Saturday, May 28, 2016

Six Degrees of Separation

My students frequently complain that most of what I talk about happened so long ago that none of it is useful, much less interesting.  The general consensus seems to be that all “real” knowledge can be acquired by watching a Jimmy Kimmel YouTube clip.  Certainly, any event that occurred even 100 years ago is such ancient history as to have no conceivable connection to anyone alive. 

This is when I bring up the game “Six Degrees of Separation”—the theory that any two people on earth can be connected by six or fewer people.  Literally, you know someone who knows someone and so forth until you have connected Charlie Manson with the Pope.  (Today, with the internet, the theory should be updated—perhaps Four Degrees of Facebook.  I friended someone who friended someone who blocked the Pope.)

In an effort to prove that history—and more importantly, my job—is still relevant, I tell my students the following story.

In 1861, Napoleon III sent troops to invade Mexico—ostensibly to force repayment of outstanding debts, but actually to extend the French Empire.  Napoleon needed a figure-head monarchy, so he turned to Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria in search of a spare inbred Hapsburg (yeah, that’s redundant) nobleman to prop up in Mexico.

Emperor Franz Josef had the perfect fool for the job:  his younger brother, Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph who had spent most of his life up to that point waiting for his older brother to die so he could inherit a job.  Now that Franz Josef had a son, there was little job satisfaction in being the “spare-to-the-heir”, so Max leaped at the chance to be the new emperor of Mexico, even if he was to be a puppet of Napoleon.

Max did have one small caveat.  Mexico was an unhealthy place, famous for diseases and poor Max was a world class hypochondriac, who was capable of catching a disease by reading about it.  (Well, to be fair, the Hapsburg royal line was so inbred, members actually did have every disease known to infect man or livestock.)  Franz eased his younger brother’s fears by sending his own physician, Dr. Miklos Haroney of Hungary to Mexico to take care of Max

As I have written before, Max did not do well in Mexico, and despite the efforts of his personal physician, he eventually died of multiple induced lead poisoning.  At right, you can see Max in his coffin, and while this photo has absolutely nothing to do with this story, is none-the-less so creepy it has to be included.

Dr. Haroney and his family fled Mexico and shortly after crossing the American border, the doctor and his wife both died, leaving their teenage daughter, Mary Katherine Haroney, to fend for herself.  The poor girl wandered the West, finding jobs—and men—in mining camps and border towns.  Before long, she was making her living as a "soiled dove" in Tombstone, Arizona.  (Also called "a lady of the evening" or "a mattress backer"—quite a comedown for the daughter of Emperor Franz Josef's private doctor!)

It is strange how famous this woman became.  Unkindly, by this point in our story, she was frequently called "Big Nose Kate".  Among a long list of names she took at one time or another, she was also called Katie Elder.  If you happened to see the John Wayne movie, The Sons of Katie Elder, the only thing the movie gets right is the spelling of her name.  Kate actually lived until 1940, dying in a retirement home in Arizona.  During her days, she was frequently married, but her most famous common-law husband was the infamous Doc Holliday.

Doc Holliday, of course, was the dentist turned gun-fighting gambler.  Holliday had been a dentist in Atlanta, but moved west after he contracted tuberculosis.  Briefly, he set up a practice in Dallas, locating his office just a couple of blocks from today's Dealey Plaza.  Despite doing well (he won three prizes for best artificial teeth at the North Texas State Fair), he soon developed a passion for gambling.  In most of the West, gambling was an accepted profession, but in Dallas it was against the law and Doc was soon arrested and fined. 

Doc Holliday then drifted from town to town and, while playing cards in the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, Kansas, helped a young deputy back down two armed and drunken cowboys.  The deputy, Wyatt Earp, became friends with Holliday, crediting the dentist with saving his life.  (For those of you who grew up with Matt Dillon and Gunsmoke, the photo shows what the famous bar actually looked like.  Sadly, Miss Kitty is nowhere to be seen, so let us just hope the bartender is actually named Ed.)

When Wyatt and his brothers moved to Tombstone, Arizona, Doc Holliday followed him and met Big Nosed Kate.  Wyatt Earp met Kate, and her friend Josephine (Sadie) Marcus.  Sadie was also working as a prostitute and would eventually become the common-law wife of Earp, staying with him until his death in 1929.

Very few people are unfamiliar with the most famous gunfight in Western History, the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.  Wyatt Earp, Virgil Earp, Morgan Earp, and Doc Holliday attempted to disarm the outlaw cowboys, Tom, Frank McLaury, Billy, Ike Clanton, and Billy Claiborne.  No one is quite certain who drew first, but everyone knows that the Earps and Holliday finished it.  The thirty shots that rang out in about that many seconds have been reenacted in countless movies, not one of which explains why the Gunfight in the O.K. Corral was neither fought in or even near the O.K. Corral.  (I guess the Gunfight in the Vacant Lot Next to the C.S. Fly Photographic Studio just doesn’t quite have the same romantic appeal.)

After the famous shootout, Wyatt went everywhere and did just about everything.  He ran a bar in the Klondike, he was a prospector, and was a gambler, and lived long enough to be a technical advisor on movies about his past.  He was friends with John Ford, Harry Carey, and Tom Mix.  And occasionally, he served as a lawman in the kind of towns that still needed taming—the kind of towns that hadn't yet realized there was no more room for the “Wild” in the “West”.

In one of those towns, Wyatt hired a young deputy—a young man whom I will call “Buster” since his family is still prominent in Texas.  Buster worked for Wyatt, and stayed in law enforcement his whole life.  He worked through the crazy years of prohibition, unsuccessfully chased Bonnie and Clyde, and eventually retired as Sheriff of Harris County, the home of Houston, Texas.  Somehow, Buster had grown rich during his years as a lawman and when he retired, he checked into a suite at a Houston hotel that was known for privacy and first-class service.  The old sheriff, all but forgotten, would spend the rest of his life in that hotel.

In 1971, that hotel hired a young college student as the night manager.  Somewhere about three in the morning, that young man would use his passkey and reopen the bar.  Sitting over glasses of Waterfill and Frazier Kentucky Bourbon (which, paradoxically, was distilled in Juarez, Mexico), the old lawman would tell the teenager about the old days, about Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday and what the West was really like.

Let’s see, then—we need to count it up:  Dr. Haroney knew Maximillian, Emperor Franz Joseph, and Napoleon III.  Big Nosed Kate certainly knew her father.  Wyatt knew (and may have dated) Big Nosed Kate.  Sheriff Buster knew Wyatt, and I was the teenager who used to ply the old lawman with bourbon in exchange for a good story.

And you know me.  So, that makes you six degrees separated from Emperor Franz Josef.

By the way, the man who introduced me to the sheriff and explained who he was and about his past was Louis L’Amour, the famous Western author.  But, that’s a story for another time.


  1. Does Donald Trump have a Facebook account and has he made a friend of anyone else who knew Katie Elder?

  2. Somewhere among his vast holdings, Trump has Facebook account. It is a GREAT account, a HUGE account, filled with GREAT friends. Hillary has an account, too. Just like her predecessors. Hers was perfectly okay and legal but she deleted it so you wouldn't see the photos of her daughters wedding.

  3. I once met John McCain who knew Ronald Reagan who once starred with a chimp named Bonzo who had a brief romantic affair with Cheetah, the woefully misnamed companion of Johnny Weismuller who played Tarzan and who pulled the dress off Maureen O'Sullivan in their first Tarzan movie (before the Hayes Act)and swam with her naked on film. So that means I'm six degrees of separation from Maureen O'Sullivan swimming stark naked. Excuse me, I need a cold shower now.

  4. At least that's how I heard it.