View Full Version : Good Morning...A western legend passes

11/8/2006, 07:33 AM
Nov. 8, 1887: "Doc" Holliday succumbs to tuberculosis at age 36.

119 years ago, on this day in 1887, John Henry "Doc" Holliday--gunslinger, gambler, and occasional dentist--dies of tuberculosis.

Though he was perhaps most famous for his participation in the shootout at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, "Doc" Holliday earned his bad reputation well before that famous feud

Doc Holliday, Dodge City dentist. photo c.1878

Shortly after graduating from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery and establishing a successful Atlanta dental practice, the well-educated John Henry Holliday, D.D.S. discovered that he was suffering from a slowly advancing case of pulmonary tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed his mother when he was fifteen years old.

On the advice of his family physician, who was also his uncle, he left his aristocratic Georgia home in 1873 (at the age of 22) and attempted to establish a dental career in Dallas, where the family hoped that the dry climate might prolong his life.

But his Texas dental practice flagged (partly due to his illness and partly due to his increasing involvement in Dallas night life), and he soon found himself giving up dentistry for the life of a roving professional gambler. At various times, he practiced dentistry along with gambling.

Doc at age 22

Doc apparently used his dental practice as something of a cover at times, but he also took pride in his work (he was, by all accounts, a very good dentist). His livelihood, however, was mostly derived from his skill at the card table, which was substantial.

He dealt faro and Spanish monte and played poker. His keen intelligence and particular skill in mathematics stood him in good stead, as he could quickly calculate percentages and count cards. He didn't often need to cheat during a card game, although he was not entirely honest in his faro dealing.

Faro, also known as "Bucking the Tiger," was the most popular game in gambling halls in the US in this period. To learn more about the game go here, click on "card games" and choose "Faro":


Almost no actual faro dealers of the time were entirely honest—and Doc owned a fine pair of card-trimming shears as well as other implements of the trade. He moved around a lot, due to the nature of his gambling pursuits, and he became involved in a number of armed confrontations, although he is undoubtedly most famous for the part he played in the shootout near the OK Corral with the Earp brothers in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881.

In 1877, the gambler-drifter Doc met the love of his life in Fort Griffin, TX. She was a Hungarian-doctor’s-daughter-turned-prostitute, called "Big Nose Kate" Fisher a.k.a. Elder (Kate, whose real name was Harony, had apparently run away from home at the age of 16 for the same reason some teens run away today: to escape a sexually abusive male relative).


Kate's nickname was generally only used by people who wished to disparage her as “Big-nose Kate.” She did have an aquiline nose, but not a particularly large or prominent one by most standards.

Despite his formidable reputation as a deadly gunslinger, Doc Holliday only engaged in eight shootouts during his life, and it has only been verified that he killed two men. Still, the smartly dressed dentist from Atlanta had a remarkably fearless attitude toward death and danger, probably because he always knew he was slowly dying from tuberculosis.

In 1879, Holliday settled in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where he opened a saloon with a partner. Holliday spent his evenings gambling in the saloon and he seemed determined to stress his health condition by heavy drinking. A notorious cad, Holliday also enjoyed the company of the dance hall girls that the partners hired to entertain the customers--which sometimes sparked trouble.

On July 19, 1879, a former army scout named Mike Gordon tried to persuade one of Holliday's saloon girls to quit her job and run away with him. When she refused, Gordon became infuriated. He went out to the street and began to fire randomly into the saloon. He didn't have a chance to do much damage--after the second shot, Holliday calmly stepped out of the saloon and despite being quite intoxicated, Holliday dropped Gordon with a single shot fired off hand. Gordon died the next day.

The following year in 1880, Holliday abandoned the saloon business and joined his old friend Wyatt Earp in Tombstone, Arizona. There he would kill his second victim, during the famous "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" in October 1881. During the subsequent six years, Holliday assisted at several other killings and wounded a number of men in gun battles.

The hotel/health club where Doc died in Glenwood Hot Springs CO.

His hard drinking and tuberculosis eventually caught up with him, and he retired to a Colorado health resort where he died on this day in 1887. Struck by the irony of such a peaceful end to a violent life, his last words reportedly were "This is funny."

Buried in a cemetery in the Glenwood Hot Springs CO where he died -- the footstone is merely an attempt to deter those who might wish to vandalize the grave.

As an aside, my personal favorite film portrayal of the the coolest DDS who ever strapped on a gunbelt, was the one done by Val Kilmer in the 1993 film "Tombstone." Val Kilmer is exactly Doc’s height and build (pale and slender at 160 pounds, but not skeletal at 6 feet tall), and his costuming is accurate, for the most part right down to the cravat and diamond stickpin. Kilmer’s portrayal captures Doc’s aristocratic Georgia accent, his age (30 years—the youngest of his OK Corral party), good looks, education and culture, gambling skill, drinking, cough, pallor, wit, outward attitude, and, of course, his loyalty to Wyatt Earp.

Kilmer as Doc

Incidentally, the famous "I'm your huckleberry" line from the film probably wasn't spoken by the real Doc. Whether he did or did not use this colorful phrase, however, it does capture a nineteenth-century southernism that, in this instance, means “I’m your man” or “I’m just what you want.”

Doc did use southern and western slang expressions, and he was certainly not one to back down from an armed challenge. According to biographers, what he said to Ringo was: “All I want of you is ten paces out in the street.”


11/8/2006, 09:26 AM
Hoo man...I love this stuff Homey. He sure died younger than I imagined. What a life he packed in 36 years though. Must see the site of the OK Corral incident some day. Thanks!