Friday, February 3, 2017

Love Triangle at the OK Corral

Gunfight at the OK Corral
(by By Johnseiferth - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

The Gunfight at the OK Corral lasted thirty seconds. The combatants, the Lawmen and the Cowboys, faced off in an area I'd have trouble making a three point turn in (but to be fair I have trouble making three-point turns anywhere). The event is not a pivotal point in our history. It was almost forgotten until a book about Wyatt Earp came out, inspiring John Ford to make the movie My Darling Clementine in 1946. It's hard to say why the gunfight captures so much attention: A confluence of time, setting, and personalities. The Civil War was over, but the toxic feeling it left stayed on like a bad hangover and migrated westward to towns like Tombstone, Arizona. Tombstone itself springing to life in the middle of nowhere and attracting characters like Doc Holliday, the Earp brothers, and Bat Masterson to name a few. It is quite a story.

But to paraphrase a famous quote, behind every great story is a great woman and the gunfight took place amid a background of domestic drama. There are actually a lot of interesting women and love stories going on here at this time: Doc Holliday and his on again, off again love affair with "Big Nose" Kate Horony, and the five handsome Earp brothers and their wives and girlfriends living in each other's pockets in Tombstone (the Earp brothers had eleven documented wives between them). The more I read about that town, the more it sounds like a soap opera. Before these guys even had to face off against the Cowboys, they already had a lot on their plates.

But, I'll leave those stories for now and focus on the love triangle that framed events leading to and following the Gunfight at the OK Corral. The love triangle featuring Wyatt Earp, Josephine Marcus, and Johnny Behan. There are even triangles within the triangle here as both men were married at the time they first met Josephine.

Josephine Marcus

Johnny Behan
Wyatt Earp

Who was this woman at the head of the triangle? Josephine Marcus was born in New York City in 1860 to Prussian Jewish immigrants. The family migrated to San Francisco and that's where Josephine's western adventures begin. She ran away from home at the age of 14, because as she said, "There was far too much excitement in the air to remain a child." She joined a touring theater company in a production of the H.M.S. Pinafore, under the name May Bell, which ended up in Arizona

In Arizona she renames herself Sadie Mansfield. In later years she couldn't keep her story straight and there are whole years she refused to comment on, this period being one of them. It's believed she became a prostitute during these early Arizona years and there is an arrest for larceny in that name. "The whole experience recurs to my memory as a bad dream, and I remember little of its details. I can remember shedding many tears in out-of-the-way-corners," she said of this time.

Bat Masterson describes her as such, "An incredible beauty--belle of the honky tonks, the prettiest dame in 300 or so of her kind." In other words, her kind were prostitutes.

"Sadie" met Johnny Behan when she was 17 and he was 33. Johnny, who was the sheriff of Cochise Co, started spending too much time at the brothel in the company of one particular soiled dove. His wife divorced him, naming one "Sadie Mansfield" as the cause. Johnny built a house for himself and Sadie and promised to marry her. He strung her along like this for some time until she returned early from a trip to San Francisco and found him in bed with another women (I told you there was a lot of drama in Tombstone that didn't involve guns). Incidentally, she had gone to San Francisco with Behan's young son, Albert, in hopes of getting him treatment for his hearing impairment.

It's not certain how Sadie and Wyatt's affair began. Wyatt and Johnny knew each other. In fact, Wyatt was running for sheriff against Behan to add another twist to the story (I imagine Behan thinking, "Give me one more reason to hate you, Wyatt."). Some accounts say the citizens of Tombstone never saw Sadie and Wyatt interact and nobody had a clue an affair was going on. Others say Sadie and Mattie Blaylock, who was Wyatt's common-law wife, had shouting matches over him in the streets.

Mattie was also a prostitute who continued to turn tricks even after moving in with Wyatt. So, here's to Mattie, a woman who didn't put aside her career for her husband. She also had a massive laudanum addiction (who wouldn't under the circumstances?).

Okay, so this is the backdrop for the famous gunfight. When the gunfight does take place, Sadie hears the shots and runs out of the house. She said she was relieved to find Wyatt standing when she got to the spot. Later there is a trial. The Lawmen, led by Wyatt, claim the Cowboys drew first and it was self-defense. Sheriff Behan testifies that the Lawmen shot first (surprise, surprise) and it was murder. The Earps and Doc Holliday are acquitted despite the sheriff's testimony.

Though we don't know how the romance between Wyatt and Sadie started, we do know how it ended. Five days after Morgan Earp was assassinated in retaliation for his part in the Gunfight at the OK Corral, Sadie gets the hell out of Dodge, so to speak, and goes back to San Francisco. Wyatt goes off on his revenge ride and kills the two men who wounded one brother and killed another.

After this last incident the Earps and their harem decamp to California. Wyatt sends Mattie off with his family with the promise he'll send her a telegram instructing her where to meet him. Instead Wyatt ends up in San Francisco with Sadie. Mattie never got that telegram. Wyatt ghosted her. To add insult to injury, later when Mattie asked Wyatt for a divorce so she could marry another, he said no, he didn't believe in divorce. Mattie's sad life comes to an end when she kills herself with an overdose.

Wyatt and Sadie stayed together for the next 46 years until his death. They traveled from boom-towns to mining camps for much of that time. Sadie said they were married offshore in a ship by the captain, but there's no record of this marriage taking place. Were they happy? They did stay together, but supposedly each had extramarital affairs. Sadie developed a gambling problem, which ate up any income the couple had. It was also reported she turned into a shrew who berated Wyatt for his lack of success. It is also said that Wyatt took a lot of long walks. Friends complained that when Wyatt was on his deathbed, Sadie wouldn't cook or otherwise take care of her husband.

Wyatt and Josephine Earp

This interesting woman's story might have been lost to history except for Wyatt taking on celebrity status later in life. He became a Hollywood darling, mixing with the likes of Tom Mix and Gary Copper after a novel about his life, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, became a bestseller. He was the go-to guy for anyone making a western.

About this time, folks began to wonder about his wife. Josephine/May/Sadie spent the rest of her life trying to stop publications which put her and Wyatt in a bad light, and putting out stories like Wyatt never drank or took up with prostitutes. She also tried to suppress any stories about Wyatt's previous wife. When two cousins' of Wyatt interviewed Josephine for a book, they had to abandon the project when her stories began to contradict each other, and there were whole years she couldn't remember a thing--like 1880 to 1882, the years surrounding the gunfight. It seems she didn't want some things to come to light such as any speculation she'd been a prostitute.

One final thing about the enigmatic Josephine, there is a photograph of her which surfaces often in articles about her. Except the woman in the in photo isn't her! Josephine would have been in her 50's when this portrait was shot. She died penniless in 1944 and is buried next to Wyatt, who she had secretly buried in her family's plot.



Andrea Downing said...

Nice one! And so glad you wrote this 'companion piece' to my earlier article on Tombstone. May I just say that Cochise County was not actually formed until 1881, out of a bit of Pima County, so it was still the latter at the time Johnny Behan was made sheriff.
As regards the photo of Josephine, interesting point. An antique dealer friend of mine in London sold a similar photo purportedly of Josephine, for 3K GBP. I'm going to write to him and find out if it was the same photo!

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

You did inspire me with your post, I must say. I didn't know that about the county! Everything I've read about Behan refers to him as the sheriff of Cochise Co. Interesting. The photo, also known as, Koloma, was used for the cover of a book about her, I Married Wyatt Earp, and there is controversy about it being her. But if you look at photos of her, this portrait really doesn't look like her--and as I said, Josephine was in her 50's when this photo taken, so I ask you, does this look like a 50 yr old woman? The book itself, I Married Wyatt Earp became a reference book about the history of the old west; but it was filled with so many contradictions, it was pulled from the reference shelf! Thanks, for stopping by, Andi!

Kristy McCaffrey said...

Really great post. I've noticed that with so much info online now, incorrect attributions never get fixed because everyone uses the same info as source material. I've seen that "photo" of Josephine. Thanks for clearing that up.

Andrea Downing said...

I've also noticed the photo has what looks like 'Copyright Canada' written on the bottom. I think the Earps did go up to Canada for a short spell but, as you so rightly point out, she was certainly older than this photo would imply. Have written my dealer friend in London...

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Hu, Kristy! That's an excellent point!The ability to spread facts is remarkable now--even the wrong ones. And as writers, especially historic writers, we do rely on the information we can glean online.And then you get a character like Josephine who was actively fictionalizing her life as she was living it! I couldn't go into all the details of her life, but she was the original "unreliable narrator." Thanks for stopping by and have a good weekend!

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

Andi, in one of the articles I read they even named the real woman in the portrait, but dang if I can find it again! But here's an interesting article suggesting it's Evelyn Nesbit. I happen to own two copies of photographs of Nesbit and I think this theory might be right. It looks more like her and the kind of posing she did.

Patti Sherry-Crews said...

forgot to post the link to the article! I have to say I've seen this photo for years and thought it was Josephine, but I always though it was strange that a woman in her time and place would pose so provocatively, Especially a woman so worked up people finding out she was a prostitute.