C 2018 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article originally appeared in True West magazine.
“I have been nearly driven to distraction!” So said Victoria Zaff Behan of her well known husband, John Harris Behan. This was in 1875 when, after six years of a more-than-rocky marriage, the lady decided to call it quits.
Victoria had already seen her share of struggles. She hardly knew her father, if at all. Her mother, Harriet Zaff, was a German immigrant. Harriet was living in Missouri when she gave birth to her first child, Benjamin, in about 1847. A daughter, Catherine, was born in 1849. In 1850 Harriet and her brood, sans a husband, were living with Leopold and Catharine Zaff in Jefferson, Indiana.
Harriet’s ramblings next took her to California. Victoria’s birth in 1852 was followed by that of her sister, Louisa, in 1854. By 1860 Harriet and her daughters were living at the gold mining camp of Little York in Nevada County, while Benjamin stayed behind with the Zaffs in Indiana.
How Harriet made her way among the miners of Little York remains a mystery. The census identifies her as a widow, but clues are scant as to the identity of her husband. He may have been Godfrey Zaff, a fellow German who was living in a Sacramento boarding house in 1850. The census that year indicates Zaff was married and labored as a “cutter of garments”. He died in April of 1860 at Nevada City, roughly seven miles from Little York.
Five months later, Harriet Zaff married John Bourke at Red Dog, located just a mile or so from Little York. Bourke was one of thousands of Irish immigrants who had joined the 49ers flocking to California’s goldfields. A son, John, was born to the Bourkes in 1862. The family next spent time in Mohave County, Arizona Territory before relocating to the budding city of Prescott in the winter of 1864.
In Prescott, Bourke quickly found work managing the Quartz Rock Saloon. Between 1864 and 1867 he also joined the Arizona Pioneer and Historical Society, served as Yavapai County Sheriff and was ultimately elected County Recorder. For the first time, Victoria experienced a stable family life. She attended school, enjoyed her stepfather’s fine reputation in town, and became acquainted with Deputy Sheriff Johnny Behan.
John Harris Behan was born in 1844 to Irish immigrants in Missouri. He had been to California and joined the Union during the Civil War before serving as a clerk to the First Arizona Legislative Assembly at Prescott. In 1866 Bourke appointed him deputy sheriff and he quickly became popular. A September 1867 edition of the Arizona Miner, Prescott’s newspaper, kindly commented on Behan’s impending journey to visit family in Missouri. “We wish you a pleasant trip, Johnny,” the paper said, “and hope you will soon return in company with a better half.”
Behan’s “better half” would turn out to be Victoria Zaff. A couple of career mistakes aside, Johnny seemed a good prospect for marriage. He had a great job and was well liked. Besides, there was one more good reason to marry him: Victoria was pregnant. The couple wisely exchanged vows in far-away San Francisco in March of 1869. Their daughter, Henrietta, was born the following June. The couple no doubt hoped nobody would do the math. They didn’t, at least publicly.
The family Behan became a respected presence in Prescott. In January of 1870 the Arizona Miner noted the couple was building a stylish home on Capitol Hill, “one of the prettiest spots on the townsite.” Then in July of 1871 a second child, Albert Price, was born. Over the next two years, Johnny was elected Sheriff and appointed to the Seventh Arizona Territorial Legislature.
Gradually, however, Behan began spending more and more time away from home. In time Victoria became aware that her husband favored Prescott’s Whiskey Row and its adjoining red light district. After awhile there was no sense in Behan keeping his habits a secret; Victoria later claimed she knew all along that her husband “openly and notoriously visited houses of ill fame and prostitution.”
The marriage crumbled further when Behan lost his re-election campaign for Sheriff in 1874. On those occasions when he actually managed to make it home from Whiskey Row, Victoria remembered their terrible fights. During those times, Victoria claimed, Johnny would approach her in “a threatening and menacing manner calling me names such as whore and other epithets of like character and by falsely charging me with having had criminal intercourse with other men, threatened to turn me out of the house, quarreling with, and abusing me, swearing and threatening to inflict upon me personal violence.”
Perhaps it was such an argument in December of 1874 that sent Johnny into the arms of prostitute Sada Mansfield. There, according to Victoria, Johnny “did consort, cohabit and have sexual intercourse with the said [woman]…openly and notoriously causing great scandal…all of which came to the knowledge of this plaintiff.”
The Arizona Weekly Miner yielded no clues to the Behan’s failing marriage in the coming months, reporting instead on Johnny’s prospecting efforts in Mohave County and daughter Henrietta making the honor roll at school. But Behan’s discrepancies were outed on May 22, 1875 when Victoria filed for divorce. She was granted one in June and received custody of her children, plus child support—but for Albert only. Naturally, the glaring crossing out of Henrietta’s name on the divorce record led rumors as to why. Now, the ugly little secrets that had been harbored within the Behans’ private circle were on public display for all to see.
Local newspapers declined to comment on the divorce, but Victoria could not have missed the articles about Behan’s continued successes in law enforcement and politics. The newspapers were good to Victoria too, commenting on her charitable efforts and complimenting her family. “We have known [Mrs. Bourke] and her fair daughters to be industrious and an ornament to our good society,” praised the Weekly Miner in December of 1876.
The Behan’s separate lives were forced to come together once more when Henrietta succumbed to scarlet fever in March of 1877. Albert was also afflicted but escaped with a hearing impairment. From then on, Behan remained much a part of Albert’s life. During an excursion in 1879, “Mr. Behan took his little son Albert with him, and will in a short time place him under the care of an eminent physician in San Francisco for the purpose of having him treated for a slight deafness, occasioned by a severe sickness two years ago,” confirmed the Weekly Arizona Miner.
Victoria continued rebuilding her reputation. Memories of her scandalous divorce were fading, and in June of 1879 Lily Fremont, daughter of Governor John C. Fremont, noted in her diary that “Mrs. Behan, Mrs. Luke and Mrs. Rodenburg called.” Clearly, Victoria was moving on with her life. Behan, meanwhile, was rescued from an angry mob of Chinese men in late 1879 by constable Virgil Earp. It was perhaps this embarrassing incident that inspired him to open a saloon at Tip Top, a budding mining community in the nearby Bradshaw Mountains.
Behan was still at Tip Top when the census was taken on June 1, 1880, as was the notorious Ms. Mansfield with whom he had cavorted in Prescott. As for Victoria, she and Albert were still living with Harriet Bourke in Prescott. Victoria may have been blissfully unaware that her ex was pursuing a new love interest, Josephine Sarah Marcus. She most certainly knew of the affair, however, when Behan moved to Tombstone in 1881. If Behan told his ex-wife about his additional plans for another visit to San Francisco, he probably left out that he was going there to give an engagement ring to Marcus and convince her to join him in Arizona.
It is hard to say whether Victoria would have let Albert go live with his father in Tombstone had she known of Behan’s plan. Behan and son arrived in town in September of 1881 and awaited Josephine’s arrival in December. Soon, she was spending time at Behan’s Grand Hotel, caring for Albert when his father was away. “I came to love him as my own,” Josephine later said of Albert. “He was the only child I ever had in any sense of the word.”
Next, Behan and his new flame made plans to procure a house where they could live with Albert. It is likely that Victoria was unaware of the plan, or that the new “Mrs. Behan” had taken her nine-year-old son to his hearing specialist appointment in San Francisco. Allegedly though, that is what Josephine did. Upon returning to Tombstone, however, she found Johnny (possibly in bed) with another woman.
Josephine Marcus’ ensuing break up with Behan landed her in the arms of his political adversary, lawman Wyatt Earp. In August 1881, newspapers noted that Victoria had taken a trip to Mohave County, “visiting her sisters, cousins and aunts.” It is entirely possible she also retrieved Albert, for there is no mention of him being in Tombstone during the famed shoot-out at the O.K. Corral a few months later.
Albert would have arrived in Prescott in time to attend his mother’s wedding to Charles Randall on September 15. Randall was a hardware merchant who was, from all appearances, much better suited for Victoria. Heartbreak came, however, when the Randalls tried for children of their own. A daughter was stillborn in April of 1884 and another baby also died in November. A son, Owen Miner, was born in 1885 but lived just over a year. Victoria overcame her grief by focusing on Albert, who was sent to a California college in 1888.
In 1889 the Randalls were living at the Congress Mine when Victoria died suddenly on May 16 from “an attack of acute rheumatism.” The lady would have appreciated her epitaph in the Prescott Courier which read in part, “She was a good, true woman and friends, of which she had a great many, will be greatly grieved over her loss.” Pallbearers at her funeral included Yavapai County Sheriff “Buckey” O’Neill and former Prescott mayor Morris Goldwater.
Charles Randall remained at Congress, where he was elected postmaster in 1891. He eventually remarried and returned to Prescott. As for Albert, Victoria’s only surviving child maintained relationships with his family up to their deaths. He also pursued a career in law enforcement, an endeavor his parents surely would have been proud of. Between 1894 and 1922, Albert worked for the United States Customs Houses in Nogales, Yuma and Ajo. Beginning in 1897, his job included working as an undersheriff in those towns. He was still employed as such in 1912, when his father died in Tucson.
From 1918 to 1922, Albert achieved notoriety as a United States Marshal at Ajo. In 1927, according to Josephine and others, Albert visited she and Wyatt Earp at their Los Angeles home. During the visit Albert warned Wyatt that Billy Breakenridge, a former deputy sheriff under Johnny Behan, was writing a book with the intention of making Wyatt look bad (the tome, Helldorado, was published in 1928). “It seems a bit strange as I think of it,” Josephine later commented, “that the son of Sheriff Behan should show this interest in the reputation of his father’s political enemy. But the character of the two men—Wyatt Earp and the sheriff’s son—answers that, and the friendly gesture on the part of the younger man is a compliment to both.”
Ten years later, Josephine visited Albert at Tucson on the way to Tombstone for a “research trip”. With her were Harold and Vinneola Earp Ackerman who, with Mabel Earp Cason, planned to write a manuscript about Wyatt. Neither Breakenridge, the Ackermans, nor Cason interviewed Albert. If they had, he might have mentioned Victoria—although Josephine would have probably prevented such information from appearing in any public works.
With the deaths of Victoria’s sister Louisa in 1934 and Charles Randall 1942, fewer people remained who personally knew Victoria Zaff Behan. Alone with no immediate family, Albert Behan retired to the Arizona Pioneers’ Home in Prescott. When he died in 1949, his death certificate listed his parents as “unknown”. Even Albert Behan took the secret of his parents’ scandalous divorce to the grave.