The Wildest Woman In The West

June 22, 2023 | Brendan Da Costa

The Wildest Woman In The West

She’s known as the wife of famous frontiersman Wyatt Earp, but Josephine Earp has a seriously dark history.

1. She Was Born With Nothing

Josephine Sarah Marcus was born to impoverished Polish Jewish immigrants, Carl-Hyman Marcuse and Sophie Lewis in 1861. But her father, who struggled to make ends meet in New York, dreamed about a better life in San Francisco. However, for the seven-year-old Josephine, getting from one coast of the US to the other would not prove to be easy.

josephine earp

2. She Survived A Quake

After an arduous trip across the Isthmus of Panama and up the Pacific coast, Marcus arrived in San Francisco with her family. But what they found was not the land of opportunity that they had heard about. The city of San Francisco lay in total ruins following the aftermath of the devastating October 21, 1868 earthquake.

Josephine Earp facts Wikipedia

3. She Had A Charmed Childhood

Despite the devastation that greeted them in San Francisco, Josephine claimed that her family prospered. In the biography I Married Wyatt Earp, Glen Boyer quoted Josephine as saying, "Hattie and I attended the McCarthy Dancing Academy for children[...]. Eugenia and Lottie McCarthy taught us to dance the Highland Fling, the Sailor's Hornpipe, and ballroom dancing".

But this might have been the first of many lies she told about her life.

Josephine Earp facts Wikipedia Disputed portrait of Josephine Sarah Marcus

4. Her Stories Were "Half-Baked"

Josephine claimed that her father had been running a "prosperous mercantile business" that afforded them a lavish lifestyle. Official documents, however, paint a much darker picture. They suggest that Josephine was the daughter of a struggling baker. In fact, by 1874 census data showed that Josephine and her family were living on the charity of her eldest sister and brother-in-law.

Josephine Earp facts I Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

5. She Liked To Play Pretend

Josephine’s preoccupation with creating elaborate lies about her childhood may have stemmed from an early obsession with dramatic storytelling. As a young girl, she recalled loving nothing more than attending the theater: "There was far too much excitement in the air to remain a child". From the sounds of it, she resented her youth.

Josephine Earp facts I Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

6. Her Teachers Were Intolerant

Whether she attended prestigious dance and music schools or mundane public schools didn’t change the way that Josephine viewed her teachers. In later years, she said her teachers were "inconsistent of a tolerant and gay populous acting as merciless and self-righteous as a New England village in bringing up its children".

Josephine Earp facts I Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

7. She Felt The Burn

Right from the beginning, Josephine was something of a rebel spirit that mirrored the Wild West with which she became synonymous. And her teachers had to employ some wild methods to try to discipline her. Josephine recalled feeling the "sting of rattan" and teachers slapping her "for tardiness". Try as they may, however, she could not be tamed.

Josephine Earp facts I Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

8. She Walked Off Into The Sunset

In the biography I Married Wyatt Earp, Josephine boasted about leaving her past—and her family—behind. "I left my home one morning", she wrote, "carrying my books just as though I was going to school as usual". In actuality, however, Josephine was planning a daring escape from the crushing strictures of her suburban life.

9. She Went In Search Of Adventure

That day, at the age of 18, instead of running off to school as she was supposed to, Josephine claimed that she ran away from home. Two of her good friends, Dora Hirsch and a girl named Agnes, allegedly accompanied Josephine on this escape from mediocrity. Whether true or not, Josephine did have a date with fate—and a Wild West adventure.

Josephine Earp factsI Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

10. She Was A Burlesque Dancer

After "running away" from home, Josephine claimed that she joined the Pauline Markham Theater Company—famous for its bawdy burlesque performances—as a dancer. Following some shows in San Francisco, they sailed down to Santa Barbara and eventually made their way to Tombstone, Arizona. It was there that they had a run-in with an infamous lawman.

Josephine Earp facts Wikipedia

11. She Met Earp Early

In I Married Wyatt Earp, Josephine claimed to have arrived in Tombstone on December 1, 1879 along with the troupe from the Pauline Markham Theater Company. Oddly enough, this was the same time that the legendary Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp arrived in Tombstone with his band of brothers. As it turns out, there were a lot of oddities in Josephine’s story.

Josephine Earp facts I Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

12. She Narrowly Escaped With Her Life

Josephine went on to claim that she met her first husband, Johnny Behan, in treacherous circumstances on her journey to Tombstone. She wrote, "some renegade Yuma-Apaches had escaped from the reservation to which they had been consigned and had returned to[...] the war path". And that’s when, she claimed, her swarthy savior swooped in.

Josephine Earp facts Wyatt Earp (1994), Warner Bros.

13. She Took Shelter

Josephine elaborated on the dramatic events. She claimed that the fighter Al Sieber and his scouts escorted her and the other stagecoach passengers to a ranch house for safety from the escaped Apaches. And it was at the ranch house that Josephine claimed she first met John "Johnny" Harris Behan. Yet rumor has it that they met at a very different kind of house.

Josephine Earp factsWikipedia

14. She Met Her Match

Josephine fell for Behan immediately—well, kinda. In her alleged memoir, she described Behan as "young and darkly handsome, with merry black eyes and an engaging smile. My heart was stirred by his attentions in what were very romantic circumstances. It was a diversion from my homesickness though I cannot say I was in love with him".

Wyatt Earp factsWikimedia Commons

15. Her Timeline Made No Sense

The author Roger Ray uncovered some inconsistencies in Josephine’s version of events. According to his research, the Pauline Markham Theater Company left San Francisco via rail, not ship. Travel documents also suggest that they stopped in Casa Grande, Arizona, not Tombstone. And there was another gaping hole in Josephine’s story.

Josephine Earp factsWyatt Earp (1994), Warner Bros.

16. She Wasn’t On The List

On October 25, 1879, the Arizona Sentinel reported, "Tuesday arrived a Pinafore Company for Tucson, composed of Misses Pauline Markham, Mary Bell, Belle Howard, and Mrs. Pring, and [Misters] Borabeck and McMahon". Noticeably, the Arizona Sentinel made no mention of anyone named Josephine Marcus. Nor did they mention her friend, Dora.

Josephine Earp factsWyatt Earp (1994), Warner Bros.

17. She Had Imaginary Friends

If you were to ask Josephine, she might tell you that imaginary friends make for great travel companions. Roger Ray further uncovered that Josephine had no friends by the name of Dora Hirsch. The closest was a girl named Leah Hirschberg who grew up a few blocks away from Josephine but she never left San Francisco—at least not with Josephine.

Josephine Earp factsWyatt Earp (1994), Warner Bros.

18. She Wanted A Different Life

As a young girl back in San Francisco, Josephine grew up not far from a "house of ill repute" owned and operated by Madame Hattie Wells. Funny enough, Josephine walked past the bawdy house everyday on her way to school and may have even found it to be a place of inspiration. She later remarked that the women didn't seem like "soiled doves" but rather appeared as finely dressed women living a life of luxury.

Josephine Earp factsI Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

19. She Had An Alter Ego

Given how much we know Josephine disliked school, she would have been highly motivated to stop at Hattie Wells’ establishment. Perhaps, Wells may even have convinced the young Josephine to…make a little cash on the side. In fact, the deeper you dig into the historical records, the likelier it seems that Josephine was living a scandalous double-life.

Josephine Earp factsI Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

20. She Had A Curious Nickname

At the time that Josephine was, allegedly, walking past Wells’ bawdy house, there was a curious coincidence. A little-known working girl by the name of Sadie Mansfield started cropping up in the records. The name "Sadie" was, at the time, a popular nickname for "Sarah"—as in Josephine "Sarah" Marcus. And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Josephine Earp factsI Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

21. She Traveled Under A False Identity

Sometime in late 1874, a woman by the name of Sadie Mansfield took a stagecoach from San Francisco to Prescott, Arizona. Some of the other passengers were known working women associated with Madame Hattie Wells, who owned a second bawdy house in Prescott. And if the names weren't coincidental enough, there are a few more striking similarities between Josephine and "Sadie".

Josephine Earp factsI Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

22. She Also Had A Julia

In her memoir I Married Wyatt Earp, Josephine claimed that in 1879, she traveled to Tombstone and, subsequently, Prescott with her Black maid, Julia. This seems to be a rare kernel of truth from the mysterious Wild West woman. An 1875 report in the Arizona Weekly Miner stated that the passengers traveling from San Francisco included "Miss [Sadie] Mansfield" and "Mrs. Julia Barton, a servant".

Tombstone factsWikimedia Commons

23. She Was In The Right Place At The Wrong Time

If those two coincidences weren’t enough, there was another big one. An 1874 report in the Arizona Miner claimed, "Al Zieber, Sergeant Stauffer and a mixed command of white and red soldiers are in the hills of Verde looking for some erring Apaches, whom they will be apt to find".

Behan happened to be in the area at the time but not in 1879 as Josephine claimed. However, he and Josephine did cross paths in 1874—but the beginning of their love story was far from a fairy tale romance.

Josephine Earp factsI Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

24. She Was A Working Girl

Further evidence ties Josephine—then posing as "Sadie Mansfield"—to Behan in 1874. Once she arrived in Prescott, Mansfield began working out of a bawdy house operated by Madame Josie Roland. The bawdy house happened to be right near the Yavapai County Courthouse where Behan worked as the sheriff. You might say, it was his "jurisdiction".

Josephine Earp factsI Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

25. She Took Her "Work" Home With Her

Even though Behan was a married man in 1874, he frequented the bawdy houses in Prescott. And it wasn’t to maintain law and order—at least, not according to his neighbors. Around the time that Mansfield showed in Prescott, people reported that Behan paid regular visits to the house of ill repute and developed an ongoing relationship with Sadie Mansfield.

Josephine Earp factsI Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

26. She Enjoyed Some Perks

Circumstantial evidence suggests that Mansfield and Behan had an advantageous relationship. In early 1875, Mansfield ran afoul of the law after allegedly stealing $126 worth of German silver spoons. Despite what seemed like overwhelming evidence against her, however, a jury found her not guilty and she walked off scot-free.

Josephine Earp factsI Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

27. She Was A Homewrecker

By mid-1875, whatever ruse Mansfield and Behan had contrived came to an end. Yet that ending ushered in a world of trouble for Josephine. Behan’s wife filed for divorce, stating officially and on the record that Behan "at [divers] times and places openly and notoriously visited houses of ill-fame and prostitution at said town of Prescott". And she wasn’t shy about naming names either.

Josephine Earp factsWikipedia

28. Her Lover’s Wife Called Her Out

In her petition for divorce, Behan’s soon-to-be ex-wife listed his many "liaisons". However, she took particular aim at "Sadie or Sada Mansfield, a 14-year-old woman of [seduction] and ill-fame". Around the time of the whole sordid affair, Josephine would have been exactly the right age to match Behan’s wife’s description.

Josephine Earp factsI Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

29. She Missed Home

Following Behan’s divorce, the story of Sadie Mansfield goes quiet—but the story of Josephine Marcus picks up. Josephine claimed that she and her (imaginary) friend Dora had grown homesick. She alleged that she sought the assistance of fellow German immigrant, Al Sieber, to secure safe passage back to San Francisco. That’s probably true, but it’s definitely suspect.

Josephine Earp factsI Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

30. Her Lies Didn’t Add Up

There’s no way that Sieber could have helped Josephine return home to San Francisco if she arrived in Prescott in 1879 like she claimed. The only time Sieber could have helped her would have been between 1873 and 1875. This fact ties the timeline of Josephine's story with that of Sadie Mansfield, who all but disappears at that time.

Josephine Earp factsWikipedia

31. She Was A Tragic Mess

Josephine almost confessed to her lies later in life. In her memoir, she does not look back on those early years in Arizona with any fondness. Instead, she felt like she was in a living nightmare.

She wrote, "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. [...] In my confusion, I could see no way out of the tragic mess".

Josephine Earp factsI Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

32. Her Family Was Ashamed Of Her

When she returned to San Francisco, Josephine's family tried to come up with lies of their own to hide her "escapades from the public".  In her memoir, she recounted, "The younger children (niece and nephew), and our friends were told that I had gone away for a visit. Mrs. Hirsch, because of Dora’s part in it, was as anxious as my people (family), to keep it a secret".

Josephine Earp factsI Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

33. She Tried To Get Back Her Life

Josephine struggled to settle back into her old life. "The fear and the excitement, the weeks of exhausting travel, chagrin over my own foolishness, all together proved too much for my strength. I developed [chorea] and was unable to attend school very much again".

After a couple years of taking it easy, Josephine returned to her normal, energetic self—which meant she was free to return to her mischievous shenanigans. 

Josephine Earp facts Tombstone (1993), Hollywood Pictures

34. Her Lover Came Calling

In early 1879, the Weekly Journal-Miner reported that Behan was headed off to San Francisco with the intention to marry. It’s not clear how, but Behan managed to find Josephine (a.k.a. Sadie) and convince her to marry him. She wrote, "life was dull for me in San Francisco. In spite of my bad experience of a few years ago, the call to adventure still stirred my blood".

Wyatt Earp factsWyatt Earp (1994), Warner Bros.

35. She Was In Two Places At Once

Josephine returned to Arizona with Behan in 1880, reassuming her identity as Sadie Mansfield. Though records indicate that Mansfield was working as a "courtesan", census data still placed Josephine as living in San Francisco with her family. Whatever the case, she ended up in Tombstone with Behan by late 1880—with more lies to spin.

Josephine Earp factsWikipedia

36. She Was Making Bank

Even when she was with Behan, Josephine might have continued her old habits as a "working girl". One day, she claimed that her father had sent $300 to return home—highly unlikely seeing as he was penniless. But documents prove that Josephine frequently sent money back to her family, suggesting she was earning a sizable income.

Josephine Earp facts Tombstone (1993), Hollywood Pictures

37. She Booted Behan

Josephine’s marriage to Behan ended just as quickly as it had begun. She returned home early from a trip to San Francisco only to walk in on a shocking scene: Behan was in bed with another man’s wife. She promptly kicked him out of the house that she had paid for and sent him packing. But it’s doubtful that she had been any kind of saint in the relationship.

Josephine Earp factsWyatt Earp (1994), Warner Bros.

38. She May Have Been Cheating

Shortly after breaking things off with Behan, Josephine began a relationship with the famed western frontiersman, Wyatt Earp. The origins of their relationship, however, remain a mystery. But it’s possible that Josephine and Earp had struck up an affair when she was still with Behan as he and Earp both had offices in the Crystal Palace Saloon.

Josephine Earp factsI Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

39. She Had Her "Endowments"

It’s not hard to understand how Josephine captured the hearts of the Wild West’s wildest men. Wyatt’s brother’s wife, Allie, said of Josephine that "[her] charms were undeniable. She had a small, trim body and a meneo of the hips that kept her full, flounced skirts bouncing. Sadie was an attractive woman, with thick, dark hair, vivid black eyes, and was well-endowed".

Westerns FactsWikimedia Commons

40. She Caused A Ruckus

The awkward love triangle between Josephine, Earp, and Behan became heated in the aftermath of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Earp—who lost a brother due to the fallout—and Behan supported opposing sides of the bloody affair. This was only made worse by the fact that both men had fallen head over heels for Josephine.

When a warrant was put out for Earp's arrest, Behan went on the hunt—perhaps his motivation for apprehending Earp was less about justice and more like an attempt to win Josephine back.

Tombstone facts Tombstone (1993), Hollywood Pictures

41. She Went In Pursuit Of Fortune

Whether it was because Behan was chasing them or because they wanted to start anew, Josephine and Wyatt Earp left Tombstone, Arizona. The adventure-seeking couple spent years bumbling around from boomtown to boomtown in search of gold and fortune. At first, it seemed like a whirlwind romance—and then it just seemed like a whirlwind.

Josephine Earp factsI Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

42. She Pawned Her Jewelry

Throughout her mid and later years, Josephine fulfilled her desire for adventure with a rapacious gambling habit. At times, she would lose so much money that she would sell her jewelry to the unscrupulous Lucky Baldwin, only to have Earp buy it back again. Eventually, however, he grew tired of her unending bad luck.

Wyatt Earp facts Wikimedia Commons

43. Her Husband Was Fed Up With Her

After losing big on horse racing, Earp confronted Josephine about her gambling addiction: "You're not a smart gambler. And you have no business risking money that way. Now after this, I'm not going to redeem any more of your jewelry".

Needless to say, if her teachers hadn’t been able to get her to fall in line, then neither could Wyatt Earp.

Josephine Earp factsWikipedia

44. She Was (Kinda) Heartbroken

When Earp passed in January of 1929, Josephine claimed to be too distraught to help plan his funeral. However, not everyone bought her grieving widow act. Family friend Grace Welsh Spolidora said, "She didn't go to his funeral, even. She wasn't that upset. She was peculiar. I don't think she was that devastated when he died".

We may not know the truth of how Josephine felt, but she did go to great lengths to paint Wyatt Earp in a good light for the public. But despite her efforts, the truth was bound to come out.

Josephine Earp factsWikipedia

45. She Burned "Sadie" To The Ground

Before passing away penniless in 1944, Josephine tried to rewrite her story. She worked with two of Wyatt Earp's cousins to tell her memoirs as she wanted but backed out when publishers demanded full transparency. In a panic, she had Earp's cousins burn their manuscript but one of them salvaged a copy.

She later sold the work of (mostly) fiction to Glenn Boyer. It would be several years before anyone was able to piece together the true details of Josephine's exciting life.

Josephine Earp factsI Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

46. She Was Full Of Regret

Towards the end of her life, Josephine revealed the bitter truth. She all but admitted that she had fabricated most of her stories to protect her reputation. "The memory of it has been a source of humiliation and regret to me in all the years since that time," she said about her teenage years, "and I have never until now disclosed it to anyone besides my husband (Wyatt)".

Regardless of how truthful the detail are, what we do know is that Josephine Earp lived a life of excitement and remains one of history's most mysterious—and scandalous—personalities.


Josephine Earp factsI Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

47. She Was Never In Danger

Although Josephine was more revealing of the truth in the end, there were still many questions about the holes in her life story. One glaring historical inaccuracy in Josephine’s early story is in how she claimed to have met her future husband, Johnny Behan.

There are no records of any rail disruptions in Arizona that were caused by aggressive Apaches in December of 1879, which is when Josephine asserted that she met Behan at the ranch house. As we now know, there’s a far likelier—and much more scandalous—version of events that involves them meeting at a house of ill repute.

Josephine Earp factsWyatt Earp (1994), Warner Bros.

48. She Eloped In Style

As with much of her life, there’s no official record of Josephine’s marriage to Earp. Allegedly, the couple tied the knot on the yacht of their good friend and fellow pioneer, Lucky Baldwin. The story goes that the ship’s captain took them through their nuptials but no one knows for certain. What we do know is that their marriage became as volatile as the stormy seas.

Josephine Earp factsI Married Wyatt Earp (1983), Osmond Productions

49. She Couldn’t Outlive Her Past

The trouble started early on for Josephine and Wyatt Earp. Earp knew that Josephine didn’t like to talk about her past life as Sadie Mansfield. In fact, she didn’t like for anyone to call her Sadie. With his playful sense of humor, however, Earp always referred to Josephine by her alter ego. In fairness, she still had some very bad habits.

Tombstone facts Tombstone (1993), Hollywood Pictures

50. She Kept Everything For Herself

In their later years, Josephine and Earp gained and lost entire fortunes. Eventually, they came to depend on their families for support. Tragically, however, Josephine gambled away whatever money her family sent and neglected to care for Earp, even after he fell ill. However, by the time she came to her senses, it was too late.

Her years of gambling had made the couple so poor, that they could barely afford food or medicine for an ailing Wyatt. As we now know, Wyatt succumbed to his illness, and Josephine spent her last years penniless.

Josephine Earp factsWikipedia


Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4

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