Author: Ann Kirschner
Title: “Lady at the O.K. Corral: The True Story of Josephine Marcus Earp”
This reviewer recently visited Tombstone, Ariz., and suffered through frequent “gun battles” on the streets and walked through Boothill Cemetery reading grave markers that told of violent deaths. (Here lies Lester More. Four slugs from a .44. No Les, no More.)
The guide in the Birdcage Theater proudly pointed to bullet holes in the walls and the curtained cubicles where ladies plied their trade. This city celebrates its lawless past. The savvy undertaker even advertised, “Ask about our layaway plan.”
In several Tombstone establishments hangs a picture of a beautiful young lady wearing only a filmy garment whom they claim depicts Josephine Marcus Earp. Now, this lady has become the subject of an interesting biography, “Lady at the O.K. Corral.”
After the author discovered Wyatt Earp’s wife was Jewish and that she had buried him in a Jewish cemetery, she set out to research and write her story. You see, Ann Kirschner is a Jew from New York and she confessed to being “intrigued by the incongruities between anything Jewish and anything Tombstone-ish.”
Josephine’s youthful rebelliousness caused her to break from her conservative parents and become an actress. Her path led to the mining boomtown of Tombstone, where she met a man with a checkered past, Wyatt Earp.
It is now legendary that Wyatt Earp along with brothers Virgil and Morgan plus Doc Holliday fought it out with the cowboy Clantons and McLaurys at the O.K. Corral on Oct. 26, 1881. The outcome of the fight met with approval by the town’s businessmen and disdain among the cowboy culture. But this is Josephine’s story.
She heard the roar of the guns and ran to the corral to view the scene. She stayed in the background to avoid appearing concerned with Wyatt Earp’s well-being because of her involvement with another man. Vengeance continued to fuel violence, even after Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were acquitted of murder.
Soon, both Josephine and Wyatt Earp shed complicated relationships and left Tombstone, separately, only to reunite in San Francisco. Theirs became a common-law marriage, but even so, Josephine wanted to be known as Josephine Marcus Earp.
Vagabonds for a time, they spent time in Idaho, Texas, Colorado, then California. Here investments paid off, and she climbed higher on the social ladder. Wyatt Earp, however, became alarmed over her gambling debts, plus old relationships kept re-entering their lives.
Soon the pull of the Alaskan Klondike gold fields drew the couple after old acquaintances from Tombstone days wrote, “Come to Alaska!” Wyatt Earp’s involvement in a prizefight fix turned sour, so they decided to do just that.
In Nome, Wyatt Earp and a partner started a lucrative saloon business, Josephine reveled in the excitement and they became wealthy. The story should end there, but when the gold rush ended, their boomtown died. What was their next move? What took them to Hollywood? How did they live out their last days?
“Lady at the O.K. Corral” is the sort of book from which movies are made. Two very tarnished characters walk through its pages. It is a colorful tale of ambition, adventure, self invention and romance. For nearly 50 years, the Josephine followed Wyatt Earp as his wife, and now Ann Kirschner introduces us to her in this compelling read.
As a postscript, readers might find it interesting to learn that the O.K. in O.K. Corral was named in honor of President Martin Van Buren, who bore the nickname “Old Kinderhook.” The well-used term OK still peppers our speech.
(Lynn D. Bueling, retired from the field of education, lives in Mandan. He is an active member of the Western Writers of America and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.)