The infamous John Henry Holliday was better known by another name… “Doc” Holliday. But why?
Because it was accurate. You see, Holliday came with another handle: “The Deadly Dentist”. Yes, this fiery practitioner could shoot you dead or extract a problem tooth. For dentophobes, this may not sound like much of a choice!
How did a dentist of the Wild West become so, well, wild? Let’s begin with a famous shootout. Doc Holliday is forever associated with fateful events at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.
The Not-So-O.K. Corral
On October 26th, 1881, tensions between Holliday, his pals the Earps, and their rivals the Clantons boiled over into bullets and bloodshed.
As written about by Legends Of America, the men had been at each other’s throats for a while. There was no “live and let live” in this town. Holliday, with his tendency to shoot a pistol, was a volatile ingredient in the cocktail.
Only one set of guys could rule the roost. When Doc confronted Ike Clanton at the Occidental Saloon, it led to the notorious Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Doc was deputized to Marshal Virgil Earp. So it’s safe to say he had backup when bullets flew the very next day.
The deadly deal lasted approx 30 seconds. Billy Clanton died, alongside associates Tom and Frank McLaury. Doc was wounded but came out of it well considering.
Doc Holliday’s early life
Accounts of what went down at O.K. Corral portray John “Doc” Holliday as a formidable opponent. That he was. However, his life could have followed a very different path.
Not that he was a mild-mannered type. Far from it. Even in John’s younger days, he’d pulled a weapon to settle matters.
As well as fighting for the Confederates and rising through the ranks, Major Holliday held several high-profile positions back home in Georgia. These included Mayor of Valdosta and County Agricultural Society secretary.
John’s mother Alice Jane McKay passed away from tuberculosis when he was a teenager. The disease would go on to affect him.
Young John entered the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery. It had been founded by his cousin, so he was following the bloodline. “By all accounts, Holliday was a competent dentist with a successful practice,” History writes.
How did Doc Holliday wind up in the Old West?
The West beckoned because it was a healthier environment for someone with TB. Legends Of America writes that John was “fluent in Latin, played the piano very well, was a ‘nappy’ dresser, and displayed the manners of a Southern gentleman.”
On the flip side, the Old West wasn’t a place for refinement.
What was it like being an old-timey dentist?
Frustrating, we’d imagine. It wasn’t unheard of for folk to use communal toothbrushes. These would hang in public places for anyone to take a turn. Knowledge of personal hygiene was famously limited.
This was good for Doc’s business, of course. There was just one problem… his TB, or consumption as it was known. Coughing and tinkering with people’s mouths didn’t prove a winning combination. He took to gambling to make ends meet.
The Deadly Dentist
A combination of bad luck, a hot temper, and – depending on what you read – alcoholism, meant Doc’s days were going to be dangerous.
He was reportedly a violent man but also a self-aware one. His health took him to the Wild West and, eventually, Tombstone. There he found love with Kate Horony, who was flatteringly nicknamed “Big Nose Kate”. Their common-law marriage was stormy and only lasted five years.
Doc Holliday may well have landed in hot water, no matter what profession he took. He appears to be a walking contradiction. All That’s Interesting refers to comments made by Wyatt Earp. Earp described Doc as, amongst other things, “a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit”. He was also “the most skillful gambler and nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever knew”.
Tuberculosis claimed the life of Doc Holliday on November 8th, 1887. He was aged just 36.
Tombstone the movie has a very famous fan
Of course, there’s a movie based (loosely) on Doc’s incredible life. Tombstone (1993), directed by George P. Cosmatos, featured the great Val Kilmer as the notorious Wild West dentist.
The film attracted glowing reviews and many fans, including Bob Dylan! Kilmer recounted a time when the two stars met.
“So Bob Dylan loves Tombstone, it turns out,” Kilmer said. “He shows up and sits down and he wants to talk about Tombstone, but I just can’t, you know, nor can I talk about any of his stuff. Eventually he says, ‘Ain’t you going to say anything about that movie?’ and I said, ‘Do some ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and I’ll’…. That’s what I said to him, basically I said no.”