The Real Life of Doc Holliday – Wild West Legend that Continues to Fascinate

Ian Harvey
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Doc Holliday

The names of the most famous gunfighters in the Old West are known to most people. Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Jesse James, and Doc Holliday have been written about numerous times, and, just as the story of George Washington’s run-in with a cherry tree, facts are sometimes clouded by legend.

Three very well researched books about Holliday, The Illustrated Life and Times of Doc Holliday, by Bob Boze Bell, Doc Holliday, A Family Portrait, by Karen Holliday Tanner (a cousin), and John Henry (The “Doc” Holliday Story), by Tombstone historian Ben T. Traywick, aim to correct the legends with actual documentation such as letters, census and church records, newspapers and court documents, and often the tools of genealogy.

Doc Holliday

On August 14, 1851, John Henry Holliday came into the world in Griffin, Georgia to Henry Burroughs Holliday and Alice McKey Holliday. The Hollidays were prominent in the town and very well liked.

His sister, Martha, had died at six months of age in 1850. Holliday was born with a cleft palate which made nursing nearly impossible, and his mother fed him with an eyedropper and a spoon. He was operated on by his uncle, Doctor John Stiles Holliday. Alice spent years training him to speak properly with the help of her friends at the First Presbyterian Church in Griffin.

Griffin, Spalding County, Georgia. Photo by Michael Rivera CC BY SA 4.0

When the Civil War erupted, Doc’s father and uncles, while not supporting the split of the nation, supported their state’s vote to secede, as most loyal Southerners did. Henry was appointed to serve as assistant quartermaster in the 27th Regiment of the Georgia Volunteer Infantry. Uncle John served as a surgeon in the Fayette Dragoons of the State Guards.

The homes of the Holliday’s served as storage for provisions and a makeshift hospital. At the end of the war, all of the hard work the men had put into securing financial stability for the families was for nothing.

Doc Holliday in Prescott, AZ

Confederate money was worthless, and property in the area had been destroyed or stolen. Father Henry and Uncle John were able to steadily recoup their losses, but another uncle, Robert Holliday, lost his home and his business and was never able to recover. The Civil War and Reconstruction took a toll on young Doc’s life.

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Alice passed away of consumption (tuberculosis) in 1866 when Doc was 15, and it is believed that he was infected by his mother. His father remarried about three months later to a woman half his age and Doc never forgave him.

Doc Holliday

He went to live with Uncle John and began learning dentistry soon after. He graduated from the Pennsylvania College for Dental Surgery in March of 1872.

By 1873 Doc’ s health had begun to fail so he set out for a drier climate in Texas. He partnered with Dr. John Seegar, but, after a while, the coughs that wracked his body made him unable to work on patients. Instead, Doc sought the life of a gambling man. He had learned card games from his nanny and was proficient enough to earn a living.

This is the current headstone for Doc Holliday. As the records of exactly where his body is located within the cemetery were lost, the City of Glenwood erected a headstone that turned out to have the wrong date on it. It was replaced with this more accurate monument.

The first erroneous facts about Doc are many of the pictures that have been made public. The majority of pictures show a dark-haired man with a bushy dark mustache. In fact, Doc was a blue-eyed blonde.

Virgil Earp’s wife and Wyatt Earp both described him as fair-haired with Wyatt commenting on him as “long, lean, and ash blonde” according to the Tombstone Times. Why he is often represented with dark hair is unknown.

Wyatt Earp 1870s

The life of a gambler is somewhat nomadic. Doc moved around quite a bit and made some enemies because of his no-nonsense personality. At times he was in and out of jail and a famous female companion of his, known as Big Nose Kate, was involved with busting him out of jail on one occasion.

Although legend says he left a trail of bodies behind him, there are no records of anyone killed by Doc other than Tom McLaury during the infamous O.K. Corral shootout and possibly Newman Clanton when riding with Wyatt Earp’s Federal Marshals to apprehend cattle rustlers. Wyatt and Doc had become famous pals with each of them getting involved in the struggles of other.

He was also involved in several fights in Dodge City, but no records, including local newspapers, speak of any killings. Each time he was brought up on charges, he was acquitted for self-defense.

Third St. in Tombstone, Arizona in 1909 from the roof of the Cochise County Courthouse. The O.K. Corral was located on Allen St., the first right turn off Third St. The white building at the center right is Schiefflin Hall on Fremont St.

Doc traveled to areas in Colorado with hot springs and sulfur vapors in hopes of finding a cure for consumption, but he died in his hotel room at the Hotel Glenwood in Glenwood Springs, Colorado on November 8, 1887.

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Whether or not they thought they were helping Doc is unknown, but his close friends, Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, both repeated exaggerated tales to reporters and potential authors who had no trouble adding to the stories to make their writing more sensational. Because of his unearned bad reputation, the family in Georgia disowned Doc. Only this generation has had the desire to look past the wild tales and exaggerations to discover the real truth about John Henry Holliday, D.D.S.