Lady at the O.K. Cor­ral: The True Sto­ry of Josephine Mar­cus Earp

  • Review
By – May 13, 2013

For near­ly fifty years — from just before the infa­mous 1881 gun­fight in Tomb­stone, Ari­zona, that secured his place in the lore of the Wild West until his death in ear­ly 1929 — Wyatt Earp shared his life with his Jew­ish com­mon-law wife, Josephine Sarah Mar­cus. And there­by hangs the tale that Ann Kirschn­er tells with affec­tion, zest, and insight in Lady at the O.K. Cor­ral.

Kirschner’s unabashed affec­tion for, and fas­ci­na­tion with, the woman who became Mrs.Wyatt Earp are infec­tious, and her scrupu­lous regard for his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy in telling her tale is admirable. The lat­ter is prob­a­bly reflect­ed most notably in the brevi­ty of her treat­ment of the gun­fight at the O.K. Cor­ral itself, from which only one wit­ness — Wyatt Earp him­self — survived. 

Kirschn­er sug­gests, but doesn’t insist, that the gun­fight may have been trig­gered at least in part by the rival­ry for the beau­ti­ful young Josephine’s affec­tions between Earp and John­ny Behan, the sher­iff with whom she was first involved upon com­ing to Tomb­stone. What­ev­er actu­al­ly hap­pened, Kirschner’s larg­er point — that women were cru­cial, and gen­er­al­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed, influ­ences on the men who are pre­sumed to have shaped of the Amer­i­can West — stands. 

The Earps were drawn not only to each oth­er but to the adven­ture and oppor­tu­ni­ty offered up by the many boom­towns that sprang up in the wake of min­ing strikes through­out the West, includ­ing Tomb­stone; Ram­part and Nome, in Alas­ka; and Tonopah and Gold­field, in Neva­da, and Kirschn­er vivid­ly por­trays dai­ly life in those settlements.

In their lat­er years, the Earps found refuge in their own desert camp on the Cal­i­for­nia – Ari­zona bor­der and in that great­est of all Amer­i­can boom­towns, Hol­ly­wood, where they enjoyed celebri­ty sta­tus and con­sort­ed with lumi­nar­ies of the grow­ing film indus­try. The last por­tion of the book, which focus­es on the Earps’ life in Hol­ly­wood and the attempts by Josephine and oth­ers to spin the sto­ry of Wyatt Earp both before and after his death, is in many ways the most valu­able. To quote the reporter in The Man Who Shot Lib­er­ty Va­lance, This is the West, sir. When the leg­end becomes fact, print the leg­end.” Kirschner’s analy­sis of how the Earp leg­end evolved — in­cluding her own con­tri­bu­tion in this vol­ume — is a fas­ci­nat­ing case study of how our views of the past are often shaped by the exi­gen­cies of the present.

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

Discussion Questions