Sunday, December 18, 2016

Doc Holliday – Frontier Gambler, Gunfighter, Sometimes Lawman

Doc Holliday
(public domain image)
Bat Masterson spoke admiringly about most of the big-name gunfighters of the old west, but he had a particularly low opinion of Doc Holiday. He said “I never liked him, and few persons did. He had a mean disposition and differed from most of the big gunfighters in that he would seek a fight…He had few friends anywhere in the west.” Virgil Earp told the Arizona Daily Star, “There was something peculiar about Doc…outside of us boys I don’t think he had a friend in the territory.”

Although Masterson didn’t come right out and call Holliday a coward, he did say, unlike Wild Bill and Wyatt Earp, who were as good with their fists as they were with their pistols, Doc Holliday was a “physical weakling.” His opinion was a fifteen-year-old could make easy work of him in a “go-as-you-please fist fight.” But, as soon as you put a gun in his hand, danger transformed Doc Holliday from a 98-pound weakling into a raging madman.

Like most legendary figures of the old west, so much of what has been written about Doc Holliday is contradictory at best. In the Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters (1942), Bill O’Neal credits Doc with just two kills in a total of eight gunfights, far from the dozens of kills and near kills most biographers attribute to him.

Doc Holliday was like a fish out of water in Dodge City, Tombstone, and the other cities he lived in. He was a dentist by profession, but a gambler, and a gunfighter by choice.

Not long after he graduated from dental school, Holliday took the equivalent of his first bullet when he learned he had contracted tuberculosis. Doctors informed him he had only a short time to live, and the best thing he could do would be to move to a drier climate. Doc took the news to heart, headed west, and set up a practice in Dallas, Texas. Not too many months after that he gave up dentistry. 

Apparently, patients didn’t appreciate his coughing spells. As word got around about the tubercular dentist, business dried up quicker than the weather.

It’s very likely knowing that he was going to die young is what made Doc so fearless in a gunfight. Better to go out in a blaze of glory than cough your lungs out in a hospital bed. The knowledge he was likely to die any day probably drove Doc Holliday to the dark side—gambling, drinking, and gun fighting.

There are some early stories that when he was fifteen Doc shot up some negroes down in Georgia. No one disputes there may have been some shooting, but it’s unlikely anyone got themselves killed.

Doc’s first known gunfight took place on January 2nd, 1875. He traded some shots with a Dallas saloonkeeper named Charles Austin. No one was hurt. The Dallas Weekly Herald reported the two men were just blowing off steam. No real harm was done. Both men were arrested, and quickly released.

A few days later Doc got into another scrape and killed a Dallas businessman. He hightailed it out of there one step ahead of the law, and made his way to the rough and tumble cow town of Jacksboro, Texas.

Doc’s transformation into a gunfighter took place there. He dealt poker and faro, and went around armed to the hilt with a gun on his hip, another in a shoulder holster, and a Bowie knife strapped to his leg. When he wasn’t gambling, or drinking, Doc was practicing his draw. By all accounts, it was time well spent. Wyatt Earp told the San Francisco Examiner, Doc was “the most skillful gambler and the nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever knew.”

When Doc finally left Jacksboro, one man was dead, and several others wounded from his three gunfights there. Keep in mind, there are no newspaper accounts or court records to back up any of these fights, just stories told about Doc and his prowess with a gun.

Did those gunfights really happen? Maybe. Maybe not. At this point in time, you may as well flip a coin. The result is likely to be just as accurate.
Doc Holliday - age 20, just out of dental school
(public domain image)

From there, he moved on to Denver in the winter of 1876, and tangled with a local bully named Budd Ryan. This time, the story is Ryan pulled a gun, and Doc manhandled his attacker, slashing his throat with a knife. Again, this story is nothing more than rattlesnake snot and tumbleweed. By every account I’ve ever read, Doc couldn’t have manhandled a girl scout, so the odds of him physically attacking a gun wielding bully are beyond belief.

In July of 1877, the Dallas Weekly Herald reported that a young man named “Doc Holliday, well known in this city, was shot and killed” by a man named Kahn. I wasn’t able to find a retraction, but Doc was heard from a few months later—live and breathing in Fort Griffin, Texas. The rumors of his early demise were greatly exaggerated.

In the fall of 1877, Holliday first met up with Wyatt Earp in Fort Griffin, Texas. Earp was hot on the trail of Dave Rudabaugh, and Doc tipped him off the outlaw was hiding out in Fort Davis.

Doc made his way to Dodge City in 1878, and tried his hand at dentistry once again. His return to respectability was short lived. Doc’s common law wife, Big Nose Kate, couldn’t handle the quiet life, and went back to whoring at a local saloon. When Doc got upset over her extracurricular activities, Big Nose Kate made herself scarce and disappeared. Doc gave up dentistry for good this time, and went back to dealing faro.

Not too long after that, a group of cowboys rode into Dodge City with their guns blazing, shooting up storefronts and shop windows. After blowing off a little steam, the cowboys headed to the Long Branch Saloon where Doc Holliday was dealing faro. The leader of the group, Ed Morrison, saw Wyatt Earp coming through the door. Morrison, and the other boys, drew down on him, challenging Earp to draw or die. Until Morrison heard a click. That’s when Doc, told the cowboys to drop their guns, or they’d be wearing Morrison’s brains. Doc and Wyatt quickly disarmed the cowboys, and tucked them away in the Dodge City jail. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and would last the remainder of Doc’s short life.

When things in Dodge City got a little too hot for Doc, he travelled around a bit. He spent some time in Leadville and Trinidad, Colorado, then Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory.

Legend has it he left a trail of dead bodies scattered along the way. While Doc was in Las Vegas, there was some talk he killed a drunk named Mike Gordon, but there is no proof to back up this claim. The consensus is Gordon was drunk on his ass, and started shooting up the town. Later that night he was found all shot up, and died early the next day. Because Doc was in the area, it was convenient to pin the killing on him.

Doc was involved in a string of shootings in 1879 and 1880. On March 12th, 1879, he supposedly shot up Charlie White. The story is Doc ran White out of Dodge City, and told him he’d kill him if he ever ran across him again. Former New Mexico Territory governor, Miguel Antonio Ontero, told reporters he saw the whole thing. Ontero said the two men faced each other down. Pistols were drawn. Shots were fired, but both men missed. Scared for his life, Charlie White beat it out of town before Doc got another chance to take him down.

In October of 1880, Doc got into a disagreement with a gambler named Johnny Tyler at the Oriental Saloon. When Doc challenged him to a fight, Tyler scooted out of there. Milt Joyce, the owner of the Oriental Saloon, had Doc removed. Big mistake. Doc rushed back in a few minutes later with pistols roaring. Joyce took a bullet in the hand. William Parker, a friend of Joyce, got shot in the toe. Joyce got the last word in when he whacked Doc over the head with a pistol and knocked him out cold.

Doc appeared in court October 12th, charged with attempted murder. That should have slowed him down some, but neither Milt Joyce nor William Parker appeared as witnesses. Doc was fined twenty dollars for assault with a deadly weapon and quickly released.

On August 13th, 1881, Newman Hayes “Old Man” Clanton, and several of his companions were shot and killed in Guadalupe Canyon while driving a herd of cattle to the Tombstone market. There’s some confusion about whether Clanton was killed by a group of Mexican rustlers, or by a posse sent out by the Earps. Whatever happened that day, most of Tombstone blamed the killings on Doc Holliday and Warren Earp.

The situation came to a head on the night of August 13th, when Ike Clanton and Doc Holliday clashed in a drunken war of words. Doc challenged Clanton to draw, saying he was the one who drew a bead on “Old Man” Clanton. Ike Clanton was unarmed and reluctantly walked away leaving things unsettled.

The next day was a bloody mess. Three men would die in the fallout from the previous night’s argument.

About 3:00 the next afternoon, Ike Clanton came by Fly’s boarding house looking for Doc. For thirty seconds, the guns talked. When it was over, three men lay dead at the O. K. Corral. Those killed were—Billy Clanton, and Frank and Tom McLaury. Ike Clanton, ran away, like a scared, frightened, little girl, at the first sound of gunfire, and thus, lived to fight another day.

On August 19th, 1884, Doc bushwhacked Billy Allen at Hyman’s Saloon in Leadville, Colorado. As soon as Allen walked through the doors, Doc fired a shot that hit him in the arm. Allen fell to the floor, Doc ducked behind a cigar case and fired again, just missing Allen. The crowd quickly disarmed Doc. He was arrested, tried, and found not guilty.

Doc Holliday died in bed in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, in May of 1887. Tuberculosis had finally done what bullets couldn’t.


(excerpt from my book:  Shot All to Hell: Bad Ass Outlaws, Gunfighters, and Law Men of the Old West

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