality the prostitutes with whom she joined the November 1874 caravan to Arizona Territory) as “stylish and sophisticated.” The Powell Street Primary School, which she attended for several years, was just around the corner from Wells’ back door. Contrast the impression of the indulgent women lounging in Hattie’s parlor with the “self-righteous and merciless” discipline administered by Carrie Benjamin, the school principal, who switched Sadie’s palms for such infractions as poor lessons or giggling in class, leaving “wales across the girl’s memory.”
Sixty years later, unswerving companion though never solemnized wife, having hovered by Wyatt Earp’s bedside as he drew his last breath, Sadie set out to preserve and protect the reputation of this man who had engaged in many a hair-raising adventure and has served as a lightning rod for controversy even to the present day. The occasion of her discontent, at times her wrath and generally her anxiety was Stuart Lake’s 1931 publication of the adulatory but insufficiently discreet (from Sadie’s point of view) Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal. Hers was no balanced response to this deft page-turner that elevated Wyatt to the pantheon of popular American heroes—his manly figure towering above wreaths of gun smoke—but in keeping with her character, equal parts headstrong and impulsive.
After failing to impose her sanitized version of Wyatt’s life —and as the years wore on, of her life with Wyatt—first on Lake and then on other writers and Hollywood producers, she struck out in a different direction. She would tell her story and in so doing vindicate the ways of Wyatt and herself to the broad American public. It would be a nice, clean story through and through. Around 1937 she contacted sisters Mabel Earp Cason and Vinnolia Earp Ackerman, cousins of Wyatt, both of whom had experience as writers, approaching them about the possibility of transcribing her memoirs. There followed four years of trial and error—in roughly equal doses—resulting in the unfinished, but far from uninformative, Cason Manuscript.
As Earp biographer Casey Tefertiller summarizes it, “The surviving manuscript is a wonderful blend of trivialities and obfuscation…no good deed goes unmentioned, no alibi untold.” She whose history had so much to reveal, chose— ironically, if understandably—to cloak it in a legend of her own creation, manifest in her account of a time before she met Wyatt, a time she could and did make her own. But her stubborn refusal to speak candidly about her past, to touch upon the most compelling scenes and most revealing of personal and historical complexities, caused Cason and Ackerman to abandon the notion of publication after much frustration. In the end Sadie’s reticence, her dissimulation, doomed the project. Beyond a doubt, the woman had something to hide.
Roger Jay of Baltimore is a frequent contributor to Wild West. In this article Sadie’s memoirs are quoted from Mabel Earp Cason and Vinnolia Earp Ackerman’s unpublished Cason Manuscript, cited with specific permission of the Cason family. For further reading Jay suggests Carol Mitchell’s “Lady Sadie,” posted online at www.tombstonehistoryarchives.com/?page_id=41.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.