OkCorralI must admit – I never knew that Wyatt Earp was married.  He was, by most accounts, a dashing and magnetic man.  But for every larger-than-life aspect of his legend, there was Josephine (Marcus) Earp.

Daughter of a Jewish family, she struggled to find her own identity in Victorian Era America.  When one could not be found, she invented it.  Never well-off, her family moved from NY to San Francisco.  According to Kirschner, “rate wars between rival railroads and steamship companies made it actually cheaper for some families to move than to pay the rent.” It was this exotic, West Coast port city that was a springboard for her coming adventures.  Drawn to the west by the promise of fame and fortune, Josephine joined a travelling dance troupe.   The act led her to Tombstone, AZ, then a mining boom town, grown up from the silver claims nearby.

A Young Wyatt Earp
A Young Wyatt EarpJosephine Marcus EarpJosephine Marcus Earp

Kirschner’s biography is gives only a cursory glance to the shootout at the O.K. Corral and  Wyatt’s time in Tombstone.  The main crux of the book is their life after Tombstone.   Though the two were never married in a formal ceremony, they were inseparable for almost 50 years.  A good chunk of the narrative is spent during their frontier days in Alaska during the Gold Rush.   It seems these were some of her happiest days — at least her most enjoyable.

The inhospitable climate and smallness of the town loosened everyone up.  Their bulky cold-weather clothes were a source of amusement, as well as a great equalizer.  Josephine mockingly compared their exuberant and casual parties to a formal cotillion: ‘Have you not a picture in your mind of several couples with powdered wigs, the men in velvet coats and satin breeches, the women in full-hooped and panniered gowns, moving through the stately measures of a minuet with courtly grace to the accompaniment of violins and harpsichord?  Then banish it!  Put in its place one of the strong men in mackinaws, corduroys and mukluks, and fair ladies in corduroy jackets, short skirts and — yes mukluks — but moving through the stately measure of the dance with courtly grace to the accompaniment of a violin and a banjo!’  ~Pg. 101

These insights into frontier life are priceless.  It is in these moments that their legend comes to life.  At other times, the book becomes a litany of who went where and when, with little in the way of in depth context.  The last third is devoted to Josephine’s increasingly futile attempts to shape history’s memory of Wyatt Earp and the shootout at the O.K. Corral.

It is overall an engaging book on an important character in American history who has been all but forgotten — partially because Josephine was constantly obscuring her own past.  Kirschner does an excellent job of unearthing clues and piecing together Mrs. Earp’s story.

Many thanks to the folks at HarperCollins for the review copy.

ISBN: 9780061864506
ISBN10: 0061864501
Imprint: Harper
On Sale: 3/5/2013
Format: Hardcover
Trimsize: 6 x 9
Pages: 304; $27.99
Ages: 18 and Up