A caveat: I’m not an historian. My eyes tend to glaze over when I come to lists of unfamiliar names, places, dates. Everything I know about Jewish cowboys, I learned from “The Frisco Kid”: that there weren’t any.
Of course, there were. After all, Google came up with 2, 990,000 hits in .46 seconds. Many of them, though, were about a specific cowboy or had subject lines like “How the Jews Tamed the West.”
Growing up in the early days of commercial TV during the 1950s and 1960s, I, along with just about everyone else with a TV, watched Westerns. “Bonanza” was my favorite, but I also liked “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.” Many years ago, read that Wyatt Earp’s wife was Jewish. Here was information almost as exciting as finding out that Michael Landon, aka Little Joe, was born Eugene Maurice Orowitz, grew up in Collingswood, NJ, and became a bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Shalom when it was still in Haddon Heights, NJ. (Both communities are very close to the town of Marlton, NJ, where I have lived since 1981.)
“The Legend of Wyatt Earp” is an apt title. It is very difficult to distinguish fact from fiction when it comes to the Earp Family. And it is even more difficult to find accurate information about his wife.
Fact: She was born Josephine Sarah Marcus in 1860. Or maybe it was 1861. In Brooklyn, NY. Or maybe not. No birth certificate has been located, not unusual when many children were still born at home with the aid of midwives. And it would be about another twenty-forty years before birth certificates were routinely registered with the state of NY. One source even speculates that she was born in Prussia.
Okay, so the supposed “facts” of her birth are, at best, murky. But it is known that her parents were Jewish immigrants from Prussia, and she was the middle of three children, an older brother and younger sister, plus another half-sister from her mother’s first marriage. And it is a fact that she did die on Dec. 19, 1944, and her cremains are buried in the Jewish Hills of Eternity Cemetery, Coma, CA, next to those of Earp, who died Jan. 13, 1929.
Almost every other purported fact about her life is either conjecture or outright fabrication. Sadie or Josie – she used both names, although the public knew her as Sadie – spent a great deal of time and money in her last years aggrandizing Earp’s reputation, along with hers, and making sure that biographers and film makers followed suit – or she would threaten them with a suit.
One of the major problems is that much that is known about Sadie comes from two sources, both of which have been discredited as, at best, inaccurate, and, at worst, as deliberate hoaxes. Stuart Lakes’ 1931 biography of Earp, Frontier Lawman, was heavily redacted by Sadie; and the 1976 memoir I Married Wyatt Earp, edited by Glenn Boyer, based on Sadie’s doubtfully truthful autobiography, was withdrawn from publication by the University of Arizona Press in 2000 because of the numerous historical discrepancies scholars had uncovered.
Let’s take a look at the basic outline of Sadie’s life and the various versions of it.
When Sadie was eight or nine years old, her family moved from New York to San Francisco, where her father was a baker. According to Sadie, they lived in a prominent Jewish neighborhood. According to census reports, they lived in an ethnically-mixed area reminiscent of the Lower East Side slums.
She became enamored of the stage, and she and her girlfriend, both students at the McCarthy Dancing Academy, ran off to join the cast of “HMS Pinafore,” staged by the traveling company of the Pauline Markham Acting Troupe, known for its scantily-clad dancers, a detail Sadie left out of her account. She also didn’t mention that Markham herself was best known as a burlesque dancer.
It’s unclear when she left San Francisco and eventually arrived in what was then the Arizona Territory. She says she was eighteen, but she also says it was easy to run away: “I left my home one morning, carrying my books just as though I was going to school as usual.” By the age of eighteen, she would have no longer been in school and would likely have been working at a much younger age. Other hints, including her brag that she matured early, have led many to believe she was only thirteen or fourteen when she left home.
Other interesting information that leads one to believe she arrived at the age of fourteen, not eighteen: Acting at that time was often a euphemism for prostitution. In 1874, when Sadie was thirteen or fourteen, Johnny Behan, a saloon keeper, gambler, and politician – he was sheriff of Yavapai County from 1871-73, was known to frequent a brothel. In 1875, his wife divorced him because he had become involved with a prostitute named Sadie Mansfield, in Prescott, Arizona. This Sadie was also fourteen years old; she was born in New York, and her parents were from Prussia. Census reports place Johnny Behan and Sadie Mansfield in Tip Top, Arizona, in 1880, the same period when our Sadie claims to have been working for him as his housekeeper in Tombstone.
It’s likely that Sadie said she went on the stage at age eighteen because that was when the Markham Troupe went to Prescott, Arizona – the home four years earlier of prostitute Sadie Mansfield, same age, same birth place, same parental place of origin. In her memoir, Sadie wrote in great detail about going by boat, yet the troupe traveled to Prescott by train. She also describes meeting a famous Indian scout of the time, Al Sieber – or Zieber, another Prussian, which she does not mention – who saved the stage coach from an Indian attack. Sieber was attached to an Army troop in the area and did rout an Indian attack, but in was in 1875, when Sadie was fourteen or fifteen, not eighteen. She also talks about Sieber’s buckskin outfit, but he wore buckskin only for promotional photographs.
I’m not going to go into detail about her relationship with Johnny Behan, how she claims she became homesick and returned to San Francisco, how he followed and asked her father’s permission to marry her, how she refused his offer. Later in her life, she told some Earp cousins that she returned to San Francisco for the grand opening of the Baldwin Theater – in 1876. She didn’t explain how she could return if she hadn’t left yet. It’s impossible to know what really happened, but she did eventually return to Tombstone, used the name Josephine Behan when she was living as his common-law wife, by which point he was sheriff of Cochise County, got swindled by him out of $300 and a diamond ring to build them a house, and met Wyatt Earp at just about the time that Behan, who had continued his philandering ways, developed a serious relationship with another woman.
Are your eyes glazing over yet? And we haven’t even gotten to the part where she meets Wyatt Earp, and the account becomes even more convoluted.
Basically, Sadie and Wyatt met. Did Johnny Behan introduce them? Possibly. Maybe even probably. At the time, Wyatt was living with a common-law wife, Mattie Blaylock, who later died of an overdose of laudanum. According to romantic legend, Mattie, depressed over Wyatt’s leaving her for Sadie, killed herself. More likely, she overdosed because she was an addict. Wyatt had been previously married, legally, but she died in of typhus during her pregnancy less than a year after their marriage.
A lot of details of how Sadie and Wyatt met, how and when their relationship developed, when she moved in with him, and even whether they ever married are shrouded in deliberate misdirection. Sadie threatened Stuart Lake, Earp’s first biographer, with a law suit if he revealed anything about her time in Tombstone or about her relationship with Johnny Behan in his book. In fact, she’s not even mentioned in the book that started the whole Earp craze.
Everyone knows about the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Or thinks they do. Actually, everyone knows a different version of what happened. Sadie had her own version – she heard gunshots, ran out of the house in such a panic that she forgot to put on a hat, was relieved to find Wyatt unhurt. The shootout occurred in 1881. There is some evidence that Sadie had once again returned to her parents’ home in San Francisco and wasn’t even in Tombstone at the time.
What is known, more or less, is that Sadie did return again to San Francisco. Earp later followed her, and the two set off to make their fortune. By 1882, she was using the name Josephine Earp. She claims they were married by a riverboat captain in 1892, but no marriage certificate has ever been found. They stayed together until his death in 1929.
Actually, the rest of the story is pretty straight forward. After leaving Tombstone, Wyatt never worked again as a lawman. During the forty-seve years Sadie and Wyatt were together, they traveled throughout the west, following the gold and silver rushes, even as far as Alaska. They ran saloons, gambled, and sought a fortune that never materialized. Eventually, they settled in Los Angeles, where they hoped to cash in on the new film mania for the Wild West. His legend was born. Sadie’s life was relegated to, at best, a footnote. Even a new biography of Sadie, Lady at the O.K. Corral, by Ann Kirschner, has been criticized as being more about Wyatt than Sadie.
As an autobiographer, Sadie was an excellent fiction writer. Earp’s cousins, who were helping her with the writing, gave up because she was so evasive about her early years. When the book was published in 1976, it became the fourth best-selling book published by the University of Arizona Press. It was almost twenty years later that questions about its accuracy arose, and in 2000, as mentioned before, the book was taken out of the University’s catalogue.
In her later years, Sadie devoted herself to preserving her version of the Wyatt Earp legend. She was prone to depression, paranoia, and other illnesses, and in her last years developed dementia. Her relationship with her sisters-in-law was acrimonious. She did, however, seem to have remained close with her own family. There are anecdotal reports that Wyatt joined her at a Marcus family Seder in 1896. It’s entirely possible, as Sadie and Wyatt did live with her parents for a while. One of the sources of the story is Henry Fonda, who recalled once talking with an old man who said that when he was a young child, he had met Wyatt at his own family’s seders in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th Century.
According to biographer Kirschner, Wyatt had more Jewish friends than Sadie did, and Sadie was, at best, indifferent to being Jewish. There is some evidence that her parents belonged to a Reform synagogue in San Francisco, and Wyatt and Sadie are buried together in the Marcus plot, with her parents and brother nearby.
Other than those conflicting and contradictory stories, it’s all true.