John Henry "Doc" Holliday (August 14, 1851 – November 8, 1887) was an American dentist, gambler, and gunfighter of the American Old West frontier who is usually remembered for his associations with Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. He was a notable character during his time and has remained a controversial figure since then. Frontier life was often violent. Fortunes were made and lost. Most people recognized the necessity of law and order but some people thought that those who controlled frontier towns did not always have pure motives, favoring the rich and powerful. In this climate, outlaws even emerged as popular heroes. Against the almost iconic status of some of those who broke the law, as a counter balance, such men as Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday gained reputations for upholding the law. The fact that Holliday's own reputation is ambiguous in terms of whether he was, strictly speaking, always on the right side of the law, indicates that the boundary was itself fluid.
John Henry "Doc" Holliday was born in Griffin, Georgia, to Major Henry Burroughs Holliday and Alice Jane Holliday (née McKey). His father served in both the Mexican-American War and the Civil War, and was also a successful lawyer and southern planter. His mother was originally a South Carolinian. John Henry is thought to have been born on August 14, 1851.
Holliday's mother died of tuberculosis on September 16, 1866, when he was 15 years old. Three months later his father married Rachel Martin. Shortly after the marriage, the family moved to Valdosta, Georgia, where Holliday attended the Valdosta Institute. There he received a strong classical secondary education in rhetoric, grammar, mathematics, history, and languages—principally Latin, but also French and some ancient Greek. Holliday was not pleased with his father's quick remarriage and it would cause John Henry to subsequently foster resentment and distrust towards the man.
In 1870, 19 year-old Holliday left home to begin dental school in Philadelphia. On March 1, 1872, he received the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery. Later that year he opened a dental office with Arthur C. Ford in Atlanta.
At birth he had a cleft palate and partly cleft lip. At two months of age, this defect was repaired surgically by Holliday's uncle, J.S. Holliday, M.D., and a family cousin, the famous physician Crawford Long. The repair left no speech impediment though speech therapy was needed. His mother tirelessly worked with him to correct his speech and this engendered a strong bond between the two, which would make her death all the more distressing for John Henry. However, the repair is visible in Holliday's upper lip-line in the one authentic adult portrait-photograph which survives, taken on the occasion of his graduation from dental school. This graduation portrait, taken at the age of 20, supports contemporary accounts that Holliday had ash-blond hair and blue eyes. In early adulthood he stood about 5 feet 10 inches (178 cm) tall and weighed about 160 pounds (70 kg).
Shortly after beginning his dental practice, Holliday was diagnosed with tuberculosis (generally called "consumption" in that era). It is possible Holliday contracted the disease from his mother, though no one would have thought this at the time as tuberculosis was not known to be contagious until many years later. He was given only a few months to live, but thought moving to the drier and warmer southwestern United States might reduce the deterioration of his health.
In September 1873, he went to Dallas, Texas, where he opened a dental office at 56 Elm Street, about four blocks east of the site of today's Dealey Plaza. He soon began gambling and realized this was a more profitable source of income. He was arrested in Dallas in January 1875 after trading gunfire with a saloon-keeper, but no one was injured and he was found not guilty. He moved his offices to Denison, Texas, and after being found guilty of, and fined for, "gaming" in Dallas, he decided to leave the state.
In the years that followed, Holliday had many more such disagreements, fueled by a hot temper and an attitude that death by gun or knife was better than by tuberculosis. The alcohol Holliday used to control his cough may also have contributed. Further, there was the practical matter that a professional gambler, working on his own at the edge of the law, had to be able to back up disputed points of play with at least a threat of force. Over time, Holliday continued traveling on the western mining frontier where gambling was most likely to be lucrative and legal. Holliday was in Denver, Cheyenne, and Deadwood (site of the gold rush in the Dakota Territory) in the fall of 1876. It was possibly that winter, in Deadwood, Holliday first heard of Wyatt Earp, who was there at the time.
By 1877, Holliday was in Fort Griffin, Texas, where Wyatt Earp remembered first meeting him. They were initially introduced through mutual friend John Shanssey. (Shanssey also reportedly introduced him to Big Nose Kate (also known as Kate Elder), a prostitute who would become his lifelong lover, despite their frequent spats.) The two began to form an unlikely friendship; Earp more even-tempered and controlled, Holliday more hot-headed and impulsive. This friendship was cemented in 1878 in Dodge City, Kansas, where both Earp and Holliday had traveled to make money gambling with the cowboys who drove cattle from Texas. On the side, Holliday was still practicing dentistry from his rooms in Dodge City, as indicated in an 1878 Dodge newspaper advertisement (he promised money back for less than complete customer satisfaction), but this is the last known time he attempted practice. In an interview printed in a newspaper later in his life, he said that he only practiced dentistry "for about 5 years."
An incident in September 1878 had Earp, at the time a deputy city marshal, surrounded by men who had "the drop" on him. Holliday, who currently owned a bar in the town and was trading fargo (as he did throughout his life), left the bar coming from another angle to cover the group with a gun, either shot or threatened to shoot one of these men. Earp afterward always credited Holliday with saving his life that day. Many other accounts of Holliday's involvement in gunfights, however, are exaggerated. He had several documented saloon altercations involving small shootings, but in most cases he was drunk and missed his target completely.
One documented instance happened when Holliday was employed during a railroad dispute. On July 19, 1879, Holliday and noted gunman John Joshua Webb were seated in a saloon in Las Vegas, New Mexico when a former U.S. Army scout named Mike Gordon began yelling loudly at one of the saloon girls. When Gordon stormed from the saloon, Holliday followed him. Gordon produced his pistol and fired one shot, missing. Holliday immediately drew his gun and fired, killing Gordon. Holliday was placed on trial for the shooting but was acquitted, mostly based on the testimony of Webb. 
Dodge was not a frontier town for long; by 1879 it had become too respectable for the kinds of people who had seen it through its early days. For many, it was time to move on to places not yet reached by the civilizing railroad, places money was being made. Holliday, by this time, was as well known for his gunfighter reputation as for his gambling, though the latter was his trade and the former simply a reputation. Through his friendship with Wyatt and the other Earp brothers, especially Morgan and Virgil, Holliday made his way to the silver-mining boom town of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, in September 1880, after first making a short stop in Prescott to boost his finances. The Earps had been there since December 1879, some accounts state the Earps sent for Holliday when they realized the problems they faced in their feud with the Cowboy faction. In Tombstone, Holliday quickly became embroiled in the local politics and violence that led up to the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in October 1881. Events had escalated after a stagecoach was robbery and murder in 1881 in Benson, Arizona. Holliday was implicated and his friend Wyatt Earp would attempt to bribe Cowboy rival Ike Clanton into clearing Holliday (and in effect himself) from any association with wrongdoing. In the meantime, rival Sheriff Johnny Behan seized on opportunity when Big Nose Kate turned up after a heated argument with Holliday. He offered to listen and helped her drink away her cares. Behan was able to secure a signed affidavit from Kate attesting to Holliday's guilt. Clanton's aid became unnecessary to Earp. Holliday was brought to trial, but was eventually cleared of charges, in large part because Kate recanted from the statements she had made to Behan. In October the Cowboy faction would threaten the lives of the Earps and Holliday. A showdown was in the making.
The gunfight happened in the vacant lot and street immediately next to Fly's boarding house where Holliday had a room, the day after a late-night argument between Holliday and Ike Clanton. The Clantons and McLaurys collected in the lot before being confronted by the Earps, and Holliday likely thought they were there specifically to assassinate him.
Testimony from an eyewitness who saw the fight begin with a "nickle plated pistol" and a blast of unusual smoke suggests Holliday may have started the gunfight despite town marshal Virgil Earp's attempts to calmly disarm the cowboys. It is known Holliday carried Virgil's Coach Gun into the fight; he was given the weapon just before the fight by Earp, as Holliday was wearing a long coat which could conceal it. Virgil Earp took Holliday's walking stick: by not going conspicuously armed, Virgil was seeking to avoid panic in the citizenry of Tombstone, and in the Clantons and McLaurys.
The strategy failed: while Virgil held up the cane, one witness saw a man, almost certainly Holliday, poke a Cowboy in the chest with the shotgun then step back. Shortly thereafter, Holliday used his weapon to kill Tom McLaury, the only man to sustain shotgun wounds—a fatal buckshot charge to the chest. This probably happened quite early in the fight, before Holliday fired a pistol, though scenarios in how the slight and tubercular Holliday held a pistol with one hand and a double-barreled shotgun in the other during the gunfight are speculated. Ike Clanton was never hit.
An inquest and arraignment hearing determined the gunfight was not a criminal act on the part of Holliday and the Earps. The town, however, remained abuzz over the controversial violence employed by the group. The situation in Tombstone soon grew worse when Virgil Earp was ambushed and permanently injured in December 1881, then Morgan Earp was ambushed and killed in March 1882. After Morgan's murder, the Earps, their families, and Holliday fled town. In Tucson, while Wyatt, Warren Earp, and Holliday were escorting the wounded Virgil Earp and his wife Allie to California, they prevented another ambush and began the Earp vendetta against the Cowboys they believed responsible for Morgan's death.
The first victim of the lawless killing was Frank Stilwell, a former deputy of Johnny Behan's. Stilwell was in Tucson to answer a stage-robbery charge but wound up dead on the tracks in the train yard near the Earps' train. What Stilwell was doing in the train yard has never been explained (he may have been waiting to pick up another man who was supposed to testify in his favor), but Wyatt Earp certainly thought Stilwell was there to do the Earps harm. In his biographies, Wyatt admitted to shooting Stilwell with a shotgun. However, Stilwell was found with two shotgun wounds and three bullet wounds. Holliday, who was with Wyatt that night and said Stilwell and Ike Clanton were waiting in the train yard to assassinate Virgil Earp, is likely the second shooter. Holliday never directly acknowledged his role in Stilwell's killing or those that followed. Controversy again surfaced after this killing.
After the Earp families left for California and safety, Holliday, Wyatt, Wyatt's younger brother, Warren, and Wyatt's friends Sherman McMasters, Turkey Creek Jack Johnson, and Texas Jack Vermillion rode on a vendetta for three weeks, during which Curly Bill Brocius and at least two other men thought to be responsible for Morgan's death were killed. Eventually, with warrants out for six of the vendetta posse (including Holliday) in the Arizona Territory for the killing of Stilwell, the group moved to New Mexico, then Colorado, in mid-April 1882. Along that journey, while in New Mexico, Wyatt Earp and Holliday had a minor argument and parted ways, going separately to different parts of Colorado. Earp travelled to Gunnison, while Holliday set out for the more financially lucrative Denver.
After the vendetta ride, neither Holliday nor any other member of the party ever returned to Arizona to live. In May 1882, Holliday was arrested in Denver for the Stilwell killing. Due to lack of evidence, Colorado refused to extradite him, although he spent the last two weeks of that month in jail while the issue was decided. He and Wyatt met again in June 1882 in Gunnison after he was released. There is controversy regarding whether any of the Earp vendetta posse slipped briefly back to the Tombstone area to kill Johnny Ringo on July 13, 1882. Biographers of Ringo do not believe it is very likely. Several other known gunmen were also implicated in the death, to include "Buckskin" Frank Leslie, little known gunman Lou Cooley, and gambler Mike O'Rourke. Most believe, however, that Ringo's death was in fact a suicide, as reported.
Holliday spent the rest of his life in Colorado. After a stay in Leadville, he suffered from the effects of the high altitude; his health, and evidently his gambling skills, began to deteriorate badly. As urbanization began to accelerate in the West, the frontier that had fostered his skills and success began to wane.
In 1887, prematurely gray and badly ailing, Holliday made his way to the Hotel Glenwood near the hot springs of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. He hoped to take advantage of the reputed curative power of the waters, but the sulfurous fumes from the spring may have done his lungs more harm than good. As he lay dying, Holliday asked for a drink of whiskey. Amused, he looked at his bootless feet as he died—no one ever thought that he would die in bed, with his boots off. His reputed last words were, "This is funny." Despite legend, Wyatt Earp was not present when Holliday died, and did not know of his death until months afterward. Holliday died on November 8, 1887.
Holliday's grave stone sits in Linwood cemetery, which overlooks the city of Glenwood Springs. There is dispute about whether he is actually buried in his marked grave, or even in the cemetery itself. He died in winter when the ground was frozen and was buried the same day in what was probably a temporary grave. This grave may not have been in the old cemetery, which was up a difficult road on the mountain. It is thus possible his body was never later relocated, but the truth is not known, since no exhumation has been attempted.
In a probably ghost-edited article in 1896, Wyatt Earp had this to say about Holliday: "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, deadliest man with a gun that I ever knew."
In a newspaper interview, Holliday was once asked if his killings had ever gotten on his conscience. He is reported to have said "I coughed that out with my lungs, years ago."
Big Nose Kate, his long-time companion, remembered Holliday's reaction after his role in the O.K. Corral gunfight. She reported that Holliday came back to his room, sat on the bed, and wept. "That was awful—awful," said Holliday.
Virgil Earp, interviewed May 30, 1882, in The Arizona Daily Star (two months after Virgil had fled Tombstone after Morgan Earp's death), summed up Holliday:
"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 it was hearsay, and that nothing of the kind could really be traced to Doc's account. He was a slender, sickly fellow, but whenever a stage was robbed or a row started, and help was needed, Doc was one of the first to saddle his horse and report for duty."
Wide ranging historical accounts have usually supported the belief Holliday was extremely fast with a pistol, but his accuracy was less than perfect. In three of his four known pistol fights, he shot one opponent (Billy Allen) in the arm, one (Charles White) across the scalp, and missed one man (a saloon keeper named Charles Austin) entirely. In an early incident in Tombstone in 1880, shortly after he arrived in town, a drunken Holliday managed to shoot Oriental Saloon owner Milt Joyce in the hand, and his bartender Parker in the toe (neither was the man Holliday originally quarreled with). For this, Holliday was fined for assault and battery. With the exception of Mike Gordon in 1879, there are no contemporary newspaper or legal records to match the many unnamed men whom Holliday is credited with shooting to death in popular folklore; the same is true for the several tales of knifings credited to Holliday by early biographers. All these colorful stories may be viewed with skepticism.
Publicly, Holliday could be as fierce as was needed for a gambling man to earn respect. In Tombstone in January 1882, he told Johnny Ringo (as recorded by diarist Parsons) "All I want of you is ten paces out in the street." He and Ringo were prevented from having the gunfight only by the Tombstone police (which did not include the Earps at the time), who arrested them both. Holliday's role in the deaths of Frank Stilwell and the other three men killed on the Earp vendetta ride remains uncertain, but he was present at the events. Holliday is probably the second shooter of Stilwell, he killed Tom McLaury, and either Holliday or Morgan Earp fired the second bullet that ended the life of Frank McLaury. Although Frank McLaury is sometimes erroneously stated to have been hit by three bullets (based on the next-day news accounts in Tombstone papers), at the coroner's inquest Frank was found to actually have been hit only in the stomach and in the neck under the ear; therefore either Holliday or Morgan missed Frank.
Biographer Karen Holliday Tanner states that of Holliday's 17 known and recorded arrests, only one (1879, Mike Gordon in New Mexico) was for murder. Actually, Tanner is incorrect, since Holliday was arrested and jailed for murder in connection with both the O.K. Corral fight, and later for the murder of Frank Stilwell. However, in neither case was Holliday successfully charged (the Spicer hearing was an indictment hearing, but it did not recommend indictment; any Stilwell indictment was quashed by Colorado's refusal to extradite). Of the other arrests, Holliday pled guilty to two gambling charges, one charge of carrying a deadly weapon in the city (in connection with the argument with Ringo), and one misdemeanor assault and battery charge (his shooting of Joyce and Parker). The others were all dismissed or returned as "not guilty."
Whatever the facts, Doc seemed to gain a deadly reputation and was a feared man.
Some have claimed (on very thin circumstantial evidence) that Holliday was involved in the August 1881 death of Old Man Clanton (Ike and Billy Clanton's father) and four other cowboys in a canyon 100 miles (160 km) from Tombstone, while the cowboys were driving cattle from Mexico. However Clanton's death in the so-called Guadalupe Canyon Massacre could just as well have been (and is usually assumed to be) a revenge-killing by angry Mexican cattle-owners who had recently been the target of rustlers (perhaps not the same men they later killed). Some have taken Holliday's use of a walking stick on the day of the O.K. Corral fight (which he traded Virgil for the shotgun), to be evidence that Holliday had been wounded, perhaps at the death of "Old Man" Clanton two months before. However, Holliday was known to use a walking stick as early as 1877, since in that year he was arrested for using it as a club on another gambler, in a fight. On that occasion in 1877 Holliday actually was wounded in the fight by gunfire, but there is no direct evidence that he was newly wounded in the fall of 1881. Actually the cane was typical; Holliday was physically frail through much of his adult life.
One of the better stories about Holliday might not have happened (and the tale has made it into at least one movie). According to the Stuart Lake biography of Wyatt Earp (Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal), Holliday got into a fight with another gambler (Ed Bailley) in Fort Griffin and knifed the other man to death as the man was drawing a gun on Holliday. Held by the law and targeted for lynching, Holliday was rescued from death by Big Nose Kate, who procured horses, set fire to a building as a diversion, and then drew a gun on the sheriff to allow Holliday's escape.
The problem with this story is that no record of any such killing (or Bailey, the man supposedly killed) exists in news or legal accounts of the day. Additionally, Big Nose Kate, at the end of her life in 1940 (after the Lake biography of Earp had appeared in 1931), explicitly denied that the story was true and laughed at the idea of herself holding a gun on a sheriff. (Kate's refusal to embellish or even claim a part in a good story which centers around her, makes her simultaneous report of the action at the O.K. Corral gunfight, which she did claim to see, considerably more credible).
There are many supposed photos of Holliday, most of which do not match each other. The one adult portrait-photo known to be authentic is the March 1872 Pennsylvania School of Dental Surgery graduation photo taken when Holliday was 20. This photo shows a light-haired man with light and slightly asymmetrical eyes. It matches well with the other known authentic photo, a poor-quality (but signed) standing photo of Holliday taken in Prescott, Arizona Territory, in 1879, the year before he went to Tombstone.
The 1879 standing photo shows Holliday had not changed a great deal in seven years, though he sports a mustache and perhaps also an imperial beard (triangular bit of hair left below the middle of the lower lip, combined with a mustache). In the authentic 1879 photo, Holliday is also wearing a tie with a diamond stickpin, which he was known to wear habitually and which was among his few possessions (minus the diamond) when he died. This stickpin is similar to the one Wyatt Earp was wearing in his own most well-known photo.
There are three photos most often printed (supposed) of Holliday, which were supposedly taken by C.S. Fly in Tombstone (but sometimes are said to be taken in Dallas). They clearly show the same man but in three different poses and slightly different dress. This man shows some differences with Holliday in the two authentic photos, and therefore may not be Holliday. The man in these three later photos has much darker hair (though this could have been dyed with hair treatments of the time, or possibly retouched in the photos), and this man may have smaller ears. None of the photos match each other exactly in certain details. For example, a cowlick and folded collar is present only in the oval inscribed photo, several different cravats are seen, and the shirt collar and vest change orientation between photos.
The last of the three later supposed photos of Holliday—in which the subject has a more open overcoat, a more open vest (allowing the bowtie cords to be seen), an upturned shirt collar, and is holding a bowler hat (derby hat)—exists as a print in the Cochise County Courthouse Museum in Tombstone. Other sources for it are sought. It is evidently the same dark-haired man shown in the other two photos, but is yet another image (perhaps from the same photo session in which the upturned detachable shirt collar is worn, rather than the folded-down collar of the oval portrait).
Other, even more questionable photos exist as well.
The very different personal characters of Holliday and Earp have provided contrast which has inspired historical interest. Holliday was nationally known during his life as a gunman, whereas Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at O.K. Corral became a part of folklore only following Stuart Lake's biography of Earp after Earp's death. As this fight has become one of the most famous moments in the American West, numerous Westerns have been made of it, and the Holliday character has been prominent in all of them.
Actors who have played Holliday in name include:
There are few records with which to piece together the full life of Doc Holliday. Though many accounts of his marksmanship and violence have been exaggerated, he is a notable character nonetheless. He lived in a time when official law enforcement was not wholly dependable. Holliday felt that a man had to take it into his own hands to ensure that justice was properly meted out. In his lifetime, he claimed to have only killed those who necessitated it. This makes him seem more dedicated to ensuring peace than exciting violence. Though harsh means, even killings, had to be resorted in some situations, a rough form of justice was assuredly more preferable than the chaotic state of lawlessness that existed when powerful factions were allowed to freely run amok.
All links retrieved October 17, 2017.
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