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Doc Holliday

Although he sometimes drank three quarts of whiskey a day, he was still the most skillful gambler, and the nerviest, fastest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever saw.
— Wyatt Earp

Doc Holliday

That was the tribute paid to Doc Holliday by Wyatt Earp, who was something of a gunslinger himself. John Henry Holliday was born in Griffin, Georgia in 1852. His mother was a southern beauty and his father a wealthy planter, lawyer and, during the Civil War, a Confederate Major. Because of his family status Doc had little choice but to choose some sort of profession which he did - dentistry. His training was taken in Baltimore, Maryland (although no institution there has any record of him) and when he had completed it he opened an office in Atlanta in 1872. Holliday was a good dentist but, shortly after starting his practice, he discovered he had consumption [tuberculosis]. Although he consulted a number of doctors, one and all, they told him that he had only months to live. However they did say he might gain a few months of life if he went to a dry climate.

Following this advice, and a question about a plot to blow up the Baldosta courthouse that went wrong, Doc packed and headed west. His first stop was in Dallas, Texas, the end of the railroad at that time. He found a suitable office, hung out his shingle and prepared for business. He pulled teeth, dealt cards, and drank whiskey that helped quite his coughing spells that wracked his thin frame and often occurred at the most embarrassing times, such as in the midst of a filling or an extraction. As a result his dental business gradually declined. Doc soon had to find other means of earning a livelihood. It became apparent that he possessed a natural ability for gambling and this quickly became his sole means of support. In those days a gambler in the West had to be able to protect himself for he stood alone. Doc was well aware of this and faithfully practiced with six-gun and knife.

On January 2, 1874, Doc and a local saloonkeeper had a disagreement that flared into violence. Each man went for his pistol. Several shots were fired but not one struck its intended target. Local citizens thought such a gunfight highly amusing, but changed their views a few days later when Doc put two large caliber holes through a prominent citizen leaving him very dead. Feeling ran high over the killing and Doc was forced to flee Dallas. His next stop was in Jacksboro over in Jacks County where he found a job dealing faro. Jacksboro was a tough cowtown situated near an army post. He now carried a gun in a shoulder holster, one on his hip, and a long, wicked knife as well. Reports confirm the fact that he was becoming an expert with these weapons, as he was involved in three gunfights in a very short while. One of these left another dead man to Doc's credit. As this was a pretty wild section of the West no law action was taken against him.

During the summer of 1876, Holliday again became a participant in a gunfight. On this occasion he grew careless enough to kill a soldier from Fort Richardson. As this killing brought the United States government into the investigation Doc hit the trail west again. This time his back trail was cluttered with the army, U.S. Marshals, Texas Rangers, and several local lawmen, who were anxious to collect the reward offered for his scalp. Holliday knew that if he were captured his neck would be stretched with very few preliminaries so he headed his pony straight into Apache country for Colorado, 800 miles away. Stopping for short periods at Pueblo, Leadville, Georgetown, and Central City, three more men went down before his flaming guns before he reached the city of Denver.

There he went by the name of Tom Mackey and was practically unknown, until he got into an argument with Bud Ryan, while dealing faro in Babbitts' House. In the ensuing fight Doc came very near to cutting Ryan's head off. Ryan, a well-known gambling tough, survived but his face and neck were horribly mutilated. Although his victim did not die Doc was forced to run again. He drifted on to Wyoming then back into New Mexico and finally to Fort Griffin, Texas.

It was here that Doc met the only woman who was ever to, come into his life. She was Big Nose Kate Elder, a western dance hall girl and prostitute. It is true that Kate's nose was prominent but her other features were quite attractive. Her curves were generous and all in the right places. Tough, stubborn, fearless, and high-tempered she worked at the business of being a prostitute because she liked it. She belonged to no man or no madam's house, but plied her trade as an individual in the manner she chose. Doc met her while he was dealing cards in John Shanssey's Saloon. It was also at Shanssey's that he met another person who was to influence his life, Wyatt Earp. Earp rode in from Dodge City on the trail of Dave Rudabaugh, who was wanted for train robbery. While Doc was helping Wyatt gain the information he needed they became fast friends.

By this time Holliday had gained the reputation of being a cold-blooded killer. Many believed he liked to kill, but the truth of the matter was that he was trying to get himself killed. As a hopeless tubercular he sought a quick, painless death. He was already condemned to a slow, painful death and had nothing whatever to lose. Naturally he would not appear safety minded and anyone who is in this frame of mind would be difficult to face in a fight to the death.

Thus it was that Ed Bailey, a bullyboy of Fort Griffin sat in a poker game with Doc. It was apparent that Bailey was used to having his way with no questions asked and Doc's reputation made no impression upon him whatever. In an obvious attempt to aggravate Doc he kept picking up the discards and looking through them. This was strictly against the rules of western poker, and anyone who broke this rule forfeited the pot. Holliday warned Bailey twice, but the erstwhile badman ignored his protests. The next time Bailey picked up the discards Doc raked in the pot without showing his hand. Bailey brought a six-shooter from under the table, while a Bowie knife materialized in Doc's hand. Before the local bully could pull the trigger Doc, with one slash, completely disemboweled him. Spilling blood everywhere. Bailey sprawled over the table and died.

Since he felt that he was obviously in the right Doc stuck around and allowed the marshal to arrest him. That was a mistake as once he had been disarmed; Bailey's friends and the town vigilantes began a clamor for his blood. "Big Nose" Kate knew that Doc was a goner unless someone did something and quick. Likely as not the local lawmen would turn the frail gunman over to the mob. Kate went into action by setting fire to an old barn. It burned so rapidly that the flames threatened to engulf the whole town. Everyone went to fight the fire with the exception of three people; Kate, Doc and the marshal who guarded him. As soon as the marshal and his prisoner were left alone Kate stepped in and confronted the lawman. A rock steady six-gun menaced him from each of Kate's hands. Disarming the awestruck marshal Kate passed Doc a pistol and the pair of them lit out. All that night they hid in the brush carefully avoiding parties of searchers. The next morning they headed for Dodge City, 400 miles away, on "borrowed" horses.

The couple registered at Deacon Cox's boarding house in Dodge City as Dr. and Mrs. John H. Holliday. Doc felt that he owed Kate a great deal for rescuing him from a hanging tree in Fort Griffin and was determined to do everything within his power to make her happy. He gave up gambling and hung out his shingle again. All of Doc's good intentions were totally unappreciated and did not endure for long. Kate stood the quietness and boredom of respectable living as long as she could. Then she told Doc that she was going back to the bright lights and excitement of the dance halls and gambling dens. Consequently the two split up as they were destined to do many times during the remainder of Doc's life.

September found Doc back dealing faro in the Long Branch Saloon. A number of Texas cowboys had just arrived in Dodge City with a herd of cattle. After many weeks on the trail they were a pretty wild bunch ready to "tree" Dodge. Word was brought into the Long Branch that several of the trail drivers had Wyatt Earp cornered and had bragged that they would shoot him down. Doc leaped through the doors a six-gun in each hand. When he arrived two cowboys, Morrison and Driscoll, were holding cocked revolvers on Wyatt, goading him to draw before they shot him down. About 20 of their friends also stood nearby taunting and insulting the enraged but hapless Wyatt. "Up with them, you !@#$%^&* "Doc roared, loosing a volume of profanity.

As the self-styled badmen turned to face Doc, Wyatt rapped Morrison over the head with his long barrel colt. Then he set about relieving the other cowboys, of their guns. Unnoticed by the others, one cowboy drew his gun and lined it on Wyatt's back. Just as the sneak killer fired Doc snapped a shot at him. The cowboy missed; Doc didn't Wyatt never forgot the fact that Doc Holliday saved his life twice that night in Dodge City.

Kate and Doc soon had another of their frequent quarrels and Doc in a furious mood, saddled up and went to Trinidad, Colorado. Shortly after he arrived in town a young gambler, "Kid" Cotton, wishing to make a reputation, called him out. Doc's swift gun roared twice and Colton collapsed in the dust of the street. Not wishing to tarry under such circumstances Doc rode into New Mexico. In the summer of 1879, he tried his hand as a dentist for the last time in Las Vegas, New Mexico. (He may also have participated in some stagecoach and train robberies.) It was a weak attempt and ended in a short time when Doc bought a saloon on Center Street. A few weeks later he got into an argument with a local gunman called Mike Gordon, who tried to shoot up Doc's saloon. Doc politely invited him to draw whenever he felt like it and then put three slugs in his belly when he did. A mob quickly gathered and began plans for decorating a hang tree, using Doc as an ornament.

Since he had to move on again Doc knew the one place he would be safe was in Dodge City. After all Wyatt Earp was his friend. But when he rode back into town he found that Wyatt had gone to a new silver strike, a place called Tombstone. There was nothing to hold him in Dodge City so Doc also started west to the new silver town. The Earp brothers were all coming to Tombstone; Morgan from Montana and Virgil was already in Prescott where he met Doc Holliday. Virgil left for Tombstone without Holliday, who was having a fantastic run of luck at poker. Big Nose Kate, also enroute to Tombstone, caught up with Doc while he was still at the poker table. The two of them reached Tombstone early in 1880, Doc with $40,000 of the Prescott gamblers' money in his pockets.

The outlaw gang in Tombstone had had things their way for quite sometime and they resented the arrival of Wyatt Earp. Old Man Clanton and his sons, Ike, Phin, and Billy; and the Mc-Lowry brothers, Frank and Tom, lost no time in letting him know of their displeasure. Doc was quite famous as a gunman himself when he reached Tombstone. Sixteen men died in front of his roaring guns and one historian, E.D. Cowan, claimed that he had found authentic records that showed Doc had killed 30 men. Anyway he was a welcome addition to the Earp brothers' fight with the cowboy faction.

Once they were settled in town Holliday and "Big Nose" Kate took up where they had left off. Although they lived together Doc went back to drinking and gambling and Kate to her operations as a prostitute. Their arguments were frequent but not really serious until Kate got drunk and abusive. Doc decided that enough was enough and threw her out. As fate would have it, four masked men had attempted a holdup of the Benson stage on March 15, 1881. In the attempt they had killed two men; Bud Philpot, the stage driver, and Pete Roerig, a passenger. The cowboy faction immediately seized upon the opportunity and accused Doc Holliday of being one of the holdup men. Sheriff Behan and Deputy Stilwell found Kate on one of her drunken binges, fed her more whiskey, and persuaded her to sign an affidavit that Doc had been one of the masked highwaymen and actually pulled the trigger on the shot that killed Bud Philpot.

The Earps arrested Kate and while she was sobering up in jail, they began to round up witnesses who could verify Doc's whereabouts on the night in question. When Kate realized what she had done she regretted her actions and repudiated her statements. Since witnesses and Kate's new stand exposed Behan's frame-up, Doc was released. His first action was to give Kate $1,000 and put her on a stage leaving town - and Doc- for good. As far as he was concerned his debt to her was paid in full. One incident after another occurred until the outlaws declared open war on the Earps. They threatened to kill Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc if they didn't get out of Tombstone. All the town watched to see the outcome. They knew the Earps and Doc would not run.

Then one morning a message was sent to the Earps by the Clantons and McLowrys saying that if the Earps didn't come to the O.K. Corral and fight they would be shot down before the sun set that day. Doc met the Earp brothers on their way to the O.K. Corral and demanded that he be allowed to join them in their little walk. Five men, potential killers, lay in wait when Wyatt Earp and Billy Clanton opened the battle, Doc cut Tom McLowry down with a double charge of buckshot. The life was blasted from McLowry before he struck the ground. Although Wyatt Earp allowed Ike Clanton to run from the fight scene, Holliday was more cold-blooded. He threw two shots at Ike, as he fled, missing him narrowly. A bullet from Frank McLowry cut into Doc's pistol scabbard and burned a crease across his hip. Doc's return shot smashed into McLowry's brain.

Twenty-eight seconds after the opening shot three men lay dead and three wounded. Only Wyatt Earp was untouched. During the time of the Earp-Clanton feud Doc Holliday almost lost his life a total of nine times. Four attempts were made to hang him and he was shot at in a gunfight or from ambush five times. He was suspected of involvement in the later deaths - at the hands of "Mexicans" - of Jim Crane, Newman "Old Man" Clanton and others who supposedly had information on the stage robbery. When Wyatt set out to avenge the murder of their brother Morgan, Doc helped them kill Frank Stilwell at Tucson and Florentino "Indian Charley" Cruz at Tombstone two days later. Doc and Wyatt quit Arizona and rode into Colorado; there they parted ways. Doc was in his final shooting scrape at Leadville on 19 August 1884, when bartender Bill Allen threatened to beat him up if he didn't pay back five dollars he owed. Holliday put a bullet into Allen's arm, which ended the matter. Arizona tried for years to extradite Doc for the murders of Frank Stilwell and Indian Charlie, but the Colorado governor would not agree to the extradition. Strangely enough, Doc didn't kill either of them; Wyatt accounted for both because they killed Morgan.

His health grew steadily worse so he went to try the sulfur vapors at Glenwood Springs in May 1887. He pushed in his last blue chip, but he had waited too long. Doc spent his last 57 days in bed and was delirious 14 of them. On November 8, 1887 he awoke, clear-eyed and asked for a glass of whiskey. It was provided and he drank it down with relish. "This is funny," he said, and died. Doc had actually come West years before to die. Long ago he had maintained that he would not die in bed coughing his guts out. His intentions were to get killed by a quicker, easier death than that planned for him by destiny. He frequently stated that his end would come from lead poisoning, at the end of a rope, a knife in his ribs, or that he might drink himself to death. That is why he considered it funny when he died peacefully in bed.

An ornate tombstone marks his grave, but Doc is not under it; on the day of his burial, torrential rains made it impossible to get the hearse up the track to the hillside cemetery, so he was buried below. The fact that no one knows where rather heightens the irony of his last words: "This is funny". Doc was the king of the western' gamblers and he lost his biggest bet when he died of tuberculosis. The greater part of his years had been lived on borrowed time.

Ben T. Traywick associate editor. Tombstone Epitaph.

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The Old West At Its Best - And Worst | Boothill | All The Major Towns Had Brothels | John P. Clum | The Slopers And The Easterners Soon Collided In Tombstone | The Gunfight At The O.K. Corral | Courageous And Trustworthy Men | The Clanton Gang aka The Cowboys | The West's Deadliest Dentist | Doc Holliday | The Earp Family | Morgan Seth Earp | John Peters Ringo | Virgil Earp | Baxter Warren Earp | No Individual Has Caused Greater Controversy In Western History | Wyatt Earp
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