I fancy myself an amateur western history buff. Not a serious scholar mind you. As boy I read biographies of George Armstrong Custer and James Butler Hickcock and Wyatt Earp, and every Saturday night I watched Gun Smoke and Paladin on television.
Eventually, as I got older and began to travel out West myself, I took every opportunity to visit sites of authentic western lore like Saloon #10 in Deadwood, South Dakota. I also visited the Little Bighorn, Dodge City, Kansas, and Las Cruces, New Mexico. Boot Hill, outside Tombstone, Arizona, where nearly every grave marker says shot, or stabbed, or hung, or drowned, provided a treasure trove of western lore.
More than a few gravestones read killed by Wyatt Earp, including three members of the Clanton gang, victims of the most famous shootout in the West, the Gunfight at O.K. Corral. Tombstone was Earp’s city; his picture hangs in the Bird Cage Saloon, as well as in the courthouse, and the sheriff’s office. And his statue stands at the O.K. Corral.
So, when I was in San Francisco recently to attend a funeral I was more than a little surprised to find that my aunt Doris would be laid to rest near Wyatt Earp. Wyatt Earp! I never associated the marshall with San Francisco –Paladin, Ansel Adams, Diane Finestein, and Joe Dimaggio yes, but never Wyatt Earp. Not only was Earp buried in San Francisco he was buried in a Jewish cemetery.
Just before my Bar Mitzvah, in an effort to impress upon me depths of my own heritage, my parents gave me a book about famous Jews. I recall reading about thinkers and scientists, politians and entertainers, even a couple of sports heros. But nowhere in the book to I recall reading an entry about gunfighters. After the funeral service, I found Wyatt’s gray marble headstone and uncovered a bit of Wild West truth.
The name Wyatt Earp, for instance, was not a pseudonym for Shlomo Goldberg or Hyman Stern. Earp was his real name. He married nineteen-year old Josephine Sarah Marcus, a member of the Pauline Markham Theater Company and the daughter of German-Jewish parents, who had settled in San Francisco in 1867. When Josephine’s troupe was performing in Tombstone she fell in love with the marshall, and then traded her life on stage for a life in the spotlight of western history. A month or so after the shootout at O.K Corral, the Clanton gang ambushed Wyatt and his brother Morgan in a saloon, killing Morgan.
Earp and his friend Doc Holliday took revenge, raiding various outlaw hidouts and killing those men they suspected might have been responsible in Morgan’s death. Under the threat of arrest, Earp and Josephine fled Tombstone, and drifted through western boomtowns from Nome, Alaska to Gunnison, Colorado, eventually settling in southern California. When Earp died in 1929, Josephine sent his remains to be buried in the Marcus family plot at the Little Hills of Eternity Cemetary; not to be surrounded by Clantons, Ringos, and Hollidays but by Shapiros, Feldmans, and Rosenthals.
This is Ted Levin from Gillette Swamp in Thetford Center, Vermont.
–Ted Levin is a writer and photographer specializing in natural history.