John Henry Holliday, widely known by the nickname Doc Holliday, was a gambler and gunfighter who became famous for his part in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, a historical shootout that later became the subject of numerous Western films. Doc Holliday became practically a household name, an archetype of the Old West.
Holliday was a close friend of Wyatt Earp, a well-known gunfighter and deputy town marshal in Tombstone, Arizona. In 1881, Earp’s brother Virgil was the deputy U.S. marshal as well as being Tombstone’s chief of police. On October 26, he learned that a group of cowboys had entered the town and refused to hand over their weapons.
At that time, the law required all non-local men who carried guns to temporarily deposit them at local stables or saloons upon entering town. Since Virgil Earp heard that several cowboys refused to obey the law and scared some locals by flashing their guns on the streets of Tombstone, he assumed that the men were up to no good. He gathered a party consisting of himself, his brother, and Doc Holliday, and they went to deal with the situation.
Virgil Earp and his gang encountered the cowboys on a narrow street in the center of Tombstone. The cowboys were not a random group of ill-intentioned men, however, but ranchers Tom and Frank McLaury, Billy and Ike Clanton, and Billy Claiborne, all of whom resented the influence of the Earp family on county politics and money matters. They had refused to hand over their weapons in order to provoke an altercation with the Earp brothers.
In a fiery shootout that only lasted about 30 seconds, the Earp brothers and Holliday killed three of the men. Historians believe that Doc Holliday killed Tom McLaury with a shotgun blast to the chest. It seems that the cowboys underestimated their opponents’ skills; although Holliday was wounded, the party quickly subdued the intruding cowboys. Ike Clanton, one of the surviving cowboys, later sued the Earps and Holliday for murder, but the local grand jury ruled that they were merely defending their town’s interests.
Holliday is famous for his role in the O.K. Corral shootout, but not many people know that he was actually a dentist: his original vocation earned him the nickname “Doc.” In his youth, Holliday was a model student who excelled in mathematics and history and studied Latin, Ancient Greek, and French. Several months before turning 21, he received a degree from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in Philadelphia and became a certified Doctor of Dental Surgery.
After turning 21, he moved to Atlanta and lived with his uncle, who encouraged him to start his own dental practice. For a time, Holliday worked as a substitute dentist at a local dentist’s office owned by Arthur C. Ford. Earlier, when he was living in St. Louis, Holliday was involved in several fights and some historians speculate that he even killed a man during a conflict at a local swimming pond.
At the age of 22, Holliday was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a dangerous illness that had claimed the lives of his mother and his adopted brother. Physicians in St. Louis feared that Holliday had only a few months left to live; they suggested he move to a place with a drier and warmer climate to slow the progress of his illness.
Holliday moved to Dallas, Texas, and partnered with Dr. John A. Seegar, a friend of his father. The two established a dental practice and became very successful; wealthy people from across Texas visited their office to buy their custom-made dental implants. Holliday and Seegar even exhibited their dental wares at the Dallas County Fair and participated in a dentistry contest held by the North Texas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Blood Stock Association. They received awards in the categories of “Best set of teeth in gold,” “Best set of teeth in vulcanized rubber,” and “Best set of artificial teeth and dental ware.”
In 1874, Holliday started his own dental practice in Dallas, but his health condition was deteriorating. He was soon incapable of performing complicated dental procedures because his hands would tremble and he suffered bouts of uncontrollable coughing.
He was disheartened by his condition and began gambling at local bars and illegal gambling houses. In January of 1875, he was arrested for illegal gambling along with 12 other men. After being fined for the offense, he ventured toward Denver and eventually moved even farther west. He met Wyatt Earp along the way; both of them were unaware that their friendship would form one of the most popular tales told of the Old West.
Doc Holliday died at the age of 36 in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.