A dentist turned callous gambler, American gunslinger Doc Holliday (1851–1887) remains one of the most illustrious figures of the Wild West. In 1881, Holliday joined famed lawmen and brothers Wyatt and Virgil Earp in the legendary shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, forever cementing his place in the history and folklore of the American West.
Doc Holliday was born John Henry Holliday on August 14, 1851, in Griffin, Georgia, to parents Henry Burroughs Holliday and Alice Jane (McKey) Holliday. According to some historians, Holliday was born with a cleft palate, an opening between the roof of his mouth and nose that made suckling and speaking difficult. While Gary L. Roberts questioned this assertion in Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend by noting that cleft-palate surgery was undeveloped at the time of Holliday's birth, he granted that “the possibility … must be considered because of the potential impact on both his physical and social development.” Karen Holliday Tanner, a distant relative of the famed gunfighter, wrote in Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait that an uncle, Dr. John Stiles Holliday, performed corrective surgery on the infant boy with the help of a doctor friend and Holliday's mother provided the intensive speech therapy that helped him overcome any speech impediment. According to Tanner, Alice Jane's “overprotection resulted in an abnormal bonding that turned John Henry into a shy, retiring child.”
Holliday grew up in Griffin, Georgia, where his father worked as a druggist. Henry Holliday also speculated in land and fought on the side of the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War. In 1864, the family moved to Bemiss, Georgia, to avoid the path of the Union Army, but Holliday's mother soon became ill with tuberculosis. She died in 1866, and within a few months, the widowed Henry was married to his neighbor's teenaged daughter. This infuriated the 15-year-old John, who considered his father's nuptials disrespectful to his mother's memory.
In the fall of 1870, Holliday entered the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery. After graduating in March of 1872, he settled in St. Louis, where he opened a dental practice with a classmate. In St. Louis, Holliday frequented the local saloons and began a relationship with a Hungarian immigrant named Kate Fisher. A dancer and prostitute, Fisher's real name was Mary Katharine Harony, although she also went by Kate Elder and was nicknamed “Big Nose Kate.” Fisher would become Holliday's on-again-off-again mistress for the duration of his life.
Beginning this cycle within a few months, Holliday ditched Fisher and moved to Atlanta. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis (TB), which he may have caught from his mother. Tuberculosis causes inflammation in the lungs, and during this time, people contracting the disease survived on average 15 to 25 years after being diagnosed. Doctors advised TB patients to move west, where a drier climate might alleviate some symptoms. Perhaps following a doctor's advice, Holliday arrived in Dallas, Texas, in September of 1973. Historians have speculated that the man's knowledge regarding his shortened life expectancy may have increased his indifference to danger and death.
In Dallas, Holliday characteristically gravitated toward the nightlife, visiting local saloons to drink whiskey and gamble. He enjoyed playing faro, monte, and five-card draw and was soon spending more time gambling than working as a dentist. Given the circumstances—Holliday was inclined to be moody and had a constant cough due to TB—the cards were stacked against him in pursuing a career as a dentist. In the end, he turned to gambling to pay the bills.
Holliday's name reached the court docket for the first time in April 1874, when he was arrested in Texas for running a keno game, and after being indicted on gambling charges, he was fined $10. Several months later, Dallas authorities arrested him for firing his handgun at an armed saloon keeper on New Year's Eve. Charged with assault with intent to murder, Holliday was later acquitted of all charges. For the next few years, he drifted around Texas, visiting Fort Griffin and Jacksboro, and then traveled to Dodge City, Kansas, and Denver, Colorado, where he used the alias Tom Mackey.
By the 1870s, Holliday had a solid reputation as a hottempered gunslinger. As reported by Roberts, a fellow gambler described the man as follows: “This fellow Holliday was a consumptive and a hard drinker …. He could at times be the most genteel, affable chap you ever saw, and at other times he was sour and surly, and would just as soon cut your throat with a villainous looking knife he always carried, or shoot you with a .41-calibre doublebarreled derringer he always kept in his vest pocket.”
In the late 1870s, Holliday arrived in Dodge City with his mistress, Kate, in tow. The streets of Dodge City teemed with cowboys passing through while driving cattle north from Texas, and these cowboys were eager to drink and gamble. Around this time, Holliday became friends with Wyatt Earp, who was serving as the city's assistant marshal. Some accounts suggest that Holliday and Earp first met months earlier while gambling in Fort Griffin.
While Holliday's quick temper would later be problematic for Earp, his skill as a gunslinger now saved the marshal's life. In Roberts's version of events, Earp was trying to restore order in Dodge City when a pack of ne'er-do-well cowboys surrounded him. Holliday watched things play out from inside a nearby saloon and then rushed onto the street, pointing his guns at the ruffians and ordering hands up. “This rather startled them and averted their attention,” Earp later recalled to an interviewer, as quoted by Roberts. “In an instant I had drawn my gun, and the arrest of the crowd followed …. It was because of this episode that I became the friend of Doc Holliday ever after.”
Unfortunately, Holliday was not always positioned on the right side of the law. In July 1879, he killed a man in Las Vegas, where he then ran a saloon. His victim was a former U.S. Army scout named Mike Gordon, who became drunk and started harassing the women in Holliday's establishment. After being rebuffed, Gordon fired several shots inside the saloon and then left the building unscathed. Although he was subsequently found shot dead, his death was ruled an excusable homicide and no charges were filed nor suspect sought. Years later, Ford County Sheriff Bat Masterson recalled the event and explained that an angry Gordon returned to Holliday's saloon that night, stood on the sidewalk and fired a shot inside, just missing the proprietor. Holliday confronted Gordon at the door, whereupon the two men quarreled, and Holliday shot Gordon dead.
In 1880, joined by Kate, Holliday relocated to the mining boomtown of Tombstone, which was located in Cochise County, Arizona Territory, near the U.S.-Mexico border. The Earp brothers now lived in Tombstone, Virgil serving as a deputy U.S. marshal and helping Wyatt to earn an appointment as an assistant lawman. Another brother, Morgan Earp, worked as a guard for Wells Fargo and eldest sibling James Earp was employed at a local saloon.
Lawlessness and corruption reigned in Tombstone, and the brothers struggled to maintain order. Tensions ran high between the Earp brothers and a group of locals calling themselves the “Cowboys” as both factions fought for control of the town. The Cowboys were thieves and cattle rustlers who also worked as legitimate ranchers and landowners. Their numbers included brothers Ike and Billy Clanton and Tom and Frank McLaury, and they were allied with Cochise County Sheriff Johnny Behan.
In October 1880, Holliday quarreled with a gambler while inside a saloon owned by one Milt Joyce. Joyce defused the situation by confiscating Holliday's gun, and when an intoxicated Holliday later returned and demanded his firearm, the saloon keeper wisely refused. Holliday left, only to return again, this time with a second gun. During the confrontation that ensued, he shot Joyce in the hand and also shot one of the bar owner's associates in the foot. Joyce then beat Holliday unconscious and was arrested. Holliday's atrocious behavior that night damaged the Earp brothers' reputations when it became known that they were friends and allies of Holliday.
On March 15, 1881, several masked gunmen held up a stagecoach transporting silver bullion from Tombstone to Benson. In the melee, the driver and a passenger were killed. Locals who hated the Earps accused Holliday of the crime, and Joyce and Sheriff Behan persuaded the inebriated Kate to sign an affidavit attesting to Holliday's participation in the attempted robbery. The lovers were currently on the outs, and Kate enjoyed watching Holliday being arrested for the crime. Although he was cleared of all charges after the Earps located someone able to provide him an alibi, suspicions remained among local townsfolk who disliked the temperamental gunfighter.
Wyatt Earp suspected that the Cowboys were involved with the attempted stagecoach heist. Planning to run in an upcoming election for Cochise County sheriff and replace Behan, he knew that capturing the stagecoach murderers would win him votes and also help him clear Holliday's name. He struck a deal with Ike Clanton, who was willing to supply information about his fellow Cowboys for a price. However, before Earp could apprehend these men, they died during an unrelated altercation and Clanton realized that the surviving Cowboys would likely discover his double-cross. Over the next few weeks, he became increasingly paranoid.
That afternoon, the feud came to a showdown. In his role as deputy U.S. marshal and local police chief, Virgil Earp was informed that the Clanton brothers were making threats and were armed. Determined to arrest them for violating the ordinance that prohibited carrying guns inside city limits, he called together his brothers Wyatt and Morgan as well as Holliday and deputized them. Together, they strode off to find the Cowboys.
The Cowboy crew was not hard to find: they had taken a position in a vacant lot on Fremont Street, behind the O.K. Corral. The Clantons and the McLaurys were there, along with Billy Claiborne. Ripe for a confrontation, Virgil and his deputies stopped about ten feet in front of their enemies. Although the record remains unclear which side fired first, a 30-second gunfight ensued, during which time Virgil shot Billy Clanton in the chest and Holliday killed Tom McLaury with his double-barreled shotgun. After Wyatt Earp hit Frank McLaury square in the stomach, Ike Clanton and Claiborne ran. Gunfire continued as the wounded men shot back, and Virgil, Morgan, and Holliday escaped. When the dust settled, Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton were dead and three “sworn” officers of the law were injured.
“As soon as it was over, the bloody affray was lost in controversy, remembered both as the triumph of law over outlaw and as senseless murder,” noted Roberts in describing the famous gunfight for Wild West magazine. “Beyond the facts—how many died, how many shots were fired, who fired first and why—the gunfight took on mythic symbolism.” After Ike Clanton filed murder charges, the deputized lawmen were arrested, and caskets containing the bodies of the three deceased Cowboys were displayed under a sign that read “Murdered in the Streets of Tombstone.”
Days later, the Earp-Holliday foursome appeared in the court of Justice Wells Spicer. A question hung in the air: Had they pulled their guns because they reasonably feared for their lives or instigated the gunfight to eliminate their adversaries? The Earp brothers had reputable backgrounds, but Holliday's run-ins with the law muddied the waters. In addition, he had openly fought with Ike Clanton the night before, and Wyatt Earp had openly fought with Tom McLaury. Were they acting as deputized lawmen behind the O.K. Corral, or were they settling personal scores?
According to Robert in Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend, after hearing the evidence, Spicer ruled that, while the act was not criminal, Virgil Earp's decision to include Holliday in the arresting party was questionable. According to the judge, given the longstanding controversy between the two groups, “and in further view of this quarrel the night before between Isaac Clanton and J.H. Holliday, I am of the opinion that the defendant, Virgil Earp, as chief of police, subsequently calling upon Wyatt Earp, and J.H. Holliday to assist him in arresting and disarming the Clantons and McLowrys—committed an injudicious and censurable act.” Spicer did acknowledge that, given the threats, Virgil reasonably required backup. Despite the many films, books, and documentaries that have chronicled the shootout at the O.K. Corral, it remains unresolved whether the incident was a triumph over lawlessness or an act of coldblooded and calculated murder.
A month after the court ruling, Virgil Earp was injured during an assassination attempt. The following spring, Morgan was killed in an ambush, and a cowboy named Frank Stilwell was named as the suspect. In the wake of Virgil's injury, Wyatt Earp became marshal and put together a posse to find Stilwell. Naturally, Holliday was included. After Stilwell turned up dead, warrants were issued for Wyatt Earp and Holliday.
Over the next few years, Holliday's health deteriorated as his tuberculosis grew worse. He spent his last days eking out a living as a bartender in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and died on November 8, 1887, in his hotel room. Holliday was so cantankerous that his passing at age 36 likely went unnoticed by many who knew him. As Roberts noted in his Wild West article, Virgil Earp's wife, Allie, once remarked of the gunslinger that he “wasn't smart or witty. He was cold and disagreeable and I never liked him. Nor did anybody else.”
Roberts, Gary L., Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend, John Wiley & Sons, 2006.
Tanner, Karen Holliday, Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait, University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.
Wild West, October 2006, Garry L. Roberts, “Doc Holliday, the Earp's Strangest Ally,” pp. 42–47; October 2016, Peter Brand, “Holliday in Montana,” pp. 28–33.□