‘I’ll be your huckle bearer’? Glenwood Springs historian Bill Kight sheds light on Doc Holliday’s myths 133 years after his death
One major legend behind one of the most iconic figures in western history is mired in taboo.
After Bill Kight was asked what he’d say to Doc Holliday had the infamous gunslinger still been around, all was revealed.
“I would ask him why he didn’t really pursue his love for his cousin Mattie (Holliday),” the Glenwood Springs Historical Society, Frontier Museum and Doc Holliday Collection executive director said. “That’s a whole interesting story right there… After Doc left Georgia, she became a nun.”
Legend has it, it wasn’t just Holliday’s affliction with tuberculosis that inspired him to seek more arid climates. His supposed love for his first cousin is also one of the main reasons why the former dentist made the long exodus to the West from his home state of Georgia.
But, as Holliday’s death date – Nov. 8, 1887 – nears, Kight didn’t say much else on the hypothetical.
“I just want to stay out of the way of his guns,” Kight said. “That’s for sure.”
Holliday is a bit of a mystery. People argue where he was in fact buried, if he really was a nefarious murderer and if he actually said, “I’ll be your huckleberry.”
Well, allow Kight and the Post Independent to unring this bell.
First, when Val Kilmer played the immensely convincing role of Doc Holliday in the film “Tombstone,” everyone and their dog were compelled to quote him. In fact, let’s be honest, Kilmer’s role is essentially a national treasure.
But, according to Kight, it’s speculated that Holliday never uttered the word “huckleberry” right before he’d take a man’s life. Instead of paying homage to Mark Twain and the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which was actually written three years after the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, Holliday was arguably in fact referring to something a lot more morbid when he was addressing fellow gunfighter Johnny Ringo.
“That line in the movie, ‘I’ll be your Huckleberry,’” Kight said, ‘that’s actually ‘huckle bearer,’ which is the piece of hardware on a casket that you carry the casket with.”
In other words, Holliday was warning Ringo that he was going to put him six feet under.
And despite his penchant for using brute force, Holliday was actually quite a nice fellow. A gentleman of leisure, a dandy of destruction, Holliday never started a fight – he only finished them.
In fact, the short, skinny man from Georgia really only killed between 3-5 men throughout his “career,” said Kight.
So, when did he actually pull out his pistol?
“Only when confronted,” Kight said. “The man, the best I can tell, never started an argument. When he got in trouble, it was when other people started pickin’ a fight with him – especially in Leadville, the last gun fight he ever had.”
After taking a rough stagecoach ride to the Roaring Fork Valley in the spring of 1887, a 36-year-old, unarmed Holliday was playing faro one day at “The Monarch” when he was confronted by a man he owed $5 to, said Kight.
“Somebody had slipped (Holliday) a gun and he shot the guy in the hand,” Kight said.
Speaking of guns, one he supposedly used – a derringer – sits in his collection kept in the basement of Bullocks, a western clothing store in Glenwood Springs.
“That derringer is controversial,” Kight said. “I’d like for some expert of history to settle that with me, but none of them are willing to come forward and say that on the front page of the paper.”
But Holliday’s violent exploits aren’t the only aspects of Holliday’s history that impress Kight.
“Anybody that can ride a horse from Texas to Dodge City, Kansas with tuberculosis has got my respect, or can ride the stage over from Leadville over Independence Pass and down into Aspen and Glenwood 6 months before he died has got to be one tough hombre.”
“When you have somebody as tough as that man was, it makes for a kind of an interesting human being,” Kight added.
And, to squash any misconceptions about Holliday’s burial site, yes, said Kight, John Henry “Doc” Holliday did in fact die and was buried somewhere in Glenwood Springs – his marker’s at the Linwood Cemetery. But before we get into that, let’s highlight some of the last days of the legend.
When Holliday arrived in the valley, he took up a job as a night watchman at one of the mines near Sunlight Mountain, said Kight. Holliday also strolled the streets of Glenwood Springs.
“He was a man in a lot of pain,” Kight said. “And so, probably the last month of his life, he wasn’t going anywhere. It is reported that he walked the streets of Glenwood and was a gentleman to the ladies. That’s all we have at this point – anecdotal information. We don’t know who was present when he died.”
Some say his deathbed was accompanied by former lover Big Nose Kate, whose brother, Alexander, lived in Redstone. Others say that Walter Devereux, who opened the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort, was by Holliday’s side. All accounts, said Kight, have to be taken with a grain of salt.
One thing is certain, however: Holliday’s ailing self would finally succumb to tuberculosis. And just before he passed, it’s rumored he said, instead of getting taken by bullet, “the bugs got me.”
Afterward, his body wasn’t, as some claim, taken back to his home state of Georgia. Instead, he was laid to rest in Glenwood Springs.
Then, Hollywood finally took over the story of the man, the myth, the legend.
Asked which depiction of Holliday’s is best – Dennis Quaid in “Wyatt Earp,” or Kilmer in “Tombstone” – Kight picked the latter.
“I thought Tombstone was fairly good,” he said. “Val Kilmer played a good role in that and I sort of like the way he did it.”
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One of Phil K. Walter’s favorite memories of his FBI career is when his wife pitched in on a case.