History column: Derringer is even more notorious now | PostIndependent.com

History column: Derringer is even more notorious now

Bill Kight

Bill Kight

Acquiring what we believed to be Doc Holliday’s derringer with an $84,000 loan was a big part of what the Glenwood Springs Historical Society was planning for Glenwood Springs.

Early this year, the historical society conducted its first-ever primary research in an opt-in, online survey that was followed up by two public meetings. More than 60 people learned the survey results from 366 respondents. In small groups, attendees analyzed results and gave opinions and recommendations for future actions by the historical society and Frontier Museum.

The historical society staff and board are now using this research document as its road map to identify priorities for putting its organizational vision into action.

The survey measured Glenwood’s history as very important to locals and visitors alike. People want to be more engaged in a relevant, living history, through informative podcasts, better interpretive signs and self-guided walking tours. And these examples are only a partial list.

Also cited was the opportunity for the town to have more costumed historical characters in addition to its annual Ghost Walk, the society’s signature event.

In the same survey and sessions, some folks recommended we acquire “Doc’s derringer.”

The life and times of Doc Holliday is a captivating story for the West in general, and Glenwood Springs in particular. The gambler-dentist-gunman moved here purposely, during the Victorian resort heyday. Visitors relate to that and want to know all they can about him. Growing and promoting Doc’s history appropriately could be a mighty big cog in the wheel of tourism, our primary economic driver. Could be.

Along came an opportunity to purchase the derringer that reputedly was Doc’s. Believing it to be authentic — based on all available information — the board and I made the decision to buy it. I certainly would not have paid $5,000 toward its purchase had I not thought it was real.

This artifact can still be a pivotal attraction for the city, if for no other reason than to show the difficulty of authenticating Old West artifacts.

A week after buying the gun, and while traveling in Arizona, I was called by a fellow museum curator who had read the headlines and had information that questioned the gun’s authenticity. E. Dixon Larson, who acquired the derringer 50 years ago, may have falsely documented other celebrity guns.

This knowledge brought into question the artifact we purchased. It did not prove or disprove the gun’s authenticity, and for me, adds even more dimension to an already fascinating story.

Upon return home, I contacted gun expert Dan Buck, whose obscure article brought Larson’s credibility to our attention.

Our organization decided that the proper thing to do would be to let the public know what we had encountered. After all, our policy has been, and remains, to share the story of this gun and tell history as it happens.

The Canadian Jason Brierly, from whom we purchased the derringer, believed it to be authentic. Obviously, so did every gun dealer and collector over the last half century who bought the gun.

We continue to pursue every path possible to prove whether the gun is the real thing, or not, knowing full well that we may never be able to do so.

Bottom line, this artifact is now even more notorious. We shine light into the sometimes hidden world of gun dealers … light that may never have illuminated what is being shared with you today.

Since the purchase and subsequent events, I’ve been on John Henry Holliday’s trail, visiting Tombstone to Leadville doing more research.

Doc’s legend isn’t going away anytime soon. We will continue to investigate; asking the not-so-simple question: Is this Doc’s gun?

What do you think?

This is a new column on the enduring subject of history by Glenwood Historical Society’s executive director.