Mrs. Wyatt Earp Packed Her Own Punch


One of the best-known men ever to sling a gun or wear a badge spent much of his later life in Los Angeles, operating on both sides of the law but always accompanied by a beautiful Jewish woman who was the toast of the coast when Los Angeles’ Jewish population was small.

In 1879, Josephine Sarah “Sadie” Marcus, an impulsive, 17-year-old San Francisco girl who would become Wyatt Earp’s third wife, slipped away from her home in San Francisco’s Jewish community to join a traveling theater group.

During a tour of Arizona Territory, she fell for Johnny Behan, a 42-year-old Irish American and bankrupt father of two. But when a family friend retrieved her and escorted her back home, Behan pursued her, and somehow persuaded her parents of his honorable intentions.


Marcus followed Behan back to Tombstone, Ariz., where they lived as husband and wife, even though she learned that Behan was not, in fact, divorced. Her eye soon shifted to the town’s handsome deputy, the 33-year-old Earp, who reciprocated Marcus’ attentions, despite his common-law wife, Celia Ann “Mattie” Blaylock. (She later killed herself, claiming that Earp had destroyed her life.)

Marcus kicked Behan out of the house they had purchased with her father’s money. And Earp moved in--on the eve of what became known as the gunfight at the OK Corral. (It wasn’t actually at the corral, only near it, but the OK Corral had a nicer ring to it than Fly’s Photography Studio, which stood closer to the site.)

On Oct. 26, 1881, three brother lawmen, Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp, sporting silver marshal stars, long black duster coats and wide-brimmed hats, joined their dentist friend, John Henry “Doc” Holliday, and faced off against organized cattle rustlers known as the cowboy gang.

Some 30 seconds of gunfire later, 19-year-old Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury were dead. Two of the Earp brothers were wounded. Billy’s brother, Ike, disarmed and pistol-whipped hours earlier by Virgil Earp, escaped injury after Wyatt warned him to fight or leave. Ike left before the shooting started.

Bad blood ensued. Although the Earps were tried for murder, they were acquitted, and rustlers and Earps continued to threaten and harass one another.

Ultimately, Morgan Earp was gunned down while shooting pool. Wyatt, who was watching the game, missed being shot. Virgil Earp took Morgan’s body home to San Bernardino County to be buried in the family plot in Colton. Wyatt Earp and Sadie Marcus met up later in San Francisco.


Earp’s pursuit of the men who killed his brother cost him his lawman’s badge. But Marcus eagerly embraced Earp’s new career choice: prospecting. Beginning in 1882, she camped in the Mojave Desert, followed Earp to Alaska, Mexico and Idaho, and even got shot at by one of Earp’s relentless pursuers. All the while she carted along their dog, Earpie, their cat, Fluffy, and their yellow canary, Dickie.

On Dec. 2, 1896, Earp’s name again became a household word, because of a controversy over his decision as referee of a world heavyweight title fight between Robert Fitzsimmons and Tom Sharkey. Earp, by now a businessman and fight promoter, refereed the boxing match in San Francisco, stepping into the ring wearing his six-shooter under his coat.

His call of a foul against Fitzsimmons in the eighth round brought boos and catcalls, but Earp was later found to have made the proper call--even though it also emerged that he had bet on the winning fighter. Earp, who was punished with a $50 fine for wearing his gun, never refereed again.

Still, gambling was what Earp did best--along with a little philandering, much to Marcus’ irritation. After a high-stakes poker game, he walked out the proud new owner of a trotting racehorse named Otto Rex.

But when the couple traveled the racing circuit, it was Sadie Marcus who was the toast of the coast, as the colorful couple stopped at Agriculture Park (now Exposition Park) and attended gourmet dinners with such companions as millionaire land baron Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin and his daughter, Clara Baldwin Stocker.

Whether it was at Baldwin’s San Francisco hotel or his Santa Anita rancho, Earp and Marcus enjoyed the good life with the fast-money crowd. Marcus claimed that after almost a decade with Earp, the couple were married aboard Baldwin’s yacht, though no legal record of the ceremony ever has been found.


Seesawing among gambling, mining and oil ventures, the Earps lived in at least nine Los Angeles rentals as early as 1885 and as late as 1929, mostly in the summer. The winters they spent mining in San Bernardino County, running off claim jumpers and filing more than 100 mining and mineral claims.

For a change of pace, they took side trips to San Diego, where they owned three gambling dens in the thriving red-light district.

But the law caught up to them again. In 1911, Earp and two other men were arraigned in Los Angeles for operating a bunco game at the Auditorium Hotel near Pershing Square. Earp gave the police an alias--William Stapp--and later was “absolved of complicity.”

Learning to drive a car at age 70, just outside car-mad Los Angeles, Earp once pulled out a gun and shot a bull which had already attacked the radiator and was heading for the passenger side, where Marcus sat.

During the 1920s, Earp, like almost everyone else, dabbled in Los Angeles real estate. Screenwriters occasionally sought him out for advice, but he found most newcomers--with the exception of his cowboy-actor friends William S. Hart and Tom Mix--to be “damned fool dudes.”

Earp died Jan. 13, 1929, at age 80 in the house he shared with Marcus, a modest bungalow on 17th Street near Washington and Crenshaw boulevards, a site that is now part of Mt. Vernon Middle School. Not long thereafter, his name achieved celebrity status when a highly fictionalized bestseller, “Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal,” was serialized in the Saturday Evening Post.


Since Marcus’ death in 1944, dozens of books and films have chronicled Earp, but few recall the strong-willed, unconventional woman who spent 47 years--more than half her life--as an integral character in the Earp saga.

A 1976 book, “I Married Wyatt Earp,” purported to be based on Sadie Marcus Earp’s unpublished memoirs. Her name was rarely in print until the book revealed her to be an overlooked Western folk heroine, long on daring and sometimes short on decorum. (Critics accused the book’s author of fine-tuning the facts and of having trouble producing the memoirs on which his book was based.)

Today, Marcus and Earp occupy side-by-side plots in the Hills of Eternity Memorial Park in Colma, near San Francisco. Colma’s population includes 1.5 million dead, and the lively patrons of a high-rise casino that overshadows the graves of the high-risk, high-living couple of the short-lived Wild West.


This story has been edited to reflect a correction to the original published text. The cemetery is called Hills of Eternity Memorial Park, not Little Hills of Eternity Jewish cemetery.

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