Here’s a blog post a little out of the ordinary for me. Just some things I’ve been thinking about and I find interesting. I’m not a historian of the old west nor do I claim to have all of the questions on this topic figured out, I’m still learning. I don’t have an outline on paper or anything like that, just stream of consciousness here… I wanted to get my thoughts down on this topic after noticing some inconsistencies in Hollywood, so here you go…
I have a love of the people and the culture of the late 1800’s in the United States, and especially in and around Texas. The era of cowboys and pioneers making their way west and still settling the country after the Civil War.
One of the most notable characters of the “old west” is John Henry Holliday, known later in his life as “Doc” Holliday. He was called Doc because he earned a degree in dental surgery and practiced dentistry before his health forced him to seek out a new means of employment.
Doc was born with a cleft palate and had a speech impediment. As a result, his mother doted on him and he grew up the typical “momma’s boy” in a southern aristocratic family around the Atlanta, Georgia area. He did not have a lot of friends outside of his own extended family. He was the son of a Confederate soldier and a presbyterian in a family of some notable Mormon pioneers.
When John Henry was just a young teenager tragedy would strike and define him even further. His mother took ill with what was called “consumption” in the 1800’s and today is known as Tuberculosis. By all accounts, John stayed by her side caring for her through this terrible illness which consumes its victims from the inside out. When he was just 15 years old his mother was dead, and his father remarried quickly.
For a boy to lose his mother at that age is tough. For a boy like John Henry, it was devastating. This combined with the general malaise and search for identity in the South after the Civil War and this was a recipe for disaster in a young man’s life. Family members were concerned for the direction John Henry might be going. Perhaps they felt sorry for him or just didn’t want to see his life wasted. Whatever the reason, some relatives came together to fund John going to Philadelphia to receive his Doctor of Dental Surgery. He excelled and actually completed his course of study 5 months before his 21st birthday, the minimum age requirement for graduation, so the school held his degree until his birthday. He moved to St. Louis for a few months to work under another dentist, and then moved back home to Atlanta and joined a practice close to home.
He seemed to be both advancing and struggling at the same time. There’s a reported incident where a group, including Holliday, went down to a swimming hole which they found occupied. As the story goes, John shot either a pistol or a shotgun in the air and it scared the boys away. Other accounts add a racial element with a son of a Confederate Soldier harassing black youths, and some even say he killed them, but these accounts seem to be dubious. Even in the south in 1873 it was a crime of note to shoot someone.
John Henry got some very bad news, he too had become infected with Tuberculosis, the very disease that had taken his beloved mother. Still, Holiday continued to excel at dentistry. He moved to Dallas, Texas where it was hoped the dryer climate could extend his 6 month prognosis by a couple of years. He joined a dental firm and they won several awards including “best set of teeth in gold”, “best in vulcanized rubber”, and “best set of artificial teeth and dental ware.” This young man with a troubled past seemed to have found a path where he could make his way in an honorable life, short-lived though it might be.
He eventually started his own practice and was doing quite well for himself, however as his symptoms of “consumption” increased, his number of customers steadily declined. People were probably not very excited about the prospect of someone with a highly contagious terminal illness poking around in their mouth. In order to pass his increasing number of free hours, he took to playing cards and gambling. Sometimes this was an illegal activity and caused him to run afoul of the law. He was the proverbial man with nothing to lose, and his penchant towards reason and an analytical mind drew him to poker, a game that still involved luck, but also the ability to read people, run percentages, and conceal your thoughts from others. After an altercation involving gunplay, but no fatalities, he moved his practice to Denison (a Dallas suburb) and continued to play cards. He was a natural. Soon, he was making more money at the poker table than as a dentist, so he closed his practice, never to pull another tooth again.
He began to travel on the “gambler’s circuit” which followed gold and silver mining, cattle drives, and the activities of the US Army. He spent some time in Indian territory where he learned how to use a knife in a fight, went to Denver, Cheyenne, Deadwood, and even Kansas, where John had an Aunt. While in Ft. Griffin he met a “woman of ill repute” named Katharine Horony with whom he would have an on-again off-again relationship for a few years. She went by the name “Big Nose Kate,” not because she had a large nose, but because she had a habit of sticking her “nose” into other people’s business that wasn’t her own.
Kate was a bit of an enigma to be associated with John. He was a gentleman and gave a care for honor and reputation, whereas Kate tended to live on the wild side. In many ways they were polar opposites, and yet, they revolved in the same world, both lonely and searching for a place to belong. Eventually he and Kate would have a falling out, over what nobody knows, but while they were together they made a volatile pair. There are stories of John’s love of a first cousin back in Georgia, but Kate is the only woman he ever had a relationship with.
In this fast-paced and dangerous life, John had to become adept with pistols as well as cards. A gambler had to maintain a good reputation and no professional card player could afford to allow an accusation of underhandedness to go unanswered. This put the dentist in the position of engaging in more than a few gunfights. This is where the legend of Doc Holliday was made. In reality, almost everything we know about him comes from his own stories or his best friend Wyatt Earp, who also had a flair for the dramatic. It was advantageous for Doc to have a reputation as the deadliest gun on the gambling circuit, fewer people would be likely to draw on him… though it also drew others trying to make a name for themselves to cause trouble as well.
Doc embraced his persona. Rather than the usual drab and dark clothing, he would wear light colored suits and bright colored silk shirts, as if compensating for the general ora of death and darkness that usually surrounded someone with his type of affliction. This is one area where, though capturing Doc’s general attitude better than most (and my personal favorite), Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc Holliday in Tombstone is not entirely accurate.
As the son of a soldier and a southern gentleman, John grew up knowing how to shoot, but the degree of precision that Doc demonstrated in every area of his life, and that his new profession required for any kind of longevity, brought his skills with a pistol to a new level. Doc would practice over and over with his revolvers so that he knew not only could he draw relatively fast, important enough in a gun fight, but that he could hit what he was aiming at just about every time, which is far more determinative in a real life gunfight. Many times Doc was taken to court and acquitted because the other man fired first, sometimes multiple times before being gunned down by Holliday. Tombstone got the guns right, but how he used them wrong in their onscreen homage to the infamous gunslinger. Like most gunmen, Doc carried a Cold Peacemaker which Col. Sam Colt introduced to the market in 1873. His gun was a nickel plated .45 Caliber pistol with a 4 3/4” barrel and a yellowed ivory grip. He wore it, unlike as depicted by Val Kilmer, in a traditional righthand draw holster. Additionally, through his gunsmith, he was able to get an early to market edition the model 1877, Colt’s first double action revolver. Another infamous personality who carried a model 1877 Colt was Henry McCarty a.k.a. William H. Bonney, or “Billy The Kid.” This pistol would become known as the “Lightening” when chambered in .38 caliber (it was called “Thunder” in .41 caliber and “Rainmaker” in .32 caliber. Though, it was only available in Nickel plating in .38 and .41). He wore his Colt “Lightening” in a shoulder holster which he could draw, also with his right hand, while seated from under his jacket. Doc was already more adept than most with his single action revolver, but this new technology gave him a decided advantage in gunfights. He did not have to cock the hammer back in order to fire multiple shots. Simply squeeze the trigger and the double action revolver cocks and fires in one smooth movement.
Doc trailed all around and got into many gunfights where many opponents ended up dead. He spent some time in jail and was run out of more towns than can be counted, or he left before anything too bad happened, but he always seemed to land on his feet. He went down to Mexico for a time, fought in the Royal Gorge War, was accused (by Kate) of a stagecoach robbery, and he even owned his own saloon for a time.
Another area where Hollywood has bent the truth in the service of a better story is that Doc did not simply happen to be in Tombstone at the same time when the Earps came into town and were begrudgingly drug into the law enforcement profession. In reality, the Earp brothers, Vergil, Morgan, and Wyatt had a plan. Tombstone was a mining camp that exploded with one of the biggest silver finds in history. The tiny town was booming so much the local government couldn’t keep up. The Earp brothers had made a name for themselves as particularly tough and effective lawmen. With the boom in population Tombstone brought to the area a new county was being divided out and as the result of some political connections they were setting themselves up to be all the city, county, and regional law in that area. They were planning to use their influence to make it rich, as lawmen. As a testament to Wyatt’s relationship to Doc, John was at the meeting where they planned this takeover and John Holliday was invited to be an equal partner as one of the Earp brothers. They were in Tombstone to take it over and make their mark. Doc was honored.
Doc had met Wyatt during his days as a lawman in Dodge City. Doc had given some information to Wyatt in the pursuit of some wanted men and they formed a friendship as a result. Wyatt could see past the “gunslinging gambler” persona to a man of honor, even if it was his own code of right and wrong that John adhered to. Wyatt too was a man who lived by a code of justice that was more a reflection of his own convictions than any external law. This was something the movie Tombstone got right, they were like brothers, no one really understood it, but no one dare speak against either with the other present.
Their time in Tombstone didn’t go exactly as they had planned. Wyatt did not win any of his bids for Sheriff, mostly due to the influence of a rival lawman family, the Clantons. Ike Clanton wasn’t quite the bumbling fool who just happened to be a member of the outlaw group “The Cowboys,” it was more of a political story than that. Suffice to say, this rivalry lead to the eruption of what became known as the gunfight at the O.K. Corral depicted in many movies and television shows. It was not something the Earps wanted, but when pressed into it, the only two men left standing after the bullets stopped flying were Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. In retaliation the Clantons shot the eldest Earp brother, Virgil, with a shotgun and murdered the youngest Earp, Virgil, by shooting him in the back while he was playing billiards. Wyatt was able to finagle a US Marshal’s badge through his past connections as a lawman, and (as the movie called it) the “last charge of Wyatt Earp and his immortals” commenced.
Wyatt Earp ended up in Los Angeles, California regaling people with his stories of adventure as a tough no-nonsense lawman who became a legend. Earp’s stories included his best friend, John. After the business with the Clantons was finished, Doc was fairly well spent. He and Earp had a parting of the ways after, apparently, Holliday made a racial slur which Wyatt took as directed at Josephine Marcus. Doc spent the last 5 years of his life in a sanitarium in Colorado and Wyatt never went to visit him there. However, Wyatt did effectively stop an extradition request for Holliday to face trial for his part in the death of Frank Stilwell.
Doc died in his bed without his boots on, something he found amusing for someone in his line of work. His bedside attendant, who would play cards with him daily, says John looked to the end of his bed, wiggled his toes under the covers, and quietly said “now this is funny.” Soon after, he passed away as a result of his illness.
“I found him a loyal friend and good company. 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; a long lean blond fellow nearly dead with consumption and at the same time the most skillful gambler and nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever knew.” -Wyatt Earp
We’ll never know the full and true story of Doc Holliday. There’s just too much legend and sensationalism built into it, but he certainly was an enigmatic and fascinating character in American history.