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Doc Holiday: Stories, Trivia, And Facts You Didn't Know About The Gunslinger

Wild West | August 27, 2020

Shootout show with gunslingers "Wyatt Earp" (left) and "Doc Holliday" at "Tombstone Village," Arizona. (Photo by Peter Bischoff/Getty Images)

The infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral has become part of our romanticized version of the Old West, where lawmen were the good guys but outlaws were the heroes of folklore. Doc Holliday has become one of those legends, but behind the slick action movies was a real-life man who led an extraordinary life at a pivotal time in American history.

Graduation photo of John Henry Holliday from the Pennsylvania School of Dental Surgery in March 1872. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

The Early Years

John Henry Holliday was born a long way from Tombstone in Griffin, Georgia on August 14, 1851. He was born with a cleft palate that required corrective surgery, and his mother, who had lost her first child shortly after its birth and feared that something would happen to young John, rarely left his side. As he grew older, Holliday's speech was impacted by the birth defect, but his mother spent countless hours working with him on his speech, patiently correcting his pronunciations until all traces of his impediment were gone.

Unlike other gunslingers, who often became outlaws after surviving abusive and impoverished upbringings, Holliday had a great childhood with a loving and financially stable family. His father earned his living as a druggist, and his mother doted on him, teaching him the perfect manners of a Southern gentleman. He was an excellent student with a passion for science and math who read every book he could.

When his loving mother died of tuberculosis in 1866, Holliday turned to his studies to help him cope with his heartache, soon enrolling in the dentistry program at the University of Pennsylvania. Upon his graduation in 1872, he returned to Georgia to practice dentistry for a short time, but the Wild West called to him.

Interior of the Long Branch Saloon in Dodge City, Kansas, between 1870 and 1885. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Holliday In Texas

A 22-year-old John Henry Holliday, now nicknamed "Doc," moved to Dallas and set up shop as a dentist in 1873. Dallas was a rowdy frontier town, and business was good for Holliday, but he found another love: gambling. Dallas was home to numerous saloons, and Holliday was attracted to the excitement of the town's nightlife. He was also pretty good at the card table. In just a few years, he was known more for his drinking, fighting, and gambling than he was for his work as a dentist.

While in Dallas, Holliday was arrested a few times on charges of illegal gambling, fighting, and once for engaging in a gunfight with a saloon keeper. He also met a fiercely intelligent and independent dancer, whisky slinger, and sex worker named Mary Katherine Horony, A.K.A. Big-Nose Kate, at a local dance hall, who became his common-law wife and the only woman known to historians to have a relationship with Holliday. When he was accused of murder—of which he may or may not have been guilty—they fled Dallas, heading further west. They landed in Dodge City, Kansas, a town that attracted outlaws, gamblers, and gunslingers.

Wyatt Earp at age 21 in 1869 or 1870. (Unknown author/Wikimedia Commons)

Doc Holliday And Wyatt Earp

In Dodge City, Holliday met Wyatt Earp, an outlaw himself who had been temporarily deputized to track down and bring some fugitives to justice. That deed made him some enemies, and according to legend, three of them rode into Dodge City one day, looking for revenge. They terrorized the Long Branch Saloon, where Holliday had been quietly playing cards at a table in the back of the room, and after Earp was alerted to the commotion, he stormed through its swinging doors and straight into a trap. The three men all aimed their pistols at Earp, but Holliday drew his gun and held it to the back of one of their heads, forcing them to drop their weapons. The man was serious about his cards. Holliday and Earp became good friends, often drinking and playing cards together, and when Earp decided to move to Tombstone, Arizona, a small but booming frontier town close to the Mexican border, Holliday agreed to accompany him. 

Tombstone in 1881. (C.S. Fly/Wikimedia Commons)

Shootout At The O.K. Corral

In Tombstone, where his brothers were the town marshals, Earp found a job as a security guard at a bank. The Earps and Holliday soon ran afoot of a quartet of local cowboys—Ike and Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury—who did some thieving and hired-gunning on the side, and it all came to a head on October 26, 1881. According to popular accounts, the legendary shootout began when Virgil Earp shot Billy Clanton, and a split second later, Holliday shot Tom McLaury in the chest. Wyatt Earp shot Frank McLaury, and someone shot Billy Clanton. It was all so crazy, no one knows who. Both men continued shooting until they collapsed dead from their injuries, and when it was over, Billy Clanton and both of the McLaury brothers were dead. The whole thing lasted maybe 30 seconds. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were arrested for murder, but while controversy exploded around the incident and continues to swirl to this day, the charges were quickly dropped. 

Headstone at Linwood Cemetery. (Fred Dupper/Wikimedia Commons)

The Legend Of Doc Holliday

As news of the famous gunfight spread around the country, Doc Holliday's name became legendary. He was an outlaw, gambler, and murderer, but he was on the right side of the law when it mattered. He was also known for his Southern charm and manners, making him a likable gunslinger. When he died of tuberculosis on November 8, 1887, in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, news of his death sent shock waves around the country.

Tags: dentistry | guns | Wild West

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.