Doc Holliday’s gun returning to Glenwood; museum buys derringer that was in his room when he died
March 9, 2017
The Glenwood Springs Historical Society pulled the trigger Thursday on a move the group hopes will shape its future and promises to boost the town's reputation as an Old West tourist stop.
The society board authorized the $84,000 purchase of Doc Holliday's derringer, one of few items believed to have been in the Hotel Glenwood room where he died Nov. 8, 1887.
Members of the society Wednesday night met with the seller, Jason Brierley of Vancouver, British Columbia. The society had already secured a lender for the sale price, and after review of the gun's provenance, Wednesday's group discussed the purchase with the rest of the board Thursday afternoon.
The board voted to buy the derringer, given to Holliday by his common-law wife, Mary Katherine "Big Nose Kate" Horony-Cummings, a Hungarian-born prostitute. The handle is engraved, "To Doc from Kate."
The gun is now in a safe-deposit box. The society will plan its exhibition and invite the public to view it as soon as possible.
Holliday, a dentist and gambler, was one of the Old West's most famous gunfighters. Just 36 years old and suffering from tuberculosis, he came to Glenwood Springs in 1887 in hopes that the vapor caves would help his ailment. It was in vain, and he died in a bed at the Hotel Glenwood, at what is now the northeast corner of Eighth Street and Grand Avenue.
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"It was so important to let the public know all along what we're doing because this is for Glenwood Springs," said society Executive Director Bill Kight. "I really appreciate the fact that the city of Glenwood Springs has gotten behind us on this."
Added Mayor Mike Gamba, "Doc Holiday is a very important character in the history of Glenwood Springs, and we are extremely excited that this piece of history will return to the city where he spent his final days. Along with visiting the cemetery where he is buried, we have no doubt that this will be yet one more attraction that will draw visitors to Glenwood Springs."
Marianne Virgili, president and CEO of the Glenwood Chamber Resort Association, also was excited about the purchase and its potential.
"This is great news," she said by email. "Our visitors are certainly intrigued by history, and Doc Holliday is our most well-known frontier resident, so this precious piece of memorabilia will go a long way in positioning us as a historic Western town."
Wednesday night, Kight, historian R.W. "Doc" Boyle and other society members pledged contributions to help repay the lender. The organization may soon launch a fundraising campaign to involve the public, as well.
Those gathered listened to Boyle's assessment of the gun's authenticity.
"The gun is real. There's no doubt the gun is real," the Holliday expert said, showing obvious emotion. The documentation, which he reviewed with Brierley the night before, included an affidavit from the gun's first sale, letters, magazine articles and more.
The society first learned of the gun in August, when Brierley visited its Frontier Museum. Months later, he again contacted the society, this time to offer the opportunity to purchase the artifact.
"We want to make sure that we're investing money into something that will make a huge difference for Glenwood Springs and history being in the position it should be to move us forward," Kight said earlier in March. "That's what counts."
Brierley approached the society to give it an opportunity to purchase the weapon before he offered it to any other buyer. It belongs in Glenwood, he said.
"To this museum and to our board of directors, it's priceless," Kight said.
Brierley set a mid-March deadline because of an upcoming move, he said Wednesday night. He didn't want to store the gun, which all involved believed would fetch a much larger sum if it were to go to auction. An Annie Oakley gun sold for $140,000 and a Bonnie and Clyde gun sold for $500,000.
Those involved said Holliday's common-law wife likely purchased the gun as a gift in Tombstone, Arizona, one of the West's frontier boomtowns and scene of perhaps the most famous gunfight in Old West history, in which Holliday teamed up with Wyatt Earp and Earp's brothers battling the outlaw Cowboys gang. It's one of several Holliday items to have sold in recent years, including a flask, which went for $130,000, and a shotgun believed to have been Holliday's, which sold for $200,000.
the gun's journey
The derringer is believed to have been one of few possessions in the hotel room when he died. Looking at his bare feet in his final moments, Holliday is reputed to have said, "This is funny" — contrary to his expectation of dying with his boots on. The hotel burned down in 1945.
Hotel bartender William G. Wells received the gun as partial payment for Holliday's funeral, and it remained in the family until Utah gun dealer E. Dixon Larson purchased it in 1968. Larson wrote about the derringer and other Holliday guns in a 1972 article in Guns magazine. The early '80s saw a Tennessee lawyer purchase the gun, and the current owner bought it in July.
Brierley, who traveled here from Vancouver at his own expense, said that when he bought the gun, he just wanted to take a picture of it at Doc Holliday's grave in Glenwood Springs. He believes it belongs here.
"This gun's a magnet for Doc Holliday's stuff," Brierley said.
The society members agreed; they have been stopped on the street to discuss it since the possibility of the purchase became public. The gun will become part of an exhibit at the Frontier Museum. The society hopes it will lead to loans of more Holliday paraphernalia and increase the museum's visibility. The society has outgrown its existing space, with its archives crowding the basement below the museum.
"History in Glenwood deserves a better place where we can actually display in a proper, professional way things that come to us, that enlighten us about our past," Kight said. "We're saying to Glenwood, here's an opportunity for us to move forward in a hugely unexpected way. That's amazing to me."