Debunking History: The Real Doc Holliday

John Doc HollidayI was watching the movie “Tombstone” last night and I have to admit, while completely historically inaccurate, Val Kilmer plays a very likable Doc Holliday.  Who was this famous gunslinger?  He looked deadly with a weapon, had tuberculosis, and always seemed drunk.  In the movies, people feared him because he didn’t fear death.  But was this the true Doc Holliday?  The blonde, geeky, little guy to the left doesn’t appear to be a tough gunfighter.  Here are five things you might not have known about this very scary dentist.

myfivebest -1Early Beginnings
Holliday was born John Henry Holliday in Griffin, Georgia. He was born with a cleft palate and cleft lip, which caused a speech impediment.  However, he had this surgically fixed, which would be the inspiration for his professional choice of going to dental school.  In 1870, at the age of 19, he moved to Philadelphia to become a dentist.  Two years later, he graduated and returned to Georgia.  It was in Georgia that Holliday started to show the first signs of tuberculosis (it was called consumption, at the time).  Holliday’s mother also had the disease and died when he was 14 years old.  Many historians believe she was the source of his disease.  It caused him to pack up his dental supplies and give up his practice and leave his family to move west.  One of his family members – a cousin through marriage – would go onto write the famous novel, Gone With The Wind.  She was Margaret Mitchell.

myfivebest - 2Gambling, Gunfighting, and Alcoholism
Holliday soon found out that people didn’t like being treated by a dentist who was  coughing in their open mouths.  Because of this, he turned to gambling because it was more profitable.  He first lived in Dallas, got kicked out because he got into a fight for cheating and then moved all over the west leaving a trail of blood and violence.  You see, Holliday knew he was slowly dying.  He decided that it would be better if someone shot or stabbed him instead of dying on his back.  For money, he gambled.  It also put him closer to people who might kill him.  Think of this as a modern adrenaline junkie.  His travels led him into Colorado, Deadwood (South Dakota), Cheyenne Territory (Oklahoma/New Mexico), and Dodge City, Kansas.  It was in this last place that he struck up his long time friendship with Wyatt Earp and met his lifelong partner, Big Nose Kate (Mary Katherine Hornery).  His constant drinking was a result of him controlling his cough.  Many people with consumption drank to ease the coughing. Ironically, Holliday was not a very good gunfighter.  Remember: He was drunk most of the time and the pistols in the late 1800s were not that accurate.  The thing that made him deadly was that he didn’t care if you put a bullet in him.  Other people were rightly nervous when it came to being in a gunfight.  Doc was very fast, however, and kept his cool and that’s what made him win.  It also helped that most of his fights were within 10 feet of his opponent.  Incidently, outside of the Gunfight at the OK Corral (see below), Doc is only known to have been in four – FOUR – gunfights.  Of these, he didn’t kill anyone.  He just wounded people.  The rest was all rumor.

myfivebest - 3Odd Jobs
Most people think that Doc Holliday left his dental practice to be a professional gambler and gunfighter.  If you asked around today, his game of choice would be poker.  It wasn’t.  Doc was a faro dealer.  This was a very popular card game and very easy to cheat at if you were the dealer.  He dealt faro most of his life.  Doc also was a bar owner at one time and rode shotgun on stage coaches.  Sometimes Doc would hire himself out as a bodyguard or hired gun to guard something.  Above all else, he never stopped being a dentist for someone in need of his help. To get a better understanding of Holliday, here is a quote from Virgil Earp about Doc.

There was something very peculiar about Doc. He was gentlemanly, a good dentist, a friendly man and yet, outside of us boys, I don’t think he had a friend in the Territory. Tales were told that he had murdered men in different parts of the country; that he had robbed and committed all manner of crimes, and yet, when persons were asked how they knew it, they could only admit it was hearsay, and that nothing of the kind could really be traced to Doc’s account. He was a slender, sickly fellow, but whenever a stage was robbed or a row started, and help was needed, Doc was one of the first to saddle his horse and report for duty.

This is not quite the way we picture him in the movies.

myfivebest - 4The Battle At The OK Corral
Did you ever see the 1960s movie with Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp and Kirk Douglas playing Doc Holliday?  Well, if you did, that wasn’t the real deal.  The Kevin Costner version of Wyatt Earp is closer to the fact.  Holliday made his way to the silver-mining boom town of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, in September 1880 – about 9 months after his friends, the Earps arrived.  He was friends with the whole family. Some accounts state the Earps sent for Holliday when they realized the problems they faced in their feud with the Cowboy faction. In Tombstone, Holliday quickly became embroiled in the local politics and violence that led up to the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in October 1881.  The fight actually was not at the OK Corral.  It was in an alleyway near it and next to a photography studio, called Fly’s.  Holliday was staying in Fly’s Boarding House and when he heard the Clantons and McLaurys were waiting to ambush someone, he probably thought it was an assassination attempt on him and had nothing to do with the Earps.  Ike and Doc had had a few arguments.  When the battle started, there was no shooting like we see in the movies.  Doc fired two shots from the shotgun and had only one pistol, which he emptied in the fight.  After the battle, Big Nose Kate said Doc came back to the boarding room and wept, saying it was “awful, just awful…“  Not quite the word’s of a killer.  Oh, and he isn’t the one responsible for killing Johnny Ringo, either.  Ringo committed suicide.

myfivebest - 5Death Of Doc Holliday
After leaving Arizona for good, since he was a wanted man there, Doc ended up going back to Colorado.  There, he continued his drinking and started taking laudanum (an opiate) to ease his illness.  The high altitude didn’t help his tuberculosis.  In an effort to get better, he made his way to Glenwood Springs because he heard that the hot waters there could help him.  In fact, they made him even worse.  As he lay dying, Holliday allegedly asked for a drink of whiskey. Amused, he looked at his bootless feet as he died—no one ever thought that he would die in bed, with his boots off. His last words were, “Now, that’s funny.” John Henry “Doc” Holliday died November 8, 1887. He was only 36 years of age.  Despite what you see in the movies, Wyatt Earp was certainly not present when Holliday died, and did not know of his death until months afterward. Though she later attested to attending him in his final days, it is also highly doubtful that Big Nose Kate was present at his death.  He was buried on the same day of his death in a common grave, then later exhumed and placed in the Linwood Cemetary outside of Glenwood Springs.  He died alone and without friends.