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

  • Ann Kirschner
  • HarperCollins
  • 304 pp.

In this nonfiction account of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the resulting Earp legend, the author zooms in on a common-law wife’s perspective.

The gunfight on October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Arizona, lasted only 30 seconds. It pitted Wyatt Earp and two of his brothers, joined by Doc Holliday, against three members of the Cowboy gang of rustlers and thieves, Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton. The fight left the three Cowboys dead, Virgil and Morgan Earp and Holliday wounded, and only Wyatt Earp standing. After a trial that cleared the Earps and Holliday of murder charges brought by Billy’s brother Ike (who witnessed but did not participate in the fight), the Cowboys made assassination attempts on Virgil and Morgan Earp, severely wounding the former and killing the latter. Avenging his brothers, Wyatt Earp killed Ike Clanton’s associate Frank Stillwell and then led a cohort including Holliday on what came to be known as the Earp Vendetta Ride, on which Earp killed at least three more men. Johnny Behan, sheriff of Cochise County, ally of the Cowboys, and political and amatory blood rival of Earp, set a posse after Earp but failed to apprehend him.

Perhaps the most iconic moment in the historiography of the American West, the gunfight has enjoyed more literary and, particularly, cinematic treatments than one can count. The Earps invariably provide the focal point, and Wyatt, even when given shading, is invariably cast on film as an epitome of rectitude: Randolph Scott in Frontier Marshall (1939); a laconic Henry Fonda in John Ford’s luminous My Darling Clementine (1946); Burt Lancaster in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), the film that gave the fight its name; and, more recently, Kurt Russell in a wonderfully lupine performance in Tombstone (1993) and Kevin Costner in a characteristically vapid one in Wyatt Earp (1994). Though all these films focus on men, women figure importantly in them (and provide the governing metaphor of Ford’s classic), with Wyatt’s wives Mattie Blaylock and Josephine Marcus especially prominent in the two most recent treatments. 

Ann Kirschner’s Lady at the O.K. Corral, to use Annette Kolodny’s enduring phrase, “turns the lens” on the gunfight and its principal outcome, the Earp legend: it shifts focus from Wyatt Earp to his common-law wife of nearly 50 years, Josephine Marcus Earp. A contrary young woman from the pioneer Jewish community in San Francisco, Marcus ventured to a frontier Tombstone in the 1870s. She took up with Johnny Behan and then left him for Earp, adding sex and passion to the “volatile brew of jealousy and political ambition and greed and historical resentment” that led to the gunfight. Following the fight and vendetta ride, Earp and Marcus decamped Tombstone for a lifetime of peregrination across the Western states and the Klondike, following the boom and bust cycle of mining and other upstart towns. Earp, the lawman, gambler, and saloon (and brothel) keeper of Dodge City and Tombstone added real estate speculation, racehorse breeding, and other business enterprises to his resume. The couple lived well and long — Wyatt died in 1929, Josephine in 1944. 

In this well researched and written book, Kirschner has tackled a variant of the problem that Henry James called “writing biography without a real Biographic subject,” without a central figure possessing either a “great mind” or “great adventures.” Marcus may have lacked a great mind, but Kirschner presents her as smart and savvy; and Marcus may have shared Earp’s adventures rather than initiated her own, but Kirschner details Marcus’ partnership in them, and the adventures themselves remain compelling. Kirschner unfolds the tale in four movements: Marcus and Earp arrive independently in Tombstone, join forces, and survive the Earp-Cowboy feud, gunfight and vendetta (the gunfight occupies only two paragraphs in the first quarter of the book); the Earp couple live, work and travel together for decades while Wyatt’s legend grows; they settle down in Los Angeles and begin to cultivate and profit from the Earp legend; Wyatt dies and Josephine spends her remaining years promoting Wyatt’s hagiography and suppressing his connection to Mattie Blaylock’s sordid life and suicide (and her own connection to Johnny Behan). The latter part of the tale makes an engrossing case study in the machinations of popular publishing and Hollywood film making in the formative years of celebrity culture.

It may or may not be the case that today we can see Marcus as “a passionate, resilient, unconventional woman, a myth builder for a bold new American era, with a remarkably modern understanding of media and celebrity.” In the end, it doesn’t matter. Despite this engaging biography’s subtitle, Kirschner shrewdly and successfully hews to the famous closing advice of John Ford’s Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Charles Caramello is Associate Provost for Academic Affairs, Dean of the Graduate School, and Professor of English at the University of Maryland. His current book-in-progress is Riding Late: Essays on Horsemanship, Cavalry, and the Great War.

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