This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Kaddish for a Cowgirl*

In a Jewish graveyard in California lies one of the legendary gunfighters of the Wild West

This is not meant to imply that Wyatt Earp was Jewish. The interment of his earthly remains (he was in fact most un-Jewishly cremated) in the Hills of Eternity cemetery in Colma was at the request of his widow, who was one of the more colourful personalities of the American frontier.

As is often the case with cowboy sagas, the precise details of Josie Marcus Earp's life are difficult to untangle from the many embellishments that grew up around them. The biographer's task is further complicated by the fact that a supposed autobiography entitled I Married Wyatt Earp was to a large extent a work of creative fiction.

At any rate, there is some consensus about the main outlines of her life story. Josephine Sarah Marcus was born in 1861 in New York city to a family of Jewish immigrants from Germany who transplanted themselves to San Francisco when Josie was six years of age. The Marcus family was traditionally observant, and Josie was given elementary training in the Hebrew prayers.

In those years of the Gold Rush and westward expansion, the attractions of the frontiers could be more powerful than those of the family hearth, and Josie left home at the age of eighteen, to enlist in a traveling theatre troupe that she had seen performing the "H.M.S. Pinafore."

Eventually the company found its way to Tombstone, Arizona, where Josie moved in with Johnny Behan, a disreputable cowboy.

In Tombstone, Josie first made the acquaintance of another distinguished resident of the town, Wyatt Earp, who was employed at the time as an armed guard for the Wells Fargo company (and possibly as a deputy U. S. Marshall), in addition to his partnership in a local saloon.

Earp and Behan were political adversaries in the 1881 elections for Sheriff of Tombstone. They were also rivals for the heart of Josie Marcus. Behan emerged victorious in the election, but it was Earp who won the lady's affections. Although Earp already had a wife (his second), he now married Josie, and their marriage endured for fifty years, until his death.

According to some historians, the romantic rivalry was one of the factors that led to the infamous gunfight at the OK Corral, as Behan hired a gang of thugs to eliminate his adversary.

When the shooting began, Josie heard the gunfire from her house. Aware that a showdown was being planned, she hitched a ride on a passing wagon, and hurried to the corral. She was relieved to find that her spouse was only slightly wounded.

Like a modest Jewish wife, she later recalled how she had been worried about what people would think of her after she had dashed out without a bonnet!

In 1882, Wyatt and Josie left Tombstone in pursuit of riches and adventure, and to avoid criminal prosecution for the carnage at the OK Corral or in the various acts of retaliation that followed in its wake. He was assisted by a Jewish banker named H. Solomon who offered to pay his bail, and supplied him and his companions with arms. Wyatt was never actually indicted by a court of law.

The Earps' travels brought them to many of the new towns that were sprouting up like weeds in the course of the Gold Rush, in Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and even as far as Alaska. The Earps invested in the mines and real estate, as well as in saloons, and became quite wealthy through their enterprises. For a brief period they returned to the Jewish ambiance of Josie's family home in San Francisco.

Wyatt's last years were spent in Los Angeles in virtual respectability living off the proceeds of their racehorses, oil, real estate speculation and other types of gambling.

The legendary gunslinger was able to make it in Hollywood society, and even served as an advisor for some cowboy films that were produced there. This provided Wyatt and Josie an ample opportunity to shape his own legend, a task that Josie continued after her husband's demise.

And so, in 1929, at the age of eighty, the hero of the OK Corral died peacefully in Los Angeles. His ashes were buried at the Marcus family plot in the Little Hills of Eternity Jewish cemetery in Colma, California, where he would be joined in 1944 by Josie herself.

From this brief survey of the exploits and adventures of Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp, it becomes undeniably clear that this adventurous Jewish cowgirl from New York was no less a celebrity of the Wild West than her more famous partner. "Long live her name, and long live her glory, and long may her story be told."

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A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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  • First Publication:
      The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, July 4, 2002, pp. 10-11.
  • Bibliography:
    • Earp, Josephine Sarah Marcus, and Glenn G. Boyer. I Married Wyatt Earp: The Recollections of Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp. Tucson, Ariz.: University of Arizona Press, 1976.
    • Marcus, Jacob Rader. United States Jewry, 1776-1985. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989.
    • Rochlin, Harriet, and Fred Rochlin. Pioneer Jews: A New Life in the Far West. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984.
    • Schoener, Allon. The American Jewish Album: 1654 to the Present. New York: Rizzoli, 1983.