37. Wyatt Earp’s Tombstone

by H. W. Moss

Wyatt Earp died in Los Angeles in 1929 two months shy of his 81st birthday, but his grave is in Colma, ten miles from downtown San Francisco.

The legendary lawman died of natural causes after a life that defied death.

His full name was Wyatt Berry Stapp Earp and he was the fourth of five children, four boys and a girl, born to Nicholas and Virginia Earp. Nicholas was a cavalry captain in the Mexican-American War of 1846 who became an Illinois lawyer and a farmer. Wyatt was born in Monmouth, IL, in 1848 and named after his father’s Army captain. Too young to serve in the Civil War, the story is told that Nicholas caught young Wyatt trying to reach his older brothers, James and Virgil, who had joined the Union, and brought him back.

Wyatt carved out his name as marshal of Dodge City, KS, in 1876 and Deadwood in the Dakota Territory before he and his brothers, Morgan and Virgil, rode into Tombstone, AZ, where the gunfight at the O.K. Corral was fought in 1881.

Twice married, Wyatt met his second wife, Josephine Marcus, in Tombstone in 1879. She outlived him by 15 years and died in 1944, but they were together for 50 years and she was by his side as he prospected for gold in Alaska, bought and sold oil wells and real estate and ended as a Hollywood Western movie consultant. Together, they wrote a never produced screenplay about his life.

If Wyatt died in Los Angeles why is he buried 500 miles north?

Sometimes referred to as “The city that waits for the city that waits to die to die,” Colma has, literally, one of the largest populations — of dead people. Its living population is a mere 1,200 which makes it one of the smallest towns in California with ten police, a volunteer fire department and 17 cemeteries.

How did Wyatt Earp come to be buried there in the Jewish Cemetery in plot D, section 2, lot 12, grave 2? He was not Jewish, but his wife was.

Josephine Marcus’ family belonged to the congregation Sherith Israel, a synagogue which owns the cemetery. They bought a family plot where Josie, as she was affectionately known, was buried beside her parents and her brother. Actually, it is Earp’s ashes that are in Colma. Wyatt was cremated in Los Angeles; his ashes were “buried” in the Marcus family plot.

“She brought him up from LA where he passed away,” said Judy Edmonson, general manager of Hills of Eternity. “Every day somebody comes in to see Wyatt. A lot of law enforcement people, sheriffs, cadets going into the U. S. Marshal Academy. It’s supposed to be good luck to visit his grave before they start the academy. I’ve had people come in and say they are descendants of the Clantons who fought at the OK Corral.”

Edmonson said she has a large Wyatt file full of newspaper clippings and articles about him. In the late 50’s the town of Tombstone indicated by letter they wanted his remains returned to them where they thought he should be buried. Only the family could authorize that.

His grave site is so popular that a map identifying its location is posted on the cemetery’s office window. Visitors are allowed in at all hours, just duck under the gate and walk up until you find the large black granite monument.

“We think it’s the third stone, not the original,” explained Edmonson. “We think the original is in a weird guy’s back yard in Fresno. The stone that was there in ’67 was stolen but brought back. This one was installed by the Wyatt Earp society in San Diego.”

But, again, only the family could authorize that.

“They got permission from the Marcus family, from Josey’s sister’s daughter’s daughter who still lives in San Francisco and is about 87. She refuses to be interviewed.”

The new monument is only about five years old, according to Edmonson, but already there is a big chip out of it as people take pieces from it.

“They (the San Diego society) actually went to the five mines Wyatt owned,” said Edmonson. “Two in Arizona, one in California and two in Alaska, and stuck pieces of polished ore from the mines in the stone. It doesn’t say anything on it, but that’s why there is this weird set of ore set in the stone.”

In addition to the interest paid by visitors, Edmonson often receives calls from unusual places. The Santa Rosa Rural Cemetery phoned a month or so back: “I’m calling because I have John Wesley Clanton buried at my cemetery and I understand you have Wyatt.”