I was selling computers at retail when I heard of Gary Kildall’s death. We had a few copies of Wordstar for Windows and someone asked about it. I said it was easier to remember the keyboard shortcuts in Wordstar than Wordperfect.
“You sound like a CP/M guy,” said someone who overheard me. “Did you hear that Gary Kildall died last month?”
I hadn’t, and he wasn’t surprised. I was curious, so I went to the library and found a whole lot of nothing. A month or two later, I found a mention in a computer magazine column that Kildall had died in a barroom fight but it gave no specifics.
If you’re only vaguely aware of Kildall, he was an unheralded industry pioneer, a talented developer who was always 5-10 years ahead of everyone else. But he lacked Bill Gates’ business sense and Steve Jobs’ marketing savvy. For a time, his products sold themselves, but once that day passed, he and his company faded into obscurity.
So obscure that he died in 1994 at the age of 52 with surprisingly little coverage of it. Most people have heard the airplane story, which can be told without even mentioning Kildall’s name. In death, Kildall created another myth about himself.
Early accounts of Kildall’s death
The lack of coverage of his death and vagueness about the cause of death only made me more curious, so I kept digging, even years later. What I found was that early accounts of Kildall’s death were all over the place. The accounts generally agreed that he had an accident and died a few days later, and that was about it. The accounts didn’t even agree on the date of the accident, and the cause of death ranged from a heart attack to a fall from a ladder to a barroom brawl. Now that more newspapers have their 1990s archives online, it’s possible to figure out that the accident happened on Friday, July 8, that he initially refused medical treatment, was in and out of the hospital over the weekend and died in the hospital on Monday, July 11.
What was the accident? Forbes said he walked into a bar on July 6 (it didn’t mention the Franklin Street Bar & Grill by name) wearing motorcycle leathers and Harley Davidson patches, a “would-be biker” who got into a shoving match with some “real bikers,” and he sustained head injuries.
There are two, and perhaps three, problems with the Forbes account. First, Forbes got the date wrong. Second, Kildall owned multiple motorcycles. He didn’t fit the stereotype of the outlaw biker, but calling him a “would-be biker” seems a bit unfair. He was neither the first nor the last wealthy middle-aged man to take up motorcycling. Now, those problems don’t automatically mean the rest of the Forbes account is wrong, but it makes the whole thing sound more like a rumor you heard in the software aisle of a big-box retail store.
Early newspaper accounts
The hometown paper of both Kildall and Bill Gates, the Seattle Times, reported an injury happened at the Franklin Street Bar & Grill, he had been in the bar between 2 and 20 minutes, and witnesses turned around and saw him on the floor. The paper also noted that the story was changing, and authorities didn’t expect that story to hold up.
It was investigated as a suspicious death, but no charges were ever filed. The Los Angeles Times initially reported the autopsy failed to determine the cause of death.
Harold Evans’ account
Later accounts, including the one in Harold Evans’ They Made America, stated Kildall died of a brain hemorrhage, caused by a blood clot between his skull and his brain. Evans’ account of the events in the bar were that he stumbled, fell, and was found on the floor next to a video game. That story doesn’t line up with the Forbes account but it lines up pretty nicely with the Seattle Times account–one minute he was there, the next minute he was laying on the floor, and there was confusion about how he ended up there and even how long he had been in the bar.
Did the hemorrhage cause the fall, or did the fall cause the hemorrhage? Either is possible. There’s some question whether the fall was an accident in the first place. But remember, after the fall, Kildall was coherent enough to initially refuse medical treatment. If the fall had been anything but an accident, it would have been out of character for him to remain silent about it. Remember, Kildall was bitter that Bill Gates had stolen his legacy and was a bit outspoken about it. If someone had taken a swing at him, Kildall would have said something.
Evans went on to say Kildall visited the hospital twice over the ensuing weekend. The doctors couldn’t find what was wrong with him. Then he died unexpectedly. And of course he was cremated, which only lends to the air of conspiracy.
That’s an important detail too. He had survivors, including two adult children. If there was any doubt in their minds that his death had been anything but an accident or natural causes, it’s hard to imagine them going through with a cremation within a week of his death.
Still, the barroom brawl story persists. I admit it’s more interesting. A forgotten inventor, bitter with his plight, went into a bar, got into a shoving match, fell, died a few days later, and no charges were ever filed. There’s an air of mystery and conspiracy about it. Maybe someone killed him to silence him, even! That’s a great story, one that even feels a bit like a Shakespearean tragedy. There’s only one problem with it. It’s not true.
What really happened? A 52-year-old man walked into the Franklin Street Bar & Grill on Friday, July 8 and fell after being there a few minutes. He refused medical treatment initially. Then he realized afterward that something was wrong and did seek medical treatment. He died on Monday, and the autopsy showed he suffered a brain hemorrhage, caused by a previously undiagnosed blood clot.
There’s a saying that says to never let the truth get in the way of a good story. Kildall never shook the CP/M airplane story in life, and can’t shake the barroom brawl story in death.