John Henry “Doc” Holliday (August 14, 1851 – November 8, 1887) was an American gambler, gunfighter and dentist of the American Old West, who is usually remembered for his friendship with Wyatt Earp and his involvement in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

In the years since his death, debate has continued about the exact crimes he may have committed during his life. And how many gunfights he was actually involved in.

Holliday’s cousin by marriage was Margaret Mitchell, who wrote “Gone With the Wind”.

A portrait, taken at the age of 20, supports accounts that Holliday had ash-blond hair. In early adulthood, he stood about 5 feet 10 inches (178 cm) and weighed about 160 pounds (73 kg).

At the movies, Doc Holliday has been portrayed many times over the years. Among the most memorable performances was the one given by Val Kilmer, in the 1993 film, “Tombstone”. Video is courtesy of YouTube:

That’s the Hollywood version.

Here’s the history:

Early life and Education

John Henry Holliday was born in Griffin, Georgia, to Henry Burroughs Holliday and Alice Jane Holliday (née McKey), on August 14, 1851. His father served in the Mexican–American War and the Civil War. His family baptized him at the First Presbyterian Church in 1852.

In 1864 his family moved to Valdosta, Georgia.

Holliday’s mother died of tuberculosis on September 16, 1866, when he was 15 years old. Three months later his father married Rachel Martin.

While in Valdosta, Holliday attended the Valdosta Institute, where he received a strong classical secondary education in rhetoric, grammar, mathematics, history, and languages – principally Latin, but also French and some Ancient Greek.

In 1870, the 19-year-old Holliday left home to begin dental school in Philadelphia.

On March 1, 1872, at the age of 20, he met the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery (which later merged with the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine). He graduated 5 months before his 21st birthday – which would have been problematic, since this age was needed both to hold a D.D.S. degree or to practice dentistry as anything other than a student under a preceptor, in Georgia.

After graduation, Holliday did not go home, but worked as an assistant with a classmate, A. Jameson Fuches, Jr., in St. Louis, Missouri.

By the end of July he had moved to Atlanta, where he lived with his uncle and his family while beginning his career as a dentist.

A few weeks before his birthday, the Atlanta papers carried an announcement by noted dentist Arthur C. Ford that Holliday would fill his place in the Atlanta office while he was attending dental meetings. This was the beginning of Holliday’s career in private practice as a dentist, but it lasted only until December.

Health Complications

Shortly after beginning his dental practice, Holliday was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

He may have contracted the disease from his mother, although he may also have caught it from a coughing or sneezing patient. Little or no precaution was taken against this during dental procedures, as tuberculosis was not known to be contagious until 1885.

He was given only a few months to live, but considered that moving to the drier and warmer southwestern United States might slow the deterioration of his health.

Gambler and Gunman

In September 1873, Holliday moved to Dallas, Texas, where he opened a dental office with fellow dentist and Georgian John A. Seegar. Their office was located between Market and Austin Streets along Elm Street, about three blocks east of the site of today’s Dealey Plaza.

Holliday soon began gambling and realized this was a more profitable source of income, since patients feared going to his office because of his persistent cough.

On May 12, 1874, Holliday and 12 others were indicted in Dallas for illegal gambling. He was arrested in Dallas in January 1875 after trading gunfire with a saloon-keeper, but no one was injured and he was found not guilty.

He moved his offices to Denison, Texas, and after being found guilty of, and fined for, “gaming” in Dallas, he decided to leave the state.

Holliday’s Travels

Holliday made his way to Denver, traveling the stage routes and staying at Army outposts along the way, practicing his trade as a gambler.

In the summer of 1875 he settled in Denver under the alias “Tom Mackey”, working as a Faro dealer for John A. Babb’s Theatre Comique at 357 Blake Street. Here he heard about gold being discovered in Wyoming, and on February 5, 1876 he relocated to Cheyenne, working as a dealer for Babb’s partner, Thomas Miller, who owned a saloon called the Bella Union.

In the fall of 1876, Miller moved the Bella Union to Deadwood (site of the gold rush in the Dakota Territory) and Holliday moved with him.

In 1877, Holliday returned to Cheyenne and Denver, eventually making his way to Kansas to visit an aunt.

He left Kansas and returned to Texas setting up as a gambler in the town of Breckenridge. On July 4, 1877 he got involved in an altercation with another gambler named Henry Kahn, whom Holliday beat with his walking stick repeatedly. Both men were arrested and fined, but later in the day, Kahn shot Holliday, wounding him seriously.

The Dallas Weekly Herald incorrectly reported Holliday as dead, in its July 7 edition.

His cousin, George Henry Holliday moved west to take care of him during his recovery.

Friends, at Fort Griffin

Fully recovered, Holliday relocated to Fort Griffin, Texas, where he met “Big Nose Kate” (Mary Katharine Horony) and began his long-time involvement with her.

In Fort Griffin, Holliday was initially introduced to Wyatt Earp through mutual friend John Shanssey.

Earp had stopped at Fort Griffin, Texas, before returning to Dodge City in 1878 to become the assistant city marshal, serving under Charlie Bassett.

The two began to form an unlikely friendship; Earp more even-tempered and controlled, Holliday hot-headed and impulsive.

This friendship was cemented in 1878 in a saloon at Dodge City, Kansas, where both Earp and Holliday had traveled to make money gambling with the cowboys who drove cattle from Texas. Holliday defended Earp in a saloon against a handful of cowboys out to kill Earp, and earned his lifelong gratitude.

Holliday was still practicing dentistry on the side from his rooms in Fort Griffin and in Dodge City, as indicated in an 1878 Dodge newspaper advertisement (he promised money back for less than complete customer satisfaction) – but this is the last known time he attempted to practice.

Gunfighter, or…?

Holliday was primarily a gambler.

Modern research has only identified three instances in which he shot someone.

One documented instance happened when Holliday was employed during a railroad dispute.

On July 19, 1879, Holliday and noted gunman John Joshua Webb were seated in a saloon in Las Vegas, New Mexico when a former U.S. Army scout named Mike Gordon tried to persuade one of the saloon girls to leave her job and come away with him. When she refused, Gordon stormed outside and began firing into the building.

Holliday followed him and killed him before he could get off a second shot.

Holliday was placed on trial for the shooting but was acquitted, mostly based on the testimony of Webb.

In three of his four known pistol fights, he shot one opponent (Billy Allen) in the arm, one (Charles White) across the scalp, and missed one man (saloon keeper Charles Austin) entirely.

In an early incident in Tombstone in 1880, shortly after he arrived in town, a drunken Holliday managed to shoot Oriental Saloon owner Milt Joyce in the hand, and his bartender Parker in the toe (neither was the man Holliday originally quarreled with). For this, Holliday was fined for assault and battery.

With the exception of Mike Gordon in 1879, there are no newspaper or legal records to match the many unnamed men whom Holliday is credited with killing in popular folklore; the same is true for the several tales of knifings credited to Holliday by early biographers.

Some scholars have argued that Holliday may have allowed his reputation to remain as it was, and in reality may not have killed anyone.


Holliday, by this time, was as well known for his prowess as a gunfighter as for his gambling – although the latter was his trade, and the former simply a reputation.

Through his friendship with Wyatt and the other Earp brothers (especially Morgan and Virgil), Holliday made his way to the silver-mining boom town of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, in September 1880. The Earps had been there since December 1879.

Some accounts state that 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.

O.K. Corral

The gunfight happened in front of, and next to, Fly’s boarding house and picture studio (where Holliday had a room), the day after a late night of hard drinking and poker with Ike Clanton. The Clantons and McLaurys collected in the space between the boarding house and the house west of it, before being confronted by the Earps. Holliday likely thought they were there specifically to assassinate him.

It is known Holliday carried a coach gun from the local stage office into the fight; he was given the weapon just before the fight by Virgil Earp, as Holliday was wearing a long coat which could conceal it. Virgil Earp in turn took Holliday’s walking stick. By not going visibly armed, Virgil was seeking to avoid panic in the citizenry of Tombstone, and in the Clantons and McLaurys.

An inquest and arraignment hearing determined the gunfight was not a criminal act on the part of Holliday and the Earps.

Aftermath of The Gunfight

The situation in Tombstone soon grew worse, when Virgil Earp was ambushed and permanently injured in December 1881. Morgan Earp was ambushed and killed in March 1882.

Holliday and Wyatt Earp stayed in Tombstone to exact retribution on Ike Clanton and the remaining Cowboys.

Their efforts culminated in the Earp Vendetta Ride, where Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and a posse of their friends killed at least four men, in two weeks.

Holliday and four other members of the posse were still faced with warrants for the death of Frank Stilwell, a notorious Cowboy. The group elected to leave the Arizona Territory for New Mexico and then Colorado.

While in Trinidad, Colorado, Wyatt Earp and Holliday parted ways, going separately to different parts of Colorado.

Holliday arrived in Colorado in mid-April 1882.

Denver Extradition Hearing

On May 15, 1882, Holliday was arrested in Denver on the Arizona warrant for murdering Frank Stilwell.

Wyatt Earp – fearing that Holliday would not receive a fair trial in Arizona – asked his friend Bat Masterson, Chief of Police of Trinidad, Colorado, to help get Holliday released. The extradition hearing was set for May 30.

Late in the evening of May 29, Masterson needed help getting an appointment with Colorado Governor Frederick Walker Pitkin. He contacted E. D. Cowen, capital reporter for the Denver Tribune, who held political sway in town.

After meeting with Masterson, Pitkin was persuaded by whatever evidence he presented, and refused to honor Arizona’s extradition request.

Masterson took Holliday to Pueblo, where he was released on bond two weeks after his arrest.

Holliday and Wyatt met briefly after Holliday’s release, during June 1882 in Gunnison.

The Death of Johnny Ringo

On July 14, 1882, Cowboy stalwart Johnny Ringo was found dead in the crotch of a large tree in West Turkey Creek Valley, near Chiricahua Peak, Arizona Territory, with a bullet hole in his right temple and a revolver hanging from a finger of his hand.

The book, “I Married Wyatt Earp”, supposedly written by Josephine Marcus Earp, reported that Wyatt Earp and Holliday returned to Arizona to find and kill Ringo. Actually written by Glen Boyer, the book states that Holliday killed Ringo with a rifle shot at a distance, contradicting the coroner’s ruling that Ringo’s death was a suicide.

However, Boyer’s book has been discredited as a fraud and a hoax that cannot be relied upon.

Official records of the Pueblo County, Colorado District Court indicate that both Holliday and his attorney appeared in court there on July 11, 14 and 18, 1882.

Author Karen Holliday Tanner, in “Doc Holliday, A Family Portrait”, speculated that Holliday may not have been in Pueblo at the time of the court date, citing a writ of habeas corpus issued for him in court on July 11. She believes that only his attorney may have appeared on his behalf that day, in spite of the wording of a court record that indicated he may have appeared in person.

There is no doubt that Holliday arrived in Salida, Colorado on July 7, as reported in a town newspaper. This is 500 miles (800 km) from the site of Ringo’s death – six days before the shooting.

The End of the Line

Holliday spent the rest of his life in Colorado. After a stay in Leadville, he suffered from the high altitude. He increasingly depended on alcohol and laudanum to ease the symptoms of tuberculosis, and his health and his ability to gamble began to deteriorate.

In 1887, prematurely gray and badly ailing, Holliday made his way to the Hotel Glenwood, near the hot springs of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. He hoped to take advantage of the reputed curative power of the waters, but the sulfurous fumes from the spring may have done his lungs more harm than good.

As he lay dying, Holliday is reported to have asked the nurse attending him at the Hotel Glenwood for a shot of whiskey. When she told him no, he looked at his bootless feet, amused. The nurses said that his last words were, “Damn, this is funny.”

Holliday died at 10am, November 8, 1887. He was 36.

Although the legend persists that Wyatt Earp was present when Holliday died, Earp did not learn of Holliday’s death until two months afterward. Big Nose Kate later said she attended to him in his final days, but it is also doubtful that she was present.

In a newspaper interview, Holliday was once asked if his conscience ever troubled him. He is reported to have said, “I coughed that up with my lungs, years ago.”

Big Nose Kate, his long-time companion, remembered Holliday’s reaction after his role in the O.K. Corral gunfight. She reported that Holliday came back to his room, sat on the bed, wept and said, “that was awful – awful”.

Complex, and contradictory.

That wraps it up, for this one.

I hope you’ll join me, for the next installment.

Till then.