Wyatt Earp


Wyatt Earp and the Jewess


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Wyatt Earp - Looking for a Legend

By Larry Tritten

Years ago I'd heard from someone or read somewhere that Wyatt Earp is buried in Colma, near San Francisco, a bit of provocative trivia whose truth I'd never been sure of, so one day a while back I decided to check it out. One would tend to think that one of the most famous figures in the history of the Old West would have ended up as part of the landscape that played an intimate part in the formation of his legend. In the case of Wyatt Earp, this would mean Dodge City, Wichita, or more appropriately, Tombstone. The mind conjures up a perfect image of a simple headstone on Boot Hill in Tombstone, not far from the most memorable marker in that graveyard:

FROM A - 44
As a boy, I watched Wyatt Earp gun down, pistol whip, and give barefist beatings to legions of outlaws and romance plenty of clear-eyed frontier beauties in countless movies and TV shows. . . Wyatt Earp. Saying the name now, even with the hindsight of adult skepticism, it stirs up a chill of the old childhood wonder.

Which is why after all these years I found myself on my way to Colma, looking for the final word in the legend of Wyatt of Wyatt Earp. Colma is a necropolis a few miles south of San Francisco, the place to which the city's dead were removed in 1914 and where they have been buried ever since. One drives on the freeway south from the city, past the Serramonte shopping center, and comes to Colma, where several cemeteries are lined up along both sides of El Camino Real, many catering to specific religious or ethnic groups--Japanese, Chinese, Italians, Jews, Greeks, etc.

I went with a friend and we picked out a cemetery office at random, went in and asked the people behind the counter if they could tell us where Wyatt Earp was buried. After a couple of such tries, we were told to try the Hills of Eternity cemetery. Pulling up the entrance, we read the sign:

I was surprised by the realization that it was an exclusive Jewish cemetery.

At the end of the driveway one is confronted by hundreds, seemingly thousands, of headstones and monuments stretching back along a low slope. We got out of the car and were quickly noticed by an old timer sitting nearby in a blue station wagon and wearing a baseball style cap with HILLS OF ETERNITY printed on it. After watching us look indecisively at the countless stones for a few moments, he called, "You boys looking for Wyatt Earp?"

We said that we were and he gave us directions on how to locate the grave about a hundred yards directly ahead of us up the slope. He introduced himself as the foreman.

"Do many people come out here looking for him?" I asked.

"Oh, yes, five or six a week," he said. "There are always people, all kinds of cowboys come out looking for his grave. He's the most visited man in Colma."

We walked up the hill past the green plots where headstones and monuments of every size are neatly ranked in rows, white and gray, past imposing crypts--little stone condos where residents have settled in for the Big Sleep, to use a metaphor from a literary genre more popular than the Western. We found the spot--his name caught my eye on one of three flat metal plaques set into cement and sharing the same space, these so small and modest among the surrounding headstones land monuments as to seem almost inconspicuous.

WYATT EARP 1848 - 1929
And with him:

JOSEPHINE EARP 1864 - 1944
And sharing the same plot:

MAX WEISS 1870 - 1947
Wyatt Earp is buried in a Jewish cemetery, surrounded by tombstones adorned with stone doves, stars of David, and Menorahs, amid a sprinkling of different types of Northern California palm trees. All my life I had never given any thought to his ethnic background but now found myself wondering if Earp is a Jewish name--or was his wife Jewish? And who was Max Weiss, the man buried beside them? The humorous thought came almost involuntarily to mind: had Max Weiss been Wyatt Earp's agent?

Sadly, nearby some of the monuments had been pushed over and had sunken into the ground. On our way out the foreman told us that this was the work of anti-Semites. Later, thinking about the pillaged monuments, I had a vision of some nocturnal vandals doing this dirty work among the stones predictably marked with names like Goldberg, Weinstein, and the like--then suddenly coming upon the moonlit-illuminated name of. . .Wyatt Earp! One imagines Wyatt stopping outlaws in their tracks more than a century after the historic gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Wyatt Earp was not Jewish, but his wife was. The book Pioneer Jews by Harriet and Fred Rochlin offers a portrait of her life, much of which information came from a book titled I Married Wyatt Earp, supposedly her memoirs, although I have a letter from a woman who says that Josephine's niece married her great-uncle, who "insisted that they were not her memoirs and a lot of it was bunk." Glenn G. Boyer, however, who collected and edited the recollections heatedly dismisses this claim, and his credentials are formidable. He became a close friend of Wyatt's second wife and the family of Wyatt's sister, associations which led to his obtaining the two Josephine Earp manuscripts on which the book is based and, as he puts it, "spent nine years verifying, amplifying and qualifying the document before publishing it."

In any case, the book tells how Josephine ("Josie") ran away from her parents in San Francisco when she was fifteen to the Arizona Territory as a cast member of Pauline Markham Troupe's production of Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore. She was apprehended and returned to San Francisco, but in the meantime had acquired a suitor, Johnny Behan, who followed her back to the city to ask her parents for her hand in marriage. Josie then went with Behan to Tombstone where, after the romance soured, she met Wyatt Earp, then a deputy sheriff, proprietor of the Oriental Saloon, and married to his second wife, Mattie. A love affair ensued.

Josie's book includes a description of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral: "I jumped up as I heard the firing start. . . . Without stopping for a bonnet I rushed outside. . . . A man in a wagon. . . yelled, 'Hop in, lady--I'll run you up to the excitement!' . . . I almost swooned when I saw Wyatt's tall figure very much alive. . . . He spotted me, and came across the street. Like a feather-brained girl, my only thought was, 'My God, I haven't got a bonnet on. What will they think?' But you can imagine my real relief at seeing my love alive. I was simply a little hysterical. Can you blame me?"

Wyatt and Josie spent nearly fifty years together, moving around the West. Despite her claim that they were married, no record of the marriage has been found. At one point they operated a saloon in Nome, Alaska, during the Klondike gold rush. Ultimately they settled in Los Angeles, where Wyatt hoped to cash in with his experiences in the movie industry, but it never happened. About Wyatt's burial, Josie wrote: "Wyatt's family were almost all gone and we had no children. My only home was where my parents rest. So I took Wyatt's ashes to San Francisco."

Looking at a photograph of the real Wyatt Earp, one wonders to what extent his legend followed him during his lifetime. Of all the actors who have played him (Burt Lancaster, James Garner, Hugh O'Brian, Henry Fonda, Randolph Scott, etc.), the first one was Walter Huston in Law and Order, which came out in 1931, two years after Wyatt was brought to Colma. One wonders, too, what those last thirty years must have been like for a man who saw the frontier close, gave up his guns and horses, and became part of a world in which the changes made were total and spectacular, seeing the coming of electric lights, telephones, motion pictures, airplanes, automobiles, radio, machine guns, battleships, comic strips, neon signs, and zippers.

Whatever the truth was about Wyatt Earp's life as a lawman and the gunfight at O.K. Corral, the romance and the legend endure, as they will. As for the real Wyatt Earp, he lies in the earth a short way away from a modern shopping mall in a place far from any drifting tumbleweeds or howling coyotes, and there is no epitaph on his marker, nothing so quaint as Lester Moore's, nor as elegant as some lines from a favorite poem of mine, The Ballad of William Sycamore (1790 - 1871)* by Stephen Vincent Benet:

Go play with your towns you have built of blocks,
The towns where you would have bound me!
I sleep in my earth like a tired fox,
And my buffalo have found me.

But well over half a century after his death the visitors keep finding him, they keep showing up, the cowboys come to stand among the stones and hold their hats in their hands while saying a few quiet words to him or thinking a few private thoughts before walking back down the slope to drive off into the modern west in their pickups and Japanese cars.

*It is interesting to note that the fictional William Sycamore lived to the age of 81, just like Wyatt Earp.


from the March 2001 Edition Jewish Magazine

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