Book Report #80: Karen Holliday Tanner, Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait
Yes, I'm one of the John Henry Holliday, D.D.S., apologists. He shows up in One-Eyed Jack & the Suicide King
, in fact, and in preparation for revising that next year I'm brushing up on my research. Now that I've gotten the disclaimer out of the way--
Karen Holliday Tanner's biography of gambler, dentist, and occasional lawman and shootist John Henry "Doc" Holliday could be better, but overall is not bad.
She is a cousin of Doc's, and her book is marked by her access to family records that have not been made public. It's in many ways very good, especially in that it concentrates on just about everything in Doc's life other than the legendary 18 months in Tombstone, which actually get refreshingly short shrift, with the gunfight around the corner from the O.K. Corral taking up just a couple of pages. (There are entire books on that gunfight: anybody (coffeeem
?) want to recommed me a good recent one with the current forensics and research in it? I wrote this book in 2003: I know I need to update it.)
What she does concentrate on is the documentable life of Dr. Holliday, outside of the legend. She chases the paper trail, in other words ,and lays it out in narrative with a certain amount of speculation and revisionism, but not too much, as such things go. The writing style is a little pained in places (three references to Ike Clanton's squeaky voice on one page is two too many) but mostly straightforward. And while she's firmly on Doc's side, I can forgive that. (I'm firmly on Doc's side, after all, myself.) Wyatt gets off a bit easy (I've always been kind of fond of Virgil, myself, but that might by the Sam Elliot connection.) but at least it's not an obscene hagiography of either man. (She is guilty of making Doc a bit taller and more handsome than he probably was, however.)
And thank god, she's not buying into the legend of the indomitable doomed gunfighter. (What do we actually know about Doc's gunslinging skills? Well, he was
fast. He was also apparently fast at hitting the floor, when necessary. He's generally considered by reputable historians to be the best candidate to have killed two or four men (possibly Mike Gordon, Tom McLaury, possibly Frank McLaury, possibly--with Wyatt Earp-- Frank Stilwell); there are five more he wounded; there are several more for which he's either a reasonable candidate, or the entire Earp gang is almost certainly responsible. Reports that he gunned down 23 or 26 men are probably exaggerated. The Ed Bailey story, in particular, appears to be cut from whole cloth
"There was something very peculiar about Doc. He was gentlemanly, a good dentist, a friendly man and yet, outside of us boys, I don't think he had a friend in the Territory. Tales were told that he had murdered men in different parts of the country; that he had robbed and committed all manner of crimes, and yet, when persons were asked how they knew it, they could only admit it was hearsay, and that nothing of the kind could really be traced to Doc's account. He was a slender, sickly fellow, but whenever a stage was robbed or a row started, and help was needed, Doc was one of the first to saddle his horse and report for duty."
--Virgil Earp, Deputy US Marshall