Let Me Tell You All A Story About A Man Named Doc!
Let me tell you a story about a man name Doc! I love the Wild West legends and my favorite is the notorious Doc Holliday! He had a bad rap to say the least! But what I love about him is he was a southern gentleman!
John Henry Holliday (August 14, 1851 – November 8, 1887), better known as Doc Holliday, was an American gambler, gunfighter, and dentist. A close friend and associate of lawman Wyatt Earp, Holliday is best known for his role in the events leading up to and following the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. He developed a reputation as having killed more than a dozen men in various altercations, but modern researchers have concluded that, contrary to popular myth-making, Holliday killed only one to three men. Holliday’s colorful life and character have been depicted in many books and portrayed by well-known actors in numerous movies and television series. My favorite actor to portray him was Val Kilmer. It is said he did the best pretrial of Doc and even lost 30 pounds to play the part!
At age 21, Holliday earned a degree in dentistry from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery. He set up practice in Griffin, Georgia, but he was soon diagnosed with tuberculosis, the same disease that had claimed his mother when he was 15 and his sister before his birth, having acquired it while tending to his mother’s needs while she was still in the contagious phase of the illness. Hoping the climate in the American Southwest would ease his symptoms, he moved to that region and became a gambler, a reputable profession in Arizona in that day. Over the next few years, he reportedly had several confrontations. He saved Wyatt Earp, a famous lawman, and gambler, while in Texas. Afterward, they became friends. In 1879, he joined Earp in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and then rode with him to Prescott, Arizona, and then Tombstone. While in Tombstone, local members of the outlaw Cochise County Cowboys repeatedly threatened him and spread rumors that he had robbed a stagecoach. On October 26, 1881, Holliday was deputized by Tombstone city marshal Virgil Earp. The lawmen attempted to disarm five members of the Cowboys near the O.K. Corral on the west side of town, which resulted in the famous shootout.
Following the Tombstone shootout, Virgil Earp was maimed by hidden assailants while Morgan Earp was murdered. Unable to obtain justice in the courts, Wyatt Earp took matters into his own hands. As the recently appointed deputy U.S. marshal, Earp formally deputized Holliday, among others. As a federal posse, they pursued the outlaw Cowboys they believed were responsible. They found Frank Stilwell lying in wait as Virgil boarded a train for California and Wyatt Earp killed him. The local sheriff issued a warrant for the arrest of five members of the federal posse, including Holliday. The federal posse killed three other Cowboys during late March and early April 1882, before they rode to the New Mexico Territory. Wyatt Earp learned of an extradition request for Holliday and arranged for Colorado Governor Frederick Walker Pitkin to deny Holliday’s extradition. Holliday spent the few remaining years of his life in Colorado. He died of tuberculosis in his bed at the Hotel Glenwood at age 36.
Holliday was born in Griffin, Georgia, to Henry Burroughs Holliday and Alice Jane (McKey) Holliday. He was of English and Scottish ancestry. His father served in the Mexican–American War and the American Civil War (as a major in the 27th Georgia Infantry). When the Mexican–American War ended, Henry brought home an adopted son named Francisco. Holliday was baptized at the First Presbyterian Church of Griffin in 1852. In 1864, his family moved to Valdosta, Georgia, where his father would be elected mayor and his mother would die of tuberculosis on September 16, 1866. The same disease killed his adopted brother. Three months after his wife’s death, his father married Rachel Martin.
Holliday attended the Valdosta Institute, where he received a classical education in rhetoric, grammar, mathematics, history, and languages—principally Latin, but some French and Ancient Greek.
In 1870, 19-year-old Holliday left home for Philadelphia. On March 1, 1872, at age 20, he received his Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery (now part of the University Of Pennsylvania School Of Dental Medicine). Holliday graduated five months before his 21st birthday, so the school held his degree until he turned 21, the minimum age required to practice dentistry.
Holliday moved to St. Louis, Missouri, so he could work as an assistant for his classmate, A. Jameson Fuches, Jr. Less than four months later, at the end of July, he relocated to Atlanta, where he joined a dental practice. He lived with his uncle and his family so he could begin to build up his dental practice. A few weeks before Holliday’s birthday, dentist Arthur C. Ford advertised in the Atlanta papers that Holliday would substitute for him while Ford was attending dental meetings.
Diagnosis of tuberculosis:
Shortly after beginning his dental practice, Holliday was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was given only a few months to live, but was told that a drier and warmer climate might slow the deterioration of his health. After Dr. Ford’s return in September, Holliday left for Dallas, Texas, the “last big city before the uncivilized Western Frontier”.
Move to Dallas:
When he arrived in Dallas, Holliday partnered with a friend of his father’s, Dr. John A. Seegar. They won awards for their dental work at the Annual Fair of the North Texas Agricultural, Mechanical and Blood Stock Association at the Dallas County Fair. They received all three awards: “Best set of teeth in gold”, “Best in vulcanized rubber”, and “Best set of artificial teeth and dental ware.“ Their office was located along Elm Street, between Market and Austin Streets. They dissolved the practice on March 2, 1874. Afterward, Holliday opened his own practice over the Dallas County Bank at the corner of Main and Lamar Streets.
With coughing spells at inopportune times from his tuberculosis, his dental practice slowly declined. Meanwhile, Holliday found he had some skill at gambling and he soon relied on it as his principal income source. On May 12, 1874, Holliday and 12 others were indicted in Dallas for illegal gambling. He was arrested in Dallas in January 1875 after trading gunfire with a saloon keeper, Charles Austin, but no one was injured and he was found not guilty. He moved his offices to Denison, Texas, but after being fined for gambling in Dallas, he left the state.
Heads farther west:
Holliday headed to Denver, Colorado, following the stage routes and gambling at towns and army outposts along the way. During the summer of 1875, he settled in Denver under the alias “Tom Mackey” and found work as a faro dealer for John A. Babb’s Theatre Comique at 357 Blake Street. He got into an argument with Bud Ryan, a well-known and tough gambler. They drew knives and fought and Holliday left Ryan seriously wounded.
Holliday left when he learned about gold being discovered in Wyoming. On February 5, 1876, he arrived in Cheyenne, Wyoming. He found work as a dealer for Babb’s partner, Thomas Miller, who owned the Bella Union Saloon. In the autumn of 1876, Miller moved the Bella Union to Deadwood, South Dakota (site of the gold rush in the Dakota Territory), and Holliday went with him.
In 1877, Holliday returned to Cheyenne, then Denver, and eventually to Kansas, where he visited an aunt. When he left Kansas, he went to Breckenridge, Texas, where he gambled. On July 4, 1877, after a disagreement with gambler Henry Kahn, Holliday beat him repeatedly with his walking stick. Both men were arrested and fined, but Kahn was not finished. Later that same day, he shot and seriously wounded the unarmed Holliday.: 106–109 On July 7, the Dallas Weekly Herald incorrectly reported that Holliday had been killed. His cousin, George Henry Holliday, moved west to help him recover.
Once healed, Holliday relocated to Fort Griffin, Texas. While dealing cards at John Shanssey’s saloon, he met Mary Katharine “Big Nose Kate” Horony, a dance hall woman and occasional prostitute “Tough, stubborn, and fearless”, she was educated, but chose to work as a prostitute because she liked her independence. She is the only woman with whom Holliday is known to have had a relationship.
Befriends Wyatt Earp:
In October 1877, outlaws led by “Dirty” Dave Rudabaugh robbed a Santa Fe Railroad construction camp in Kansas. Rudabaugh fled south into Texas. Wyatt Earp was given a temporary commission as deputy U.S. marshal. Earp left Dodge City, following Rudabaugh over 400 mi (640 km) to Fort Griffin, a frontier town on the Clear Fork of the Brazos River. Earp went to the Bee Hive Saloon, the largest in town and owned by John Shanssey, whom Earp had met in Wyoming when he was, Shanssey told Earp that Rudabaugh had passed through town earlier in the week, but he did not know where he was headed. Shanssey suggested Earp ask gambler Doc Holliday, who had played cards with Rudabaugh. Holliday told Earp that he thought Rudabaugh was headed back to Kansas. Earp sent a telegram to Ford County Sheriff Bat Masterson that Rudabaugh might be headed back in his direction.
After about a month in Fort Griffin, Earp returned to Fort Clark and in early 1878, he went to Dodge City, where he became the assistant city marshal, serving under Charlie Bassett. During the summer of 1878, Holliday and Horony also arrived in Dodge City, where they stayed at Deacon Cox’s boarding house as Dr. and Mrs. John H. Holliday. Holliday sought to practice dentistry again, and ran an advertisement in the local paper:
J. H. Holliday, Dentist, very respectfully offers his professional services to the citizens of Dodge City and surrounding country during the summer. Office at Room No. 24 Dodge House. Where satisfaction is not given, money will be refunded.
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral:
On Fremont Street, they ran into Cochise County Sheriff Behan, who told them or implied that he had disarmed the cowboys. To avoid alarming citizens and lessen tension when disarming the cowboys, Virgil gave the coach gun to Holliday so he could conceal it under his long coat. Virgil Earp took Holliday’s walking stick. The lawmen found the cowboys in a narrow 15- to 20-ft-wide lot on Fremont Street, between Fly’s boarding house and the Harwood house. Holliday was boarding at Fly’s house and he possibly thought they were waiting there to kill him.
Different witnesses offered varying stories about Holliday’s actions. Cowboys’ witnesses testified that Holliday first pulled out a nickel-plated pistol he was known to carry, while others reported he first fired a longer, bronze-colored gun, possibly the coach gun. Holliday killed Tom McLaury with a shotgun blast in the side of his chest. Holliday was grazed by a bullet possibly fired by Frank McLaury who was on Fremont Street at the time. He supposedly challenged Holliday, yelling, “I’ve got you now!” Holliday is reported to have replied, “Blaze away! You’re a daisy if you have.” McLaury died of shots to his stomach and behind his ear. Holliday may have also wounded Billy Clanton.
One analysis of the fight gives credit to either Holliday or Morgan Earp for firing the fatal shot at McLaury on Fremont Street. Holliday may have been on McLaury’s right and Morgan Earp on his left. McLaury was shot in the right side of the head, so Holliday is often given credit for shooting him. However, Wyatt Earp had shot McLaury in his torso earlier, a shot that alone could have killed him. McLaury would have turned away after having been hit and Wyatt could have placed a second shot in his head. A 30-day-long preliminary hearing found that the Earps and Holliday had acted within their duties as lawmen, although this did not pacify Ike Clanton.
Earp Vendetta Ride
Cowboys were identified by witnesses as suspects in the shooting of Virgil Earp on December 27, 1881, and the assassination of Morgan Earp on March 19, 1882. Additional circumstantial evidence also pointed to their involvement. Wyatt Earp had been appointed deputy U.S. marshal after Virgil was maimed. He deputized Holliday, Warren Earp, Sherman McMaster, and “Turkey Creek” Jack Johnson.
After Morgan’s murder, Wyatt Earp and his deputies guarded Virgil Earp and Allie on their way to the train for Colton, California where his father lived, to recuperate from his serious shotgun wound. In Tucson, on March 20, 1882, the group spotted an armed Frank Stilwell and reportedly Ike Clanton hiding among the railroad cars, apparently lying in wait with the intent to kill Virgil. Frank Stilwell’s body was found at dawn alongside the railroad tracks, riddled with buckshot and gunshot wounds. Wyatt said later in life that he killed Stilwell with a shotgun.
Tucson Justice of the Peace Charles Meyer issued arrest warrants for five of the Earp party, including Holliday. On March 21, they returned briefly to Tombstone, where they were joined by Texas Jack Vermillion and possibly others. On the morning of March 22, a portion of the Earp posse including Wyatt, Warren, Holliday, Sherman McMaster, and “Turkey Creek” Johnson rode about 10 mi (16 km) east to Pete Spence’s ranch to a wood cutting camp located off the Chiricahua Road, below the South Pass of the Dragoon Mountains. According to Theodore Judah—who witnessed events at the wood camp—the Earp posse arrived around 11:00 a.m. and asked for Spence and Florentino “Indian Charlie” Cruz. They learned Spence was in jail and that Cruz was cutting wood nearby. They followed the direction Judah indicated and he soon heard a dozen or so shots. When Cruz did not return the next morning, Judah went looking for him and found his body full of bullet holes.
The situation in Tombstone soon grew worse when Virgil Earp was ambushed and permanently injured in December 1881. Following that, Morgan Earp was ambushed and killed in March 1882.
Gunfight at Iron Springs:
Two days later, Earp’s posse traveled to Iron Springs, located in the Whetstone Mountains, where they expected to meet Charlie Smith, who was supposed to be bringing $1,000 cash from their supporters in Tombstone. With Wyatt and Holliday in the lead, the six lawmen surmounted a small rise overlooking the springs. They surprised eight cowboys camping near the springs. Wyatt Earp and Holliday left the only record of the fight. Curly Bill recognized Wyatt Earp in the lead and immediately grabbed his shotgun and fired at Earp. The other Cowboys also drew their weapons and began firing. Earp dismounted, shotgun in hand. “Texas Jack” Vermillion’s horse was shot and fell on him, pinning his leg and wedging his rifle underneath. Lacking cover, Holliday, Johnson, and McMaster retreated.
Earp returned Curly Bill’s gunfire with his own shotgun and shot him in the chest, nearly cutting him in half according to Earp’s later account. Curly Bill fell into the water by the edge of the spring and lay dead.
The Cowboys fired a number of shots at the Earp party, but the only casualty was Vermillion’s horse, which was killed. Firing his pistol, Wyatt shot Johnny Barnes in the chest and Milt Hicks in the arm. Vermillion tried to retrieve his rifle wedged in the scabbard under his fallen horse, exposing himself to the Cowboys’ gunfire. Doc Holliday helped him gain cover. Wyatt had trouble re-mounting his horse because his cartridge belt had slipped down around his legs.
Wyatt’s long coat was shot through by bullets on both sides. Another bullet struck his boot heel and his saddle horn was hit as well, burning the saddle hide and narrowly missing Wyatt. He was finally able to get on his horse and retreat. McMaster was grazed by a bullet that cut through the straps of his field glasses.
Earp and Holliday part company:
Holliday and four other members of the posse were still faced with warrants for Stilwell’s death. The group elected to leave the Arizona Territory for New Mexico Territory and then on to Colorado. Wyatt and Holliday, who had been fast friends, had a serious disagreement and parted ways in Albuquerque. According to a letter written by former New Mexico Territory Governor Miguel Otero, Wyatt and Holliday were eating at Fat Charlie’s The Retreat Restaurant in Albuquerque “when Holliday said something about Earp becoming ‘a damn Jew-boy.’ Earp became angry and left …”
Earp was staying with a prominent businessman, Henry N. Jaffa, who was also president of New Albuquerque’s Board of Trade. Jaffa was Jewish, and based on Otero’s letter, Earp had, while staying in Jaffa’s home, honored Jewish tradition by touching the mezuzah upon entering his home. According to Otero’s letter, Jaffa told him, “Earp’s woman was a Jewess.” Earp’s anger at Holliday’s ethnic slur may indicate that the relationship between Josephine Marcus and Wyatt Earp was more serious at the time than is commonly known. Holliday and Dan Tipton arrived in Pueblo, Colorado in late April 1882.
Holliday is buried in Linwood Cemetery overlooking Glenwood Springs. Since Holliday died in November, the ground might have been frozen. Some modern authors such as Bob Boze Bell speculate that it would have been impossible to transport him to the cemetery, which was only accessible by a difficult mountain road, or to dig a grave because the ground was frozen. Author Gary Roberts located evidence that other bodies were transported to the Linwood Cemetery at the same time of the month that year. Contemporary newspaper reports explicitly state that Holliday was buried in the Linwood Cemetery, but the exact location of his grave is uncertain. Though there is no official evidence of this, some claim that Holliday’s father, Major Henry Holliday, a man of means and influence, had his son exhumed and re-buried in Griffin’s Oak Hill Cemetery.
Holliday maintained a fierce persona as was sometimes needed for a gambler to earn respect. He had a contemporary reputation as a skilled gunfighter which modern historians generally regard as accurate. Tombstone resident George W. Parsons wrote that Holliday confronted Johnny Ringo in January 1882, telling him, “All I want of you is ten paces out in the street.” Ringo and he were prevented from a gunfight by the Tombstone police, who arrested both. During the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Holliday initially carried a shotgun and shot at and may have killed Tom McLaury. Holliday was grazed by a bullet fired by Frank McLaury and shot back. After Virgil was maimed in a January ambush, Holliday was part of a federal posse led by Deputy U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp who guarded him on his way to the railroad in Tucson. There they found Frank Stilwell apparently waiting for the Earps in the rail yard. A warrant for Holliday’s arrest was issued after Stilwell was found dead with multiple gunshot wounds. Holliday was part of Earp’s federal posse when they killed three other outlaw Cowboys during the Earp Vendetta Ride. Holliday reported that he had been arrested 17 times, four attempts had been made to hang him, and that he survived ambush five times.
Throughout his lifetime, Holliday was known by many of his peers as a tempered, calm, Southern gentleman. In an 1896 article, Wyatt Earp said: “I found him a loyal friend and good company. He was a dentist whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit; a long, lean blonde fellow nearly dead with consumption and at the same time the most skillful gambler and nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever knew.”
In a newspaper interview, Holliday was once asked if his conscience ever troubled him. He is reported to have said, “I coughed that up with my lungs, years ago.”
Bat Masterson, who had several contacts with Holliday over his lifetime, the two men coming to dislike each other and tolerate each other only as friends of Wyatt Earp, said “in a magazine essay about Doc Holliday… ‘While he never did anything to entitle him to a Statue in the Hall of Fame, Doc Holliday was nevertheless a most picturesque character on the western border in those days when the pistol instead of law determined issues…. Holliday had a mean disposition and an ungovernable temper, and under the influence of liquor was a most dangerous man…. Physically, Doc Holliday was a weakling who could not have whipped a healthy fifteen-year-old boy in a go-as-you-please fistfight’, pointing out that this was why Doc was quick to go for his gun when threatened.”
Stabbings and shootings:
Much of Holliday’s violent reputation was nothing but rumors and self-promotion. However, he showed great skill in gambling and gunfights. His tuberculosis did not hamper his ability as a gambler and as a marksman. Holliday was ambidextrous.
No contemporaneous newspaper accounts or legal records offer proof of the many unnamed men whom Holliday is credited with killing in popular folklore. The only men he is known to have killed are Mike Gordon in 1879; probably Frank McLaury and Tom McLaury in Tombstone; and possibly Frank Stilwell in Tucson. Some scholars argue that Holliday may have encouraged the stories about his reputation, although his record never supported those claims.
In a March 1882 interview with the Arizona Daily Star, Virgil Earp told the reporter:
There was something very peculiar about Doc. He was gentlemanly, a good dentist, a friendly man, and yet outside of us boys I don’t think he had a friend in the Territory. Tales were told that he had murdered men in different parts of the country; that he had robbed and committed all manner of crimes, and yet when persons were asked how they knew it, they could only admit that it was hearsay and that nothing of the kind could really be traced up to Doc’s account.
Born: August 14, 1851, Griffin, GA
Died: November 8, 1887, The Hotel Glenwood Springs, Glenwood Springs, CO
Buried: November 8, 1887, Linwood Cemetery, Glenwood Springs, CO
Spouse: Big Nose Kate (m. 1877–1882)
Siblings: Martha Eleanora Holliday
Parents: Henry Burroughs Holliday, Alice Jane McKey
Doc Holiday’s Last Words:
The story is that Doc fully expected to die in gunfight, but upon finding himself at death’s door in a bed instead, he appreciated the irony of his situation and uttered his last words: “This is funny.” This was said as he was looking at his bare feet and not having his boots on.
Famous Quote By Doc Holiday:
During the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral Doc found himself in the sights of real life gunslinger Frank McLaury who barked, “I’ve got you now, you son of a bi**h.” Always cool under pressure, Holliday simply replied, “You’re a daisy if you do,” and watched as McLaury was shot by Morgan Earp. According to witnesses of the gunfight, Doc Holliday actually uttered these now-iconic Doc Holliday quotes when he found himself in the crosshairs of Frank McLaury, which only adds to the legendary outlaw’s legacy. He had no fear of death, and this was just another example.
I hope you have enjoyed learning a small amount about my favorite Western Legend John Henry “Doc” Holiday!