Chapter 89

How Wyatt Earp Got Buried in a Jewish Cemetery

How Wyatt Earp Got Buried in a Jewish Cemetery

In 1867, six-year old Josephine Sarah Marcus moved with her observant immigrant German-Jewish parents from Brooklyn, NY, to San Francisco. There, Josie was given the rudiments of a Jewish education, including saying her prayers at home, but she was also exposed to the romance of San Francisco’s Gold Rush era. In 1879, when she was 18, Josie went to see the Pauline Markham Theater Company perform Gilbert and Sullivan’s "H.M.S. Pinafore" and, with a friend, decided to run away with the company when it left town. When the troupe performed in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, she fell in love with Johnny Behan, Tombstone’s corrupt sheriff. Johnny introduced Josephine to Wyatt Earp, at that time a deputy U. S. marshal. Earp won Josie’s heart and married her, a relationship that lasted fifty years. Thus it is that Wyatt Earp, legendary figure of the Wild West, today lies buried in a Jewish cemetery.

While we know a great deal about Josie Earp’s and her Jewish upbringing, Wyatt Earp is a figure whose life story is mixed in with his myth. In 1881, Wyatt Earp (still a U. S. marshal) and his brothers Virgil and Morgan, along with their friend Doc Holliday, attained immortality in a shoot-out with their sworn enemies, the Clanton gang, at the O.K. Corral. During the confrontation, three members of the Clanton gang were killed and Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded. The surviving Clantons charged that the Earp brothers and Holliday stalked their victims, some of whom were unarmed, and shot first without provocation. The Earps and Holliday, in turn, claimed that the Clantons were waiting for them and cocked their pistols first.

When Josephine heard the sound of guns that October evening, she ran from her house and jumped on a passing wagon, which took her to the O.K. Corral. She knew that the Earps and the Clantons had a showdown but, in her first moments on the scene, she couldn’t tell who was left standing. "I didn’t know at the time who was wounded," she later wrote, "and was too frightened to get closer. I almost swooned when I saw Wyatt’s tall figure very much alive. . . . He spotted me, and [with companions] came across the street. Like a feather-brained girl my only thought was, ‘My God, I haven’t got a bonnet on. What will they think?’"

While the facts of the shoot-out will remain forever in dispute, the courts acquitted the Earps and Holliday on the ground of self-defense. The Clanton gang later took revenge by ambushing Wyatt and Morgan Earp in a saloon, killing Morgan. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday then took justice into their own hands by raiding various outlaw hideouts and killing individuals who they suspected participated in Morgan’s death.

Now on the run from the law in Arizona, Josie and Wyatt Earp moved to Gunnison, Colorado, where that state’s governor refused to extradite Wyatt back to Arizona on the grounds that he could not get a fair trial. The restless Wyatt and Josie began a life that matched a Hollywood movie script, relocating whenever a new gold, silver or copper mining boomtown appeared. They invested in mines and real estate and operated saloons and gambling parlors in such far-flung places as Nome, Alaska and Eagle City, Idaho. For a while, they lived with Josephine’s parents in San Francisco, giving Josie -if only briefly- with a bit of the warmth of the Jewish home she grew up in. Finally, Wyatt and Josie settled in Southern California, where they owned racehorses and lived on their winnings from gambling and real estate speculation. In the 1920’s, Josephine and Wyatt invested in oil wells, worked on Wyatt’s autobiography and drafted a screenplay about his career as a lawman.

According to historian Harriet Rochlin, the Earps’ original screenplay was never produced but journalist Stuart Lake took a great interest in it and began to write his own biography of Wyatt Earp. When Wyatt died in 1929 at age 81, Josie Earp and Stuart Lake argued about Lake’s forthcoming portrayal of Wyatt, which Josie found unflattering. In 1931, when Lake’s biography, "Wyatt Earp - Frontier Marshal," finally appeared with the offending passages stricken, according to Rochlin, it "fueled fifty years of Wyatt Earp mania, pro and con, in print and in film." At least three movies have been made about the gunfight at the O. K. Corral. Josephine Marcus Earp had helped craft an authentic American legend.

The widowed Josie buried Wyatt’s ashes in the Marcus family plot at the Little Hills of Eternity, a Jewish cemetery in Colma, California. When she died in 1944, Josie’s remains were buried next to Wyatt’s. Today, their graves are the most popular tourist destination in Colma.

A simple plaque anchored flat on the ground marks Josephine and Wyatt’s shared plot. Unlike the other graves around it, no upright stone marks the location. Josie once had an imposing stone marker embedded in a 250-pound block of concrete to mark Wyatt’s grave. In 1957, some of what must have been Wyatt’s fans stole it.