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Wild West stories are often rife with saloons, barmaids, gambling and gunfights. We look at what’s known and what’s unknown about the real life of lawman Wyatt Earp and Southern dentist Doc Holliday, two of the central characters in the classic American story: Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
- Mary Doria Russell Author of "Doc: A Novel" (Random House)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAmericans love wild west stories and Doc Holliday and the shootout at the O.K. Corral is one of the most legendary. It might surprise you to know that Doc became a legend in his own time, thanks to hyped up newspaper reports of the shootout. It might also surprise you to know that Doc Holliday pulled more teeth than he did triggers. He was actually a dentist in the old west. We talk with Mary Doria Russell about her new book on the man behind the legend of Doc Holliday. She is the author of four novels and her most recent is simply called "Doc."
MS. MARY DORIA RUSSELLYes.
NNAMDIMary Doria Russell, thank you so much for joining us.
RUSSELLI wanted to call it T.B. -- or not T.B. but, you know, it's...
NNAMDINo, Doc. Doc is a great...
RUSSELLDeath takes a holiday, no.
NNAMDIDoc is a great nickname. It's a complex story. For those who don't know it, tell us a little about the real Doc Holliday.
RUSSELLThe real Doc Holliday was born in 1851 in Griffin, Ga. before the Civil War to a fairly well off family of a Georgia planter. Henry and Alice Holliday had just buried their first child, a little girl who lived less than a year. And about a month later, their second child was born with a cleft pallet and a cleft lip. And that's something that, today, is a shock. And we know that it can be fixed.
RUSSELLWhereas in 1851, it was the sign of tainted blood.
NNAMDIAnd most babies died of that deformity.
RUSSELLMost babies died of that birth defect, yes, of pneumonia usually or starvation because they can't suckle. And...
NNAMDIHis mother wasn't going for that, though.
RUSSELLNo. His mother was an extraordinary young woman. She's 22 years old. She's still in mourning for her baby daughter. Her brother-in-law, her husband's brother, John Stiles Holliday, was a surgeon. And he said, I -- this need not be fatal. I believe that the defect may be repaired.
NNAMDIBut before that, she fed Doc every hour with an eye dropper...
RUSSELLWith an eye dropper...
NNAMDI...for eight weeks.
RUSSELL...for eight weeks. He had to gain enough strength and weight for them to attempt the surgery. And, yes, then there was -- she didn't trust anybody else with his life and she was with -- can you imagine? Eight weeks.
NNAMDIEight weeks, every...
RUSSELLThey must've both been absolutely exhausted.
NNAMDIBut his uncle did ultimately perform...
RUSSELLHis uncle, yes. We think that that is the earliest surgical repair of a cleft pallet, certainly in North America. I've been in touch with Smile Train which does cleft palate repair around the world, and they don't know of anybody who did that earlier. It was kept a secret, because if anybody had understood -- this is a -- this an ethos where people in good breeding, right? If people had known that a defect like that ran in the family, nobody would have married in. So it was kept private in order to protect the family's good name.
NNAMDIShe taught Doc to read by the age of four, but she had also to train him to speak properly.
RUSSELLHe was left with a significant speech defect, which is the case even with modern...
RUSSELL...cleft repairs. You need to learn how to place the tongue and the lips to create these sounds. And she essentially created speech therapy for -- for Doc -- for John Henry. And she was also a pianist and started his piano lessons when he was old enough to reach the keyboard. So you have this child who's growing up with Latin and Greek and French and classical piano. He's being raised for the role of a minor aristocrat in a world that ceases to exist at the end of the...
NNAMDIHis mom dies of tuberculosis when he's a teenager.
RUSSELLYes. He was 15 years old when she died.
NNAMDIHe goes to live with his uncle...
NNAMDI...who was a doctor.
RUSSELLWith the doctor who repaired his cleft, yeah.
NNAMDIAnd his uncle says, son, you need a profession.
RUSSELLWell, he was -- John Henry wanted to become a doctor like his surgeon uncle. And at that point, the medical field was basically all quacks, you know. They were selling, you know...
NNAMDIElixirs of youth.
RUSSELLYes, elixirs of youth and patent medicines and all of this, and it had become a haven for quackery. So his uncle said that dentistry was far superior as a scientific discipline, and that was something that he felt that John Henry should look into. And so John Henry went to the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery up in Philadelphia.
RUSSELLSo he's -- you know, here's this southern boy and he's up in Philadelphia all by himself. And I used to teach gross anatomy at the Case Western Reserve University School of Dentistry, right? So when -- I've actually seen his transcript and it is a remarkably modern and demanding curriculum that this kid mastered. He got his degree, doctor of dental surgery, when he was 20 years old.
NNAMDIAnd at 21 years old, he returns to Atlanta. He had tuberculosis himself. His uncle...
RUSSELLHe didn't know that at that time. It was another -- almost a year before he was diagnosed.
NNAMDIOkay. But as a result of that, his uncle apparently urged him to move to a more hospitable climate?
RUSSELLYeah. The feeling was that he would -- he might last one or two summers in Atlanta's lethal, steamy heat. And I was there a couple of weeks ago and I'm telling you that'll kill you.
NNAMDIYou can testify.
RUSSELLYeah, really. And -- oh, there was anecdotal evidence that the dry air and the sunshine of the American west could sometimes affect either a remission or sometimes a cure of tuberculosis. And so Doc went west when he was 22 years old.
NNAMDIHe got a job at a friend's dental office in Dallas...
NNAMDI..and thus was borne the legend of Doc Holliday.
RUSSELLYeah. Except -- no. He was -- he was there as a dentist.
NNAMDIExactly. That's why we're gonna take a break...
MR. KOJO NNAMDI-We have to have a suspense factor here. 800-433-8850. What do you know about the legend of the O.K. Corral, but more specifically, what do you know about the life of Doc Holliday? We are talking with Mary Doria Russell, author of four novels. Her most recent is called just "Doc." 800-433-8850. Go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. Send us e-mail to email@example.com or a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Mary Doria Russell. She is the author of four novels. Her latest is called "Doc" and it's the story of Doc Holliday. We took off -- we took that break when Doc arrived in Dallas and...
RUSSELLTwenty-two years old.
NNAMDI...got a job at a friend's dental office. How did he do?
RUSSELLWell, he -- everything was fine, except for the fact that he arrived on the day that the crash of 1873 began. There was a post-war -- post-Civil War railroad bubble that burst in September of 1873, just as he arrived in Dallas, and the banks went under. All of this prosperity that had been built on debt, just collapsed. So it was, you know, just like what we just saw in 2008.
NNAMDIStarted gambling for money.
NNAMDIHis on-and-off girlfriend, Kate, is fascinating.
RUSSELLShe's amazing, isn't she?
NNAMDIShe was actually a hooker. Tell us about her and how she...
NNAMDI...influenced his move to Dodge City.
RUSSELLYeah. Kate was born in Hungary. Her father, Michael (word?) , was the court physician to the Emperor Maximilian of Mexico. And so Kate also grew up well educated. Any educated person in those days spoke Latin and Greek. And she lived her childhood at the Court of Maximilian in Mexico City, but Maximilian was overthrown.
RUSSELLThe (word?) were warned, and they got out of Mexico City, and they went -- she went at the age of 14 from the Court of Maximilian and Mexico City, to Davenport, Iowa. Yeah, exactly.
RUSSELLBig cultural shock. Big cultural whiplash there. And her parents sickened and died within weeks of one another. The family was broken up. She was fostered out in Davenport and she was made pregnant by her foster father. So by the time she was 15, she was having a baby, she had run away from that home and she was on her own. And she made her living on her own the rest of her life.
RUSSELLThere was very little she could do, other than being a prostitute. And she was working.
NNAMDIShe was a working girl, and...
RUSSELLShe was a working girl, yeah.
NNAMDI...she was Doc's girlfriend, and he was starting to gamble. Why did she tell him to go to Dodge City?
RUSSELLDodge City? For the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks, because that's where the money is. The whole country was in a depression that led -- dragged on for years. Dodge City was the western railhead for the Texas cattle drives at that time and that was a very prosperous town. There was a ton of money that was available there. And Kate took Doc in hand, she always felt that he -- they were the same age, but he was -- he had lived a much more sheltered life than she had.
RUSSELLAnd so she said, we're going to Dodge City because that's where the money is. Doc, at that point, was too sick to make his living as a dentist.
NNAMDIAs a dentist.
RUSSELLAnd no -- who had money for dentistry, you know?
NNAMDIExactly right, in that crash.
NNAMDIBut you pulled back the curtain in a way with the opening chapter of the book "Doc," the chapter called "Anti." You write about the newspapers embellishing his story, creating the character of Doc Holliday...
RUSSELLDoc Holliday, yeah.
NNAMDI...even as it happened.
NNAMDISo even then, there was already a mystique about the West?
RUSSELLYes. There was already a mystique about this. And even -- like in the beginning of the 1870s, you already had people making enormous amounts of money on what were called dime novels. They were literally stories that you could buy for a dime and they were illustrated. And these were people who had made Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok famous.
RUSSELLAnd so there was an enormous amount of potential money in telling stories about these people. And they were already just making stuff up. And particularly for Doc, Kate did kind of urge him to develop a reputation, you know, for the same reason that kids try to be tough in bad high schools. Doc is one of the kids who would have gotten the wedgie and the...
NNAMDIYes. Yes. Mm-hmm.
RUSSELL...they would have stolen his lunch money. He was six feet tall, he weighed 140 pounds and that was when he was pretty -- still pretty healthy.
NNAMDIThe man was a stilt.
RUSSELLHe was. And so he had to give the impression of being more dangerous than he was so people would leave him alone. And then he ran into Bat Masterson who was the sheriff of Ford County, which was where Dodge City was. And Bat just made up a lot of stuff about Doc Holliday. He didn't like him. They didn't like one another.
RUSSELLAnd Bat Masterson is the origin of most of the -- the most egregious stories about Doc. But other newspapermen did the same thing.
NNAMDIMany people know the legendary story of the shootout at the O.K. Corral, but can you remind us what that story was?
RUSSELLYeah. That's not a legend. That really happened. That was -- it took place in Tombstone. This is -- my book takes place four years earlier.
RUSSELLThis is 1878. Doc is 26 years old. This is the summer -- the last summer that he -- he finally felt well enough to begin to open up a dental practice again. He hung out a shingle. He was a practicing dentist that year. That was the year that he met Kate. It was the year that he met the Earps and became friends with -- primarily with Morgan Earp, who was his closest friend. Wyatt was the older brother. They both looked up to him.
RUSSELLBut he and -- Doc and Morgan were the -- that was the real friendship. And -- but he had one of the episodes that happens often with consumptives. It was a very bad lung hemorrhage at the end of that year and his health continued to deteriorate. That was the last time he was able to practice dentistry.
NNAMDISo much of what you write in the story is based on obviously very diligent research...
NNAMDI...but you -- you had to also do some story telling...
NNAMDI...so you had to create some characters. One character you created is a Chinese immigrant who runs a laundry. He made be invented, but historically, it's accurate.
RUSSELLHistorically he's quite accurate, yes. Exactly. I mean, I would go through and read five or six non-fiction books about the Chinese immigrant experience in order to be able to write that character from the inside. And, you know, just understanding what the -- the political situation in Dodge City was. This is -- this is just when prohibition, which later comes to the whole country, gets started.
RUSSELLBut in Kansas, that's when you have the beginnings of it, and Wyatt Earp was a tee totaling Methodist. He did not drink. Now, Doc did, because he was self-medicating. You know, the -- tuberculosis is painful, and bourbon is actually helpful for a cough. It really is.
NNAMDIYou've tried this I see.
RUSSELLI did. That's a part of the research for this book. I had a cold, and I thought, all right, let me try this. It really does work.
NNAMDIWhat drew you to this story and to this genre? Because we got an e-mail from Lucas who said, "I just wanted to share that I love Mary's "Sparrow" books.
RUSSELLYes. Yes. I've done two science fiction novels, "The Sparrow" and "Children of God." Two 20th century historicals, "A Thread of Grace," which is about the Jewish survival in Nazi-occupied Europe or Nazi-occupied Italy and then "Dreamers of the Day" was about the 1921 Cairo Peace Conference. They're all different genres. And I just -- I love the challenge of learning new things.
RUSSELLAnd it struck me when I first found out about Doc's background and, you know, what a good dentist he was. And I was thinking, well, I haven't done a mystery. What if there was a body that was burned beyond recognition and Doc had to, like, identify it from the dental records. Because you always hear about those people who were, you know, identified from dental records.
RUSSELLSo that was just like the ping that started the ball rolling on this.
NNAMDIIt evolved in a slightly different way.
NNAMDIThe story of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp is well known from movie classics. In some ways, writing about such a familiar legend can, I guess, be more difficult because it can be difficult to put a fresh spin on an old story.
NNAMDIHow have you managed to keep this western tale fresh?
RUSSELLWell, because I went back to the real people. You know, I -- I did.
NNAMDIYou got past Bat Masterson.
RUSSELLYeah, I know. Past Bat Masterson.
NNAMDISee, that's not easy to say.
RUSSELLYeah. It isn't easy to say, and it wasn't easy to do either. And it's interesting to me that the -- the reviews, like, on Amazon where, you know, people who -- readers can come and -- and give their opinions. And I've got about 63 of them up there so far in the first month and I would say 60 of them are five stars and they love it and all this. And three of them are people who are furious with me because they have an opinion about Doc Holliday that he was no good and he was a monster and they are not willing to be convinced.
NNAMDIAmericans seem to have a longstanding love affair with the mythical American West, and the legend of the O.K. Corral is at the top of that list.
RUSSELLIt really -- it...
NNAMDIWhat is it that fascinates you about the legends of the old west?
RUSSELLWell, to me, what's more interesting, I mean, these really happened, okay? The shootout actually happened. This is actually one of very few times in the west where there was a standup street fight with guns. It has been that one moment -- that 30 seconds in an alley in a mining town in Arizona, has been redone. There are 30 feature films about the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Starting at the very...
NNAMDIThirty? I've only seen 29.
RUSSELLStarting at the very beginning of the film industry and Wyatt Earp was very bitter about that. This is a family tragedy. He, you know, two brothers were badly wounded. There were men killed at that. And people were making it into entertainment and he was furious about that. Also, everybody else was making money off of it, and Wyatt never made a dime.
NNAMDIUnlike most revivals of the famous story of Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, your book is less about the showdown at the O.K. Corral and...
RUSSELLIt's not about it at all.
NNAMDIIt's more about a man grappling with his own mortality on the American frontier.
RUSSELLThat's right. And it's about these guys...
NNAMDIWhy did you choose to approach a western as a character study? Because you're an anthropologist?
RUSSELLYeah, probably. Because I find that, you know, what makes a man like Wyatt Earp? How do you get a guy who's the fifth of eighth children, the fourth son -- he's a middle kid. Usually they're lost in the noise of a big family like that. How does he become so strong that -- people agree, he was really a formidable person. He had a look that felt like a shove. He could just stare at a man, and that guy would take a step backward.
RUSSELLHow do you make a character like that? How does a boy like John Henry Holliday, sick, scared, alone on the frontier, how does he cope with the realities of that life and knowing that he's got an illness that he watched kill his mother? How do you cope with that? That, to me, is the interesting part of their lives.
NNAMDIYour first two novels were works of science fiction, as you said. Your more recent works are written through the lens of history. You consider the genres of science fiction and historical fiction to be similar.
NNAMDIIn what ways?
RUSSELLBecause they're all -- they are times and places that are not my own. I'm not writing about my life, you know. I'm not writing about my culture. I'm writing about other times and other places. And so, for me, there's a similar amount of research and imagination that goes into portraying them.
NNAMDIWere you able to visit Dodge City?
RUSSELLNo. I didn't go to Dodge City. I worked from plat maps and -- you know, because it's changed. This is, you know, it's a different town now. I worked from photographs from period descriptions of it and the maps that were available online.
NNAMDIThe novel is called "Doc." What's next? Do you plan to try to write another type of novel?
RUSSELLI'm gonna -- I'm gonna take the boys to Tombstone. I'm gonna -- I'm doing a follow-up, yeah.
RUSSELLYeah. Yeah. Who knows if anybody will publish it, but I’m -- I'm gonna do a follow up. I -- I think that I've got a different spin on the gun fight. I think that I can bring those characters to that point and make them more understandable and more realistic.
NNAMDIWould you stay here and write it while I watch you? Mary Doria Russell is the author of four novels. Her latest is called "Doc." It's about the story of Doc Holliday. It's a fun read. Mary Doria Russell, thank you so much for joining us...
RUSSELLThanks for having me back.
NNAMDI...and we look forward to the next one.
RUSSELLI would be delighted to come back with it.
NNAMDIAnd you will, because you're not leaving. You're going to write it right here. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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