Tombstone, Arizona, October 1880. Although the Civil War ended 15 years prior, the town’s loyalties remain split among Confederates and Unionists, Lincoln Republicans and Democrats. Naive and impressionable, teenage Josephine Marcus, leaves the only home she has ever known in San Francisco with her Jewish immigrant parents, chaperoned by Kitty, a friend of Johnny Behan, one of Arizona’s famous lawmen. As her baker father pledges his undying love to his favorite child and her mother tears the fabric of her collar and places black cloths over the mirrors to symbolize that her daughter is dead to her, Josephine endures the long trip to Tombstone, the final leg in a cramped stagecoach with armed guards riding alongside, with an engagement ring on her finger and the belief that Johnny will honor his promise to marry her.
Tombstone’s silver boom has made it a wild magnet for miners and outlaws alike. As soon as Josephine steps off the stagecoach, she catches her first glimpse of Wyatt Earp and that first look changes the trajectory of both their lives. Johnny proves to be charming, but dishonorable, although Josephine does not discover what kind of man he really is until she has sacrificed everything to be with me. Among Johnny’s biggest faults is his intense jealousy of Wyatt. As Josephine’s relationship with Wyatt blooms and deepens, so does the men’s political and personal rivalry. Josephine witnesses the famed gunfight at the O.K. Corral and knows who is telling the truth about that infamous showdown — and, most importantly, who isn’t. She must learn to rely upon her own fierce will and unflagging spirit, as well as her faith in the only man she truly loves, in order to secure the kind of future she dreams about.
In The Last Woman Standing, author Thelma Adams transports readers into the legendary life of Wyatt Earp, the subject of countless books, movies, and a 1960’s television series. However, the focus here is on the adventures and emotions of the narrator, Josephine Marcus, the woman who loved him and spent 50 years with him as his common law wife until his death in 1929.
Josephine’s independent spirit and determination to rebel against her mother’s plans for her to marry well with the faith and, in doing so, improve her parents’ socioeconomic status, inspired her to run away from home to perform with a traveling troupe in Gilbert & Sullivan musicals. She ended up in Tombstone where she met and fell for Johnny, but returned to her parents’ home in San Francisco. The story begins with Kitty arriving to escort Josephine back to Tombstone with a ring and a promise. But Johnny’s romantic overtures are short-lived and Josephine soon learns that his financial status is unstable. Calling upon the devotion and her loving father, Josephine continues investing in Johnny financially, as well as emotionally, despite his vile betrayals, because she is too proud to flee Tombstone yet again. Eventually, however, Johnny’s despicable behavior is more than she can bare and she flees the home she has shared with him (and paid for), destitute and ready to employ the most desperate measures in order to survive. Right on cue, Wyatt rescues her.
However, Wyatt’s profession of love and commitment does not translate into an instant happy ending. ON the contrary, in order to be together, the two must overcome numerous obstacles. First, Wyatt has domestic complications of his own. He has been living, sans marriage, with a woman he claims he does not love, largely because he fell into the relationship while still grieving the death of pregnant wife. Wyatt is loathe to betray her, so insists that Josephine grant him time to extract himself from that entanglement in a gentlemanly manner and Josephine, impressed by Wyatt’s scruples, agrees. Soon, however, Johnny’s jealous machinations lead to the famed gunfight during which Wyatt and his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, confront a federation of outlaws known as the Cowboys. On October 26, 1881, the Earls and Wyatt’s friend, Doc Holliday, killed three of the Cowboys. Johnny is wiling to perjure himself in order to get Wyatt out of the way so that he and Josephine can reconcile. However, his plan fails when another witness’s testimony proves so unreliable that Wyatt is not bound over for trial and is freed from jail. Still, Tombstone remains a city divided between those who align with the law-enforcing Earps and those who side with the Cowboys, and Wyatt, his brothers, and Holliday are not safe. Disillusioned by Arizona lawlessness, Wyatt becomes more distraught when his Virgil, the U.S. Marshall, is ambushed and catastrophically injured, and Morgan is assassinated. Wyatt is deputized and rides out with Warren, Holliday, and others — a federal posse determined to locate bring the Cowboys responsible to justice. He promises Josephine he will return alive and they will finally be able to build a life together.
Through it all, Josephine’s character and fortitude are tested along with Wyatt’s. She knows that despite her mother’s dramatic reaction to her departure, her parents will welcome her back into their home, but she does not want to leave Wyatt’s side. Adams skillfully and convincingly details the transformation of the innocent, wide-eyed, gullible, and infatuated Josephine into a woman who experiences deep passion, commitment, and connection that transcends description when she meets the man who is capable of inspiring, appreciating, and reciprocating her feelings. Tombstone and all that transpires there exacts a toll on Josephine, but in the process she discovers her own strength, empowerment, and capacity to endure.
The Last Woman Standing was inspired by one fact Adams stumbled upon: she noticed that Wyatt is buried in a Jewish cemetery, a detail she included in her narrative. (Josephine buried him with her parents.) Adams “became obsessed: who was this woman, what was she like, and how did she end up in Tombstone attached to Wyatt?” and scoured “the few pages and paragraphs about her in the many nonfiction books on Wyatt and the historical characters of Tombstone, [and Josephine’s] pwn deeply edited memoirs . . .” The result of her research is a rich, fast-paced spin on a classic American story, offered from Josephine’s perspective. It is a story of female empowerment, resilience, survival, and, ultimately, faith. Because in order to live the kind of life she craves, Josephine must and does evolve from a child-like dreamer into a woman of faith — in herself, in her own indomitable tenacity, in right prevailing over wrong and, of course, in Wyatt.
As Wyatt and his posse set off to find and capture the men who maimed one of his brothers and killed another, he insists that Josephine escape Tombstone and wait for him at her parents’ home in San Francisco. He promises that he will come for her there. Does he? You’ll have to read The Last Woman Standing to find out. It will be time well spent, as I whole-heartedly recommend it.