November 8, 1887 was a day that went unnoticed by many, but is a memorable day in the history of America's Wild West. On that day, the gambler, gunslinger and sometime dentist, John Henry "Doc" Holliday lost his battle with tuberculosis. His legend spans a short 36 years, but in that time, Doc was the main character of many tales and a supporting character in one of the most well know battles in the history of America's West.
Doc Holliday was a man of the old west; hated by many and befriended by few. Holliday did not write his memoirs or leave behind a wife or children who could tell his story; but his name is mentioned in the historical writings of others, most notably Wyatt Earp who Holliday acknowledged as probably his one true friend. Thus Doc Holliday's colorful life can be pieced together through the tales of others. His story cannot be told with one simple article. His life can be detailed in three main sections: the beginnings, the gunfight at the OK Corral, and the aftermath of that gunfight.
The Beginning of John Henry Holliday
There are many mysteries surrounding Doc Holliday, his birth included. Many historians place his birth as August 18, 1851, but as so many other details about Doc, this cannot be confirmed. Records of his birth were destroyed in a fire, but he was baptized March 21, 1852 at the First Presbyterian Church in Griffin, Goergia so it is a good chance his birth was sometime in late January or sometime in February. Holliday was a Georgian gentleman of high society; the only child of his father Major Henry B. Holliday, a lawyer and plantation owner and mother, Alice McKey. By the age of 13, John Holliday was already an accurate shot with pistol and rifle.
The Civil War brought tuberculosis to Holliday as it did to many southern youth and took his father away from home. Without his father's firm hand, Holliday was a rowdy adolescent. When his mother died a year later and his father quickly remarried, Holliday was forever estranged from his father, never forgiving him for what he believed was disloyalty to his mother. John Holliday was a restless youth. It comes as no surprise that an altercation would happen to change the fortunes for Holliday.
The tale goes something like this: there was a swimming hole that was used by the local boys at will. One afternoon when Holliday went to the swimming hole, he spotted a group of Negroes and told them to leave. When the youths refused, Holliday fired shots above their heads to encourage them to leave. He continued to fire shots above their heads as they quickly retreated. The incident was reported in the local newspaper and of course many versions ranging from one dead to several injured to a minor massacre resulted. No one really knows the true facts of what happened that afternoon except for those youths who were there and John Holliday. Regardless, soon after the incident, Holliday was packed up and shipped to Baltimore to study dentistry; and there acquired the nickname "Doc."
Doc Holliday the Dentist Becomes One of Wild West's Gamblers and Gunfighters
Baltimore was the dental capital of the nation and Doc enrolled in a 2-year course of study at the Baltimore Dental College. At the time, Baltimore was one of the largest cities in the nation and was positioned with one of the greatest ports of the country. Young Doc readily engaged in investigating all that the city had to offer including forms of entertainment. While it is said he never drank in Georgia, by the time he left Baltimore, he was well acquainted with libations and the art of playing cards.
This southern gentleman with sparkling blue eyes, blond hair and walrus-tusk mustache left Baltimore in the summer of 1872. Though he seemed taller in appearance, Doc was only five feet, ten inches in height. He landed in Atlanta and put out his shingle. He reacquainted himself with his cousin Mattie Holliday with whom he kept up correspondence upon leaving Georgia.
At first his practice thrived and had his health not taken a turn for the worse, his story may have been very different. His health issues caused him to seek a quieter town and he moved his practice to Griffin, Georgia near his place of birth. He sought medical advice and the doctor confirmed what Doc probably already knew-he had tuberculosis, called consumption at that time. The doctor concluded the consumption was too advanced to treat and suggested Doc move to a drier climate to stave off death for a few more years.
Doc chose to move to Dallas, possibly because it was where the railroad tracks ended at the time of his decision; perhaps because any further west would take him into a southerner's enemy territory so to speak. Whatever the reason, Dallas was the next stop on Doc's life journey and that is where he once again put out his shingle.
Dallas was a lively town with upstanding citizens and business; but it also had the less respectable businesses that often came of railroad towns. One section of the main street was lined with gambling dens, brothels, and dance halls that were actually part-time brothels. Outlaws like the Younger brothers were welcomed with open arms and in fact were deputized and they in return, behaved themselves while in Dallas.
Doc fit right into the less respectable life in Dallas. He was a man with no future. Furthermore, he learned Mattie had become a nun in an Atlanta convent. The depths of his feelings for her are unknown, but the fact is he never ceased corresponding with her. Another problem for Doc was his practice did not take off in Dallas because of his chronic cough. Gambling became more prevalent for Doc; some say out of necessity to increase his income; others claim his practice declined because of the time spent gambling. It is the chicken and the egg debate.
Eventually, Doc no longer practiced dentistry and relied on gambling as his only source of income. Gamblers of the old west had to not only know how to play cards, they had to be able to out-cheat others; they had to be swift, accurate and purposeful with a gun; and they had to be handy with a sheath-knife. Doc was intelligent so learning how to cheat at cards was not a problem. He determined to become more adept with weapons and practiced until he was a confident man in his abilities.
What remains somewhat a mystery is how Doc was able to withstand the pace and environment of gambling. Gamblers were notorious for long games of a couple of days with few breaks in action and little time for more than a few gobbled bites of food. The smoke filled rooms were damaging to the lungs of an individual with consumption; and yet, Doc was able to thrive as a professional gambler. He was able to tolerate large quantities of whiskey that would kill a stronger man. Living past the two year sentence placed upon him was amazing; doing so in the environment he chose-a miracle.
Doc Holliday Becomes One of America's Old West Outlaws
As Doc gambled in Dallas, the story of the shooting at the swimming hole found its way to the city. This is another mystery surrounding Doc and some believe that Doc himself spread the story. He had not proved his abilities to protect himself and being slight in stature, this theory is plausible. He might be given a wider berth if thought to be one step ahead of the law for a murder back east.
The first recorded altercation during which Doc drew his gun and fired at another was January 1, 1875 during a fireworks display celebration of the New Year. He was arrested and released and it was a few months later that he drew his gun again, this time with a more serious result. This time it was a prominent citizen of Dallas and Doc killed him, and then ran for his life.
Doc rode west into the Indian Territory, an area later to become Oklahoma, where county sheriffs had no jurisdiction. Shortly thereafter, he rode back across the Red River and settled in Jacksboro, Texas. Jacksboro was near Fort Richardson and right smack in the middle of a battle to put remaining Comanches and Kiowas onto a reservation. Doc stayed there for a year and it is reported that he shot three men during that time, one fatally. That is until the time he left.
Around May or June of 1876, Doc ended his gambling day by killing a soldier, a member of the Sixth Calvary Regiment of the United States Army, on loan to Fort Richardson. The citizens of Jacksboro were nonplused by the event, but the US Government took notice and enlisted the help of the State of Texas. With US Marshals and Texas Rangers hunting him, Doc fled across 800 miles of waterless, Indian territory to land in Pueblo, Colorado. Here, Doc began to follow the Faro Dealers/Professional Gambler circuit which took him to numerous Colorado towns as well as towns such as Cheyenne Wyoming.
Not finding welcome in Cheyenne, Doc returned to Denver when the town was changing due to Colorado's statehood and Denver's population included more federal population. At this time, Doc used an alias "Tom MacKey." Once again, Doc left a town due to his speedy accuracy with a weapon. This time, the recipient was a well-known gambler named Budd Ryan; Doc wielded his knife and just about cut Ryan's head off, though Ryan did survive the injury. Doc rode to Pueblo, and then on to other towns on the circuit.
After about fifteen months out of Texas, Doc was able to return without fear of arrest. He settled in Griffin and took up with a woman who moved in and out of his life the remainder of his days. She went by the name of Big Nose Kate. As with just about everything surrounding Doc Holliday, Kate's last name is debated; some say it was Fisher, others claim it was Elder. In reality, she could have gone by either name.
Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate and Wyatt Earp
In Fort Griffin, Doc dealt cards at a saloon owned by John Shanssey, a man with questionable character himself. At the time, gamblers were doing quite well in Fort Griffin due to the buffalo hunters traveling through the town. Gamblers tended to have a woman who helped them and Big Nose Kate became attached to Doc in this way.
Several months went by uneventfully for Doc and Big Nose Kate. One day, a man rode into town that changed the course for Doc. That man was Wyatt Earp. He was a lawman looking for a bandit and killer named Dave Rudabaugh. Wyatt knew Shanssey and inquired about Rudabaugh. Shanssey directed him to Doc. While Wyatt knew who Doc was, he had never actually met him. He did not believe that Doc would offer information to a peace officer given his background. Shanssey assured Wyatt of Doc cooperation citing Doc owed him a favor. Introductions were made and Doc agreed to help Wyatt.
Wyatt was four years older than Doc, 29 when they met, and was not particularly impressed with the frail looking man. However, when they shook hands, Wyatt noted Doc's grip was strong, but it was Doc who was enthralled with Wyatt in the beginning of the acquaintance. He took to him immediately and trusted him as he had no other man. Within a week, Doc had located Rudabaugh and passed on the information to Wyatt.
As was bound to happen, Doc found himself in big trouble shortly after Wyatt left Fort Griffin. He knifed another man, Ed Bailey and although by frontier law, he had every right to do so, Bailey's friends vowed vengeance. As a vigilante group converged outside the hotel where the sheriff had moved Doc, Big Nose Kate surveyed the problem and devised a plan. She set fire to a barn at the other end of town, knocked out the deputy guarding Doc, and coolly helped Doc escape. The two spent the night in hiding and the next morning rode off on stolen horses. The two traveled to Dodge City, Kansas, Wyatt's headquarters, and Doc signed them into the hotel as Dr. and Mrs. John H. Holliday.
Although the two were never officially wed, Doc's code of loyalty attached Big Nose Kate to him when she busted him out of a peace officer's custody. More than likely, his intentions were such at the time to make a good life for Kate. he agreed to stop gambling and she agreed to stop her trade. He attempted to start fresh and once again put out his dentistry shingle. But of course the lure of the saloons was much too strong and it wasn't long before Doc was engaged in the night life.
In Dodge City, Doc met Bat Masterson who did not like Doc and believed he had few redeeming qualities. Curiously, though Masterson claimed to never have liked Doc Holliday, he did save him on several occasions. During his stay in Dodge, Doc intermittently ran into Wyatt and was able to stay out of trouble for the most part. His relationship with Kate, however, was tumultuous. As he returned to gambling, she returned to prostitution. Doc was humilitated by this due to presenting her as "Mrs. Holliday." They argued frequently and finally Kate left Doc and Dodge City. Doc took the opportunity to head back to Colorado.
Doc traveled to the new silver boom town of Leadville, which had not yet reached its gambling stride. Doc put away his cards and instead engaged in a con game with a partner. When the game ran its course, the two of them traveled back to Dodge City where Doc saved Wyatt's life twice during one event. He vacillated between being an outlaw and helping the law, specifically Wyatt. He was moody and the townspeople were often the object of his displeasures. Big Nose Kate came back to Dodge City and the two resumed their fiery relationship. As preparations for a large cattle drive began, Doc left Dodge City not wanting to witness Kate "plying her trade" to the cowboys and traveled back to Colorado. He informed Wyatt that he wouldn't return until he learned Kate was plying her trade elsewhere.
In June of 1879, Doc traveled to Las Vegas and for the last time, put out his dentistry shingle in the Old Town portion. New Town lured him back to his gambling ways and it wasn't long before once again, the tools of dentistry lay dormant. Big Nose Kate did not seem to like Doc running out on her and she hunted him down, eventually finding him in Las Vegas where apparently her intent was to make his life miserable. Before she could accomplish this fully, Doc killed a man in a shootout and lit out for Dodge City. When he arrived, he was disappointed to learn that Wyatt had resigned as deputy marshal and headed to Tombstone, Arizona.
Doc's decision to follow Wyatt to Tombstone placed him in one of the most famous events in the history of America's West.
Meyers, John Meyers. Doc Holliday. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1973; original printing London: Little Brown,1955.
The copyright of the article "The Legend of Doc Holliday Part 1: The Georgian Gentleman" is owned by Cheryl Weldon. Permission to republish "The Legend of Doc Holliday Part 1: The Georgian Gentleman" in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.