Doc Holliday’s reputation was forged in blood in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, but his legend grew in Colorado, thanks to a pestiferous con man named Perry Mallon.
Perry Mallon approached Doc Holliday for the first time during the second week of May 1882 at the Theatre Comique in Pueblo, Colorado. The small, bearded man informed the well-known 30-year-old gunfighter and gambler that the brother of the slain Frank Stilwell was looking for Doc and wanted to kill him. Holliday had no reason to doubt this information. Two months earlier at the Tucson rail yard in Arizona Territory, Doc had been part of the Wyatt Earp posse that killed Stilwell, the suspected cowardly assassin of Morgan Earp in Tombstone. Warrants had been issued for the arrest of the posse members. Not being one to shy away from danger, Holliday asked the stranger to point out Stilwell’s brother. Mallon refused.
The story of the Earp posse’s troubles in Arizona Territory had been reported in Utah Territory and throughout the Southwest. Holliday would later suggest that Mallon had obtained his knowledge of the Earp saga and concocted his stories from newspaper reports of the day—and that this was evident to Doc from their first conversation. Mallon falsely claimed that Holliday had once saved his life in Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory, and said all he wanted was to return the favor. Mallon then made a bold but puzzling statement, “If you give me away, I will kill you.” Holliday ignored the curious threat and nothing happened. The stranger moved on, and the brother of the late Stilwell never appeared. But if Doc Holliday thought he had seen the last of Perry Mallon, he was sadly mistaken.
Mallon was 27 when he met Doc Holliday. Born in Akron, Ohio, he was the son of an Irishman who deserted his family. Perry had a troubled youth and spent more than two years in the Ohio Reform School for Boys, for violent and abusive behavior. When he surfaced in Ogden, Utah Territory, in 1879, he carried with him a history of fraudulent activity and recent abuse of women. A railroad employee, he was married to an unfortunate young woman named Rozina. In 1880, like his father before him, Mallon deserted his wife and their newborn child. He then plied confidence scams along the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads. Mallon usually targeted the vulnerable (women, children and the elderly), often claiming less than a few hundred dollars and thereby staying one step ahead of the law. There can be little doubt—Perry Mallon was small-time in every sense.
John Henry “Doc” Holliday, of course, cast a much longer shadow, boasting a reputation as a fearless man who could skillfully handle cards and firearms, if not liquor or his consumptive cough. The onetime dentist from Georgia had entered the Western spotlight on October 26, 1881, when he sided with Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp against the Clantons and McLaurys in the well-publicized Tombstone gunfight near the O.K. Corral. The so-called Cowboy faction wounded Virgil from ambush that December and in March 1882 killed Morgan from ambush. Wyatt and a posse of deputized gunmen, including the loyal Holliday, responded by gunning down Frank Stilwell as he lurked amid rail cars at the Tucson depot. After further revenge killings, the posse members, facing murder charges, left Arizona Territory in early April and rode east to Silver City, New Mexico Territory, where they sold their horses. Next they took a stage to Deming and then a train north to Albuquerque, where they planned to rest for a few days before heading to Colorado, their chosen safe haven.
After an apparent disagreement with Wyatt in Albuquerque, Holliday, along with fellow posse member Dan Tipton, separated from the group and went ahead to join the sporting crowd in Trinidad, Colo. Early in May 1882, Holliday left Tipton and traveled by train to Pueblo. As luck would have it, Perry Mallon happened to alight from a train in Pueblo soon after. This seemingly innocuous coincidence would ultimately lead to incidents that endangered Holliday’s life and again propelled his name into the spotlight.
A couple of days after their peculiar conversation at the Comique, Holliday and Mallon met again at another Pueblo saloon. This time Holliday decided to make a few inquiries about Mallon. A bartender told Doc that Mallon had represented himself as a rancher who had sold his land and was looking for new opportunities. Yet Mallon had borrowed $10 from the bartender and failed to repay it. Holliday quickly pegged the “rancher” as a crank and a liar. He said Mallon had tried to boost his reputation by revealing a scar and claiming it was a bullet wound. Doc thought it was only a “mark of disease” and laughed in his face.
The Pueblo Daily Chieftain later reported that men visiting from Akron, Ohio, had recognized Mallon, and that the latter had obtained money from locals under false pretenses. To acquaintances Mallon maintained he was traveling on business, while to strangers he identified himself as a detective. The newspaper confirmed Mallon’s last known address as Ogden and described the crafty con man as “a small man with reddish face and beard, with small ferrety eyes and not an inviting cast of features.” The Denver Tribune provided further clues when it reported that Mallon appeared to be a discharged railroad brakeman who was missing the little finger on his left hand. Whatever the truth, Doc had determined Mallon was of no account and could not be trusted. He decided to leave Pueblo, and the shifty Mallon, behind to travel north and try his luck in Denver. Unbeknown to Doc, Mallon saw an opportunity to make quick money and shadowed the former dentist to Mile-High City.
By mid-May 1882, Holliday and two other gamblers had taken a train to Denver to attend the horse races. On May 15, while strolling near the corner of 16th and Lawrence streets, Holliday was forced to surrender when Perry Mallon appeared out of the darkness and leveled two revolvers at him. Mallon claimed to be a lawman from California, and with the aid of a local deputy sheriff named Charles Linton, he escorted Holliday to the sheriff’s office. Mallon convinced Linton that Doc was wanted in Arizona Territory for murder and that a reward was offered for his arrest. While at the sheriff’s office, Mallon kept two six-shooters aimed at Holliday. Fearing for his safety, the gambler protested to Linton, as Mallon appeared nervous. Linton assured Holliday no harm would come to him and summoned a cab to transport the prisoner to the county jail.
Mallon claimed Doc was also wanted in Utah Territory for the murder of Harry White, said to be the con man’s partner. According to Mallon, White had been killed at a saloon in St. George, Utah Territory, where Holliday had been dealing faro. Mallon repeated a ludicrous tale that Doc had wounded him six times, and with a flair for the dramatic, he held up his left hand during the interview and credited Holliday’s six-shooter for his missing little finger. Mallon enjoyed the instant notoriety his arrest of Holliday had aroused. He granted interviews to the more gullible newspapers and told increasingly bizarre stories about his seven-year pursuit of the gambler.
The Denver Tribune was never entirely convinced by Mallon’s version of events and reported that he “acted like a suspicious man and did not handle a pistol with the grace of the trained desperado-hunter that he purported to be.” Holliday later also remarked that Mallon was no gunman, as he “had a silver-mounted revolver such as a cowboy would disdain to carry.” A Denver reporter added, “The manner in which he handled his pistol showed that he was afraid it would go off every moment, and that he was more frightened than Holliday was evident.”
Despite the “dime novel” nature of Mallon’s stories, Denver tabloids continued to publish his claims. They painted Doc as a desperado and his captor as a gallant avenger who deserved the $500 reward offered by Arizona Territory officials for Holliday’s arrest. The Tribune seemed the lone voice of reason, sarcastically questioning Mallon’s stories and professed identity. Undeterred, Mallon continued to claim he was a deputized officer. On May 22, 1882, he thought he had sighted Wyatt Earp in Denver. The Tribune reported, “There was a man in the city named Greenleaf yesterday, who looks very much like Wyatt Earp and who came near being arrested by Mallan [sic] on account of the resemblance.”
According to reliable reports, Wyatt and his youngest brother, Warren, were living on the outskirts of Gunnison, Colo., at the time. They had set up a camp there with fellow posse riders Dan Tipton and Texas Jack Vermillion and probably provided assistance to Holliday by way of their friendship with Bat Masterson. Masterson was the marshal of Trinidad and happened to be in Denver for the races at the time of Holliday’s arrest. He would play an important role in coming events.
Perry Mallon clearly fed off all the sudden attention paid him by the Denver newspapers, going so far as to claim he had personally been authorized to arrest Holliday by Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan. His lust for fame, however, was his undoing. As reporters from the Tribune interviewed Holliday, Mallon’s stories began to unravel. Doc confirmed he had never been in Utah Territory, had met Mallon for the first time in Pueblo, and had actually been living in Denver at the time of Mallon’s fictitious murder accusations.
As the Denver newspapers continued to publish Mallon’s fiction, pressure mounted for Holliday to be extradited back to Arizona Territory to face the Stilwell murder charges. Pima County Sheriff Bob Paul arrived from the territory to escort Holliday back to Tucson, but he lacked the necessary paperwork, forcing him to wait in Denver for the appropriate requisition documents to arrive. To combat the order, Doc and Wyatt’s friends, including Masterson, spoke in his defense and hatched a plan to delay extradition proceedings. Holliday was saddled with a bogus fraud charge in Pueblo, and a writ of habeas corpus was issued to release him from custody in Denver to face the trumped-up charges in Pueblo. As the plan unfolded, the spotlight once again turned on Mallon. Paul, the Arizona Territory officer, stated he had never heard of the man, and the Tribune subjected the habitual liar to further scrutiny.
Mallon went on the offensive. On May 23, 1882, he wrote a pompous letter to the Rocky Mountain News defending his actions. As befitted the work of a con man, the letter was full of irony, lies and indignant self-righteousness. He criticized the Tribune’s attack on his integrity, assuring its readers he was “here on business, for business, that I mean business, which ‘Doc’s’ friends, who may have misled reporters or the public, will soon find out. Respectfully, Perry Mallen [sic].” The nature of his real “business” would soon become apparent.
In the meantime, the widespread coverage of Mallon’s exploits proved a double-edged sword. While the fame brought him the trust and attention of gullible backslappers, it also advertised the con man’s whereabouts. Blacksmith Hiram W. Rublee, an elderly investor who in 1880 had been conned out of $100 by Mallon in Omaha, read about Mallon’s adventures in Denver and stepped forward to accuse him of fraud and reclaim the lost money. Rublee provided Tribune reporters the details of his dealings with Mallon in Omaha, and they championed his cause. Subsequent articles left readers in no doubt as to the character of the dubious Mallon.
Rublee eventually confronted Mallon in Sheriff Linton’s Denver office and, with the assistance of a witness, pressed him to repay the $100. Mallon began to tremble and asked to speak with Rublee outside in an alley. Rublee declined the offer. The Tribune later reported the conman had been forced to repay the full amount. Mallon had now been exposed as a fraud, but in the grand tradition of all good con men, he had one more trick up his sleeve.
In his capture of Doc Holliday, Mallon had been motivated by a $500 reward and the notoriety it would bring. But his plan for making a quick buck had been spoiled when legal proceedings bogged down. As it became clear there would be no reward and that Holliday would in fact go free, Mallon needed to hatch a new plan. The sudden appearance of Rublee, his old nemesis from Omaha, convinced the con man it was time to leave Denver. To do so, he would need cash, and the best way for him to acquire it would be to work over one more sucker.
Mallon chose Julius Schweigardt, a naive former part-owner and clerk of Denver’s Great West Hotel, where both men had lodged. According to the Denver Republican, Mallon presented several letters of introduction from Schweigardt’s friends and associates in California, suggesting Schweigardt may in fact have been one of Mallon’s original targets in Denver. Schweigardt had just sold his share of the Great West Hotel and was impressed by accounts of Holliday’s arrest. Mallon used that impression to great advantage, telling tales of huge rewards he had been paid for the capture of other criminals. Mallon also borrowed money from Schweigardt when his own cash ran low, and the young hotel clerk was happy to oblige. Mallon even borrowed a $20 overcoat from Schweigardt and a revolver from another guest on the strength of his sudden notoriety.
Once Mallon had captivated Schweigardt with his amazing exploits, the con man cast his bait. He told the clerk of a murderer living in Kansas City under a false name. A reward of $1,500 was to be paid for the outlaw’s capture, and Mallon offered Schweigardt a share of the bounty if he would finance their trip and bribe a woman whom Mallon claimed knew the exact whereabouts of the wanted man. Schweigardt foolishly agreed, and the two men left Denver by train on May 27, 1882, bound for Kansas City. Once there, Mallon said he would go alone to Wyandotte to scout out the wanted man. He never returned. The local depot watchman said he saw the con man board the westbound Atchison & Santa Fe that Sunday night. Three days later, Schweigardt returned to Denver and went to the police. Mallon had fleeced the gullible clerk of $310.
Back home Schweigardt discovered that Mallon had “borrowed” a further $130 from fellow Great West Hotel resident Charles Morgan. Both men would later learn that Mallon had also conned the former mayor of Alamosa, to the tune of $50 and a pistol. Morgan thought Mallon had fled to New Mexico Territory and was so incensed about his own losses that he took a train to Albuquerque on June 1, 1882, to hunt for the con man. His search would be in vain. All this was cold comfort to Schweigardt, but a subsequent report in the June 6, 1882, Pueblo Daily Chieftain would have pleased him. The paper stated that Mallon had been arrested in Pittsburgh, Pa., and would be held until a governor’s requisition arrived from Colorado. There is no evidence to confirm either the arrest or subsequent requisition. Regardless, Denverites were probably well satisfied to have seen the last of Perry Mallon. Doc Holliday certainly was.
Holliday dodged extradition to Arizona Territory. Colorado Governor Frederick Pitkin decided to decline the requisition, and Holliday was transported to Pueblo to face the bogus fraud charges. He made bail on June 1, 1882, and promptly traveled to Gunnison to reunite with Wyatt and Warren Earp, Dan Tipton and Texas Jack Vermillion. Always the Southern gentleman, he told a Gunnison reporter on June 18, 1882, he would not seek revenge on Mallon. Doc explained: “No, that is not my way of doing. I shall let him alone if he does me.” Holliday did, however, add that his friends were not feeling so magnanimous. He held a letter from the house of Comfort & Harlan in Denver that stated it would spend $1,000 if necessary to send Mallon to the penitentiary.
The opportunity never arose. Although the Kansas City depot watchman reported that Mallon had boarded a westbound train, the slippery con man had actually headed in the opposite direction. Like a true flimflam man, Mallon kept moving, did not look back, and wasted no time in setting up another confidence game in his home state of Ohio. A scam there proved unsuccessful, and Mallon was arrested in Toledo in late July 1882 for being a “suspicious person.” After a three-month stint in the county jail, he was released and promptly disappeared. Holliday remained in Colorado, settled in Leadville for a time and later died in Glenwood Springs in 1887.
Perry Mallon’s arrest of Holliday had provided fodder for the Denver press in May and June 1882. Other newspapers soon picked up Mallon’s wild stories, rife with bogus claims and dime-novel descriptions of murder and revenge. These actions helped spread Holliday’s name and reputation nationwide. While Mallon is all but forgotten, his fleeting moment of fame had inadvertently, and almost single-handedly, added several chapters to the enduring legend of Doc Holliday.
Peter Brand, of Sydney, Australia, wrote “Wyatt Earp’s Vendetta Posse” in the April 2007 Wild West. His booklet “The Life and Crimes of Perry Mallon” [www.tombstonevendetta.com] is recommended. Also see Gary L. Roberts’ Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.