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Johnny Behan and Josie Marcus


January 1, 2022 by Pamela Nowak

One cannot tell the story of Josephine Marcus without touching on John Behan. Behan led Josie to Tombstone and was heavily involved in the political tangle that led Wyatt Earp and his brothers to the confrontation with the Cowboys at the OK Corral.

John Harris Behan was born in 1844 (or 1845) in Westport, Missouri (now Kansas City). As a young man, he moved west, supporting himself as a miner and freighter, fighting in the Arizona Battle of Apache Pass while freighting for a California-based Union volunteer column. He settled in Tucson and by 1864/65, was working as a clerk to the First Arizona Legislative Assembly in Prescott. It was his first taste of politics, influence, and power. And it seemed to whet his appetite for more.

John Behan discovered real estate speculation and the benefits of mining around the same time he first became involved in politics, in Prescott. He had a reputation for bravery, having defended other miners during an Indian attack.  While employed as an undersheriff in Yavapai County, Behan became involved with the sheriff’s fourteen-year-old step-daughter, Victoria Zaff, marrying her in 1869. John was twenty-four; Victoria was seventeen and already pregnant. At the time, John held the position of Yavapai County Recorder, to which he’d been elected the prior year. He was responsible for maintaining records which established the county’s tax basis. He also picked up work in saloons, learning early the importance of interacting with constituents over a drink and keeping an ear open for useful information. Henrietta Behan was born three months after the wedding followed by Albert Price Behan in 1871 (or 1872).

John succeeded his father-in-law as Yavapai County Sheriff and served in that office for two years, then ran as the county’s representative to the Arizona Territorial Legislative Assembly. In late 1874, he was nominated for sheriff and left on a fall campaign tour, traveling to Wickenburg and other locals. He was there when Josephine Sadie Marcus passed through the city.

Whether Josie Marcus was a runaway with a drama troupe (as she later claimed, despite the dates of the tour being off by several years) or was in fact a new brothel recruit bound for Prescott will never be known with certainty. But she did meet John Behan in Wickenburg in 1874. Josie later claimed she was smitten from the start with his dark handsomeness.  He returned to Prescott and lost the election but was soon mentioned in the local newspapers as consorting with Sadie Mansfield, one of several local prostitutes he was involved with. It is highly likely that Mansfield and Josie Marcus were one and the same.

In 1875, Victoria and Johnny Behan were involved in a very public divorce. Victoria cited John’s frequent involvement with prostitutes as one reason for the divorce. Mansfield was mentioned specifically by witness Charles Goodman. Victoria further accused John of violence and verbal abuse. John was seldom at home, a steady client at Prescott brothels and saloons. The divorce was a messy one, costing John dearly in both finances and the political arena; Victoria did not escape without wounds, though, with John claiming Henrietta Behan was not his daughter and the final divorce decree removed parental support for her from his obligations.  Behan would remain involved with prostitutes, including Mansfield, for the rest of his life. He also gained a reputation for affairs with wives of friends and business partners.

John Behan continued active in politics. He served as census marshal, ran again for county sheriff, served in the Ninth and Tenth Legislative Assemblies, was Mohave County Recorder and deputy sheriff of Mohave County. By 1879, he had opened a saloon in Tip Top, Arizona. During the same period, he continued to skate around trouble and was involved with a group of businessmen who beat several Chinese laundrymen. Sadie Mansfield was listed in the census as a courtesan in Tip Top during the same time that Behan operated his saloon there (all details save her last name match those of Josephine Sadie Marcus).

At some point, Joesphine returned to her home in San Francisco and claimed Johnny followed and proposed to her. Her details of the story varied, sometimes indicating she refused him and he later sent a friend to plead on his behalf. Some of her accounts indicate John came to seek treatment for his son, left deaf by scarlet fever.  Henrietta Behan, Victoria’s daughter died of the disease. Josie, at home in California, suffered from a similar illness (and may have left Prescott in 1877 because of it, returning a second time to renew her relationship with John). The stories all end with her moving to Tombstone where John was now part owner of Dexter Stables and bar manager at the Grand Hotel. She arrived there in 1880.

When Josie/Sadie Marcus arrived in Tombstone in late 1880, she lived either with friends or with John, caring for young Albert (her stories, of course, varied). Bat Masterson later made references to her as “the prettiest of three hundred or so of her kind”.

Behan was a familiar of the Cowboys, a gang of cattle rustlers who frequented the Grand Hotel saloon where he worked. The Cowboys lent their support to local businessmen who depended on the cheap supply of beef they provided and to politicians supported by them. When Behan threw his hat into the ring for the position of sheriff of the soon-to-be created Cochise County, the Cowboys lent their strong-arm statics to support Pima County Sheriff Charles Shibell (who would appoint the sheriff of the new county). Despite the fact that Wyatt Earp had been serving as Shibell’s undersheriff, Behan fully anticipated he would gain the new position, coveted by both men because the sheriff was entitled to a percentage of the taxes collected and the Tombstone mining area produced a LOT of taxes.

The competition for the position was fierce. Shibell’s competition accused the Cowboys of being in volved in ballot-stuffing and the election was contested. Bob Paul, the other candidate, was a friend of Wyatt Earp’s. In the end, there would be violence, accusations of murder, and behind-the-scenes deals. Behan was named as the new sheriff. Open hostility existed between the Cowboys and the Earps, exploding into violence at the OK Corral and the events that followed. As sheriff, Behan did little. Josie Marcus would leave town when Wyatt left, reuniting with him some months later.

For John Behan, things should have been pretty rosy after the departure of the Earps from Tombstone. Instead, he was arrested for corruption (double-collecting on some tax bills and over taxation of the Southern Pacific Railroad). He was released on a technicality but failed to win re-election. He remained in Tombstone until 1886.

Behan relocated to Yuma, Arizona in 1887 and became assistant superintendent (later warden) of the Yuma Territorial Prison. He was responsible for one prisoner’s death during an escape and his tenure was marked by mismanagement of funds and disorder within the prison. One complaint focused on prison conditions and two pregnancies of inmate Manuela Fimbres.

Behan moved to Philadelphia in 1891, then to Washington, D.C. He worked in a number of government and commissary roles there and in Texas for the rest of his life. Most of his positions included some form of supply or monetary management. He returned briefly to Tucson in 1901 and then moved on to El Paso where he lost a bid for sheriff. He worked as a railroad policeman in Arizona thereafter and died there in 1912 of aterial sclersosis and syphilis (contracted as early as 1882).

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