Wyat Earp on ‘Doc’ Holliday:
“The nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun that I ever knew.”
‘Doc’ (when asked whether his conscience troubled him):
“I coughed that up with my lungs, years ago…”
John Henry ‘Doc’ Holliday, born in Griffin Georgia today in 1851, died in Glenwood, Colorado on November 8, 1887 is one of the legends of the Old West. His travels through the Wild West are often retold as a rollicking tale of hard drinking, gunfights and gambling, riding from town to town in search of his next drink and his next game of poker. He’s portrayed as a gentleman, gambler and gunslinger (not necessarily in that order) and his mythical skill and speed with a pistol was, as far as we can reliably verify, really was a myth. He was a ruthless gunman, granted, and he certainly killed more than once. But he wasn’t any deadlier than many others and killed far fewer than many others. The famed ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’ and the later shoot-out at Iron Springs were particularly notable events in, by Wild West standards, a relatively quiet career as a shootist when compared to the likes of John Wesley Hardin, Dallas Stoudenmire and Ben Thompson.
But people do love their myths (especially when the reality is less exciting) and, to a professional gambler and gunfighter, being feared was as important as their speed and accuracy with a gun. People who feared you were less likely to challenge you. The fewer people challenged you, the less likely you were to be killed. Not for nothing did an estimated 20,000 men die of gunshot wounds during the Wild West era. Nor is a lack of truth in the fact that any gunfighter who saw their 30th birthday was doing well when few celebrated their 25th. The Wild West was wild, it was violent, crime was rife and law enforcement barely existed. It a perfect environment for gamblers and gunmen to ply their trades and many did so.
‘Doc’, however, wasn’t your stereotypical bourbon-swilling, semi-literate, cheroot-smoking, Neanderthal whose idea of a good night out consisted of a bottle of whiskey, a big win at poker, a bar-room brawl, a prostitute and then, just to cap off a thoroughly civilised night on the town, blasting some stranger between the eyes over some small slight. He was an educated man from a distinguished Georgia family, a professional man (he’d been a dentist until his tuberculosis lost him too many patients), generally not the type you might expect to ride from town to town, indulging in gambling, boozing, brawling and occasionally killing somebody when he felt a need.
But two things turned him to life’s darker side. His mother and step-brother both died of tuberculosis when he was a young man and ‘Doc’ soon developed it as well. At the time, what people called ‘consumption’ was a virtual death sentence. Its suffers, charmingly referred to by their fellow Americans as ‘lungers’, were already doomed to an early grave and they knew it. ‘Doc’ certainly did, commenting when asked about his violent life that he’d far rather die by the gun or the knife than from his disease. His increasing ill-health caused him to leave Georgia for the South West where he thought the hot, dry climate might add a few extra years to his life. His choice would cost a few people the rest of theirs.
His other problem was his own personality. Like many people addicted to drugs and/or alcohol (in his case the booze and laudanum he took daily to limit the pain of his illness) ‘Doc’ had a split personality. Even his closest friends described him as a lovely man when sober, but when drunk and stoned (which became increasingly often as his disease took hold) he was very definitely a man to be kept well away from. Then his dark said took over and he’d start trying to provoke totally unnecessary gunfights and knife fights, create trouble where there hadn’t been any and needn’t be if he’d kept his mouth shut and his temper under control. It was the kind of behaviour that made those around him think he actually wanted to die, preferably quickly. Many addicts have a split personality, it’s just that few happen to carry at least two pistols, a couple of knives and a shotgun on a daily basis. ‘Doc’ did, and wasn’t afraid to use them.
His first known gunfight was in 1873 along the Withlacoochee River in a disagreement with some black youths over a bathing spot. His family denied he killed anybody, but two accounts state clearly that he killed one or two men that day. In September, 1873 he moved to Dallas and began gambling when his tuberculosis scared away his remaining dental patients. If he couldn’t pull teeth any more then he could still play cards and gambling became his sole means of support. May, 1874 saw him indicted for illegal gambling and in January, 1875 he was indicted for a gunfight with saloon keeper Charles Austin. Neither was injured and, after being convicted and fined on the gambling indictment, left Texas for Colorado. In Denver he was said to have badly mutilated a local tough named Bud Ryan with a knife, although no records exist confirming either the fight or that Ryan actually existed.
In February, 1876 ‘Doc’ turned up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, following stories of gold having been found there. He worked as a card dealer at the Bella Union Saloon. When the Bella Union’s owner moved his saloon to the notorious town of Deadwood, South Dakota ‘Doc’ moved with him before returning to Cheyenne in in 1877. After Cheyenne it was Denver, then Kansas, then Texas. More trouble beckoned in the Texan town of Breckenridge on July 4, where he severely beat gambler Henry Kahn in a dispute over a hand of poker. Kahn, not having taken kindly to being beaten severely with a walking cane, shot ‘Doc’ and seriously wounded him. He moved on to Fort Griffin, Texas where he met two people who were lasting figures in his rootless and violent life, they were his prostitute paramour ‘Big Nose Kate’ Horony and a certain Wyatt Earp.
In the summer of 1878 ‘Doc’ and Wyatt cemented their friendship after ‘Doc’ involved himself in one of Wyatt’s dust-ups. Wyatt was serving as an assistant town Marshal in the notorious Dodge City. Heavily outnumbered, Wyatt later credited ‘Doc’ with saving his life by freely standing with Wyatt and threatening to kill anybody who attacked him. Having moved on to Jacksonboro, ‘Doc’ found himself making another hasty departure after killing a soldier in a dispute over a woman. By now he was an established gunfighter, widely respected and often feared.
It was July 19, 1879 when he notched his gun again. killing Army scout Mike Gordon in Las Vegas, New Mexico. After yet another gunfight, during which he wounded bartender Charles White he departed again. Thinking White was dead and fearing a date with the hangman, ‘Doc’ took up an invitation from an old friend to a new town in Arizona. The town in question being Tombstone…
Of course, we all know what happened in Tombstone. On October 26, 1881 there was the infamous ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral.’ The dispute between the Earp brother (Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan) and a loosely-formed bunch of semi-professional outlaws known as the ‘Cowboys’ had been brewing for months and the OK Corral was a result. Holliday was credited with killing two of the three men who died, brothers Tom and Frank McLaury and also with wounding Billy Clanton. But the feud between the Earps and the Cowboys wasn’t over. Morgan was murdered and Virgil permanently maimed. Wyatt, assisted by ‘Doc’ and several others, embarked in March, 1882 on his famous ‘Vendetta Ride.’ During that ride the group found three Cowboys implicated in Virgil Earp’s shooting and Morgan’s murder. Frank Stilwell was shot dead at Tucson Railroad Station on March 20, 1882. Florentino Cruz (AKA ‘Indian Charlie’) was suspected of being the look-out when Virgil Earp was crippled. Wyatt’s men found him at a logging camp and shot him dead.
On March 23, 1882 came another career highlight for ‘Doc.’ It was the gunfight at Iron Springs. ‘Doc’ provided covering fire while Wyatt first killed notorious outlaw ‘Curly Bill’ Brocius with a shotgun, mortally wounded Johnny Barnes and seriously wounded Milt Hicks. But for ‘Doc’ time was running out. His tuberculosis, not helped by years of whiskey, laudanum, 36-hour poker marathons and a fair few gunfights, was failing fast. Under indictment in Arizona for the Stilwell shooting, he fled to Colorado.
With his health failing fast it was on May 15, 1882 that he was arrested in Denver on the Arixona warrant. One of Wyatt’s best-known allies, ‘Bat’ Masterson, happened to be police chief of Trinidad, Colorado at the time and used his influence to see ‘Doc’ safely out of the hands of the Arizona authorities. ‘Doc’ did briefly meet Wyatt one last time in Gunnison, Colorado before moving again, this time to Glenwood Springs. He would never leave. On July 14, 1882 he was under suspicion for murdering Cowboy member ‘Johnny Ringo’ whose body had been found in West Turkey Creek Canyon, Arizona. ‘Doc’ and Wyatt, both not members of the ‘Johnny Ringo’ fan club, were suspected, but both had solid alibis and the evidence suggest Ringo probably killed himself although outlaw ‘Buckskin’ Frank Leslie did claim to have killed him.
‘Doc’ spent the rest of his life in Colorado. His tuberculosis was steadily worsening, as were his addictions to alcohol and laudanum. It was only a matter of time. His last hoorah (if you can call it that) came in the rather appropriately-named town of Leadville in 1887. A local bully and novice gunslinger, one Billy Allen, possibly looking to make a name for himself, saw the fast-ailing Holliday as an easy target. It was Allen who proved easier. ‘Doc’ put bullets into his arm and elbw, but didn’t kill him.
In late-1887 he moved to the last of his many temporary homes. He checked into the Hotel Glenwood in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. At 10am on November 8, 1887 he finally died of tuberculosis. He was only 36 years old. According to one of the nurses attending him during his last days he’s said to have lain in his bed, looked down and seemed surprised to be dying with his boots off. Looking at his stockinged feet he was said to have uttered his final words:
“Damn, this is funny.”
His actual gravesite is unconfirmed. Many believe him to have been buried somewhere in Linwood Cemetery near Glenwood Springs. Some believe he was secretly exhumed and his body lies near his childhood home of Griffin, Georgia. ‘Doc’ himself, whose deadly reputation seems to have seriously blurred the line between fact and fiction, would probably have been greatly amused by that.
If you’re interested in a more general account of the myths and falsehoods about gunfighters that have rooted themselves so firmly in modern history and pop culture, then do take a look at the History Is Now website. They’ve got a little of everything and as a new magazine they’re fast building a name for themselves;