01 February 2010

Love Affairs: Wyatt Earp & Josie Marcus

By Lorelie Brown

Wyatt Earp is most known for his role in the OK Corral shoot out in Tombstone, Arizona. As one of the largest and yet quickest gunfights in Old West history, it's epic. But when my family and I visited Tombstone a couple weeks ago, I was reminded of one of the minor players in the drama--Josephine Sarah Marcus, called Sadie by her contemporaries and the woman who would be Earp's third wife. They were together until Wyatt died.

In 1881, Josie Marcus was in Tombstone because of an on-again, off-again relationship with Johnny Behan, a rival of Wyatt's. An attractive woman, it's known for sure that she worked as an actress and sometimes speculated that she was a prostitute as well. (Wyatt Earp wasn't exactly the white-hat that later movies have portrayed him as, either.)

Despite Josie signing documents in Tombstone with the name Josephine Behan, she is supposed to have begun a torrid affair with Wyatt. Um, let's just ignore the fact that Wyatt's second wife, Mattie Blaylock was still living in Tombstone as well. Details are a little murky, having been subsumed under the bigger drama of the OK Corral gunfight, but Josie and Mattie supposedly had at least two fights in the streets of Tombstone over the affair.

Nevertheless, Wyatt and Josie left Tombstone separately. Wyatt had a mess to sop up and a Vendetta Ride to make, hunting the men who killed his brother. Josie had a career in a second rate actors troupe to continue.

But they met up again in 1883, in San Francisco, and were supposedly inseparable ever after. No one has ever found a marriage certificate for Wyatt and Josie, but they presented themselves as husband and wife. In the Old West, that was sufficient for a common-law marriage.

Together, Josie and Wyatt continued to travel the Old West. Minus a short involvement in the Dodge City War, Wyatt did just about every job but lawman. They owned a racehorse and did the racing circuit in San Diego. They traveled to the Nome, Alaska gold rush and ran a gambling operation. In Nevada, they owned a saloon.

The couple spent a good portion of their latter years in Hollywood--gambling and also advising at the sets of Westerns. John Wayne is said to have based his iconic depictions of gunslingers on his conversations with Earp. They both wrote biographies with assistance. A cropped version of the following picture was on the cover of a re-issue of Josie's biography, but has since been proven unlikely to be an actual picture of Josie. (Why yes, I am including it just for the salacious aspect.)

They were sometimes flush and often on the move, but throughout it all, Josie and Wyatt were together for 46 years. A later biographer of Wyatt called them a "contentious" couple, but I prefer to think they were crotchety. After all, both had shown a distinctive propensity for ditching partners they weren't happy with. Why stick together for more than 40 years if they didn't love each other?