On this Day in 1925; The Biter (nearly) Bitten at Sing Sing.


When heroin-loving gangsters Morris ‘Whitey’ Diamond and his brother Joey teamed up with John Farina for an armed robbery and murder, they surely knew they had a fair chance of joining him in Sing Sing’s Death House and Old Sparky as well. The 1920’s and 30’s were halcyon days for New York’s ‘State Electrician’ and his infamous contraption, after all.

What they would never live to know (and executioner John Hurlburt came to know all too well) was that Hurlburt very nearly joined them in Sing Sing’s morgue. Hurlburt’s story is no great secret (you can find my account of it here) but less is reported of the night he found himself almost as dead as any of his 140 ‘customers.’

The Diamonds and Farina found themselves awaiting death for an armed robbery committed in 1924. They stole over $43,000 from bank messenger William Barlow and guard William McLaughlin. In the process they shot Barlow (a retired NYPD officer) three times in the back. McLaughlin (a US Army veteran) managed to fire a few shots before dying.




It might have gone better if the Diamonds hadn’t been using heroin before the job. It might have gone better still if Whitey hadn’t left a blood-stained finger print in the getaway car, hadn’t left a false licence plate where it was easily found and hadn’t falsely registered it under the name ‘Joe Samuels.’ It probably didn’t help that the address on the false registration was also where Whitey habitually collected his mail.

Further bad news came via bank clerk Antony Pantano, the gang’s inside man. For a lowly clerk, his colleagues thought, he had an unusual interest in the bank’s security \arrangements, especially those involving cash deliveries and collections. When their colleagues were ambushed and left dying in the street, they immediately pointed the finger at Pantano.

Grilled by NYPD officers furious at Barlow’s murder and no doubt wanting to avoid a seat in Old Sparky, Pantano cracked. He named the Diamonds and Farina as the shooters and Nicky ‘Cheeks’ Luciano and George Desaro as driving the two getaway cars. Luciano, no relation, takes no great role in the story. Desaro was later arrested in his native Italy, which agreed to prosecute him and gave him 30 years for his role. He was luckier than Farina and the Diamonds, but not Pantano.

Pantano also found himself going ‘up the river’ to await ‘Black Thursday,’ but his sentence was commuted. Those of the Diamonds and Farina, however, weren’t. New York’s courts had an unwritten rule of never interfering in the cases of condemned cop killers and that Barlow had been retired made no difference. The Whitey, Joey and Farina would die on the same night, April 30, 1925, one after another.

New York’s death warrants only specified a particular week for a prisoner’s electrocution. With that in mind, executions were traditionally conducted on Thursdays (barring last-minute legal appeals, stays of execution, temporary reprieves or commutations.


As Pantano left the Death House for Sing Sing’s general population, it must have occurred to him that he’d had a very narrow escape. During its tenure, Sing Sing’s Old Sparky (New York once had three of them) claimed 614 of the State’s 695 electrocutions. For every three inmates who walked in, two were wheeled out.

New York wasn’t a State noted for its generosity to the condemned. Pantano’s information and his being a first offender had undoubtedly saved him. As career criminals the Diamond brothers and Farina knew the rules of the game. They must also have known they’d gambled their lives, and lost. John Hurlburt pencilled a lucrative date in his diary, as much as he’d come to hate the work.

Hurlburt’s contract with New York was the same as his predecessor Edwin Davis. For single executions he was paid $150 and travel expenses. For doubles or more, which weren’t unusual, he got $150 for the first inmate and an extra per head thereafter. He would leave Sing Sing with $250 for his night’s work, more than some people earned in a year. Hurlburt, however, was cracking up.

Hurlburt had taken over from Davis when Davis retired in 1912, Davis having trained both Hurlburt and another assistant, Robert Greene Elliott. Initially a believer in capital punishment, he now found himself doing the job only for the money. With his wife Mattie chronically-ill he had no other way to pay the medical bills.

In the months before his date with Farina and the Diamonds he’d become withdrawn, sullen, temperamental, aggressive and depressed. Tantrums were regular, Hurlburt throwing items of equipment around the death chamber and cursing at guards while preparing for an execution.

This time, hours before he was due to earn his fee, Hurlburt suffered a nervous collapse. Prison officials were facing a crisis. Under New York law only a State Electrician could perform an electrocution and Hurlburt was the only one they had. No electrician, no electrocution. After much soft-soaping, gentle persuasion and cajoling, Hurlburt recovered enough to do the job, but only just.

At 11pm, Morris was first in line. He walked in, sat down and died. As his body was wheeled away in came his brother Joey. When Joey had been pronounced dead John Farina rounded out Hurlburt’s triple-hitter. Hurlburt, a broken man by then, promptly  suffered another nervous collapse. He spent the next week in hospital before recovering enough to leave. Unfortunately for Hurlburt, who desperately needed relaxing, calm and above all safe surroundings, he was taken to the nearest available medical facility;

The infirmary at Sing Sing Prison.

Luckily for Hurlburt, he’d been a firm adherent to Edwin Davis’s approach to anonymity. The press had his name, but they never got a picture or any other personal details. His desire for anonymity and the safety thereof was about to save his life.

Some people just aren’t popular in prisons. Informers, ex-cops, ex-guards and sex offenders usually top the list of people considered fair game. Anyone wanting to make them suffer and possibly kill them has virtually free rein to do so if they can get away with it. Seldom, however, will you find anyone convicts hate more than an executioner.

Hurlburt must have been terrified. He couldn’t have avoided the fact (and fear) that, if anyone blew his cover, Hurlburt would be a dead man. He’d immediately be headed for the same morgue as the 140 or so inmates on whom he’d inflicted the ‘hot seat.’ If they even thought he might have been involved with Old Sparky, they’d kill him.

All in all, not what the doctor ordered. With the Diamonds and Farina dead, Hurlburt himself didn’t last much longer. He performed only two more executions, John Durkin on August 27 and Julius Miller on September 19, then resigned only hours before he was due to executed John Slattery and Ambrose Miller. on January 16, 1926. Slattery and Miller were delighted, their executions were postponed and subsequent legal action saw them commuted. Their accomplices Luigi Rapito and Emil Klatt were less fortunate.

By their date on January 29 New York had appointed the other of Davis’s two proteges, the legendary ‘Agent of Death’ Robert Greene Elliott. Another accomplice, Frank Daley, followed them on June 24. Daley played it tough until the bitter end, cursing Slattery and Ross for implicating him until the switch was thrown.


As it turned out Hurlburt, in failing health himself, his nerves broken and grieving after Mattie’s death in September, 1928, wasn’t long in joining them. On the afternoon of February 22, 1929 he walked into the basement of his home near Auburn Prison where he’d worked as both electrician and performed his very first executions. In his hand was the revolver he always carried when visiting a prison.

He didn’t walk out.



Paul Jawarski – Pennsylvania’s Phantom Dynamiter.

 Paul Jawarski, leader of the 'Flatheads' gang and known as the 'Pennsylvania Phantom.'

Paul Jawarski, leader of the ‘Flatheads’ gang and known as the ‘Pennsylvania Phantom.’

Meet Paul Poluszynski, alias ‘Paul Jawarski’, known throughout Pennsylvania as ‘The Phantom.’ Before the end of his extremely violent (and, some might say, mercifully brief) criminal career he claimed to have killed twenty-six people including four police officers and a payroll security guard. His gang, the ‘Flatheads’, also committed the first-ever robbery using a landmine. Criminals often use explosives to blow vehicle doors and crack safes. Blowing an entire armoured truck onto its roof and then rifling the cargo had never been done before. Jawarski and his gang were the first to do it.

Jawarski was a Polish Immigrant born some time during 1900. He died in the electric chair at the Pennsylvania State Penitentiary at Rockview on January 21, 1929 aged only 29. When he died he was also wanted in Ohio and Michigan, mainly for a string of armed robberies and multiple murder. If Pennsylvania hadn’t executed him then Ohio almost certainly would have. In Michigan he would almost certainly have spent the rest of his life behind bars.

The world’s first robbery-by-landmine happened on March 3, 1927 on Great Bethel Road outside Pittsburgh. A Brinks truck was delivering a payroll to the Pittsburgh Terminal Coal Company in Coverdale. The truck and its single escort car tended to use the same route on a regular schedule and that proved their undoing. Jawarski got the idea from the First World War. On the Western Front opposing armies used mine warfare regularly, either by burying artillery shells nose-up to destroy enemy tanks and trucks or by tunnelling under enemy trenches and burying huge explosive charges of up to 96 tons beneath their front line positions. Jawarski saw landmines as having a criminal use. Namely ambushing payroll trucks and incapacitating their escorts. It worked perfectly..

The crews of the truck and escort car didn’t expect anything out of the ordinary. They certainly didn’t expect the hundred pounds or so of industrial dynamite that erupted without warning right under their truck. Armoured trucks are enormously heavy vehicles and don’t usually end up being blown twenty feet into the air and landing upside-down. This one did. Its support car went straight into the resulting crater, leaving both vehicle crews injured, dazed and utterly disoriented but, miraculously, still alive. The ‘Flatheads’ then rifled through the truck (which had been blown wide open) and disappeared with $104,000 in cash. Criminal history had been made and mercifully nobody had died.

 Robbery by landmine. The Brinks armoured truck Jawarski and his 'Flatheads' dynamited and looted of $104,000.

Robbery by landmine. The Brinks armoured truck Jawarski and his ‘Flatheads’ dynamited and looted of $104,000.

This was the most notable crime of his career, but it wasn’t his first or last. It was only one of a string of armed robberies and murders Jawarski committed in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. Other criminals, security guards, bystanders, suspected informers and several police officers fell before his shotgun. It was for one of them, that of payroll guard Isiah Gump on Christmas Eve, 1925 during a Pennsylvania robbery with a haul of $48,000, that saw him condemned to death. It was the Gump case that caused him to show one of his rare moments of decency. Another man, Daniel Rastelli, was convicted of Gump’s murder and sentenced to death. Jawarski contacted a lawyer and passed on a confession, freeing Rastelli but also dooming himself when he was spotted and arrested two days after the landmine robbery. Rastelli was released while ‘Jawarski’ drew thirty-to-sixty years for the landmine robbery which did little to improve his attitude toward society. Two days after his conviction for the landmine robbery he was tried again for the murder of payroll guard Ross Dennis during a robbery outside Beadling, Pennsylvania. He was condemned to death. If he managed to gain a commutation for the Dennis murder it would make no difference. He could still have been condemned for confessing to the murder of Isiaih Gump.

Pennsylvania didn’t have a formal Death Row at that time. Unlike New York’s infamous ‘Death House’ at Sing SIng Prison, Pennsylvania lodged its condemned in local institutions such as the Allegheny County Jail and transport them to the State Prison at Rockview for their date with ‘Old Sparky.’ It was at Allegheny that he was confined in a cell on ‘Murderer’s Row.’ With a bitter irony, it was the same cell previously occupied by Daniel Rastelli. Jawarski was to wait there until his appeals were denied (with his record they almost certainly would have been) and a car arrived to take him to Rockview for execution. He would eventually visit Rockview and be executed, but not yet. The Pennsylvania Phantom’ planned a disappearing act.

 Allegheny County Jail. Jawarski escaped while under sentence of death.

Allegheny County Jail. Jawarski escaped while under sentence of death.

It was in April, 1928 when the ‘Phantom’ suddenly (and violently) vanished. An outside accomplice (probably a ‘Flathead’) visited him. Security at Allegheny being somewhat lax in this instance considering Jawarski was a condemned prisoner, the staff didn’t find the guns the visitor was smuggling. One for himself, one for Jawarski and another was taken from a prison guard when the accomplice, the ‘Phantom and convicted murderer Jack Vasbinder decided to arrange their own reprieve. Having blasted their way out, the trio disappeared. Jawarski’s unofficial stay of execution wouldn’t last very long. Vasbinder’s would be even shorter.

Vasbinder, aside from being a murderer, had one other major failing. He was a hopeless drug addict and that made him a liability. If caught and going through withdrawal he might offer any and every piece of help to the authorities in return for a fix. His escape partner knew that full well and decided to solve the problem by shooting him. As Vasbinder lay dying, his killer finished the job by dumping him in the Allegheny River before moving on to Michigan and re-starting his crime spree. It was in Detroit that another career highlight presented itself. On June 6, 1928 ‘Jawarski and his new gang robbed the payroll of a newspaper, the Detroit News. They left having taken out nearly $30,000 in payroll money and also two police officers. Sergeant George Barstad had walked in on the robbery and was shot dead. Patrolman Guy Cragg was seriously wounded.  

September 13, 1928 was the beginning of the end. Unknown to him, n old acquaintance had recognised him from ‘Wanted’ posters by then all over Pennsylvania and Michigan. The acquaintance alerted police who quickly responded. After a fierce gunfight and chase Jawarski was in handcuffs and seriously wounded. Patrolmen Effinger and Wieczorek were both dead from shotgun blasts. The crime spree was over and the extradition negotiations were about to start. They were unusually brief. Normally when a felon is wanted in multiple States then there’s a protracted and sometimes hostile amount of negotiation over where they eventually end up. As Jawarski had already been condemned to die in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio agreed relatively quickly that Pennsylvania could have him. Perhaps as far as law enforcement in all three States were concerned, the sooner he did the ‘hot squat’ the better.


 End of the line for the 'Pennsylvania Phantom.'

End of the line for the ‘Pennsylvania Phantom.’

They didn’t have long to wait. Jawarski knew it was hopeless. With his record trying for a commutation in Pennsylvania was a lost cause. Even if he escaped a death sentence in multiple murder charges there, he’d still be tried for murder in Ohio, also a death penalty State, or spend the rest of his days in a MIchigan prison. He ‘volunteered’ by dropping his appeals and instructing his lawyers not to make any efforts to delay the inevitable. His wish was granted. On January 20, 1929 the car and escort arrived to take him on his last ride. He remained unrepentant to the very end. During his last night he wrote a brief, scathing note to Andrew Park, the prosecutor who secured his death sentence. It read:

‘To Andy Park. See you at 49 Hell’s Fire Lane, 6 1/4 miles the other side of Hell.’

Shortly before he walked his last mile Paul Poluszinsky, alias Paul Jawarski, alias Paul Palmer, known to the pres and public as the ‘Pennsylvania Phantom’ was offered the spiritual advice of a Catholic priest. His last words were as blunt and forceful as his personality:

“I preached atheism since the day I quit singing in the choir. A man is yellow if he spends his life believing in nothing and then comes crawling to the Church because he is afraid his death is near.”

He didn’t believe he had a mortal soul. Judging by his carer and reputation, it’s unlikely anybody else did, either.

True Crime Blogs And Websites: Some Top Picks.


So, as you’re no doubt aware, I have an interest in true crime and I ted to cover the more unusual bits and pieces. If you’re interested in the subject generally then it’s hard to avoid the plethora of websites and blogs out there that deal with it, although the tone and style of some I wouldn’t touch with a barge-pole. So, if you’re a more serious student of the subject, here are a few of my top picks in no particular order:

1. Crime Magazine I’ve written for Crime Magazine since 2007 and I’ve always liked its accessibly style and avoidance of the trashy, prurient attitude you’ll find on many true crime sites. It’ll cost you a small subscription to read the articles on here, but it’s worth it for the quality thereof. There’s no trash here, it’s all handled in a tasteful and factual manner, certainly not for anybody who might want the trashy end of the spectrum. If you like your true crime sensible and non-sleazy, then this is a place for you.

2. Sword and Scale is a newcomer to the genre. It’s free to use, has an accessible style without being quite as heavyweight as Crime Magazine, but not tasteless and tacky, either. I wrote regularly for Sword and Scale and it’s always nice to see something new appear that doesn’t sacrifice quality for sensationalism. For a lighter writing style that doesn’t pull its punches, this is a good place to drop by.

3.True Crime Library A veritable encyclopaedia of al things crime. Everything from Victorian hangings, famous murders, Depression-era bank bandits and the home-grown cases you might not have already heard of can be found here. They also publish plenty of books (some of which I use in my own writing) and have a broad range of subjects with something for everybody. Not overly heavyweight in tone, but not by any means a disreputable torture-porn site, either. A good place for general cases and covering all bases, albeit sometimes slightly more tabloid than I personally like. 

4. Laura James This is more for your fans of historical cases. Think of the ‘classics’ such as Crippen or the Acid Bath Murderer with a broad variety of subjects and a huge database of other cases. Again, I prefer my true crime to be respectful and mindful of the fact that true crime is exactly that. It isn’t fiction, it involves real people whose actions had real consequences and so its not (to me anyway) an area that benefits from being treated like torture-porn hackwork. A great place for historical true crime and the facts are solid and reliable.

5. Executed Today One for anybody with an interest in the death penalty.The style might seem somewhat lowbrow and opinionated at times, but it’s a good site if you’re interested in this particular area. With crime comes punishment and capital punishment is its most extreme and questionable form. Here you’ll find a list of executions, famous inmates, curious stories and general interest stuff. Well worth a look.

6. The Malefactors Register Run by well-known crime writer and expert Mark Gribben (you’ll often find him on crime documentaries, especially ones about the American Mafia) this is an excellent read. Again, there’s something here for everybody. The style is sensible without being overly reverent, blunt without being crude and covers all manner of different areas. 

7. Historical Crime Detective Another fairly new website to look through. Factual, brisk and simple. A meat-and-potatoes site for those who like their prose simple and their cases outside the constant rehashes of Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy and so on ad nauseum. This one often focuses on the less well-known crimes and criminals and, in my opinion, is a breath of fresh air for those among us who’ve gone beyond just reading about and studying the crimes and criminals everybody’s already heard of, over and over and over again. Historical Crime Detective is recommended and certainly one to keep popping back to.

8. Old Bailey Online One for British enthusiasts, but certainly interesting to anybody fancying a look at cases tried in possibly the most famous courthouse in the world. The Central Criminal Court or ‘Old Bailey’ to give it it’s more familiar name, has seen every kind of crime and criminal pass through its courtrooms, often on their way to penal colonies, prisons or the gallows. Terrorists, serial killers, spree killers, armed robbers, spies, traitors and crooks of all kinds have come here to have a judge and jury decide their fate and they still do. The court itself is built on the former site of the infamous Newgate Prison, once one of London’s hanging jails and still a notorious clink with a fascinating (if rather grim) history. For afficionados of historic cases and some of Britain’s best-known crimes and criminals, take a look through their database.

9. Crime Library Probably the most widely-known true crime website out there. I’m not always keen on the style, sometimes it feels a little too populist and not quite as sombre as the subject perhaps demands, but there’s plenty here for anybody and everybody who’s perhaps less of a snob than me. Famous crimes, criminals, detectives, prisons and general mainstream crime is what you’ll mostly find here. It’s not catering to any particular niche and doesn’t claim to, either. Pretty much what you’d expect if you’re new to true crime and you’re looking for a decent, entry-level site to dip your toe in the water. 

So, take a quick look around these if you’re looking for a mix of the old, new, reverent and slightly less so. You’re bound to find something there that will tickle your fancy or help you learn something new, maybe even inspire you to have a crack at writing yourself. After all, if I can do it then anybody should be able to.

Back to the regular output tomorrow, haven’t decided what yet. But do take a look at what’s on offer. It’s a fascinating area of human life and history as long as you’re not incorrigibly squeamish.

Happy Birthday, ‘Doc’ Holliday, Born Today In 1851.

 John 'Doc' Holliday, AKA 'The Deadly Dentist.'

John ‘Doc’ Holliday, AKA ‘The Deadly Dentist.’

Wyat Earp on ‘Doc’ Holliday:


“The nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun that I ever knew.”


‘Doc’ (when asked whether his conscience troubled him):


“I coughed that up with my lungs, years ago…”


John Henry ‘Doc’ Holliday, born in Griffin Georgia today in 1851, died in Glenwood, Colorado on November 8, 1887 is one of the legends of the Old West. His travels through the Wild West are often retold as a rollicking tale of hard drinking, gunfights and gambling, riding from town to town in search of his next drink and his next game of poker. He’s portrayed as a gentleman, gambler and gunslinger (not necessarily in that order) and his mythical skill and speed with a pistol was, as far as we can reliably verify, really was a myth. He was a ruthless gunman, granted, and he certainly killed more than once. But he wasn’t any deadlier than many others and killed far fewer than many others. The famed ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ and the later shoot-out at Iron Springs were particularly notable events in, by Wild West standards, a relatively quiet career as a shootist when compared to the likes of John Wesley Hardin, Dallas Stoudenmire and Ben Thompson.

But people do love their myths (especially when the reality is less exciting) and, to a professional gambler and gunfighter, being feared was as important as their speed and accuracy with a gun. People who feared you were less likely to challenge you. The fewer people challenged you, the less likely you were to be killed. Not for nothing did an estimated 20,000 men die of gunshot wounds during the Wild West era. Nor is a lack of truth in the fact that any gunfighter who saw their 30th birthday was doing well when few celebrated their 25th. The Wild West was wild, it was violent, crime was rife and law enforcement barely existed. It a perfect environment for gamblers and gunmen to ply their trades and many did so. 

‘Doc’, however, wasn’t your stereotypical bourbon-swilling, semi-literate, cheroot-smoking, Neanderthal whose idea of a good night out consisted of a bottle of whiskey, a big win at poker, a bar-room brawl, a prostitute and then, just to cap off a thoroughly civilised night on the town, blasting some stranger between the eyes over some small slight. He was an educated man from a distinguished Georgia family, a professional man (he’d been a dentist until his tuberculosis lost him too many patients), generally not the type you might expect to ride from town to town, indulging in gambling, boozing, brawling and occasionally killing somebody when he felt a need.

But two things turned him to life’s darker side. His mother and step-brother both died of tuberculosis when he was a young man and ‘Doc’ soon developed it as well. At the time, what people called ‘consumption’ was a virtual death sentence. Its suffers, charmingly referred to by their fellow Americans as ‘lungers’, were already doomed to an early grave and they knew it. ‘Doc’ certainly did, commenting when asked about his violent life that he’d far rather die by the gun or the knife than from his disease. His increasing ill-health caused him to leave Georgia for the South West where he thought the hot, dry climate might add a few extra years to his life. His choice would cost a few people the rest of theirs.

His other problem was his own personality. Like many people addicted to drugs and/or alcohol (in his case the booze and laudanum he took daily to limit the pain of his illness) ‘Doc’ had a split personality. Even his closest friends described him as a lovely man when sober, but when drunk and stoned (which became increasingly often as his disease took hold) he was very definitely a man to be kept well away from. Then his dark said took over and he’d start trying to provoke totally unnecessary gunfights and knife fights, create trouble where there hadn’t been any and needn’t be if he’d kept his mouth shut and his temper under control. It was the kind of behaviour that made those around him think he actually wanted to die, preferably quickly. Many addicts have a split personality, it’s just that few happen to carry at least two pistols, a couple of knives and a shotgun on a daily basis. ‘Doc’ did, and wasn’t afraid to use them.

His first known gunfight was in 1873 along the Withlacoochee River in a disagreement with some black youths over a bathing spot. His family denied he killed anybody, but two accounts state clearly that he killed one or two men that day. In September, 1873 he moved to Dallas and began gambling when his tuberculosis scared away his remaining dental patients. If he couldn’t pull teeth any more then he could still play cards and gambling became his sole means of support. May, 1874 saw him indicted for illegal gambling and in January, 1875 he was indicted for a gunfight with saloon keeper Charles Austin. Neither was injured and, after being convicted and fined on the gambling indictment, left Texas for Colorado. In Denver he was said to have badly mutilated a local tough named Bud Ryan with a knife, although no records exist confirming either the fight or that Ryan actually existed. 

In February, 1876 ‘Doc’ turned up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, following stories of gold having been found there. He worked as a card dealer at the Bella Union Saloon. When the Bella Union’s owner moved his saloon to the notorious town of Deadwood, South Dakota ‘Doc’ moved with him before returning to Cheyenne in in 1877. After Cheyenne it was Denver, then Kansas, then Texas. More trouble beckoned in the Texan town of Breckenridge on July 4, where he severely beat gambler Henry Kahn in a dispute over a hand of poker. Kahn, not having taken kindly to being beaten severely with a walking cane, shot ‘Doc’ and seriously wounded him. He moved on to Fort Griffin, Texas where he met two people who were lasting figures in his rootless and violent life, they were his prostitute paramour ‘Big Nose Kate’ Horony and a certain Wyatt Earp.

In the summer of 1878 ‘Doc’ and Wyatt cemented their friendship after ‘Doc’ involved himself in one of Wyatt’s dust-ups. Wyatt was serving as an assistant town Marshal in the notorious Dodge City. Heavily outnumbered, Wyatt later credited ‘Doc’ with saving his life by freely standing with Wyatt and threatening to kill anybody who attacked him. Having moved on to Jacksonboro, ‘Doc’ found himself making another hasty departure after killing a soldier in a dispute over a woman. By now he was an established gunfighter, widely respected and often feared.

It was July 19, 1879 when he notched his gun again. killing Army scout Mike Gordon in Las Vegas, New Mexico. After yet another gunfight, during which he wounded bartender Charles White he departed again. Thinking White was dead and fearing a date with the hangman, ‘Doc’ took up an invitation from an old friend to a new town in Arizona. The town in question being Tombstone…

 Unlike the mythical gunslingers, Holliday's weapon of choice was usually a shotgun. He wasn't known to be a crack shot with a pistol.

Unlike the mythical gunslingers, Holliday’s weapon of choice was usually a shotgun. He wasn’t known to be a crack shot with a pistol.

Of course, we all know what happened in Tombstone. On October 26, 1881 there was the infamous ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral.’ The dispute between the Earp brother (Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan) and a loosely-formed bunch of semi-professional outlaws known as the ‘Cowboys’ had been brewing for months and the OK Corral was a result. Holliday was credited with killing two of the three men who died, brothers Tom and Frank McLaury and also with wounding Billy Clanton. But the feud between the Earps and the Cowboys wasn’t over. Morgan was murdered and Virgil permanently maimed. Wyatt, assisted by ‘Doc’ and several others, embarked in March, 1882 on his famous ‘Vendetta Ride.’ During that ride the group found three Cowboys implicated in Virgil Earp’s shooting and Morgan’s murder. Frank Stilwell was shot dead at Tucson Railroad Station on March 20, 1882. Florentino Cruz (AKA ‘Indian Charlie’) was suspected of being the look-out when Virgil Earp was crippled. Wyatt’s men found him at a logging camp and shot him dead. 

On March 23, 1882 came another career highlight for ‘Doc.’ It was the gunfight at Iron Springs. ‘Doc’ provided covering fire while Wyatt first killed notorious outlaw ‘Curly Bill’ Brocius with a shotgun, mortally wounded Johnny Barnes and seriously wounded Milt Hicks. But for ‘Doc’ time was running out. His tuberculosis, not helped by years of whiskey, laudanum, 36-hour poker marathons and a fair few gunfights, was failing fast. Under indictment in Arizona for the Stilwell shooting, he fled to Colorado.

With his health failing fast it was on May 15, 1882 that he was arrested in Denver on the Arixona warrant. One of Wyatt’s best-known allies, ‘Bat’ Masterson, happened to be police chief of Trinidad, Colorado at the time and used his influence to see ‘Doc’ safely out of the hands of the Arizona authorities. ‘Doc’ did briefly meet Wyatt one last time in Gunnison, Colorado before moving again, this time to Glenwood Springs. He would never leave. On July 14, 1882 he was under suspicion for murdering Cowboy member ‘Johnny Ringo’ whose body had been found in West Turkey Creek Canyon, Arizona. ‘Doc’ and Wyatt, both not members of the ‘Johnny Ringo’ fan club, were suspected, but both had solid alibis and the evidence suggest Ringo probably killed himself although outlaw ‘Buckskin’ Frank Leslie did claim to have killed him.


 Holliday's memorial in Linwood Cemetery, Glenwood Springs, Colorado.

Holliday’s memorial in Linwood Cemetery, Glenwood Springs, Colorado.


 Holliday's actual gravesite is unknown. He'd probably have preferred it like that.

Holliday’s actual gravesite is unknown. He’d probably have preferred it like that.

‘Doc’ spent the rest of his life in Colorado. His tuberculosis was steadily worsening, as were his addictions to alcohol and laudanum. It was only a matter of time. His last hoorah (if you can call it that) came in the rather appropriately-named town of Leadville in 1887. A local bully and novice gunslinger, one Billy Allen, possibly looking to make a name for himself, saw the fast-ailing Holliday as an easy target. It was Allen who proved easier. ‘Doc’ put bullets into his arm and elbw, but didn’t kill him.

In late-1887 he moved to the last of his many temporary homes. He checked into the Hotel Glenwood in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. At 10am on November 8, 1887 he finally died of tuberculosis. He was only 36 years old. According to one of the nurses attending him during his last days he’s said to have lain in his bed, looked down and seemed surprised to be dying with his boots off. Looking at his stockinged feet he was said to have uttered his final words:


“Damn, this is funny.”


His actual gravesite is unconfirmed. Many believe him to have been buried somewhere in Linwood Cemetery near Glenwood Springs. Some believe he was secretly exhumed and his body lies near his childhood home of Griffin, Georgia. ‘Doc’ himself, whose deadly reputation seems to have seriously blurred the line between fact and fiction, would probably have been greatly amused by that.


If you’re interested in a more general account of the myths and falsehoods about gunfighters that have rooted themselves so firmly in modern history and pop culture, then do take a look at the History Is Now website. They’ve got a little of everything and as a new magazine they’re fast building a name for themselves;