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You Won't Get Any Snake Oil In Karen Tanner's Tome On The Life Of Doc Holliday.

By Emil Franzi

JUNE 22, 1998: 

Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait, by Karen Holliday Tanner (University of Oklahoma Press). Cloth, $28.95.

THERE'VE BEEN several recent biographies of legendary characters in Western and Arizona history that purport to be "definitive." Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait truly seems to live up to the claim.

Karen Holliday Tanner is the great-granddaughter of Doc Holliday's uncle. The Holliday family has preserved not only their own history, but that of the man who may have been their only black sheep. Tanner--along with husband John, a history professor who aided her in writing the book--either possessed or had access to many previously unpublished materials, kept intact through the years by family members.

The Hollidays were a prominent Georgia family for generations, and were related to Margaret Mitchell. Tanner even points out certain similarities between family members and characters in Gone With the Wind. She offers a wealth of information on the Doc's early life, never before presented to this reviewer's knowledge.

There was little in Doc's growing years that would have stamped him as the historic figure he became, other than a penchant for gambling common to his Georgia culture. He planned to be a dentist, and graduated from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery. The thoroughness of Tanner's research on her distant cousin is exemplified by her discovery of a dentist named Dr. Allison, currently practicing, who in 1961 had an elderly patient who had been a patient of Holliday's when she was a child--and Tanner bothers to find the records to prove it.

Doc left Georgia for Texas at age 22, in search of a better climate for his tuberculosis. He began spending more time in that era's ever-present gambling halls than he did at his dental office, although he was always able to make a living as a dentist when he wanted to. From Texas he moved about the West, making the acquaintance of friends like Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp. He did a lousy job of taking care of himself, and died in Colorado at age 36.

Holliday would no doubt be shocked to know he's since become a legend. The movies had one part right--he was a southern gentleman and a classy dresser. But he wasn't the cold-blooded killer he's often been portrayed as.

Earp, his good friend, was. That Doc was along for some of the rides is clear--maybe even a few more than credited elsewhere. But Tanner can find no hard evidence that her distant cousin ever killed anybody outside of that fabled day in Tombstone. Apparently he tried a couple of times, but there's no proof of any other successes.

Tanner has meticulously gone through public records in numerous states as well as a variety of contemporary newspaper sources, and she lists a massive bibliography of secondary sources. She makes a host of corrections in some of the latter. In her quiet and meticulous style, she lays to rest myth after myth, and deflates a much of the hype surrounding one of the West's most recognizable, if discredited, personalities.

The deed will unlikely go unpunished by some of the Earpomania types, but the case she presents in a mere 232 pages, with another hundred of notes and bibliographies, seems ample back-up to her claims. That this book was published by the University of Oklahoma Press, which has been a bastion of Western history for years, and that the foreword is by the distinguished Western historian Robert K. De Arment, further bolsters its credibility.

In a sea of hopefuls, this could finally be the definitive book on Doc Holliday. As such, it's also one of the most important volumes of Western history to be published in some time. And with its simple, direct, unhyped language, it's a good read to boot. Even if some of her contemporaries snort, real historians will commend Tanner for years to come.


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