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How One Man's Quest For Revenge Made Him An Early American Legend

On the bloody battlefields of the Mexican-American War, it is said a young sailor named John Garrison decided that he'd had enough of civilization. He retreated to become a feared and famous mountain man known as Liver-Eating Johnson. While his legacy has been disputed for generations, everyone can agree that the tale behind his nickname is anything but a pleasant one. Johnson never quite found the peace he craved.

A military man first and foremost

As a hardy man with considerable physical prowess, John Garrison likely could have enjoyed a successful career in the United States Navy. He was reportedly over 6 feet tall and weighed as much as 230 pounds. But, as with everything to do with John, the stories around often obscure the truth.

“The stories about him, he keeps getting taller and heavier,” Nathan Bender told The Spokesman-Review in 2017. And that's coming from a man who has researched John and the various legends that surround him.

Slapping his superior?

“There’s a real mishmash of material out there, including dozens of stories that can be attributed to [John] himself,” Bender told the Los Angeles Times in 2005. So tracing the true history of the man is tricky — including how he got dismissed from the Navy.

The legend has it that John grew tired of his superior officer and struck him. Some then say that the Navy issued him a dishonorable discharge, but others contend that John deserted. Whatever the case, we know that John certainly changed his last name.

A new man and a new name

Yet while the world may know John as either John Johnson, Liver-Eating Johnson, or — thanks to the hit Hollywood movie — Jeremiah Johnson, the real-life John actually chose a completely different last name. He changed his name to John Johnston — with a T.

Newspapers at the time would often misspell his name, though, and the misspelling has lived with John ever since. In fact, the first time America even heard of John was when the Washington Post published a story saying he'd died — 20 years before John actually died!

His teacher taught him the ways of mountain men

John was alive and well, though. According to Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-eating Johnson by Raymond W. Thorp and Robert Bunker, John met the famed mountain man Old John Hatcher. Hatcher then showed him how to hunt, trap, pan for gold, and endure the ruthless frontier climate.

This training would no doubt prove invaluable when John started battling Native Americans, bears, and the unforgiving landscape. He also earned money by providing firewood to steamships that traveled the Missouri River and mining for gold.

Striking out on his own

According to Crow Killer, John was known to be "surly, uncommunicative, mistrustful," and someone who didn't speak much. It was good for John's growing legend, then, that he did spend at least some time with Old John Hatcher. After all, Hatcher was a "loquacious trapper who admired [John]" and took pleasure in telling stories about him.

The stories that Hatcher told began to change over time, too. In Killer Crow, the authors claim Hatcher's first stories painted John as a "greenhorn" who'd be cheated out of his horses. Then the story became that John had won in the horse trade and was more quick-witted than even Hatcher himself.

The tallest of tales

One of the oft-repeated stories on John's time after deserting the Navy involves him getting married. John has apparently denied the story — but it's so ingrained in his mythology that it's impossible not to mention it here. He supposedly married a Flathead Indian sometime before the Civil War.

But while John was off hunting, the story goes, his expecting wife was brutally murdered by raiding members of Crow Indians. John allegedly then went on a revenge rampage and slaughtered as many as 300 Crows with his own bare hands.

Truth or legend

The researcher Nathan Bender also believes this story is a fantasy. He told the Los Angeles Times that the Crow tribe was understood to be "strong allies of the Americans throughout the entire frontier history of the region." Why, then, would they murder John's wife?

John's legend also goes on to say that after he served during the Civil War, he actually reconciled with the Crow. That seems unlikely if he'd already murdered 300 members of their tribe — but who's to say for sure? We do know that John did serve in the Civil War, though.

Back to the army

Researcher Dorman Nelson stated that John joined the 1st Division 2nd Colorado Calvary 4th Brigade H Company as a scout. This was at the end of 1863 when John was about 39 years old. He was later moved to the 2nd Regiment and saw battle in Missouri.

In fact, Nelson claimed that John was "shot in the leg and shoulder in the battles of Westport and Newtonia" in October 1864. He apparently continued to serve in the war for almost another year before being discharged. It was after these battles that John earned his "liver-eating" nickname.

John Liver-Eating Johnston

There have been many different accounts about John's "liver-eating" nickname, of course. In one story, John was allegedly held captive by some Canadian Indians. He then apparently murdered a guard, cut off the guy’s leg, and escaped while eating from the dismembered limb.

If you think that sounds far-fetched, you'd probably be right. It seems that John was a man who enjoyed people being taken in by his legend. But in a letter that John wrote to a Montana newspaper in 1868, he revealed that his nickname was actually part of a misinterpretation.

John speaks on it

John wrote in the letter that he had been part of a battle with the Sioux tribe of Native Americans. He said that during the fight, he sliced the liver from a man he'd already killed and, jokingly, enquired whether his buddy wanted to eat it.

“He refused but told everyone he seen me eating the Indian liver,” John wrote. “But I don’t eat any... just rubbed it over my mouth to make the man think I was eating it.” John apparently told this story a lot afterward, sometimes adding even more gruesome details. “He took advantage of his ghoulish name,” Bender told the Los Angeles Times.

Print the legend

Another version of this story appeared in the book Red Lodge, Saga of a Western Area by Shirley Zupan and Harry J. Owens. In this telling, John is still part of a fight against attacking Sioux that ends in the white men slaughtering the Native Americans. But then the details change.

The book included a quote from John that seemingly reveals that he didn't mean to pull out anybody's liver. “I was all over blood and I had the liver on my knife, but I didn’t eat none of it,” he said. “The liver coming out was unintentional on my part.”

A complimentary name?

Nathan Bender has another theory about the origins of the name. He contends that John was actually friendly with the Crow tribe. Bender told the Los Angeles Times that he was the “only white man they knew who would eat raw deer liver with them.”

He claims, then, that the nickname “Liver Eater” was one given in respect by the Crow tribe. That's probably not the tale that John would want you to believe, though. According to the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, John detailed his own account of the Sioux battle.

The Mountain Man speaks

"We was attacked by Injuns and we licked 'em, licked 'em good," John wrote, as reprinted by the Buffalo Bill Center. "There was fifteen of us and we killed thirty-six of them and wounded sixty. It was toward the close of the fight that I got my name."

"I was just getting’ my blood up and feelin’ like fightin’. We was short of ammunition and as I saw an Injun runnin’ toward the cover, I threw my gun to Bill Martin and took Bill’s knife. I wasn’t goin’ to waste no good cartridges on him, for I could lick any Injun I laid my paws on. I was considered the best shot with a rifle in Montana at that time, but I wanted to save my cartridges."

Campire Fare

"We had a three-hundred-yard run to the bushes…," he continued. "[I] threw him down just at the edge of the brush… Then I scalped him and then I sang and danced some more. Then I ran my knife into him and killed him and part of his liver came out with the knife."

"Just then a sort of squeamish old fellow named Ross came running up," John wrote. "I waved the knife with the liver on it in the air and I cried out, 'Come on and have a piece! It’ll stay in your stomach 'til dinner!'… And I kind of made believe to take a bite."

He didn't take insults lightly

John later wrote to a Saint Paul, Minnesota, newspaper about his version of events. "My adventures and my conduct are known pretty well through the West, and I don’t need to go away from home to get a certificate of good character," he wrote.

"But it does rile me when a whelp of an officer, that was nearly scared to death in one little campaign, comes barking and snarling at my heels, when I can count twice as many coups as he can toes and fingers," he finished.

Moving on

The name followed John for the rest of his life. How could it not, with a nickname so vivid? But the later years of John's life were not defined by fighting and eating people's organs. In the 1870s, for instance, John worked as a whiskey trader and a fur trapper.

And during the Indiana Wars between 1877 and 1878, he became a civilian scout for the Army. And even after he was well past the age of retirement, he became the deputy sheriff of Coulson, Montana. His next step, though, was completely unforeseeable.

The star of the show

Mind you, John had a fairly big legend surrounding him by this point, so perhaps it makes sense that he started a Wild West show. He was joined in his show by none other than Martha Jane Canary — whom you may know better as "Calamity Jane."

Some of John's friends from the Crow tribe joined the show, too, and John took the opportunity to tell his tall tales. One of them apparently included fighting the "whole Sioux Nation." Unfortunately, the show only lasted two years before it came to an end.

Legend of the West

John spent the last ten years of his life serving on the police force in Red Lodge in Montana. He was 76 years old when he died in the Old Soldiers Home. His legend never died, however, and eventually Hollywood retold his legendary tale.

This created another problem, though. Jeremiah Johnson — starring Robert Redford — is a fictionalized version of John Johnston's story. "Most people visiting [John]'s gravesite in Cody think it’s the grave of Jeremiah Johnson,” Bender told the Los Angeles Times.

Jeremiah Johnson

The 1972 Western Jeremiah Johnson was directed by Sydney Pollack and fictionalized select tales from the books Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson and Vardis Fisher's novel Mountain Man. The result was a critically acclaimed movie that has further entwined fact and fiction.

But it's hard to tell fact from fiction when it comes to many of the figures in the Wild West anyway. Hollywood has long taken liberties with historical truth. Our ideas of Doc Holliday, like those of John, were severely warped by the silver screen.

Southern born and raised

With a name like 'Doc Holliday', how could he be anything other than a crooked doctor-turned-gunslinger in the wild wild West? But long before he held a stethoscope or a gun, Doc was born John Henry Holliday in Griffin, Georgia, on August 14, 1851.

Life for the future gunfighter didn't have an easy beginning: he was born with a cleft palate, which required surgery and impacted his speech. His doting mother worked with him for countless hours on proper pronunciation. Eventually, Doc vanquished the impediment.

He had a surprisingly happy childhood

Aside from his speech troubles, Doc had a wonderful childhood. His father was a pharmacist and his mother was a dedicated caregiver and teacher, bestowing the importance of manners on him. He was also an excellent student, especially in math and science.

The only thing more powerful than Doc's work ethic was his love for reading. Young Doc's upbringing was so normal, in fact, that no one would've looked at the studious young man and predicted he'd become one of the most fearsome lawbreakers in the West.

His first tragedy

So what first pushed John Henry towards becoming the infamous Doc Holliday? Sadly, the first tragedy in his life may have contributed to his future: his mom died in 1866 from tuberculosis. Doc threw himself into his studies to cope with his mother's death.

His good grades got him into dentistry school at the University of Pennsylvania. And at barely 21 years old, Doc graduated in 1872 and began working as a dentist. He was on a path to make his mother proud, which meant finding the perfect place to open a dentistry practice.

Rowdy, lawless, and wild

When Doc was 22, he moved his practice to Dallas, Texas. At that point in time, Dallas was, like most of the South, still reeling from the disaster that was the Civil War. Rowdy, lawless, and yes, wild, Dallas was also the last stop on the railroad, making it the ideal place for young dentists in need of clientele.

It was also the perfect place for Doc to take refuge, for more than one reason: he'd been involved in the shooting death of two men back in Georgia and had to flee town... and he'd also developed a painful, hacking cough, not unlike the one his mother had.

Threat of police and disease

Yes, it was a diagnosis of tuberculosis (and the threat of police) that sent Doc running to Dallas. He didn't tell his patients about his disease, so his business was steady for a while. Before long, however, Doc quickly grew distracted by another passion: gambling.

He loved the nightlife and frequented the many saloons. Doc was an excellent card player, which he often combined with drinking and fighting. This soon eclipsed his dental practice. He was arrested for these activities, as well as for getting into a gunfight with the saloon keeper.

Finally meeting Big Nose Kate

Eventually, Doc's unsavory behavior (and reputation as a sickly dentist) forced him to hop from state to state. He got into a knife fight in Colorado, searched for gold in Wyoming, and was seriously wounded in a gunfight when he returned to Texas.

Texas was also where he met Mary Katherine Horony or Big Nose Kate. She was an independent woman who danced, bartended, engaged in sex work, and was incredibly intelligent. Kate and Doc married at a dance hall, though their good times wouldn't last forever.

The truth is lost to time

The newlyweds faced major trouble when Doc was accused of murder. Historians aren’t sure if he was guilty — all we know is that a man named Private Robert Smith was shot and killed by an "unknown assailant" around the same time that Holliday was witnessed killing an unknown soldier — so the truth has been lost to time.

What's clear is that Holliday knew he had to leave town fast. Fearing for his safety, he and Kate fled to Dodge City, Kansas — another town filled with outlaws. Though not all the company was terrible.

Making friends...and enemies

In Dodge City, Doc met fellow gunslinger, Wyatt Earp. Wyatt was a temporary deputy, and by the time he'd arrived in Dodge City, he had plenty of enemies from rounding up lawbreakers. And when he became the assistant city marshal in Dodge City, he knew he needed a few friends in high places to keep him safe.

Sure enough, when a few of his enemies rode into Dodge one night and attacked the Long Branch Saloon, Earp thought his time was up... until a well-known gambler in the saloon came to his aid.

Confrontation at Long Branch Saloon

Earlier in Dodge, two cowboys — Tobe Driscall and Ed Morrison — tore through town with vengeance on their minds. Specifically, they sought Wyatt Earp, who had run them out of a different town in Kansas. As one version of the story goes, Driscall, Morrison, and 24 other men terrorized the town before they burst into Long Branch Saloon.

When Earp responded to the commotion at the saloon, he found himself majorly outnumbered and outgunned. His defeat was imminent... until Holliday, who had been playing cards in the back of the saloon, snuck towards Morrison and put a gun to his head.

Real or a fantasy?

Did this really happen, or is it just a fantasy from the wild, wild West? All we know for sure is that Holliday and Earp became fast friends. Eventually, the pair moved to Tombstone, Arizona, together. Wyatt’s brothers were the marshals in Tombstone, and Wyatt picked up a job as a bank security guard.

These enforcers couldn’t keep to themselves for too long, though, and they soon ran afoul of some cowboys who were also part-time outlaws. The Earps decided to arrest the Clanton and McLaury gang — a decision that would come back to haunt them.

Legendary shootout at the O.K. Corral

Their feud came to a head on October 26, 1881, at the O.K. Corral. Virgil Earp had heard rumblings that trouble was brewing among the Clanton and McLaury gangs, so he quickly deputized Holliday in preparation for a confrontation.

When Earp, Holliday, and Earp's brothers located the cowboys, gunshots rang out almost immediately. Nobody knows for sure who fired first, but there was no doubt about the victims: Virgil Earp shot Billy Clanton, and then Doc shot Tom McLaury in the chest. Wyatt hit Frank McLaury.

They were arrested and charged

Everything happened quickly. Billy and the McLaurys were dead within 30 seconds of the shooting, and it was no secret who had fired the guns that killed them. Even worse, Virgil Earp later claimed that his group had only wanted to disarm the cowboys and that they'd never wanted a fight.

But with three men dead, this was hard to believe. So in spite of their association with Tombstone police chief Virgil Earp, Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holliday were arrested for murdering their rivals. Public favor was firmly divided about the crime.

"Deadliest man with a six-gun I ever knew"

Though the men were in hot water, Wyatt himself was glad to be arrested with his best friend. He said Doc was the “most skillful gambler and nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever knew.” Holliday had certainly proven as much during the gunfight.

One witness claimed that Holliday shot Tom McLaury in the chest at close range during the shootout. Wyatt, too, was pretty nervy, as it's believed that he was the first on his side to shoot at the cowboys. But when they got arrested, Wyatt had a few choice words for Sheriff Behan.

Conflicting narratives confuse the case

"You have deceived me," Wyatt told Behan. "You told me these men were disarmed; I went to disarm them." Whether or not all of the cowboys were disarmed or not remains to be seen; Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury both had revolvers on them, but there's a chance Tom McLaury may have been unarmed.

If that's the case, then Holliday murdered an unarmed man. Then again, some thought Doc and Wyatt were protecting themselves from a threat, and others heard that Clanton and the McLaurys weren’t armed and were holding up their hands when they were shot.

Who really started it?

During the trial, witnesses provided conflicting accounts based on who the witness was supporting. Even reliable third parties couldn’t agree on who started the attack — it had all happened too fast. It's believed that 30 shots were fired in 30 seconds, after all.

Virgil testified that he had ordered the cowboys to "throw up your hands, I want your guns" before the cowboys drew their weapons, and it was this piece of testimony that the jury actually agreed upon. It ended up being a key part of Earp and Holliday's defense.

The judge's final say

Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer presided over the trial, and for weeks he heard the conflicting testimonies from witnesses on both sides. It wasn't until a man named H.F. Sills took the stand that the tide permanently changed in favor of the defense.

Sills, who had no connection to either party, corroborated other witnesses who claimed that the cowboys had drawn their guns. With this in mind, on November 30, 1881, the judge ruled that the accused couldn’t be convicted of a crime because they were acting as lawmen and defending themselves.

Their reputations took a major hit

Some witnesses even claimed that the cowboys had refused to dispose of their guns until the lawmen disposed of theirs as well, a request that Wells called "both monstrous and startling." Wells also expressed his opinion that Wyatt and Doc shouldn’t have been deputized at all, but because they were, they hadn't broken any laws.

A few weeks later, a jury agreed to not convict the lawmen. Though they escaped formal punishment, their reputations took a major blow. Some newspapers published headlines in their favor, but others were quicker to condemn them as murderers.

He drifted through the west

After the public trial, Doc knew he couldn't stay in Tombstone. He decided to flee from Arizona. He spent his remaining years drifting across the Western front. At this point, he seemed to give up on dentistry entirely, perhaps because his tuberculosis made it nearly impossible for him to keep any patients.

What he could always do, however, was pull a gun and hold cards, so he kept gambling and gunslinging, often with Wyatt Earp. In 1882, though, the gunfighters parted ways after an argument.

He lost his conscience years earlier

For the next five years, Doc Holliday did what he did best: he drank, he gambled, and he often found himself on both sides of the law. All the while, his tuberculosis worsened. He saw Wyatt once last time in 1886; by then, Holliday's tuberculosis was in its final stages, and Wyatt Earp's wife wrote that Holliday stood on "unsteady legs."

It was obvious that Holliday's days were numbered, but his violent past didn't keep him up at night. When asked in a newspaper interview if he struggled with his conscience, Holliday once said, "I coughed that up with my lungs, years ago."

"This is funny"

On November 8, 1887, Doc succumbed to tuberculosis in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, at 36 years old. In his dying moments, he took a shot of whiskey and said, “This is funny" — a reference to his commonly-known belief that he would be killed during a gunfight, not of a disease.

Years later, Wyatt Earp spoke highly of his old friend. "I found him a loyal friend and good company," he said. "He was a dentist whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit."

Josephine Earp

The duo's friendship is one for the history books, but Earp and Holliday allegedly parted ways when Holliday made rude comments about Earp's lover. Who was the woman Earp was willing to throw away a true friendship for?

Known by several different names over the course of her long life, Josephine is most famous as the wife of Wyatt Earp — one of the central figures in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. But from her early years in Arizona to her time camping out in the Sonoran Desert, she had plenty of adventures of her own.

Synonymous with the Wild West

But who really was Josephine? Was she, as she claimed, an innocent girl who ran away from home to work as a dancer, finding plenty of love and excitement along the way? Or did she actually live a far more salacious life?

And what was the truth about her relationship with the man whose name is synonymous with the Wild West? The Old West is known for its male legends, but this is a little-known story of one of its female legends.

Early life

Unlike her later years, the early life of the future Mrs. Earp is actually fairly well documented, with few disputing the basic facts. Born Josephine Sarah Marcus in either 1860 or 1861 in New York City, she was the daughter of Prussian immigrants who had arrived in the United States some years before.

Some would say that they arrived in the U.S. at the worst possible time: in the early 1860s, the country was divided by slavery and on the brink of the Civil War.

Journey to the west coast

Others, however, would say it was a great time for the Marcus family to put roots down in the U.S. since the country was industrializing at an impressive rate. In New York City, the Marcus family struggled to make ends meet.

So when they heard about all the new opportunities on offer in the boomtown of San Francisco, they decided to relocate. When Josephine was seven years old, she boarded a ship with her parents and siblings and made the long and arduous journey to the West Coast.

San Francisco

But San Francisco wasn’t quite the paradise that it had promised to be. Instead of being bathed in sunshine and overflowing with riches, the city was a shadow of its former self, having been devastated by an earthquake in October 1868.

The earthquake was considered to be a violent one, and it left major infrastructure crumbling to pieces. 30 people lost their lives, and an unknown number found themselves homeless. Despite finding themselves in an unexpected situation, though, the Marcus family soon settled into their new home.

Differing truths

It’s at this point that Josephine’s version of events begins to deviate from what the records suggest. After Wyatt passed away in 1929 two of his relatives attempted to make a record of the famous Wild West couple’s life.

And later, this document — dubbed the Cason manuscript — would partially inspire the 1976 book I Married Wyatt Earp. For years after it was published, the book was considered to be a rare primary source from one of the most mythical times in American history.

Prosperity or poverty?

According to these allegedly first-hand sources, Josephine’s father found success in the city’s burgeoning mercantile industry, becoming a prosperous member of Californian society. But census data suggests that the family actually remained in poverty for some time.

Her father worked as a baker, and as a Jewish man, he struggled to fit in among the German and Polish Jewish communities. And these are far from the only discrepancies in this long and convoluted story.

Love of theater

Whatever the truth, it seems clear that Josephine developed a love of theater from an early age. And according to her, the family paid for her to have lessons at a local performing arts school, where she learned ballroom dancing and the Highland Fling. But soon, she grew restless with life in San Francisco. Even as a teenager, she knew there was more out there for her to explore.

What happened next is, again, a matter of some debate. If Josephine’s own testimony is to be believed, she ran away from home at the age of 18 to join a touring theater troupe led by dancer Pauline Markham. Taking a role in a production of the popular hit Pinafore, she traveled first to California before winding up in Tombstone, Arizona.

Tombstone, Arizona

According to Josephine, the date of the troupe’s visit to Tombstone was December 1, 1879. And she wasn’t the only future Wild West legend to arrive in town around that time. That month, the frontier community also welcomed three new residents in the form of Wyatt Earp and two of his brothers, Virgil and James.

Some years earlier, Wyatt had worked as a lawman in Wichita, Texas, before moving 150 miles west to Dodge City. There, he took on the role of assistant city marshal. And early on, he developed a reputation as the go-to man when it came to tracking down criminals on the run from the law. He was fast on his feet and even quicker with a gun.

The Cochise County Cowboys

Of course, that meant Wyatt often ran into trouble wherever he went. And not long after his arrival in Tombstone, he fell afoul of a group of outlaws known as the Cochise County Cowboys — foes who would end up defining his legacy. While he was busy making enemies, though, Josephine was falling into some entanglements of her own. In Tombstone, no one was 100 percent good or 100 percent bad, something Josephine learned firsthand.

According to Josephine, she met her first husband, Johnny Behan, while on the road to Tombstone. Apparently, the pair wound up in the same ranch house while taking shelter from a bunch of renegade Yuma-Apaches. And while it wasn’t exactly love at first sight, the deputy sheriff certainly made an impression on the young girl (emphasis on "young girl" — Josephine was probably around 17 when she met the 33-year-old Behan).

Romantic attraction

Allegedly, Josephine wrote later that Johnny was “young and darkly handsome, with merry black eyes and an engaging smile.” And the feeling appears to have been mutual. She added, “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.”

But not everyone agrees that Josephine met Johnny as an innocent, teenage damsel in distress. In fact, there is lots of evidence to suggest she actually traveled to Arizona when she was just 14 years old. And instead of a dancer, she was a prostitute going by the name of Sadie Mansfield. This definitely makes the relationship between Josephine and Sheriff Behan seem far less romantic.


No one knows for sure whether Sadie and Josephine were the same person, but they certainly share quite a few similarities. Apparently, records show that both Sadie and Josephine shared a birthday — and other personal details are a match too. On top of that, both were documented as having traveled to Arizona in the company of a maid named Julia.

And if that wasn’t enough, the two young women both wound up in Tombstone around the same time. Could it have been a coincidence? Or did Josephine try to erase details of her past career in sex work by wiping any reference to Sadie from her memoirs later in life? While we may never know the truth, we do know she returned to San Francisco in 1880, seemingly tired of life on the road. But soon, she began craving adventure once more.

Life as a working girl

It was around this point, Josephine claimed, that Johnny — now divorced from his wife — tracked her down and convinced her to return to Arizona with him. But once the couple was back in Tombstone, he soon returned to his womanizing ways. And there is some evidence to suggest that Sadie — or at least her professional life — may have made a reappearance as well.

According to records of the time, Josephine regularly sent gifts of money to her family back in San Francisco — something which should have been beyond the couple’s modest means. This points to an unpleasant possibility. Had her return to Tombstone meant a return to life as a working girl? Or was she getting rich through other, more mysterious ways?

Obscured over the years

Sadly, Josephine and Johnny’s relationship didn’t last long. And in 1881, after allegedly finding him in bed with another woman, she showed him the door. It’s around that point, most believe, that Wyatt came into her life. But like much of the couple’s time together, the facts of their early relationship have been obscured over the years.

In fact, both Wyatt and Josephine would refuse to discuss how their relationship began for the rest of their lives — perhaps for good reason. When the pair first met, you see, he was still married to a woman named Mattie Blaycock. And even though the lawman eventually split from his first wife, she is said to have resented him to the end of her days.

Simmering tensions

While there’s no solid evidence that Josephine and Wyatt socialized during this period, we do know he shared a workspace with Behan at Tombstone’s Crystal Palace Saloon. So, the pair are certainly likely to have met. And many believe that they were in an illicit love triangle that contributed, at least in part, to the legendary gunfight at the O.K. Corral in October 1881.

For years, tensions had been simmering between brothers Virgil, Morgan, and Wyatt Earp and the Cowboys, a group of outlaws that included Ike and Billy Clanton, Billy Claiborne, and Frank and Tom McLaury. And on the afternoon of October 26, a short but brutal shootout broke out between the two factions in the streets of Tombstone. Doc Holliday, another legendary gunslinger, also participated in the shootout on the side of the Earps.

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

Although the Earp brothers survived the gunfight, Frank, Tom, and Billy Clanton were all killed. And that wasn’t the end of the bloodshed. Five months later, Morgan was shot to death through the window of a saloon — likely by a Cowboy bent on revenge. And two days after that, Wyatt, who had recently been made Deputy U.S. Marshall for the county, tracked down the man that he believed had pulled the trigger.

On March 20, 1882, Wyatt shot and killed Frank Stilwell in Tucson, Arizona. In response, the local authorities issued a warrant for his arrest. And the cause was taken up by none other than Johnny Behan, who set off in pursuit of the wanted man. But was he motivated by something more than justice? After all, the two men had more than gunfights in common.

Love rivals

If Johnny was still in love with Josephine — and Wyatt was now her new man — this might explain why he was so keen to take up arms against him. But if this really was his reasoning, he never got to exact revenge on his love rival. And eventually, the tensions that had followed the gunfight dissipated as the Earps left Tombstone behind for good.

What happened to Josephine next is, like so many other parts of her story, unclear. According to some, she headed back to San Francisco to reunite with her family once more. But the records hint at a different story. Apparently, Sadie Mansfield made several journeys between California and Tombstone in the weeks following Stilwell’s death.

Mrs. Earp

Around this time, Mattie was packed off to stay with the Earp family in San Bernardino, California, ostensibly for her own safety. Apparently, the plan was for Wyatt to send for his wife once things had calmed down — but he never did. Instead, she became a sex worker in Pinal, Arizona, where she took her own life in July 1888.

In July 1882 Wyatt made his way to San Francisco, where he reunited with his alleged lover. And from this point onwards, the pair appear to have made little attempt to hide their relationship. In fact, soon after her beau’s arrival in town, Josephine began using the name Mrs Earp. And according to reports, the couple tied the knot in 1883.

Gold and silver booms

Later, Josephine would claim the pair didn’t make things official until 1892. But given that Mattie was still alive until 1888, this may have been an attempt to hide the adulterous nature of their relationship. After all, most historians agree that she left San Francisco with Wyatt in 1883, making her way east to Gunnison, Colorado. For the next two decades, the Earps bounced from town to town, following the gold and silver booms across the western states.

But as you probably could've guessed, things were far from perfect behind the scenes. Apparently, Josephine developed something of a gambling problem, frequently losing large sums — and selling her jewelry to fund the expensive habit. Wyatt jumped from job to job, never making much money along the way.

Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show

After a handful of ventures failed and succeeded to varying degrees, Wyatt struck gold in the Sonoran Desert. And Josephine followed her husband to Vidal, California, where they swapped bustling boomtown life for the quiet of a desert camp. By this point, though, the events that had played out in Tombstone had begun to take on a life of their own.

Ever since 1883 Buffalo Bill Cody had been touring the country with his live show — and slowly spreading a romanticized ideal of the Wild West. And in response, journalists were clamoring to find out more about the Earps and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. But not everyone wanted the truth to be told.

Protecting her legacy

The truth, Josephine knew, could be more dangerous than helpful. Apparently, Josephine became greatly protective of her and her husband’s legacy, attempting to suppress the truth about what really happened in Tombstone. Was she embarrassed about the overlap between their relationship and their respective entanglements with Mattie and Johnny? Or was she trying to paint Wyatt as more of a hero than he really was?

Whatever her reasoning, Josephine successfully forced a number of publications to withdraw stories about the couple. Meanwhile, an aging Wyatt rubbed shoulders with Hollywood stars such as John Wayne and director John Ford, adding his own influence to the legacy of the Wild West. So it’s hardly surprising that the truth is difficult to pin down.

Wyatt’s death

When Wyatt died in 1929 Josephine continued to mythologize her role in his life. According to some reports, she had spent her husband’s final years gambling away their money while he starved slowly in bed. And when the time came to bury him, she didn’t even bother to attend the funeral. "She was peculiar," Grace Welsh, a friend of the Earps, later said of Josephine's reaction to Wyatt's death. "I don't think she was that devastated when he died."

According to Josephine herself, though, she was too grief-stricken to attend. But she wasn’t too upset to profit from her husband’s death. Soon after, she negotiated a stake in his biography Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal — netting her a tidy sum.

The Cason manuscript

It was towards the end of her own life that she collaborated on the Cason manuscript, laying the foundations for the many myths that would take hold over the years. And even then, she refused to elaborate on the early years of her relationship with Wyatt and her time in Tombstone.

So was Josephine also moonlighting as Sadie Mansfield, a working girl who engaged in a number of illicit affairs? Or was she who she claimed to be — an innocent drawn into the wonder and romance of the Wild West? Although she was married to one of America’s greatest folk heroes, the whole truth of their story will probably never be known.