Epitaph

Author: Mary Doria Russell
Published: 2015

Mood: If you keep getting into debates about which version of Wyatt Earp is the best and everyone is tuning you out because they didn’t ask and also don’t care but you still really need an outlet for all those Earp thoughts.

“Every tombstone needs an epitaph.” 

John Clum, Mayor of Tombstone and Editor of The Epitaph newspaper

I ordered a copy of Epitaph pretty much the moment I started reading (aka having my mind blown by) Doc. This meaty sequel does not disappoint – in fact, I loved it as much as I love Tombstone. If there were photos of Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday interspersed among the pages of Epitaph, I shit you not, I’d pick the book over my beloved movie. 

I’m a giant nerd about this particular time and place in history, but I swear, anyone who enjoys a good story would be into this book. It’s got fighting, revenge, chases, escapes, true love, miracles… okay, not miracles, it’s not actually The Princess Bride. But seriously, I willingly hoisted this hefty hardcover in bed for hours every night, and dragged it around in my purse to appointments and on public transit. IT’S THAT F*CKING GOOD. 

I’ve been driving everyone around me nuts talking about this book since I picked it up. Now it’s your turn.

Epitaph is a sprawling epic that tugs the thread on 30 seconds of history, unraveling it to reveal dozens of interwoven stories-upon-stories. It’s the story of Sadie “Josephine” Marcus and her relationships with John Behan and Wyatt Earp. It’s the story of Doc Holliday’s final years. It’s the story of Wyatt Earp, hopeful politician – but it’s also the story of Wyatt Earp, exhausted old man whose life has been spun into lies.  

Doc left us with hints of Doc and the Earps planning to move to Tombstone. Epitaph begins in the early moments of that new life, with a chance encounter between Doc and young Josephine Marcus over a piano in a Tombstone bar. Josephine was Mrs. Behan at the time, trying out life as a homemaker and stepmother (yeah, that didn’t stick). Doc was still Doc, albeit skinnier and closer to death.

The narrative develops through the complex series of events that led to the gunfight near the O.K. Corral – technically six doors down, in a lot behind a photography studio. Author Mary Doria Russell did literally thousands of hours of research to craft Epitaph. She stuck closely to actual events, and built the characters based on biographies and autobiographies, personal letters, and other legit documentation.  

What’s super cool about these two books is that no character is an afterthought or an accessory. The same attention to detail was put into writing every man, woman, and child who passes through the story. 

Just like Doc, Epitaph seamlessly shifts between perspectives within the pages of each chapter. You get to relive the rich backstories of the main characters: the Earps and their women, Behan and Doc. But you also get snippets from everyone else, details you wouldn’t otherwise know unless you’d read their own biographies – it’s not like there’s a movie about the Clanton family, right? Here are fascinating character studies of people like Ike Clanton, Curly Bill Brocius, Tom and Frank McLaury, Johnny Ringo, and others. 

Everything about the supporting characters in Epitaph feels like unearthing thrilling new facts about a familiar old story that everyone assumed they knew inside-out. It’s almost like you’re doing the research yourself, peeling back layers and realizing how and why things happened the way they did.

That’s kind of the theme of Epitaph – that the real lives and events were shrouded in layers and layers of myth and legend and ridiculous storytelling, even as they were happening. 

You couldn’t trust anything you read in either Tombstone newspaper, because they didn’t give a rat’s ass about the truth. Arizona’s legal system was notoriously corrupt at the time, so the outcomes of trials meant nothing. You also can’t trust the biographies, because both the subjects and authors had extreme biases and ulterior motives, and you can’t even trust the personal letters. Intentional lies aside, many of those people had illnesses and head injuries that impacted their most-believed truths.

When it came down to it, everyone wanted to control their version of the story – and none more so than Josephine Marcus. 

Epitaph explores the backstory of Josephine, from her childhood as a Jewish baker’s daughter who ran away with a theatre troupe, through her losing battles with the press, Hollywood, and dementia. Josephine would have been horrified at this raw version of her husband’s life, but it’s my favourite that I’ve read so far.

As author Russell said in her acknowledgments, “There is hardly a sentence written or spoken about the events of 1880-82 that has not been disputed… Nevertheless, I hope partisans of both sides will feel I’ve been fair to the men and women whose names and lives have been so often appropriated in the past.” 

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