"A shiftless, bagged-legged character - a killer and professional
cut-throat and not a wit too refined to rob stages or even steal
sheep." The Las Vegas Optic.
a stone killer, an alcoholic and a whoremonger. He was known to
cheat at cards." Doc O'Meara,
Guns of the Gunfighters, Krause Publications, 2003.
"Few men of his
character had more friends or stronger champions."
Denver Republican, November 10th, 1887.
"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..."
Wyatt Earp as told to Stuart N. Lake, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal,
"Doc had but three
redeeming traits. One was his courage; he was afraid of nothing
on Earth. The second was the one commendable principal in his
code of life, sterling loyalty to friends. The third was his affection
for Wyatt Earp." Bat Masterson,
Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, copyright 1931, Stuart N. Lake.
What hasn't been said about
John Henry "Doc" Holliday? Depending on your point of view, whether
you see the man as unjustly maligned or just getting his comeuppance,
either too much or not enough. Was he good, bad or perhaps something
in between, something more human? Let's take a look and hopefully
along the way set the record just a bit straighter.
John Henry Holliday was born
in Griffin, Georgia to Henry Burroughs Holliday and Alice McKey
Holliday. Even Doc's best friend, Wyatt Earp, got Holliday's state
of birth wrong. In a eulogy written in 1896 Wyatt states, "He
was a Virginian, but preferred to be a frontiersman and a vagabond."
Holliday was born August
14th, 1851, not 1852 as was credited on an erroneous tombstone
which rested in the Linwood Cemetery, Glenwood Springs, Colorado
for many years. That stone was replaced on October 17th, 2004
by a monument more suited to the era in which Doc lived and died
and which, thankfully, corrects the error of his birth date.
John Henry was born with
a serious birth defect, a cleft palate. His mother, Alice, using
a spoon, an eye-dropper and a small cup fed her newly born child
who could not nurse due to the nature of his defect.
Doc's uncle, Doctor John
Stiles Holliday, operated on the infant and repaired the cleft
palate. In his honor the baby was named John with his father's
name, Henry, secondary.
In all probability, John
Henry retained a slight speech impediment due to the cleft palate.
Doc was the second child
born to Henry Burroughs Holliday and Alice McKey Holliday. His
only sibling, a sister named Martha Eleanora Holliday, was born
December 3rd, 1849 and died a scant six months later.
As mentioned, Doc's sister
died as an infant. Therefore any mention of Holliday leaving his
pistols to a nephew upon his death, a story repeated many times
in print, is totally erroneous.
Doc's mother, Alice McKey
Holliday, died of consumption when John Henry was 15 years old.
Sadly, in all likelihood he contracted the fatal disease from
Doc's father, Henry Burroughs Holliday, served
in the George Volunteer Infantry as assistant quartermaster of
the Twenty-seventh Regiment during the War Between the States,
attaining the rank of major.
Reports that a youthful John Henry killed anywhere
from one to six black children he caught frolicking in the family
swimming hole in Georgia is without merit. He did, however, shoot
over the boys' heads. Through the years this relatively minor
incident has been blown way out of proportion.
Sophie Walton, a young mulatto woman, a retainer
in the household of John Stiles Holliday, taught Doc how to play
cards. Among the games Sophie taught to John Henry and his cousins
was "Skinning," the original rules of which were adapted from
faro! It seems young John Henry was quite adept at this - a portent
of things to come?
Doc was a dentist, not a physician as portrayed
in more than one Hollywood film. Even John Ford, whose advisor
on the director's celluloid version of the Tombstone gunfight,
"My Darling Clementine" was none other than Stuart N. Lake, Wyatt
Earp's biographer, chose to ignore the facts. Ford's Doc Holliday
is a surgeon, from Boston no less, who dies at the end of the
Doc graduated from the Pennsylvania College
of Dental Surgery on March 1st, 1872, not the Baltimore College
of Dental Surgery, an error mistakenly repeated by many authors.
John H. Holliday's thesis was titled "Diseases of the Teeth."
Doc's cousin, Martha Anne "Mattie" Holliday,
who in later life joined the Order of the Sisters of Mercy to
become Sister Mary Melanie, was said to be the model for the saintly
Miss Melanie in "Gone With the Wind." This is certainly not as
far-fetched as it sounds. Philip Fitzgerald, the uncle-in-law
of Robert Kennedy Holliday (one of Doc's uncles) was the great-grandfather
of "Gone With the Wind" author Margaret Mitchell, but wait - it
gets better. Of the eight children born to Robert Kennedy Holliday
and his wife was one Martha Anne "Mattie" Holliday, Sister Mary
Doc, like most of his male Holliday cousins,
stood nearly 6 feet tall.
Doc was fair-haired, a platinum blond so said
Virgil's wife, Allie, upon meeting him for the first time, not
dark-haired as most surviving and probably doctored photos show.
Wyatt described him as "long, lean and ash blond."
Doc's weapon of choice early in his western
career was an 1851 Colt Navy revolver given him by his uncle,
one of four. The remaining three pistols were given by Uncle John
to his own sons. Later Doc carried a nickel-plated .41 caliber
Colt Thunderer or the .38 caliber Colt Lightening, both double
action pistols. Never was Holliday's weapon of choice a shotgun,
let alone the .10 gauge Meteor "whipit" (a double-barreled shotgun
cut down to a mere 20") with which he was often credited. He used
a shotgun at the Tombstone gunfight because Virgil handed it to
him. Being slightly built and not in robust health, the idea of
Holliday's weapon of choice being a shotgun with its wicked kick
is ludicrous. In Stuart Lake's Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, Wyatt
states, "Doc Holliday never carried a sawed-off shotgun into a
fight but once in his life and upon this one occasion (the Tombstone
gunfight) he threw the gun down in disgust after firing one shot
and jerked the nickel-plated Colt's which was for years his favorite
Doc was an award-winning dentist. Exhibits
John Henry prepared for dental school were entered at the Annual
Fair of the North Texas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Blood Stock
Association at the Dallas County Fair by Holliday and his dental
partner Doctor John A. Seegar. Holliday took all three awards
- "best set of teeth in gold," "the best in Vulcanized rubber"
and "the best set of artificial teeth and dental ware." The prizes,
a plate and five dollars for each display, were quite a tidy stipend
While on the trail of outlaw Dave Rudabaugh,
Wyatt Earp crossed Doc's path for the first time in Fort Griffin,
Texas in 1877. Upon visiting an old acquaintance of his, saloon
owner John Shanssey, Wyatt is introduced to Doc Holliday. The
rest, as they say, is history.
It is also in Fort Griffin that Doc meets the
only woman who will feature prominently in his life from that
point on, Mary Katherine Harony (or Haroney), aka Big Nose Kate,
aka Kate Fisher, aka Kate Elder, aka Kate Holliday. The couple
remains together, off and on, until Doc's death ten year later.
Doc did not engage in violent behavior against
his live-in love, Kate. This supposed truth was promulgated by
an author, he who shall not be named, whose works were published
under the guise of being non-fiction; it turns out this was a
hoax. However, much of this fiction lives on, unfortunately for
Big Nose Kate was well-educated and came from
a fine Hungarian family; her father was a physician. Doc must
have found her to be as pleasant a surprise in the often crude
surroundings he was forced to endure as she did him.
Although Kate stated on more than one occasion
that she and Doc were legally married, no license exists.
A photograph showing a heavy set, coarse-featured
woman with wavy hair is often ascribed to as being the likeness
of Big Nose Kate. It is not Kate Elder, but a prostitute known
as Nosey Kate.
Doc actively practiced dentistry in Dodge City
taking out this ad in the local newspaper. "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."
Doc was not the prolific killer myth has alleged.
Proof points to the fact he killed only one man for sure, Tom
McLaury at the Tombstone gunfight near the O.K. Corral. However,
by his own admission to Ike Clanton, whether the truth or just
a ploy to goad Ike to action, Doc also killed Newman Haynes "Old
Man" Clanton while a member of Wyatt Earp's federal posse in Guadalupe
Canyon in August of 1881 while in pursuit of cattle rustlers.
When confronted by Frank McLaury at the gunfight
Doc's reply to McLaury's challenge, "I've got you now," really
was "Blaze away! You're a daisy if you have!"
Doc was wounded by Frank McLaury. Years later
Wyatt gave this account of the matter. "Morgan wheeled around
and in doing so fell on his side. While in that position he caught
sight of Doc Holliday and Frank McLaury aiming at each other.
With a quick drop he shot McLaury in the head. At the same instant
McLaury's gun flashed and Doc Holliday was shot in the hip." Fortunately
for Doc, the wound is a superficial graze.
Doc spent two plus weeks in a Tombstone jail
in the company of Wyatt while both awaited a hearing pertaining
to the October 26th, 1881 gunfight. They, as well as Virgil and
Morgan Earp, were acquitted. According to the statement of presiding
Justice of the Peace, Wells Spicer," I cannot resist the conclusion
that the defendants were fully justified in committing these homicides,
that it is a necessary act done in the discharge of official duty."
Doc Holliday's last shootout occurred in Leadville,
Colorado on August 19th, 1884 when Doc shoots Billy Allen in Manny
Hyman's saloon, wounding Allen. Doc, having fallen on hard times,
had borrowed five dollars from Allen. Allen then threatened the
physically frail Holliday with a severe beating, at the very least,
if the fiver wasn't paid back by the 19th. Due to corroborating
witnesses and Doc's own impassioned plea, "I knew that I would
be as a child in his hands if he got hold of me; I weight 122
pounds; I think Allen weights 170. I have had pneumonia three
or four times; I don't think I was able to protect myself against
him," the final verdict was "not guilty."
Doc arrived in Glenwood Springs, Colorado via
stagecoach in May of 1887, not by train as is often alleged. The
Denver and Rio Grande pulled into Glenwood Springs for the first
time on October 5th, 1887.
On November 8th, 1887, John Henry "Doc" Holliday,
D.D.S. died in The Hotel Glenwood, in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
He did not die in a sanitarium. Doc was just barely into his 36th
year, but lived an amazing 14 years after being diagnosed with
consumption. For a man who many claimed had a "death wish," Doc's
ability to cling to life with a tenacity second to none puts those
claimants to shame.
Among the many books available to those interested
in reading more about John Henry "Doc" Holliday, these are three
of the best.
The Illustrated Life and Times of Doc Holliday
by Bob Boze Bell is a witty, slightly irreverent chronology of
John Henry Holliday's life from birth to death and beyond. Illustrated
beautifully throughout with BBB's original artwork, this book
also boasts excellent photographs, maps and sketches. Sprinkled
among the pages are a host of highly entertaining topics such
as "There's Nothing New Under the Sun," "How to Play Doc's Favorite
Game" and "Was Doc Holliday a Lousy Shot?" Although, at first
glance, The Illustrated Life and Times of Doc Holliday might appear
as eye candy, (which it most assuredly is with its wonderfully
colorful Bell illustrations) it also contains a wealth of well-researched,
accurate information in an easy to follow format. For the Doc
Holliday buff or just the casual reader of history, this book
is definitely a "daisy!" Pick one up today!
Doc Holliday, A Family Portrait by Karen Holliday
Tanner is an in depth look at John Henry Holliday as seen through
the eyes of his family, past and present. Packed with information
and rare photographs, A Family Portrait manages to entertain as
well as inform. Especially interesting is the section on Holliday
genealogy. A Family Portrait is a must have addition to any "Doc"
John Henry (The "Doc" Holliday Story) by Tombstone
historian, Ben T. Traywick is chockfull of facts all backed up
by extensive research and illustrated with copies of rare original
letters, documents and photographs. Traywick smashes through the
lies and misconceptions to present an honest straightforward look
into John Henry Holliday, the man behind the legend. Do yourself
a favor - make John Henry (The "Doc" Holliday Story) the cornerstone
of your history collection.