Famous People of the Old West, Researching Historical Fiction, Women in the West

Of dental chairs, frock coats and the hearts of women

Harrisburg, Pa., recently auctioned off about 8,000 historical artifacts that former Mayor Stephen Reed had collected for a Wild West museum that never happened. The auction netted the city $2.7 million, which sounds good except that Reed reportedly spent $8.3 million buying the stuff.

The dental chair Doc Holliday used in Las Vegas, N.M., recently sold at auction for $40,000.

Allen Barra, writing in the October issue of True West magazine, said the items were sold on a “buyer beware” basis, meaning their value and authenticity had not been verified. But that didn’t stop people from spending some sizable amounts of money on individual pieces.

The sales that caught my attention include an oak and leather dental chair that belonged to Doc Holliday. It was expected to bring in $4,000 to $6,000. It sold for $40,000.

For authentication purposes, the chair came with a framed letter signed by Wiley Baker, president of the Baker Gulch Mining Company in Las Vegas, New Mexico, dated Oct. 20, 1908:

When I rented my office above the apothecary on the Plaza, I removed a dental chair to make room for my own furnishings. I later noticed the name John Holliday on this chair…. I now have learned that this is the same John Holliday, the famous shootist of a few years prior. I have also been informed that this was the last location that he practiced dentistry. I give this chair to the city free of charge in hope that a display of archives or a museum may use this infamous artifact.

I like that Doc is famous and his dental chair infamous. This close-up of the foot pedal holds further proof of Doc’s ownership:

A close-up of the foot pedal on Doc Holliday's dental chair

Then there was the frock coat purportedly owned by Doc. Bidding opened at a stunning $45,000 and ended at $55,000. The coat was expected to fetch only $2,000 to $3,000.

I read that, by way of authentication, the coat came with a letter from the Arizona Pioneers’ Home in Prescott stating that Doc’s former lover Mary Katherine “Big Nose Kate” Cummings claimed the coat had belonged to him. The letter is dated 1940, the year Kate died at the age of 90. It is possible that she held onto the coat for 50-odd years after Doc’s death (though they had gone their separate ways before then), but I was more than a little skeptical — until I dug deeper. I found a photo of the letter online.

It was addressed to Mr. C.J. Danner and written by Gladys Beamon, a volunteer at the Pioneers’ Home who said Kate (known as Mary to Beamon) had asked her to give the coat to Danner when she died because he had admired it:

It had belonged to her friend John H. Holliday, D.D.S., and was the very same that he wore in the Tombstone shooting incident. Mary told me that the coat was favored by Holliday and she had kept it as a souvenir.

“The Tombstone shooting incident,” of course, is the now legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

Big Nose Kate
Big Nose Kate

According to Gary Roberts’ excellent “Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend,” Kate went on a crusade toward the end of her life to bolster her and Doc’s reputation in part by convincing various would-be biographers that she and Doc had been married and had a solid relationship. Books about Wyatt Earp and Tombstone had portrayed her in a negative light, and she was angry and bitter. And what better way to prove her connection to Doc than to trot out the coat he had worn on that historic day?

Assuming the coat is authentic, I find it interesting that Kate had the presence of mind to save a souvenir of that event when no one else did at the time.

I can imagine various scenarios in which she might find Doc’s coat in her possession, but I can also imagine her deciding to toss it out or give it away or even sell it at some point. Roberts said Kate was oddly unemotional when recalling Doc in the years before she died, but after all that time, she gushed about the handsomeness and valor of Tombstone outlaw Johnny Ringo.

So I wonder whether she kept the coat because she treasured her connection to history or if, despite the volatile nature of their relationship, there was something about Doc Holliday she couldn’t quite let go of.

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