RSS Feed

A Bit about Doc Holliday


December 18, 2021 by Pamela Nowak

Though Doc Holliday does not have a lead role in NECESSARY DECEPTIONS, he does appear as a secondary character. Doc and Wyatt Earp were friends but history is unclear whether they were as close as legend portrays. Most sources agree that his support during a bar incident may have saved Wyatt’s life. It’s also a known fact that Doc did not care for Josepine Marcus and that Doc and Wyatt had at least one argument about her. In my story, I chose to follow those threads.

Doc was born as John Henry Holliday in 1851 in Griffin, Georgia. Sources indicate he was born with a cleft palette and underwent corrective surgery, his mother helping him overcome associated speech problems. By all accounts, John was very close to his mother and tended her during as she died. Both his mother and his adopted brother died of tuberculosis, the same disease that would kill Doc. He received a classical education and pursued the study of dentistry in Philadelphia, graduating a few months before his 21st birthday (1872). After briefly serving as a dental assistant in St. Louis, Holliday returned to Georgia to set up his dental practice and was diagnosed with tuberculosis shortly thereafter, likely having acquired the disease as a teen while tending his dying mother.

There are rumors that he was involved in a shooting there in 1873 resulting from a dispute at a swimming hole. Family lore claims Doc and friends argued with black Union soldiers who were occupying the region and that Doc fired a warning shot over their heads to scare them off from the area; Bat Masterson claimed Doc killed to of the soldiers with a shotgun but there is no supporting evidence that occurred.

Doc Holliday had seen what tuberculosis could do to a person and he left Georgia for the drier areas of the West not long after his diagnosis was made in the hope that a climate change would delay the inevitable death sentence that came with TB at that time. He relocated to Dallas and partnered with Dr. John Seegar in a dental practice there. The two won several awards for their work in artificial teeth (dentures). The practice was dissolved in 1874.

Dentistry was a difficult career for a man with tuberculosis, the coughing spells appearing without warning, often while during work. He opened a practice in Denison for a short time. Doc discovered skills in gambling and soon began to rely on it as his main source of income. He was arrested with several others in Dallas for illegal gambling and for a shooting incident. Shortly thereafter, he left the state and settled in Denver in 1875.

Sources differ about Doc’s life over the next years. Some sources say Doc operated as a faro dealer on Blake Street in Denver under the name Tom Mackey; got in a knife fight, and wounded a gambler named Bud Ryan. There are reports he spent time in Cheyenne, Wyoming and in Deadwood, South Dakota before stints in Kansas and Texas. Most accounts include tales of gambling and fighting and Doc was said to have a nasty temper. In Breakenridge, Texas, he had a disagreement with gambler Henry Kahn and, after both were arrested and released, Kahn shot and wounded Holliday. After recovering, Doc relocated once again to Fort Griffin, Texas.

While in Fort Griffin, Doc spent time as a dealer at John Shanssey’s saloon and there he met Big Nose Kate, with whom he would associate on and off for many years. Kate was, at the time, working with a dancing troupe said to be a front for prostitution. She and Doc apparently cared for one another but both had fiery tempers and their relationship was a stormy one. This is also where Doc met Wyatt Earp, who traveled to Fort Griffin in pursuit of Dave Rudabough, accused of robbing the Santa Fe Railroad company.

Doc Holliday and Big Nose Kate moved to Dodge City in 1878. Wyatt and Mattie Earp lived there, Wyatt serving as Assistant City Marshall. Wyatt and Mattie were already familiar with Kate, who had worked with Mattie and Bessie Earp in Wichita. Doc and Wyatt were acquainted from Wyatt’s visit to Fort Griffin. While in Dodge City, Holliday opened a dental practice and he and Kate lived together as Mr. and Mrs. John H. Holliday at a local boarding house.

During Doc’s time in Dodge City, the Earps and Hollidays saw each other socially along with the Mastersons. When Wyatt had a confrontation with local cowboys, he found himself outgunned and was assisted by Doc pulling a weapon (some sources say two weapons) and forced the others to disarm. There are no official accounts of the events and sources differ on exact details but Earp thereafter always credited Holliday with saving his life. This is said to be the cement that held their friendship together.

In late 1878, Doc Holliday and Big Nose Kate settled in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Las Vegas was a well-known gambling town and it is said Doc was still seeking a climate where his tuberculosis would be less severe.  The many local hot springs may have been a draw. Doc opened a dental practice there and gambled. Kate is said to have continued to practice as a prostitute.  Some reports claim Holliday teamed up briefly with Bat Masterson to help control guerilla warfare between rival railroads vying for the route across the Royal Gorge in Colorado during this time. In 1879, Holliday opened a saloon in Las Vagas. During his time there, he was fined several times for running illegal gambling operations and carrying a deadly weapon.

In the fall of 1879, the Earps passed through Las Vegas and spent time with Doc and Kate. They traveled together to Prescott, Arizona, where Virgil and Allie Earp lived. In December, the Earp clan moved south to Tombstone. Doc and Kate remained in Prescott but joined the others in Tombstone about six months later.

Doc Holliday’s time in Tombstone was wrapped up in the events surrounding Wyatt Earp. The entire group was soon involved in local politics with Wyatt trying to gain the office of sheriff of the new county.  Earp’s political rival, Johnny Behan, was tied up with the local outlaw group known as the Cowboys, gaining political support from their behind-the-scenes activities. During the next year, rumors would fly that Holliday was involved in a stage robbery and shooting while Earp claimed the Cowboys were to blame. Big Nose Kate had just had a violent argument with Doc and, while drunk, had implicated Doc (she would later say she hadn’t understood what she was signing). Doc was released when his alibi checked out but fights and rumors continued.

By October 1881, the feud involving the Cowboys and the Earps had grown and five members of the gang were armed illegally inside town limits with Ike Clanton threatening to kill Wyatt. Pressured by town officials, Virgil Earp deputized his brothers and Doc Holliday and set out to disarm the Cowboys. The two groups drew on each other at the OK Corral. Witnesses would never agree on who fired first but by the end of the shoot-out, three Cowboy were dead and two of the Earps injured.

Following the shootout at the OK Corral, the Cowboys vowed to kill the Earps. Virgil was shot in December; Morgan killed in March and another attempt made on Virgil’s life shortly thereafter. Doc, the remaining Earps and their friends killed Frank Stilwell, then pursued the remaining Cowboys in what is now known as the Vendetta Ride. Doc Holliday remained with Wyatt violently killing three more Cowboys before they fled into New Mexico Territory to avoid arrest.

Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp spent time briefly in Albuquerque while fleeing events in Arizona. While in Albuquerque, the two argued about Josephine Marcus, Wyatt’s mistress at the time. They parted company and Doc continued to Pueblo, Colorado with Dan Tipton in April 1882.  Holliday was arrested in Denver in May on the Tucson warrant for Stillwell’s murder. Bat Masterson, chief of police in Trinidad demanded Holliday stand trial for gambling charges in Trinidad before being returned to Arizona.  Due to that Colorado warrant, Doc was not extradited and was released on bond. Doc moved on to Gunnison and met with Wyatt at the Windsor Hotel. Josephine Marcus described Doc as skeletal, continuously coughing, and unsteady.

There are rumors that Doc and Wyatt were involved with the suicide of Cowboy Johnny Ringo in Arizona a few months later but no proof has ever surfaced for that. According to court records, Doc was in Pueblo around that time and was seen in Salida, Colorado.

Doc’s last known confrontation was in Leadville, Colorado in 1884, when he was involved in an argument about a debt owed to bartender Billy Allen. Holliday was arrested for shooting Allen but claimed self-defense; he was acquitted. Increasingly reliant on alcohol and laudanum to ease the pain of his worsening tuberculosis and no longer able to support himself through gambling, he moved to Glenwood Springs, Colorado to be near the local hot springs. He died at the Hotel Glenwood on November 8, 1887 at the age of 36. Kate was said to have been with him in his final days. Wyatt Earp learned about his death two months later. Holliday was buried in Linwood Cemetery. His body was later moved to Griffin, Georgia, his home town.

Tales of gunfights followed Doc although factual support for any of them is thin. He did have a reputation for being good with a gun and was known for his temper so it is likely that there were a large number of fights. Whether he actually killed a large number of men is unknown. Like Earp, legend magnified Doc Holliday over the years.

Most historians agree that he was confrontational and that it was his gun that likely killed Tom McLaury at the OK Corral. He was reportedly arrested 17 times. However, Wyatt Earp and other contemporaries called him even tempered and calm with southern gentility. He was said to have had a caustic wit, was a skilled gambler, and deadly with a gun. Virgil Earp described him as gentlemanly and friendly but not a many with friends. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.

Share Button


Leave a Reply