Scott Dyke: The incomparable Mrs. Earp

From left, Josie Earp is pictured with the Cason family: Rae Cason, distant Earp relative and Josie Earp biographer Mabel Cason, Jean Cason and Walter Cason. Photo from the Scott Dyke collection
From left, Josie Earp is pictured with the Cason family: Rae Cason, distant Earp relative and Josie Earp biographer Mabel Cason, Jean Cason and Walter Cason. Photo from the Scott Dyke collection

By Scott Dyke

The Western frontier was no place for the weak, and most certainly was an environment that, if anything, was downright hostile for women. Imagine coping with insanely unsanitary conditions each and every day. Dust, heat, scorpions, snakes, livestock, Indians, drought, and often inconsiderate men, were a few of the hazards for a pioneer woman. Throw in child birthing, with often little medical attention.

You would figure the odds would be against most women to survive the ordeal, and you would be right. Many died young. The survivors were tough, strong willed and hard minded. They had to be.

Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp fit the mold.

 Josie’s story is a bit improbable. She was born in 1860 in New York, or St. Louis, or Germany (take your pick). She was reared in San Francisco by her middle-class parents.

Even then, San Francisco was a bit different than other cities. It was a theatrical town. Josie got introduced early to that venue. Down the street from her home lived a young man named David Belasco. He often interacted with Josie and her siblings.

Belasco later became one of the early impresarios of the stage. He adapted “Madame Butterfly” to fit the theater. He also was instrumental in furthering the careers of noted actors such as Mary Pickford and Barbara Stanwyck.

To Arizona Territory

Josie, smitten with the theater, boldly set out with a fellow stage-struck girlfriend, leaving home without her mother’s knowledge in 1878, bound for the exotic confines of Arizona Territory. They both enlisted in a traveling theater company headed by Pauline Markham, a well-known actress. The production was a popular musical of its day, “H.M.S. Pinafore.”

Tombstone was one of the last stops. The company arrived there in December 1879, just about coinciding with the arrival of the Earp contingency. There is no record of Josie and Wyatt meeting there at that time. All that would come later.

There are records indicating the Marcus family tracked her down and funded her return. In the swirl of this adventure, Josie fell in love. She met Johnnie Behan, a Yavapai County lawman who was heading a posse. Dapper John was beguiled by the small young woman with the hour-glass figure. (A woman who knew Josie remarked during an interview, “Her breasts entered a room before her body!”)

Slight problem, however. Ol’ John was married with child. He persisted and came to San Francisco for her hand. When he divorced, he sent for her. Josie was to embark on the next exciting segment of her life.

Behan proved to be a poor choice. Josie set up house with him, but he did not deliver on the promise of marriage. He also continued pursuing women.

Josie & Wyatt

By 1881, Tombstone was flourishing and Josie made another choice. His name was Wyatt Earp. Earp and his brothers had taken on the jobs they knew so well, peace officers. Oh, one small detail for Josie to contend with — Wyatt had a common-law wife.

Wyatt and Josie probably hooked up in the summer of 1881. After the historic gunfight in October, and the subsequent vendetta activity in early 1882, Wyatt sent wife Celia Ann to his parents home in San Bernardino. “Mattie,” as she was called, was not to see Wyatt again.

Josie and Wyatt remained together for nearly 50 years. He died in 1929. They celebrated flush times and existed through bust times as Wyatt spent his life looking for profit and respectability.

They traveled to all the mining camps throughout the West. They even got to Alaska for the big gold rush. Wyatt made a small fortune running a saloon.

But like many other Western adventurers, the money did not last. In Wyatt’s later years, he would chastise Josie (he called her Sadie) for her poor gambling habits.

Rugged lifestyle

Mostly, they settled in California; a short tenure in San Diego, but predominately in Los Angeles. They had some property along the Colorado River where they mined for gold and silver.

Josie embraced the rugged living style that Wyatt cared for. When Wyatt died, she buried his ashes in a family plot in a Jewish cemetery in Colma, outside San Francisco.

Josie took up the mantle to protect Wyatt’s image. She was a bearcat when Wyatt’s life story began to surface.

A few years before he died, Wyatt, disgusted by authors writing about him and profiting, embarked on a book with Stuart Lake. Lake visited Wyatt several times and finished “Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal” in 1931, two years after Wyatt’s death.

It was not a pleasant two years. Josie interdicted, harangued and pleaded about the contents. The book was a smashing success. Several years later, movie mogul Sam Goldwyn also felt the heat from Mrs. Earp about a movie project on Wyatt’s life; it was postponed.

Her own story

She became obsessed with the idea of her own story. Two distant Earp relatives, Vinnolia Ackerman and Mabel Cason, were approached by Josie to write it. They spent nearly a decade piecing together her story. Finally they abandoned the project because Josie would not give them the Tombstone story, which she no doubt found parts of embarrassing, especially that she lived with Behan sans wedding and fell in love with another woman’s husband (Wyatt).

 Her complaint to the two women would be prefaced by “They would think I was a bad woman.” She claimed to have married Wyatt on a boat, but no certificate has been found. Glenn Boyer finished the project 40 years later with “I Married Wyatt Earp.”

She could be contentious and secretive, no doubt influenced by her Western experiences and honed to perfection by her survival instinct.

A niece often dined with her at an upscale restaurant. “Josie would complain about the salad’s crispness and it would be replaced. It was a routine that the wait staff knew all too well,” the niece said.

The husband of one of the two Earp writers accompanied Josie to Tombstone late in her life. He remembered in a letter to a relative,

“Don’t ever tell me that Wyatt was a cold-blooded killer. He lived with that woman over 40 years!”

Josie even sued her sister’s estate over oil well rights.

Her last years she existed mostly thanks to her family. She died, owing money to folks all over L.A., on Dec. 19, 1944. No relatives participated in the cost of her funeral.

Wyatt’s friend, silent movie star William S. Hart, picked up the tab but did not attend. Her ashes were buried beside Wyatt’s. Josie went out as feared as ever.

Much has been written since her death. Some writers have been critical, and even unkind, in their portrayals.

No one knew more of her life than the late Glenn Boyer. He said, “She was an adventurer. She could shoot and ride. She dearly loved Wyatt Earp. She was conniving and hid her past. She was a survivalist who could handle any man who crossed her path.”

Josephine Sarah Marcus Earp was one complex lady.


Scott Dyke is a Wyatt Earp historian, western writer, lecturer and researcher. Article is republished here with the author’s permision. It originally appeared in the Green Valley News. He can be contacted at

Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2016 Southern Arizona News-Examiner