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Doc Holliday – Legendary Gunfighter of the Old West

With a gun, a deck of cards and a whiskey bottle, this tubercular dentist from Georgia created a legend in the Old West that endures to this day. This page explores the life and times of John Henry Holliday, better known to historians as Doc Holliday.

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Books about Doc Holliday

Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait
by Karen Holliday Tanner
      John H. Holliday, D. D. S., better known as Doc Holliday, has become a legendary figure in the history of the American West. In Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait, Karen Holliday Tanner reveals the real man behind the legend. Shedding light on Holliday’s early years, in a prominent Georgia family during the Civil War and Reconstruction, she examines the elements that shaped his destiny: his birth defect, the death of his mother and estrangement from his father, and the diagnosis of tuberculosis, which led to his journey west. The influence of Holliday’s genteel upbringing never disappeared, but it was increasingly overshadowed by his emerging western personality. Holliday himself nurtured his image as a frontier gambler and gunman.       Using previously undisclosed family documents and reminiscences as well as other primary sources, Tanner documents the true story of Doc’s friendship with the Earp brothers and his run-ins with the law, including the climactic shootout at the O. K. Corral and its aftermath.
      This first authoritative biography of Doc Holliday should appeal both to historians of the West and to general readers who are interested in his poignant story.
      “Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait will be considered the definitive Holliday biography and will supplant all previously published works on the man’s life as a complete and authoritative account. This book will undoubtedly take a place among the foremost books in the Western gunfighter genre.” – Robert K. DeArment, author of Alias Frank Canton
338 pages, University of Oklahoma Press; First Edition, 1998.

Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend
by Gary L. Roberts
In Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend, the historian Gary Roberts takes aim at the most complex, perplexing, and paradoxical gunfighter of the Old West, drawing on more than twenty years of research-including new primary sources-in his quest to separate the life from the legend. Doc Holliday was a study in contrasts: the legendary gunslinger who made his living as a dentist; the emaciated consumptive whose very name struck fear in the hearts of his enemies; the degenerate gambler and alcoholic whose fierce loyalty to his friends compelled him, more than once, to risk his own life; and the sidekick whose near-mythic status rivals that of the West’s greatest heroes. With lively details of Holliday’s spirited exploits, his relationships with such Western icons as Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson, and the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, this book sheds new light on one of the most mysterious figures of frontier history.
544 pages, Wiley, 2007.

Doc Holliday
by John Myers Myers
“John Myers Myers has written Doc’s story with a skill that matches the sureness of a bullet from Doc’s gun.”- Dallas Times Herald.
“As for the general reader, he’ll eat this up and beg for more.”- San Francisco Chronicle. 224 pages, Bison Books, 1973.

Doc Holliday in Film and Literature
by Shirley Ayn Linder
Foreword by Paul A. Hutton
The legend of Doc Holliday is now well past a century old. While his time on earth was brief, troubled and filled with pain, his legend took wings and flew. Beginning with his part in the now famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Denver newspapers first told his story in the late 19th century. They, followed by words of Wyatt Earp, grasped the glimmer of his tale. So enamored was the public that by 1939 he was a literary icon and his character had appeared in eight films. Historians, authors, screenwriters and eventually television refined the legend, which reached its apex perhaps with the 1993 film Tombstone. Doc Holliday’s image has neither dimmed nor wavered in the 21st century. Broadway, country music and art join with literature and film to continue his mystique as the personification of a surviving legend of the U.S. West. 200 pages, McFarland, 2014.

John Henry Holliday
A Chronological Biography

August 14, 1851 – John Henry Holliday born in Griffin, Georgia, to Henry Burroughs Holliday and Alice Jane McKey Holliday.

September 1873 – In September 1873 John Henry Holliday, D.D.S., of Atlanta, Georgia, boarded the Western and Atlantic train. He was bound for Dallas, Texas, where, it was hoped, the dry climate would cure his consumption and eventually allow him to return. All the family members who had played an important role in his life were gathered at the depot to see him off, with the notable exception of the most important of all, his mother, who had died seven years earlier.

It was hot and humid that morning when the family gathered at the Western and Atlantic Depot to bid John Henry farewell. Henry Holliday had stayed in Atlanta in order to see his son off on his trip. Father and son awkwardly embraced, and John Henry certainly promised to keep in touch. He shook hands with his cousin Robert and hugged Aunt Permelia and Uncle John, who gave him a small package containing a diamond stickpin. John Henry could never have anticipated such a generous gift. He also had a big hug for Sophie, who had tears in her eyes. She hoped that he would be able to find some companions with whom he could spend his time and have the same kind of fun as they had had around the old Holliday kitchen table.

With a final good-bye, John Henry turned and boarded the 8:30 A.M. train, beginning his trip west. He was on his way to Texas.

October 26, 1881 – Doc Holiday participates in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (from Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait by Karen Holliday Tanner): Doc met up with Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan at Hafford’s Corner Saloon at Fourth and Allen Streets. They formed an imposing group, all about six feet tall and nicely attired in dark suits and coats. This intimidating foursome ranged in age from Virgil, the eldest at thirty-eight, down through Wyatt, who was thirty -three, Morgan at age thirty, and Doc, the youngest–also thirty, although four months younger than Morgan. Reuben Coleman, a local miner, approached the group and told them that he had just encountered Ike and Billy Clanton with Frank and Tom McLaury. He said that he had been standing in from of the O.K. Corral on Allen Street when the two Clantons and two McLaurys waked back through the corral, armed and obviously looking for trouble. Coleman had suggested to Sheriff Behan that he go to disarm the troublesome group befor anyone got hurt. He made the same suggestion to city marshal Virgil Earp, Coleman, accompanied by one of the local gamblers, Billy Allen, then left and walked back through the O.K. Corral toward Fremont Street. Virgil, in an apparent effort to appear more authoritarian, borrowed Doc’s cane. In return, Doc was given Virgil’s shotgun to carry. The four of them started walking.

Marshal Earp, carrying Doc’s cane, had the air of a man who demanded respect. Escorted by his two brothers and Doc Holliday, acting as deputies, he went to disarm Ike and Billy Clanton and Frank and Tom McLaury, knowing full well that the four cowboys were looking for a fight and would not peacefully give up their guns. At about half past two on that cold afternoon of October 26, 1881, Marshal Virgil Earp, Deputies Wyatt and Morgan Earp, and John Henry Holliday walked up Fourth Street. When they turned the corner onto Fremont Street, they saw that the two Clantons and the two McLaurys had been joined by Billy Claiborne and were standing in the vacant lot west of Fly’s Boarding House. The cowboys, unaware that Holliday was not still there, were waiting to catch him by surprise as he left fly’s. They planned to make good on Ike’s threats of the night before to kill him.

As they approached the cowboys, Doc heard one of the Earps say, “Let them have it.” Doc replied, “all right.” Then Marshal Virgil Earp called out to the cowboys: “Throw up your hands.” Two shots were immediately heard. It is not known, nor is it important to know, who fired the first shot, though most likely it was fired by Wyatt, hitting Fran McLaury in the stomach. This fight was destined to happen, and it could have been any of the participants who pulled the trigger first. Doc had been the focus of Ike’s wrath the night before as well as the object of his search earlier in the day, which culminated in the cowboys’ taking their stance next door to Doc’s residence. Certainly Doc needed to vent the many months of anger that had built up over the innuendos and gossip concerning the killing of Bud Philpot. Doc had the most justification to fire the first shot. However, armed with a shotgun, he awaited the opportune moment to enter the fray.

During the next twenty to thirty seconds, as the shooting became general, Billy Clanton was struck by several bullets. Doc fired his shotgun, striking Tom McLaury who ran down Fremont Street and fell dead from twelve buckshot wounds on the right side, all withing a four-inch diameter. Morgan Earp was shot in the right shoulder. The bullet penetrated his shoulder muscle, continued across his back, clipping a vertebra, and exited through his left shoulder. Virgil was shot through the right calf. Doc then tossed the shotgun, drew his pistol, and started firing at the wounded Frank McLaury in the middle of Fremont Street. About ten to twelve feet from Doc, Frank McLaury yelled, “I’ve got you this time.” Doc responded, “Blaze away! You’re a daisy of you have.” Both Mornan and Doc returned Frank McLaury’s fire. Doc was struck on his holster and yelled, “I am shot right through.” Moran Earp fell; when Frank McLaury also fell, Doc ran toward him yelling, “The son-of-a-bitch has shot me, and I mean to kill him.” Frank McLaury was in his final death throe and died from a head wound beneath the right ear and a wound in the abdomen.

Within a minute, the months of tension climaxed and the shooting ended. The McLaury brothers and Billy Clanton were dead. Ike Clanton and Billy Claiborne had escaped death when the fled. Doc returned to his room at Fly’s Boarding House. According to Kate, he came in, sat on the side of the bed, cried, and said, “Oh, this is just awful–awful.” He was all broken up. She asked, “Are you hurt?” Doc said no, but when he removed his clothing there was a red streak about two inches long across his hip where Frank McLaury’s bullet had grazed him.

January 17, 1882 – A confrontation between Doc Holliday and John Ringo in the streets of Tombstone: The tension (from the wounding of Virgil Earp) carried over into the new year when Doc and John Ringo had a confrontation on Tuesday, January 17, 1882. The diary of George W. Parsons contained the following notation for that day: “Much bad blood in the air this afternoon. Ringo and Doc Holiday [sic] came nearly having it with pistols…. Bad time expected with the cowboy leader and D. H. I passed both not knowing blood was up. One with hand in breast pocket and the other probably ready.” Parsons later wrote: “I heard the latter [Holliday] say ‘All I want of you is ten paces out in the street.’ A few paces way was Wyatt, and across the street was a man with a rifle watching proceedings. The stage was complete for an encounter but it did not come off at that time.” The new chief of police, James Flynn (who had replaced the injured Virgil), quickly intervened, and both Doc and Ringo were arrested for carrying weapons on the street. They subsequently appeared in Judge Albert Wallace’s court and were each fined thirty dollars.

November 8, 1887 – About ten o’clock on the morning of November 8, 1887, Doctor John Henry Holliday died at the Hotel Glenwood in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, of miliary tuberculosis. He was buried near Palmer Avenue and Twelfth Street in the Linwood Cemetery that afternoon at four o’clock at a service attended by many friends. Kate arranged for the eulogy to be delivered by the Reverend W. S. Rudolph of the Presdyterian Church.

After the brief service, Kate returned to the Hotel Glenwood and gathered together John Henry’s few belongings. These possessions, along with a brief letter, were shipped in a small trunk to the Holliday family in Atlanta in care of Sister Mary Melanie of the Order of the Sisters of Mercy. Upon notification of the trunk’s arrival, Sister Mary Melanie, concerned with the propriety of her situation, prevailed upon her uncle, Dr. John Stiles Holliday, to collect the trunk and its contents. Dr. Holliday grimly went to the train station from which he had bid John Herry good-bye fourteen years earlier. Upon receiving the articles, he gave Sister Mary Melanie the letter that she had written to John Henry. Dr. Holliday wrote to his brother, Maj. Henry Burroughs Holliday, in Valdosta, seeking guidance concerning the disposition of the remainder of John Henry’s belongings. As there was nothing of personal interest to him among the belongings, Major Holliday asked his brother to handle the disposal. The clothers were given to the needy. Dr. Holliday’s son Robert requested and received the remaining possessions. Significantly, the trunk contained no dental equipment or guns. In addition to the Sheffield straight razor found among his personal toilet items, only a small knife, a gold stickpin from which the diamond had been removed, and a few gambling devices testified to the real career of John Henry Holliday, D.D.S.