Looking for A Legend

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. One day a while back I decided to check it out. I would have thought that one of the most famous figures in the history of the Old West would have ended up in the landscape of his legend. In the case of Wyatt Earp, this would mean Dodge City, Wichita, or more appropriately, Tombstone.

As a boy, I watched Wyatt Earp gun down, pistol whip and give barefisted beatings to legions of outlaws and romance plenty of clear-eyed frontier beauties in countless movies and TV shows. Saying the name now, even with the hindsight of adult skepticism, 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 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, near the Serramonte Shopping Center in Daly City. Several cemeteries line 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 such tries, we were told to try the Hills of Eternity Cemetery. Pulling up the entrance, we read the sign:

Hills of Eternity
Portals of Eternity
Gardens of Eternity
Temple Sherith Israel

I was surprised that it was an exclusively Jewish cemetery.

At the end of the driveway, hundreds, seemingly thousands, of headstones and monuments stretched back along a low slope. We got out of the car, and an old-timer wearing a Hills of Eternity baseball cap sitting in a nearby blue station wagon noticed us. After watching us look indecisively at the countless headstones for a few moments, he called, "You boys looking for Wyatt Earp?"

"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 followed the foreman’s directions, walked up the hill past headstones and monuments of every size and imposing crypts. We found the spot — his name was on one of two flat metal plaques set into cement and seemed almost inconspicuous.

Wyatt Earp, 1848-1929

Josephine Earp, 1861-1944

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 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 if his wife was Jewish. And who was Max Weiss, the man buried beside them? Had Max Weiss been Wyatt Earp’s agent?

Wyatt Earp was not Jewish, but his wife was. "Pioneer Jews" by Harriet and Fred Rochlin offers a portrait of her life, much of which is drawn from a book titled "I Married Wyatt Earp."

The book tells how Josephine Weiss ran away from her parents in San Francisco when she was 15 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 ask her parents for her hand in marriage. Josephine 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.

Wyatt and Josephine spent nearly 50 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, Ala., during the Klondike gold rush. Ultimately they settled in Los Angeles, where Wyatt hoped to cash in on his experiences through the movie industry, but it never happened.

"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," Josephine Earp wrote about her husband’s burial.

Looking at a photograph of the real Wyatt Earp, I wonder 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 and Randolph Scott, among others), the first was Walter Huston in "Law and Order," which came out in 1931, two years after Wyatt was brought to Colma. I wonder what those last 30 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 drive from a shopping center in a place far from any drifting tumbleweeds or howling coyotes.

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