Most Americans know of Doc Holliday only as Wyatt Earp’s sidekick. He was much more than that. He was not only one of the most colorful characters in the Old West but also one of the most feared. He acquired the nickname “Doc” honestly, earning a degree in dentistry and practicing in several towns. However, he eventually spent nearly all his time as a professional gambler and occasionally as a gunfighter. He had a vicious temper and feared no man, perhaps because tuberculosis had already given him a death sentence.
Holliday is a classic example of the Old West gunfighter—one of those shootists whose death-defying actions were legendary in their own time and became the subject of hundreds of books and movies. Doc exhibited the characteristics essential to the gunslinger—he was highly proficient in the use of firearms, had nerves of steel, and, most of all, was willing.
No less than a half-dozen biographies are devoted to Holliday and he’s been a character in more than 20 major movies. The actors who have portrayed him include Cesar Romero, Walter Huston, Victor Mature, Kirk Douglas, Jason Robards, Jack Kelly, Stacy Keach, Willie Nelson, Val Kil mer, and Dennis Quaid. Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc in Tombstone (1993) was wonderfully creative and might be called brilliant, but Dennis Quaid in Wyatt Earp (1994) became Doc, eerily so.
Doc was born John Henry Holliday in 1851 in Griffin, Georgia. His parents were of South Carolina pioneer stock of Scotch-Irish and English ancestry. Doc’s father, Henry Holliday, was an attorney who served in the Mexican War as a lieutenant and later in the Civil War, first as a captain and then as a major.
Doc had a comfortable middle-class childhood and received a good education. When the family moved to Valdosta, Georgia, in 1864, he attended the Valdosta Institute and studied all the subjects common to a classical education, including rhetoric, logic, history, and Latin, but also trigonometry, calculus, physics, and chemistry. Impatient with his studies, he told his family he wished he was fighting the damn Yankees, who were ravaging the state by the fall of 1864.
In September 1866, Doc’s mother died of tuberculosis. Doc’s bad temper worsened. The boyish-looking, blond-haired, blue-eyed 15-year-old was not physically imposing but, as several boys learned, he was no one to trifle with. When another boy challenged him to a duel to settle a dispute, Doc readily agreed. The seconds contrived to put blanks into the boys’ pistols to avoid tragedy, but Doc discovered the ruse and insisted on fully loaded pistols. His opponent wanted none of that.
In 1872 Doc graduated near the top of his class from the highly regarded Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery and began practicing in Atlanta. There’s a story that a gold crown he made for a girl’s molar was still in place when she died aged 102 in 1967.
Although a skilled dentist, Doc developed a cough that interfered with his practice. A physician diagnosed him with tuberculosis and told him to seek a drier climate in the West. Doc immediately began packing. The family was upset, no one more so than his cousin Mattie Holliday, a beautiful blond who had had a crush on Doc and corresponded with him for years. A devout Catholic, she eventually entered the Sisters of Mercy convent in Savannah.
Doc settled first in Dallas, Texas, and opened a dental practice, but his coughing fits came back. Soon he was gambling rather than drilling and filling teeth. He had a memory for cards dealt, could quickly calculate odds, and could handle a deck with extraordinary dexterity. City officials frowned on gambling and had Doc and a dozen others arrested. Doc got off with a fine.
On New Year’s Day 1875, Doc got in his first documented shootout when a dispute with saloon proprietor Charles Austin erupted in gunfire. No one was hit and all was forgiven, but Doc decided it was a good time to leave Texas. He gambled his way from town to town until he landed in Denver during the summer of 1875.
Within a few months Doc was dealing faro at Tom Miller’s Bella Union Saloon in Cheyenne, Wyoming. When Miller relocated to the West’s newest boomtown, Deadwood, in the Black Hills of Dakota Territory, Doc went along. Doc spent half a year in Deadwood before he was on the move again through Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas, and Texas.
In Dallas on the Fourth of July, 1877, Doc got into a fight with another gambler, Henry Kahn, and beat him into submission with a walking stick. Both men were arrested and fined. Hours later and still seething from the beating, Kahn ambushed Doc and put a bullet into him.
Doc was seriously wounded and a newspaper even reported he had been killed. He slowly recovered, though, and moved to Fort Griffin, Texas, where he resumed employment as a card dealer.
While in Fort Griffin, he fell for Mary Katharine Horony, better known as Big Nose Kate. Kate didn’t actually have a big nose; her nickname came from her nosey nature. Born in Hungary, Kate worked as a dance hall girl and occasionally as a prostitute. She was described as highly intelligent, “tough, stubborn and fearless.”
It was also at Fort Griffin that Doc met Wyatt Earp. Earp was serving as a deputy U.S. marshal and had come down from Dodge City, Kansas, looking for an outlaw. Doc and Wyatt hit it off immediately and became close friends. Wyatt was back in Dodge City early in 1878 and was hired as the assistant city marshal. Doc and Kate, now his companion, settled there in the summer of 1878 as Dr. and Mrs. John H. Holliday.
That same summer Doc was dealing cards in the Long Branch Saloon when a half-dozen wild cowboys led by Ed Morrison burst in, shooting guns into the air and harassing customers. Hearing the gunfire, Wyatt Earp ran into the Long Branch only to find six cowboys with guns leveled at him. Wyatt reckoned he was dead, but Doc appeared behind Morrison, and with a gun to the cowboy’s head, forced him and his boys to drop their guns. Wyatt never forgot that Doc saved his life that day.
When word came of the great silver strike at Tombstone in Arizona Territory, several of Dodge City’s gamblers and gunslingers headed west, including Doc. In Las Vegas, New Mexico, Doc got into a gunfight with Mike Gordon, a former Army scout, and mortally wounded him in front of a Center Street saloon. Also in Las Vegas, Doc got into a gunfight with Charley White, a bartender who had tangled with Doc back in Dodge City. A round from Doc’s gun creased White’s head and knocked the barkeep cold. Thinking he had shot White through the head and killed him, Doc strolled out of the saloon, content he had settled an old score.
Arriving in Tombstone in September 1880, Doc joined the Earps in what was a factional fight to control the town. Kate was still living with Doc but after a drunken domestic dispute, he kicked her out. Cochise County Sheriff John Behan and saloon owner Mike Joyce, who opposed the Earps and their faction, got the drunken Kate to sign an affidavit saying Holliday was involved in a recent stagecoach robbery in which two men were killed. Sheriff Behan took Kate’s affidavit to Judge Wells Spicer, who issued an arrest warrant for Holliday.
When Doc got word, he stomped over to Joyce’s saloon. Joyce drew a gun but Doc was faster, putting a bullet through the saloon owner’s gun hand. A bartender grabbed for a gun but Holliday wounded him. Saloon patrons then knocked Doc to the ground and he was dragged off to jail.
Wyatt Earp posted bail for Doc and the stagecoach robbery story that had provoked the violence began to unravel. Witnesses stated Holliday was elsewhere at the time, and a sober Kate changed her story. The charges against Holliday were dropped.
However, the animosity between the Earp faction and the cowboy faction continued to grow. The cowboys were suspected of rustling cattle and robbing stagecoaches. They were all handy with guns, including William Brocius, better known as Curly Bill, who shot to death Tombstone city marshal Fred White. Johnny Ringo and Frank Stilwell were also members of the cowboy faction with reputations for fast and fancy shooting. Suspected of leading the rustling were “Old Man” Clanton and three of his sons, Ike, Phin, and Billy, as well as their close friends, the brothers Tom and Frank McLaury. The cowboy faction had on its side Sheriff Behan, Joyce, the saloon owner who was also a county supervisor, and Harry Woods, the publisher of The Daily Nugget.
The Earp faction included five of the Earp brothers—Wyatt, Virgil, Morgan, James, and Warren—Doc Holliday, Judge Wells Spicer, and John Clum, who was Tombstone’s mayor and publisher of The Tombstone Epitaph. Virgil was both a deputy U.S. marshal and city marshal of Tombstone. The Earp faction represented the force of law-and-order, but the Earps and their associates were as much concerned about their business interests and control of the town as they were about law and order.
When drinking in Tombstone saloons, several of the cowboys were heard threatening to kill the Earps and Holliday. Virgil got the city council to pass an ordinance stating that, upon arrival in Tombstone, visitors must deposit their guns at various designated locations. The cowboys were the target of the ordinance, and while permits could be obtained to carry firearms, none was issued to any of the cowboys. This was not gun control, but cowboy control.
A series of incidents began when several of the cowboys arrived in town on a cold and windy Oct. 25, 1881, and began drinking and gambling. Problems continued through the night and into the next day and culminated in what has gone down in history as the Shootout at the OK Corral.
City Marshal Virgil Earp and deputized Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc found Ike and Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury in a vacant lot next to Fly’s photography studio on Fremont Street. The Earps were armed with revolvers and, in addition to his revolver, Doc carried a 10-gauge short-barreled shotgun under his overcoat. Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury were armed with revolvers, but Tom McLaury and Ike Clanton were unarmed.
Virgil called on Billy and Frank to surrender their guns but neither showed any signs of complying. What happened next is a matter of great debate. Wyatt probably fired first, hitting Frank in the stomach. Billy fired at nearly the same time. Unarmed Tom tried to take cover behind a horse and to reach for a rifle in a saddle scabbard, but Doc stepped to the side and let both barrels of the shotgun roar. Tom staggered into the street and collapsed. Unarmed Ike took off running.
Meanwhile, Morgan fired a round that hit Billy in his gun hand. Billy gamely switched his gun to his other hand and fired, drilling Virgil in the leg. Morgan fired another round that hit Billy in the chest, and Virgil shot Billy in the stomach. Despite being mortally wounded, Billy and Frank continued firing until they ran out of ammunition. Morgan was hit in the shoulder and Doc in the hip. Wyatt was untouched. Now using a revolver, Doc finished off Frank with a shot to the head.
The shootout was highly controversial, and the Earp brothers and Holliday were put through a month-long hearing before Judge Wells Spicer. Testimony from witnesses was wildly contradictory. The Tombstone Epitaph argued the Earps and Holliday were only doing their duty as lawmen. The Daily Nugget argued they be tried for murder. Judge Spicer ruled the evidence was insufficient to proceed with a murder trial.
The courts were through with the Earps and Doc Holiday, but the cowboys weren’t. Late on a December night, Virgil Earp stepped out of the Oriental Saloon and into the blast of a shotgun. Virgil barely survived, and his left arm was rendered useless for the rest of his life. In March 1882, Morgan Earp was playing billiards when a shot came through an open window and struck him in the stomach. He lingered for an hour and then died.
By this time, Wyatt Earp was again serving as a deputy U.S. Marshal and, with Doc Holliday encouraging him, decided it was time to go on the offensive. The first order of business, though, was to get Virgil and his wife out of town. Wyatt deputized Doc and Warren Earp and two others to escort Virgil and his wife to the train station in Tucson. At the station, they spotted Frank Stilwell hiding behind a railroad car. Wyatt let a shotgun roar and Doc opened up with a revolver. How many others fired is not known, but Stilwell’s body was later found riddled with buckshot and bullets.
A Tucson justice of the peace issued arrest warrants for Wyatt and Doc and the others, but by the time he did they were long gone on what has been called the Vendetta or Vengeance Ride. In rapid succession they tracked down and killed “Indian Charlie” Cruz and Curly Bill Brocius, who were implicated in the wounding of Virgil and the killing of Morgan.
Wyatt and Doc then left Arizona Territory before the arrest warrants could catch up with them. At Pueblo, Colorado, they parted company, Wyatt going to Gunnison and Doc to Denver.
Doc was arrested in Denver in May 1882 on the Arizona warrant but Bat Masterson, now the police chief of Trinidad, Colorado, interceded on Doc’s behalf and convinced the Colorado governor not to honor an extradition request from Arizona.
Upon release, Doc gambled his way from town to town—Denver, Pueblo, Leadville—but tuberculosis was now ravaging his body. In a Leadville saloon in March 1885 Doc was in his last shooting scrape, putting a bullet into Billy Allen.
Doc spent his last days in the health resort of Glenwood Springs, hoping the hot springs and sulfurous vapors might do something for his tuberculosis. He corresponded regularly with his cousin, Mattie Holliday, who urged him to turn to God. Doc sought out the local priest, Fr. Edward Downey, and the Irish cleric baptized Doc in the Catholic faith.
On the morning of Nov. 8, 1887, Doc called for a nurse to bring him a jigger of whiskey. Doc sat up in his bed, threw back the shot, and looked at his bare feet. After all his gunfights he was not going to die with his boots on, as he always declared he would. “This is funny,” he said—and then fell back dead.
Wyatt Earp said that Doc “was a dentist whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a frontier vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit; a long, lean ash-blond fellow nearly dead with consumption, and at the same time the most skillful gambler and the nerviest, speediest, and deadliest man with a six-gun I ever knew.”