The majority of the following biography, was taken from : Doc Holliday:
A Family Portrait, Karen Holliday Tanner, Oklahoma Press, 1998
John Henry Holliday
John Henry Holliday was born in 1851 to parents,
Henry B. Holliday and Alice Jane McKey.
Henry's brother, Dr. John Stiles Holliday, would deliver the little boy destined
to become one of the most notable figures in Old Western history.
The young Holliday would be named after his father and the uncle who delivered
Six weeks prior to John's baptism in the Presbyterian church of his family,
his father was commissioned as the first clerk of the Superior Court for
Spalding County on Feb. 5, 1852. Spalding County had been created three months
earlier in 1851. This position would offer the family financial and political
security. Little John would be very sheltered by his mother due to being
born in poor health.
The Holliday men were like most well-bred southern gentlemen of the era.The
ability to handle a weapon with both skill and ease was a part of their education.
It was important not just for protection, but also for sporting purposes
among the well-to-do families such as the Holliday's. It was simply part
of their social status.
In 1866, John Henry's mother, Alice Jane, passed away after struggling for
two years with an illness. The illness is presumed to have been tuberculosis.
Prior to her death, Alice Jane abandoned the Presbyterian Church. On her
deathbed, she returned to the Methodist beliefs she had been taught as a
child. She specifically rejected the Presbyterian doctrine of predestined
salvation and did not want John Henry to grow up thinking that she accepted
it. She saw to it that her beliefs were put in writing so that he would know
specifically what she did believe. She had only become a Presbyterian to
satisfy John Henry's father. Following his mother's death, John Henry Holliday
promptly became a Methodist.
Sophie Walton, the former slave of the Holliday family, remained with them
after the war and was the nanny for John Henry. She was an expert card player
and taught John Henry all about cards. She taught him a method known as "skinning".
This method made it possible for a skillful player to determine the outcome
of the game. John Henry would become very skillful with this method and with
cards in general. John Henry learned from Sophie how to "skin" cards from
the deck to influence the outcome of the game. He devoted much time to perfecting
this so he could trick his cousins.
In the late 1860's, John Henry was involved in a shooting incident. It occured
at a swimming hole that was used by whites and a number of blacks had
gathered. John Henery's uncle, Thomas McKey, was the only witness when John
Henry fired over the heads of the young black children in order to scare
them off. This incident was repeatedly exaggerated in the retelling until
some began going so far as to call it a massacre, instead of the minor event
it really was. Following this incident, John Henry was sent to live with
his Uncle John and Aunt Permelia. During this stay, Dr. Holliday convinced
John Henry of the need for continued education. Dr. Holliday told young John
Henry that the field of denistry was the up and coming field and advised
him to pursue that field and not family medicine as he had.
In 1870, John Henry enrolled in the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery
in Philadelphia. During his first year of instruction he operated on thirty-nine
patients. One, a six year old girl, was brought to the school because it
performed dental services at no cost. This was done to give the students
"hands on" experience. For this six year old little girl, John Henry created
a crown of pure swaged gold and attached it to the child's diseased molar
with red copper cement. This crown remained intact until the little girl
died at the age of 102 in 1967.
On Friday, March 1, 1872, John Henry graduated with the degree of Doctor
of Dental Surgery. John Henry would return to Atlanta were his Uncle resided
to begin his new career in Denistry. On Sunday's, John Henry regularly attended
the First Methodist Episcopal Church. John Henry would join the practice
of Arthur C. Ford, one of the most esteemed dentists in Georgia.
In 1872, around Christmas time, John Henry began losing weight. The loss
was barely noticable to begin with. Six months later, in the summer of 1873,
he developed a nagging cough that forced him to take some time off. When
the cough did not subside, he sought his uncle's assistance in diagnosing
a possible ailment. His uncle confirmed John Henry's fears. Pulmonary tuberculosis.
The elder Dr. Holliday advised John to seek out a climate of warm, dry air
combined with a nutritious diet, a moderate amount of wine, and prolonged
John Henry would depart for Dallas, Texas in an effort to relieve the symptoms
and hope for a recovery. Through help from Dr. Ford, John Henry was offered
a partnership in Dallas with Dr. John A. Seegar. In September of 1873, John
Henry would arrive in Dallas. John Henry, still mindful of his mother's wishes,
would join the Methodist Episcopal Church, on the corner of Lamar Street.
Due to poor economic times, John Henry had spare time on his hands. It did
not take long for him to discover the St. Charles Saloon on Main Street,
with it's popular gaming tables. He was also a regular at the Alhambra Saloon.
John Henry soon learned of how similar the game of Faro was with the "skinning"
game he learned from Sophie. He soon became a player that was respected due
to his skills he had mastered with cards. The more success John had with
cards, combined with his ailment getting worse set John Henry on the fast
track to becoming a professional gambler. On March 2, 1874, John Henry and
Dr. Seegar disolved their partnership as a mutual consent. Dr. Seegar did
not approve of John's new lifestyle and trade.
Even though John Henry was ending his partnership as a dentist, he continued
to take great pride in his appearance. Dressing in the finest made imported
clothing. His manners matched his attire. He began to carry the revolver
his Uncle John Stiles Holliday had given him. he drank bourbon and gambled.
This was still within the code of his upbringing. His religious instruction
did not consider these things as bad or evil.
In the fall of 1874, John Henry had left Dallas for Denison, Texas. January
1, 1875, found John Henry back in Dallas ushering in the New Year at the
St. Charles Saloon. Though the exact circumstances are not recorded, John
Henry and saloon keeper Charlie Austin were both arrested for shooting at
each other. One week later, John Henry was found not guily after the evidence
was presented. He returned to Denison. Poor economic times there made him
decide to move again. He would head to Colorado hoping for better control
of his disease and better economic times. He would arrive in the summer of
1875, in Denver.
In an attempt to get a fresh start, he would use the alias Tom Mackey. He
was hired to work as a dealer in the Theatre Comique. Here he managed to
to live peacefully with no significant events recorded. On Christmas day
in 1887, shortly after John Henry's death, a journalist would fabricate a
story in the Denver Republican in which he claimed John Henry "electrified
the town by nearly cutting the head off of a Budd Ryan, a well known Denver
gambler. Even Bat Masterson would later perpetuate the story as being true.
The event never happened, but many writers continue to state it as fact.
In 1877, John Henry pulled up stakes and headed to Kansas City. By June of
1877, he had returned to Denison and elsewhere in Texas. John Henry wound
up in Ft. Griffin. Here, John Henry settled into a daily routine of cards
at the Cattle Exchange Saloon. Here he encountered Kate Elder, an educated
twenty-six-year-old of Hungarian descent. In 1874, Kate had been arrested
and fined in Wichita, Kansas, for working in a "sporting house" run by Sallie
and Bessie (Mrs. James) Earp. Here it is thought she also met Wyatt Earp.
John Henry found Kate to be his equal in an intellectual sense. The two became
a pair and they lived together off and on the rest of Doc's life.
In the fall of 1877, Wyatt Earp and Celia Ann "Mattie" Blaylock arrived in
Ft. Griffin. Wyatt would spend some time talking with the well dressed faro
dealer, John Henry Holliday, during his time in Ft. Griffin. By the time
Wyatt left town, a friendship had begun to emerge between himself and the
man that would come to be known as Doc Holliday. This was the beginning of
a relationship that would bind the well-bred southern dentist to the rough
and tough Earp brothers. He and Wyatt would become as devoted to each other
as blood brothers. The family bond that Doc had grew up with, was now missing
and he must have craved that again. He found it with the Earps and after
the events in Dodge City, it would last for the rest of Doc's life.
According to Wyatt Earp, Doc and Kate left Ft. Griffin after an event in
the Cattle Exchange Saloon. Doc was playing poker with Ed Bailey, a local
resident. Bailey was sitting to Doc's right "monkeying" with the discarded
pile of cards. Doc warned him a couple of times to "play poker". The next
time Bailey looked at the discarded pile, Doc claimed the pot without showing
his hand, an act well within the gamblers' code. Bailey started to "throw
his gun" on Doc, who jerked out his knife and "caught Bailey just below the
brisket." The Marshal placed Doc under "house arrest", confining him to his
room, until he could determine if it was truly self defense on the part of
Doc. Some of towns people, however, had a hanging in mind. Kate set a nearby
shed on fire to divert attention and she and Doc quickly left Ft. Griffin.
In early 1878 Doc and Kate headed north toward Dodge City. As they made their
way north, Doc wrote to his cousin Martha Anne Holliday from Texas, "I enjoyed
about as much of this place as I could stand." He would maintain close ties
to his cousin. Prior to leaving Ft. Griffin, Wyatt had informed Doc of Dodge
City and the excitement it offered. Doc would now follow Wyatt's earlier
destination to the same place. In the spring of 1878, Doc and Kate arrived
in Dodge City, Kansas.
In Dodge, true to form, John Henry kept up his image. He continued to dress
immaculately, each day wearing a freshly laundered, starched, and ironed
shirt, usually pastel in color. He customarily finished off his attire
with a cravat held in place by his diamond stickpin and a gray coat. Once
again, Doc established a dental practice that, as always, helped him maintain
his sense of professionalism, which remained an important part of his self
image. The town was very much in need of his services.
Though there was a strong Methodist movement in Dodge, by this point Doc
had left his religious convictions behind him. There is no record he was
involved in the church while in Dodge City. That would mark the first time
in his life he wasn't attending a church on a regular basis.
John Henry and the only real Doctor of family medicine in town, Dr. Tom McCarty,
estabilshed a friendship. They were close in age and both educated in Philadelphia.
Dr. McCarty would refer his patients in need of dental work to John Henry.
Dr. McCarty was an important figure in town. Dr. McCarty at 29 years old,
two older than John Henry, had done a lot. He was one of the original founders
of Dodge City, as well as one of the founders of the Catholic Church in town.
Here in Dodge City, John Henry would become acquainted with the sheriff and
the marshals of the area-including the Masterson brothers, Ed, Bat, and Jim.
The post of City Marshal was held by Ed Masterson. After he was gunned down
on April 9, 1878, By Jack Wagner and Alf Walker, the job was given to Charles
E. Bassett. Ed's brother, Bat, was sheriff of Ford County, having been elected
five months earlier on Nov. 5, 1877. Soon after the killing of Ed Masterson,
Wyatt and Mattie arrived back in town.
On May 12, 1878, Wyatt was appointed to be Bassett's assistant. Doc would
develop lasting relationships with many of the peace officers in Dodge.
John Henry appears to have avoided any scrapes with the law while in Dodge
City. In fact, his close friendships garnered for something of an identification
as a shirt-tail lawman. Andy Adams, a trail cowboy from Texas, wrote that
"the roster of peace officials in Dodge City...during the brief span of the
trail days, were the brothers, Ed, Jim, and Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Jack
Bridges, 'Doc' Holliday, Charles Bassett, William Tillman, 'Shotgun' Collins,
Mayor A.B. Webster, and 'Mysterious' Dave Mather."
On September 24, 1878, Wyatt Earp found himself in a situation that would
become one of the most told events of his adventerous life. Though the versions
differ, the main theme of the event has never changed. As Wyatt later told
the story, while under oath testifying in Tombstone, "I am a friend of Doc
Holliday because when I was marshal of Dodge City, Kansas, he came to my
rescue and saved my life when I was surrounded by desperadoes." Following
an interview in 1896, a reporter related Wyatt's words: Doc saw a man draw
on me from behind my back. 'Lookout Wyatt!' he shouted, but while the words
were coming out of his mouth he had jerked his pistol out of his pocket and
shot the other fellow before the latter could fire." Wyatt always credited
Doc with saving his life in Dodge City. This would seal the friendship and
Wyatt and Doc would be extremely devoted to each other.
In the fall of 1878, Doc's health became more of a concern and Doc and Kate
headed out of Dodge City to Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory, on the Santa
Fe trail, well known as a haven for people with tuberculosis. Doc would establish
a dental practice on arrival. He rented a room in a building shared by a
jewler named William Leonard. Leonard and Holliday formed a friendship that
Doc would have no way of knowing would cause him problems later on. The Territory
passed a law banning gambling and on March 8, 1879, Doc was indicted under
this new statute for "Keeping a gaming table". Doc plead guilty and paid
a 25.00 fine and court costs. All things considered, Doc decided to leave
las Vegas and head back to Dodge City. There is no record that Kate went
with him at this time.
In 1879, Doc returned to Vegas and opened a saloon. Kate would again be with
him. He called it the Holliday Saloon and Gaming Concession. Doc and Kate
were happy in Vegas and had planned to stay awhile. That changed when on
Oct. 18, 1879, Wyatt Earp arrived in Vegas and told Doc about a new strike
in Arizona and invited him to join the Earp brothers and their families in
trying out the boom town. Doc would go as far as Prescott, Arizona where
Virgil Earp lived. But he found a run of luck at cards in Prescott and did
not leave with the Earps. After things dried up in Prescott, Doc and Kate
returned to their saloon in Vegas.
Back in Vegas, Doc would re-encounter Charlie White employed as a bar- tender.
In 1878, the two had a confrontation and Doc had run White out town. White
had not forgotten about the incident because when Doc came in the saloon,
White drew his gun and started shooting. Doc returned fire and dropped White
to the floor. Thinking he had killed White, Doc decided it was time to get
out of town. Meanwhile, White had only been grazed by the bullet and headed
out of town for Boston not wanting to chance another encounter with Doc.
Doc returned to Prescott, Arizona. After a short time, Doc received a letter
from Wyatt Earp stating Tombstone was in need of a dentist and that Doc would
do well there with the dry climate and at the gaming tables. A few days later
Doc would leave for Tombstone. On the trip Kate and Doc had another fight
and Kate went on to Globe, in Pinal County. Kate claims to have bought a
hotel in Globe. She also stated she would visit Doc off and on in Tombstone
while they were apart. Doc would arrive in Tombstone in Sept. of 1880.
On Oct. 11, 1880, Johnny Tyler would enter the Oriental Saloon, and when
he began to cause problems, was promptly ejected by Wyatt. Doc stood nearby
and loudly berated Tyler. Angry over his public humiliation and Doc's words,
Tyler went and armed himself and returned. As he came in the saloon, he confronted
Doc, who issued a challenge, and both men drew their guns. They were both
quickly relieved of their arms. Milt Joyce, the saloon keeper who was leasing
the building, took the guns and placed them behind his counter. Doc demanded
his weapon back. Joyce refused. Doc left and returned with a double-action
revolver. When Joyce spotted Doc with a weapon, he struck Doc over the head
with a pistol, knocking him to the floor. Joyce jumped upon Doc, and, as
the argument continued, shots were fired. Joyce was shot in the left hand
and William C. Parker Jr., a partner of Joyce's, who was behind the bar,
incurred a gunshot wound in the left foot. Doc was arrested and paid court
costs and fines. Joyce nearly lost his hand and would take some time to heal.
In Tombstone, Doc met up with another old friend, William Leonard, the jewler
from Las Vegas. In Vegas, Leonard was considered a respectable citizen. He
had come to Tombstone with Harry Head, Jim Crane and Bill King went to a
batching housetwo miles north from town, which was known as the Wells. All
three remained there for several months.
Wyatt would recount the following story:
"On Tuesday, March 15, 1881, Holliday rode into Tombstone from the Wells,
with 'Old' man Fuller. Holliday ate dinner then went to playing faro. He
was still playing faro when word came to Tombstone from Bob Paul that there
was a hold up."
The stage in question was carrying 9 passengers and eighty thousand dollars
in bullion. Bud Philpot, the usual driver, was killed. Bob Paul the Wells,
Fargo shotgun messanger survived and managed to bring the horses under control
and drove on to Benson where he reported the hold up attempt and the killing
of Bud Philpot. It would become known that Leonard, Head and Crane were involved.
King was arrested and and admitted he held the reigns to the horses. He named
the robbers as Harry "the kid" Head, Jim Crane and William Leonard. Undersheriff
Harry Woods, crony to Johnny Behan, would show the same inept ability as
Behan. Luther walked out the unlocked backdoor while Woods had turned away.
Of Course, Woods, Sheriff Johnny Behan, and Deputy William Breakenridge would
become friends and allies with the worst criminals in town.
A rumor rapidly circulated that Doc had been implicated even though he was
never named by Luther. Holliday and the Earps tried to catch the ones involved
to clear Holliday's name. Kate would come to town drunken and mad at Doc
and would agree to sign papers for Behan stating Doc was involved in the
stage robbery. On July 5, 1881, based on Kate's testimony, Behan finally
arrested Doc for murder. After Kate had sobered up she regretted her words
and repudiated her statement. On July 9, 1881, citing no evidence and the
repudiated words of a drunken woman, Judge Wells Spicer dismissed the charge.
In October, Doc headed out of Tombstone for Tucson. After four days there
Morgan came to Doc saying Wyatt needed him in Tombstone. Doc returned right
away. On Tuesday, October 25, 1881, the same day Doc returned to Tombstone,
Ike Clanton returned from helping his outlaw friendsFrank Stilwell and Pete
Spencer in Tucson where they were on trial.
Ike had become more and more distrustful of the Earps because Wyatt had offered
Ike a deal that if he would hand over Leonard, Head, and Crane for the robbery,
Wyatt would give Ike the reward money and Wyatt could clear Doc and get the
"glory" of the capture. Ike though backed out of the deal in fears of being
killed by Leonard, Head and Crane. Ike became convinced that Wyatt had told
Doc of the agreement. Ike feared if it got out that he was giving up other
outlaw/cowboys, that he would be killed by his cowboy friends. The likes
of Curley Bill Brocius, Johnny Ringo, and others.
These events and the growing struggle for power between the outlaw cowboys
and the strict law enforcement of the Earps led to one of the most storied
gunfights in history. The shootout at the O.K. Corral. (For a complete breakdown
on the gunfight, visit:
Doc was armed with the shotgun when the fight broke out. Many claim Doc started
the fight because that is the allegation made by the likes of Johnny Behan
and Ike Clanton, Who talked more than he should have then ran when the fighting
broke out leaving his brother, Billy Clanton, to be killed.
With Doc’s health declining, his frail stature, the idea he fired his revolver
first while also holding the shotgun as most people saw him with, is nothing
but total ignorance of the facts. Wyatt admitted in court that He and Billy
Clanton shot at about the exact same time.
After the fighting had become general, Doc fired his shotgun striking Tom
McLaury, who ran down Freemont Street and fell dead. Doc then tossed his
shotgun and began firing at the wounded Frank McLaury. About 10 to
12 feet from Doc, Frank McLaury yelled, "I got you this time." Doc responded,
"Blaze away! Your a daisy if you have." Both Doc and Morgan returned Frank
McLaury's fire. Doc was hit on the holster and yelled, "I am shot right through!"
Doc ran toward McLaury, but the final shots from Morgan and Doc had done
him in. He was quickly dying.
A coroner's inquest was held three days later on Oct. 29. John Henry Holliday
and the three Earp brothers were charged with murder. The charges were eventually
dismissed by Judge Spicer and this enraged the cowboys. The cowboys would
threaten to kill Doc and the Earps.
On Jan. 17, 1882, Johnny Ringo, called the "King of the Cowboys", challenged
Doc Holliday and the Earps. James Flynn, police officer, disarmed the men
before Doc and Johnny could fight it out. This encounter has been retold
a million different ways. Basically, Johnny challenged, Doc was always ready
to fight, but they were disarmed.
On March 18, 1882, the cowboy revenge continued, as Morgan Earp was fatally
shot. This would begin what has become known as the Tombstone vendetta. Wyatt's
brother Warren, Doc Holliday, Turkey Creek Jack Johnson, Texas Jack Vermillion,
and Sherman McMasters would ride in a posse with U.S. Marshal Wyatt Earp
and hunt down those Wyatt believed responsible and kill them. Including Curley
Bill Brocius, who Wyatt shot at Iron Springs and Frank Stilwell the friend
of Ike Clanton .
After the blood trail of vengence was over, the group left town and headed
to Colorado. They would arrive April 7, 1882. The next few years would see
Doc's health decline rapidly. By 1887, he was in Glenwood Springs and was
bedridden. Kate stayed with him and tried to comfort him. During the third
week of October, 1887, Doc became delirious. By Monday, November 7, he was
unable to speak. About ten o'clock on the morning of Nov. 8, 1887, Doctor
John Henry Holliday died at the Hotel Glenwood, in Glenwood Springs, Colorado,
of miliary tuberculosis.
After a brief funeral service arranged by Kate, she returned to the hotel
and sent the rest of Doc's belongings to Atlanta in care of Sister Mary Melanie,
of the Order of the Sisters of Mercy. Sister Mary had her uncle Dr. John
Stiles Holliday to collect the belongings for her. Sister Mary was Doc's
cousin he remained in close contact with, Mattie Holliday. She had become
a Roman Catholic and entered the convent. Sister Mary would maintain that
shortly before his death, John Henry Holliday converted to Catholicism just
as she had.
Kate would go on to marry and used her full name of Mary Katherine. She would
become Mary Katherine Cummings. She always stated she considered herself
married to Doc. Even half a century later, she still told of how much she
The truth is Doc Holliday's career, while blood stained, was principally
isolated to some eighteen months in Tombstone. He was actually charged with
murder only once in his life and that charge was dismissed. He was a complex
man with a simple code of what he believed to be right and wrong.
In reference to Doc, many years after Doc passed, Wyatt Earp would describe
the legend as, "The most skillful gambler and the nerviest, speediest, deadliest
man with a six-gun,".
Doc would often say Wyatt was his only friend. Despite claims to the contrary,
that friendship remained intact the rest of Doc's life. Sources Used:
Books and Articles:
1). Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait, Karen Holliday Tanner, Oklahoma Press,
2). The Log Of A Cowboy, Andy Adams, University of Nebraska Press, 1964
3). Wyatt Earp: The Man And The Myth, Ed Bartholomew, Frontier Book Co.,
4). The O.K. Corral Gunfight, Mary K. Cummings, Ed. by Glen G. Boyer, Arizona
the West 19 (Spring 1977): p.65-84
5). Bat Masterson: The Man And The Legend, Robert K. DeArment, Univeristy
1). Arizona Weekly Citizen
2). Tombstone Nugget
3). Tombstone Epitaph
4). San Diego Union
5). San Francisco Examiner
6). Denver Tribune
7). Denver Republican
8). Atlanta Constitution
9). Atlanta Journal
10). Ford County Globe
11). Dodge City Times
12). Las Vegas Daily Optic
13). Texas Albany Star
14). Fort Griffin Echo
Family Records as written and compiled by Karen Holliday Tanner