Doc Holliday: The Gunslinging Dentist Who Feared No Man

Doc Holliday is probably one of the most peculiar outlaws in the history of Western desperados. He was a skillful gambler, a fearless murderer, and a professional dentist. He traveled the land in the 19th century, shooting and slashing anyone who stood in his way. But the man wasn’t a lone wolf, and to this day, the brotherhood he cultivated with deputy Wyatt Earp is viewed by many as a symbol of loyalty and virtue.

The O.K. Corral gunfight site in Tombstone Arizona / Doc Holliday holding dentistry tools with a man sitting in his chair
Photo by David and Judy Lomax, Shutterstock / Source: Wikimedia Commons

Say what you want about the guy, but Doc was a solid companion and an adequate gunfighter. He stood up for the people he loved and showed no mercy for the ones who crossed him. But what made him especially lethal was the fact that he lived life on the brink of death. And not because people were after him, but because he was sick with a disease that was slowly tearing his lungs apart. Doc’s life is living proof that there’s nothing more deadly than a man with nothing to lose.

A Well-Mannered Boy

“Doc” was born on a warm August day in 1851, in Griffin, Georgia. He was given the name John Henry Holiday by his parents, Henry and Alice, both working-class citizens. The newborn was a great blessing for the young couple, who had lost a baby daughter a year before his birth. Alice loved her son profoundly and instilled good Southern etiquette in him.

Doc Holliday as a younger man
Doc Holliday. Source: Pinterest

Doc grew up to be an avid reader and a curious student, and his love for knowledge accelerated when his mother tragically died from tuberculosis in 1866. A young boy of 15, Doc dove head deep into books about math and science as a way to forget the problems of the world. His hard work paid off, and in 1870, he got into the University of Pennsylvania Dental School.

Gambling for Doc Was Love at First Sight

Shortly after graduation, Doc was cursed with the same disease that took his mother’s life. The diagnosis of tuberculosis was mind-shattering, and doctors gave him only a few months to live. He then decided to move to Dallas, Texas, hoping that a warmer climate might slow down the illness’s progression.

Doc Holliday
Doc Holliday. Source: Pinterest

Nightlife in Dallas was exciting. Doc was lured in by clinks of cups filled to the brim with alcohol. He was tempted by the smoke coming out of bar windows, and, above all, he grew fascinated with card games. It didn’t take long for his newfound hobby to rule his life. Shortly after his arrival in Dallas, Doc had already made a name for himself as a professional gambler in many of the local saloons.

A Deadly Concoction of Money and Alcohol

Doc was a worthy cardplayer at the table, and everyone knew not to deal with this hotheaded gambler. He would drink recklessly as well, which is always cause for more trouble. His growing greediness and love of liquor led him into some ugly fights, and on May 12, 1874, he found himself in a gunfight with a saloon keeper by the name of Charles Austin.

Two men playing a card game
Illustrative Photograph. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

The fight’s outcome wasn’t too dramatic, but it rattled Doc’s spirit enough for him to pack his bags and move across states. First, he worked as a dealer in Denver, where he eventually stabbed a man, then he escaped to Cheyenne, flew to Kansas to meet his aunt, and eventually returned to Texas. No matter where he set foot, Doc was one tough and hostile visitor.

Doc Met a Woman as Fearless as Him

The one thing that usually softens a man’s heart is, of course, a woman. And Doc wasn’t any exception to that rule. When he was back in Texas dealing cards, he met Mary Katherine Horony, also known as “Big Nose Kate.” A “tough, stubborn, and fearless” woman, Kate wasn’t intimidated by the rash vagabond.

A portrait of Mary Katherine Horony
“Big Nose, Kate.” Source: Wikimedia Commons

She was a free-spirited bartender who loved her independence and did whatever job was needed to sustain her lifestyle, including prostitution. Kate and Doc were a perfect fit. Both were intelligent and bold and grew madly in love with another. They married at a dancehall and continued traveling hand in hand.

Kate Set the Whole Town on Fire

Kate would do anything to get her husband out of messy situations. In 1877, Doc got into a fight with a man named Ed Bailey. Ed was considered an arrogant bully, and Doc’s strong reputation around town ticked him off. One evening, as the two were seated at the same card table, he intentionally messed with Doc by violating the rules of the game.

A portrait of Mary Katherine Horony
“Big Nose, Kate.” Source: Pinterest

Doc warned him a few times, but Ed didn’t back down. Instead, he pulled out a gun, but before he could shoot, Doc slashed him across the stomach. Even though he acted in self-defense, Doc was still arrested. Kate was determined to release her lover, so she set a few sheds on fire to create chaos around town, and she made use of the people’s hysteria to disarm the officer who was guarding Doc. The two lovebirds then flew the coop as fast as they could.

The Couple Got into Drunken Arguments

Kate and Doc weren’t always on the road. They settled down for two years in Las Vegas, New Mexico, where they tried to lead a normal life. Doc was a dentist by day and saloon owner by night, and Kate continued her work as an entertainer. But things weren’t normal for long, and the couple’s hotheaded temper usually got the best of them.

Doc Holliday and Mary Katherine Horony posing together
Doc Holliday and Mary Katherine Horony. Source: Pinterest

They were on and off a lot throughout their relationship. Sometimes it would be because Doc would worry about her safety, but other times, they were just drunk and arguing over nothing. One ugly dispute, in particular, led to some false accusations by Kate. She was so angry at Doc that she carelessly signed a written statement accusing him of robbery and murder.

Doc Holliday’s First Victim

Doc’s first victim was a man by the name of Mike Gordon. The deadly encounter happened one humid night in July 1879, when Gordon barged into Doc’s saloon in New Mexico. Reckless and drunk, he grabbed one of Doc’s saloon girls and persuaded her to run away with him. She refused and shoved the poor man off her, but his response was completely out of line.

A portrait of Doc Holliday
Photo by The Art Archive / Shutterstock

He turned around, walked out to the street, and loaded his gun. All of a sudden, a rampage of bullets came flying into Doc’s saloon. Gordon was recklessly firing, and the people in the bar were running around screaming and crying. The nightmare didn’t last very long because Doc stepped out, as cool as can be, and shot him down with a single bullet.

A Fateful Encounter in Dodge City

One evening in a smoke-filled saloon in Dodge City, Doc met his partner in crime, Wyatt Earp. Deputy Earp was working as the assistant to the city’s marshal at the time, and when he overheard gunshots in the nearby saloon, he barged in to see what the noise was all about. Now, there are many versions to this story, but the consensus is that a dozen cowboys stormed in and began vandalizing the saloon.

A portrait photograph of Wyatt Earp wearing a cowboy hat
Wyatt Earp. Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

When Earp entered, the outlaws instantly pointed their guns at him. Doc was playing cards at the far end of the bar but rapidly came to Earp’s rescue when he saw the commotion and pointed his firearm at the intruding cowboys. Nobody truly knows whether there were 12 men or 3, but the story has it that Doc saved Earp’s life. Thus began a great friendship.

They Wanted the Cowboys Gone

The newfound buddies became inseparable and joined forces. Doc, Kate, Wyatt, and his wife, Mattie, traveled around and were eventually joined by Earp’s brothers, Jim and Virgil. The whole crew split up for a while but reunited in Tombstone, Arizona, where a legendary fight was about to unfold.

A portrait photograph of Virgil Earp / A portrait photograph of James Earp
Virgil Earp (left) and James Earp (right). Photo by Granger, Shutterstock / Source: Wikimedia Commons

Story has it that the Earps arrived in Tombstone before Doc, and they called for his assistance after some disputes with a gang known as the Cowboys. Comprised of the Clanton and McLaury brothers, the Cowboys were cattle rustlers, and the Earps wanted them gone. A rivalry formed between the gangs, and it was only a matter of time before things got ugly.

The Legendary Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

The final showdown between the gangs took place one October evening in 1881. Virgil, Wyatt, Morgan, and Doc were armed and ready to take down the Cowboys. The shoot-out didn’t technically take place in the O.K. Corral saloon but in a vacant lot behind it. Again, different versions of the gunfight tell a different tale.

Reenactors outside of the O.K. Corral saloon
Reenactment of the gunfight. Photo by Geoff Moore / Shutterstock

Some say Doc pulled out a nickel-plated pistol or fired his long, bronze-colored gun. Regardless of the weapon, the victim who suffered the blow was Tom McLaury, whose chest was blasted by the bullet. Tom’s brother, Frank, supposedly fired back at Doc as he yelled, “I’ve got you now!” But he never did, and the McLaury brothers bled to death. Shortly after, Billy Clanton joined them on the ground.

Danger Loomed Around Every Corner

The shooting was a rapid, 30-second ordeal. The Earps and Doc triumphed over the Cowboys, but their gloating didn’t last very long. They were arrested shortly after, and word quickly spread around town. The public didn’t know what to think. Was the shooting justified? No one really knew.

Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp walking to the gunfight
Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp in ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.’ Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

After a gruesome 30-day hearing, the ruling was finally announced. The judge viewed their acts as a form of self-defense and acquitted the outlaws. Although they weren’t thrown behind bars, the Earps and Doc were surrounded by many outraged citizens, and danger was looming in every corner. You can even say that they might have been better off in jail.

Earp Vendetta Ride

Following the incident, Vigil Earp was ambushed and severely injured. A few months later, Morgan Earp was violently killed. That was the final straw. Wyatt and Doc felt that they had to avenge the brothers, and they went on a killing spree of their own. They fought on top of hills, stumbled their way across rivers, and left their enemies bleeding to death face down in the cold spring waters.

Jason Priestley, Kurt Russell, and Val Kilmer on horses in a scene from Tombstone
A film still from the movie Tombstone. Photo by Hollywood / Cinergi / Kobal / Shutterstock

At this point, Doc and Wyatt were practically brothers. Wyatt once recalled Doc to be the “nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever knew.” But most important of all, he was “a loyal friend and good company.” They were a strange pair. A well-educated, sharp-dressed dentist traveling with a law-abiding man who is also a criminal in many ways. But somehow, it worked.

Who Killed Johnny Ringo?

Johnny Ringo was another western outlaw associated with the Cowboys from Tombstone, and he was one of Doc’s long-time enemies. He was found dead near Chiricahua Peak, Arizona, with a bullet hole in his right temple and a revolver in his hand. His death was ruled a suicide because there was no evidence for anything else that went down there. But manuscripts written by Wyatt Earp’s third wife claim otherwise.

A portrait of Johnny Ringo
Johnny Ringo. Source: Pinterest

She wrote that Wyatt and Doc traveled to Arizona, found Ringo in the valley, and shot him dead. That seems like enough evidence to point fingers straight at Doc, right? But a lot of people are still skeptical. For one, the manuscripts aren’t credible. Many researchers, including The New York Times contributor, Allen Barra, called the writings a hoax.

An Ugly Partition

The moment finally arrived when Doc and Wyatt split for good. They were eating at a restaurant in Albuquerque and began fighting over something. But the topic of argument wasn’t the problem. It was some ethnic comment that Doc blurted out that really got to Wyatt. He said something about Wyatt becoming “a damn Jew-boy.”

The O.K. Corral gunfight site in Tombstone Arizona
The O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. Photo by David and Judy Lomax / Shutterstock

At the time, Wyatt was staying with a Jewish businessman by the name of Henry N. Jaffa. During his stay, Wyatt respected Jaffa’s Jewish traditions, like kissing the mezuzah or lighting candles on Sabbath. Wyatt’s wife was also Jewish, so Doc’s offensive remark hit close to home, and he took it quite seriously.

A Funny Death

Doc Holliday was now alone. He split with his lover, Kate, after the fight in O.K. Corral, and now Wyatt, his one and only confidant, threw him out of his life as well. After the separation, Doc moved to Glenwood Springs, Colorado, where his health continued to deteriorate. Tuberculosis never ceased to be his most imminent threat.

Doc Holliday sitting in a chair
Source: Twitter

On November 8, 1887, a skeletal, 36-year-old Doc was on his death bed. Lying in a room at the Hotel Glenwood, the reckless outlaw, who had outrun a ridiculous number of enemies throughout the years, took his final shot of whiskey and chuckled to himself, “This is funny.” News of his death spread rapidly, and people found it hard to believe he was actually gone.

His Burial Remains A Mystery

The exact location of Doc’s grave is a bit of a mystery. Some believe he was buried in Linwood Cemetery, but others claim that it was too difficult to transport him there because the roads were too icy in November. And the ground was probably frozen, so digging a grave was out of the question.

Hotel Glenwood Springs, where Doc Holliday died
Hotel Glenwood. Source: Pinterest

A newspaper report put these speculations aside and explicitly stated that Doc was indeed buried in Linwood Cemetery. Some say that years later, his father had him reburied in Griffin’s Oak Hill Cemetery, and in 1893, he was buried beside his son. To be honest, nobody truly knows where Doc is. His bones are probably scattered in someone’s backyard.

One of the Most Fearless Men on the Frontier

No matter where he went, Doc Holliday became a notorious figure. Some feared him, some admired him, but they all pretty much respected him. His acts were questionable, but his fearless character and loyal values impressed the masses. His obituary, appearing in the Leadville Carbonate Chronicle on November 14, 1887, stated the following:

A photograph of Doc Holliday
Source: Pinterest

“There is scarcely no one in the country who had acquired greater notoriety than Doc Holliday, who enjoyed the reputation of being one of the most fearless men on the frontier, and whose devotion to his friends in the climax of the fiercest ordeal was inextinguishable. It was this, more than any other faculty that secured for him the reverence of a large circle who were prepared on the shortest notice to rally to his relief.”

An Admired Brotherhood

Doc’s friendship with deputy Wyatt has become the prototype of sidekicks in Western movies. The 1993 film Tombstone portrays the relationship between the partners in crime as one of great loyalty and adherence. For better or for worse, the duo stuck together.

Val Kilmer, Sam Elliot, Bill Paxton, and Kurt Russell walking through the streets in the film Tombstone
A film still of the movie Tombstone. Photo by Moviestore / Shutterstock

Their legacy lives on, and a life-size statue of the two has been sculpted by Dan Bates and can be found in the Tucson train yards, the very same place where they killed Frank Stillwell (the man who likely shot Wyatt’s brother, Earp). The sculpture was unveiled on March 20, 2005, and has attracted tourists ever since.

Doc Holliday Day

The people of Doc’s birthplace, Griffin, Georgia, think highly of the outlaw. Each year they remember him by holding a “Doc Holliday Day.” This event is a huge deal, and its inauguration in 2017 welcomed over 20,000 visitors. It’s a weekend-long festival that honors the legend with some interesting performances.

A portrait of Doc Holliday
Source: Pinterest

The festivities include a look-alike contest, a peach pie-eating contest, a parade, and (obviously fake) gunfights. The highlight is usually a creative reenactment of one of Doc’s showdowns. Each person dresses up as a different member. Some are Doc’s enemies; others dress up as the Earp brothers, and some dress up as the legend himself.

How Many People Did the Deadly Dentist Kill?

There’s a lot of fake news surrounding Doc’s life, and some of the rumors are probably even his doing. He had a big mouth and used to boast about his successful encounters with others. So, Doc’s self-promotion, in addition to a lot of information that was passed by word-of-mouth, makes it incredibly hard to ascertain the accurate number of casualties he was responsible for throughout his notorious career.

Doc Holliday holding dentistry tools with a man sitting in his chair
Source: Wikimedia Commons

But historians have reached a conclusion and one that might come as a surprise. Despite his reputation as “the deadly dentist,” they claim that Doc only killed three men. But take this number with a grain of salt. Some people swear that he’s responsible for at least 30 deaths, while others have counted as few as two.

The Wild West is full of notorious outlaws. Let’s take a look a look at another deadly fugitive, Jesse James.