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Why Doc Holiday Epitomizes America’s Indomitable Spirit

I have written several postings related to Various topics including the military, Voting, the economy, religion and etc in America. A list of links have been provided at bottom of this article for your convenience. This article will, however address additional issues in these topics.

The following article is one of the best summaries of Doc Holiday’s life. And as I stated before I do not make any money from this blog, as long as I give credit, I believe I am well within my rights to use material like this to help support my point and to facilitate the dissemination of the information. So I am starting with this wonderful article by Fred Foster posted on The article goes on to discuss the movie Tombstone, which I do not include, because it is outside the scope of this article. However, the article in its entirety can be found by going to the following address.

Meet the Legendary Doc Holliday: The Man Who Went From Being a Dentist to a Gambling Gunslinger on the Run From the Law

By Fred Foster | July 21, 2020

Even if you don’t know much about history, there’s no doubt that you’ve heard of Doc Holliday. He’s one of the most famous figures of the Wild West, a dentist and deputy turned later into an outlaw, who took part in the most legendary gunfight at O.K. Corral.

He wasn’t alone in his adventures, teaming up with the equally famous Wyatt Earp and his brothers, but somehow Holliday has managed to provide inspiration for numerous books, TV shows, and movies. But just how many of these stories are actually true?

Growing Up with Conflict

Born John Henry Holliday in 1851 in Griffin, Georgia, Doc was thrust into troubled times. His father, Henry Burroughs Holliday had fought in the Mexican-American War shortly before his birth, and later served in the American Civil War.

His mother, Alice Holliday, was adamant that her son wouldn’t have to face the horrors of the conflicts around him, so when Union troops threatened to capture their town in 1862, the family moved further south to Valdosta, Georgia. Despite these troubled times, Holliday was said to be a peaceful child – never fighting with neighbors or classmates.

A Brilliant Student

Knowing the path that he took later in life, it would be easy to assume that Doc Holliday would have been a troublemaker at school. But the truth was quite different. He had been born with a cleft palate that caused speech impediments and needed corrective surgery and hours of speech lessons to overcome this condition.

Holliday was also an excellent student academically. Attending the Valdosta Institute as a teenager, he learned rhetoric, math, and history, as well as becoming fluent in French, Latin, and Ancient Greek. From here he went on to the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery, earning his Doctorate in Dental Surgery by the time he turned 20.

Tuberculosis Looms

In 1866, the young Doc Holliday suffered a terrible loss when his mother died of tuberculosis. He had been very close to his mother and was greatly impacted by her death. To make matters worse, his father remarried just three months later to a woman named Rachel Martin, who was just eight years older than Doc.

This wasn’t the only time his family was affected by tuberculosis. He had an adopted brother named Francisco who had died of the condition when Doc was a teenager. The disease would become even more personal when Holliday received his own diagnosis at the age of 21, with doctors giving him just a few months to live.

Dentistry and Gambling

Doc would go on to outlive his initial diagnosis, though he did suffer from regular bouts of coughing. He continued to work as a dentist, setting up a practice with a family friend, Dr. John Seeger, in Dallas, Texas.

By the 1870s, his dentistry work began to decline, but Holliday had chanced upon another source of income: gambling. In fact, the young man had such a knack for it that it became his main way of earning money. But things took a turn for the worse in May 1874, when he and 12 other people were busted for illegal gambling and banished from Dallas.

Doc Turns to Fighting

As Doc became more involved in the world of gambling after his departure from Dallas, he also began to get into fights. 1875 saw the start of a fighting spree, and in 1877 he was arrested after a bloody altercation with another gambler, Henry Kahn.

After their release, Kahn shot and seriously wounded the unarmed Holliday – the Dallas Weekly Herald even reported that Holliday had been killed. After this incident, Doc’s cousin George Holliday took him to Fort Griffin, Texas, to help with his recovery. It was here Doc would meet an educated prostitute known as Mary Katherine “Big Nose Kate” Horony, who would become his only known love interest.

Holliday’s True Nature

From those who knew him, there are some mixed reports about the kind of person that Holliday really was. Some of his contemporaries described him as a “calm-tempered gentleman”, while others said he had a “mean disposition” and an “ungovernable temper.”

According to the man himself, he was arrested 17 times, was ambushed five times, and escaped hanging four times. When asked if his conscience ever troubled him, he replied to the journalist, “I coughed that up with my lungs years ago.” Though much of his reputation might have been exaggerated, it was enough to put Doc Holliday into the history books.

Meeting Marshall Wyatt Earp

One of the Wild West’s most famous outlaws was Wyatt Earp, but there was a time before his life of crime that he was on the other side of the law, as a deputy US Marshall. There are few details about this auspicious meeting, but we do know that Holliday met Earp before he went rogue.

At the time, Wyatt Earp was on the trail of an outlaw known as “Dirty” Dave Rudabaugh. Holliday had been gambling with Rudabaugh and ended up giving Earp some information on the man’s whereabouts – Rudabaugh had apparently fled to Kansas. But this wasn’t the last time the Earp and Holliday would meet.

Saving Earp’s Life

The next run-in between the two men would be in Dodge City. Earp was chasing some cowboys (various reports have the number at either two or five), who ran into the Long Branch Saloon. Holliday happened to be in town looking for work as a dentist, but that day he was gambling in the bar’s backroom.

The cowboys started smashing things up and harassing customers before Earp came in trying to stop them. As he entered, the cowboys all pointed their guns at him. Holliday jumped up and pointed a pistol at their leader, forcing them to drop their weapons. Though there are no newspaper reports of the incident, Earp always credited Holliday with saving his life and the two became friends.

Giving up Dentistry

Although he was well-known for his fighting and gambling, to this point Holliday had continued to practice dentistry throughout his moves across the country. As time went on, he also became known for giving his customers substandard treatment, and he eventually gave up dentistry for good in 1878, but not before he had earned the nickname “Doc”.

Doc still suffered from the symptoms of his tuberculosis, and later in 1878 moved to Las Vegas to take advantage of the nearby hot springs, which were said to be helpful for those with lung problems. However, the anti-gambling laws in effect in Las Vegas would lead to him moving back to Dodge City for a time.

The New Territories

In the late 1870s, both Holliday and Earp moved west. Holliday had moved back to Las Vegas with his lover Mary Horony to build saloons, while Earp had resigned from his position as deputy Marshall and planned to head to the new silver boom in Tombstone, Arizona. Holliday had tried and failed with gold rushes in the past, but ended up joining Earp in Tombstone in 1890.

The new territories had little in the way of organized crime prevention. With Earp’s previous experience as a lawman, he was soon appointed to the same position, deputy US Marshall, for Tombstone.

The Stagecoach Incident of 1881

Holliday and his lover Horony were known for having drunken fights, but things turned particularly nasty in March 1881. Three cowboys had robbed a stagecoach bound for Tombstone and ended up murdering some of the passengers. Rumors started that Doc was the leader of this group, and Horony made a testimony to Sheriff Behan of Tombstone confirming this.

On this basis, Holliday was arrested and charged with the crime, but Wyatt Earp was able to come to the rescue, finding witnesses who could attest he was in another place at the time. Horony later admitted that she had been drunk and forced to sign a testimony that she hadn’t understood.

The Ike Clanton Incident

He might have given up dentistry, but Holliday certainly hadn’t given up fighting. On October 25, 1881, he had a run-in with a man named Ike Clanton while drinking at the Alhambra Saloon. Holliday had challenged the man to a duel, but when he discovered Clanton was unarmed, he took to taunting him instead, claiming that he had killed the man’s father.

Clanton couldn’t let this go and the next morning he made sure he was armed before seeking out Holliday, waking him and Horony up with threats of violence. Holliday was reported to have reacted by shouting, “If God will let me live to get my clothes on, he will see me.”

A Duel Becomes a Battle

We’ll never know who would have won if the duel had gone ahead. The Earp brothers arrived and put a stop to Clayton’s threats, disarming him and taking him to the jailhouse. But while he was behind bars, his fellow outlaws came to back him up, including his brother, Billy Clanton, as well as Frank and Tom McLaury.

Ike was forced to pay a fine and then he was released. So now Holliday and the Earp brothers not only had to face Clayton but his cowboys as well. There are very few details about what happened next, but there was a sudden burst of gunfire and 30 bullets were fired in under a minute.

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral

When the street fell silent, the aftermath became clear. Holliday was injured, along with Morgan and Virgil Earp. On the other side, Ike Clanton had fled, while Billy Clanton and both of the McLaury brothers had been killed instantly. Some reports say Doc had shot all three.

This brief but bloody shootout became one of the most famous battles of the Wild West. The fight didn’t actually take place at the OK Corral, instead about six doors down from its rear entrance, but the name has stuck.

Revenge for Morgan

This wasn’t the end of the trouble in Tombstone. In March of 1882, one of the Earp brothers, Morgan, fell prey to an ambush and was killed. Wyatt Earp swore revenge on the cowboys that had committed the crime and recruited Holliday so that he could help him on his mission. 

The man they believed to be responsible was Frank Stillwell, whom they found hiding in some railway cars along with Ike Clanton. It’s believed the two men were waiting to ambush Virgil Earp. Stillwell was later found dead beside the railway tracks, his body riddled with bullets.

The Wrong Side of the Law

With the death of Frank Stillwell, the five deputies suddenly became wanted men, as a local sheriff put out a warrant for their arrest. But they weren’t about to stop their mission for revenge on the cowboys and moved on to the town of Iron Springs.

Here they found eight of the men they were after, sneaking up on them and firing without warning. Holliday and the Earp posse managed to kill three of the cowboys, with no casualties on their side. After this attack, they decided to head to leave Arizona to try and avoid arrest.

Leaving the Earp Posse

The men traveled together through New Mexico Territory, but by the time they got to Albuquerque, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday had a serious falling out. Holliday decided to leave the group behind and headed to Colorado.

In 1882 he decided to move again, this time to Glenwood Springs, where he hoped the waters would help his tuberculosis. It was the wrong move for Holliday, who was arrested as soon as he arrived in Denver on the charge of the murder of Frank Stillwell.

Earp Reappears

News of the arrest reached Earp, and despite the men’s falling out, Earp did his best to help his old friend. He was worried that Holliday wouldn’t receive a fair trial in Arizona and attempted to get him moved. Earp called in a favor with another old friend: Colorado Chief of Police Bat Masterton.

Masterton claimed there was already a warrant out for Holliday in Pueblo, and insisted that he face the charges there. The plan worked and Holliday was released just two weeks later. In June 1882, Earp and Holliday resolved their differences when they met up in Gunnison, Colorado.

The Death of Johnny Ringo

Since early 1882, Holliday had been the enemy of a man named Johnny Ringo, who was also suspected of being a part of the ambush that killed Morgan Earp. Ringo was found dead in a tree in July that year with a revolver in his hand, and the death ruled a suicide by the coroner.

There are some that believe the wounds weren’t self-inflicted. A historian claims to have found manuscripts written by Earp’s third wife, in which she says Holliday and Earp traveled to Arizona to kill Ringo. But given that there was still a warrant for Doc’s arrest in Arizona at the time, it’s unlikely that he would have risked entering the state.

The End for Holliday

Holliday’s health began to decline rapidly, and he began to rely on alcohol and laudanum to ease his symptoms. By 1887 he made his way to Glenwood Springs, seeking help for his tuberculosis, but it’s likely the sulfuric fumes of the waters would have made the condition worse.

He saw out his final days attended by nurses and his ex-lover Mary Horony. It’s said that as he lay dying, he looked at his bare feet and laughingly remarked, “This is funny.” Holliday had always assumed he’d die with his boots on in a shootout.

Holliday’s Legacy

Doc Holliday died in November 1887, but his legend lives on, and the man only became more famous after his death. His obituary in the Denver Republican at the time read, “Few men have been better known to a certain class of sporting people, and few men of his character had more friends or stronger champions.”

His long-time friend Wyatt Earp also came out with praise after the death, saying, “I found him a loyal friend and good company.” Holliday remains one of the legendary figures of the Wild West, and despite dying at an early age, his life and adventures have gone on to inspire books, television shows, and movies.

Public reputation

Holliday maintained a fierce persona as was sometimes needed for a gambler to earn respect. He had a contemporary reputation as a skilled gunfighter which modern historians generally regard as accurate. Tombstone resident George W. Parsons wrote that Holliday confronted Johnny Ringo in January 1882, telling him, “All I want of you is ten paces out in the street.” Ringo and he were prevented from a gunfight by the Tombstone police, who arrested both. During the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Holliday initially carried a shotgun and shot at and may have killed Tom McLaury. Holliday was grazed by a bullet fired by Frank McLaury, and shot back. After Virgil was maimed in a January ambush, Holliday was part of a federal posse led by Deputy U.S. Marshal Earp who guarded him on his way to the railroad in Tucson. There they found Frank Stilwell apparently waiting for the Earps in the rail yard. A warrant for Holliday’s arrest was issued after Stilwell was found dead with multiple gunshot wounds. Holliday was part of Earp’s federal posse when they killed three other outlaw Cowboys during the Earp Vendetta Ride. Holliday reported that he had been arrested 17 times, four attempts had been made to hang him, and that he survived ambush five times.


Throughout his lifetime, Holliday was known by many of his peers as a tempered, calm, Southern gentleman. In an 1896 article, Wyatt Earp said:

I found him a loyal friend and good company. He was a dentist whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit; a long, lean blonde fellow nearly dead with consumption and at the same time the most skillful gambler and nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever knew.

In a newspaper interview, Holliday was once asked if his conscience ever troubled him. He is reported to have said, “I coughed that up with my lungs, years ago.”

Bat Masterson, who had several contacts with Holliday over his lifetime, had a different opinion of Holliday.

While he never did anything to entitle him to a Statue in the Hall of Fame, Doc Holliday was nevertheless a most picturesque character on the western border in those days when the pistol instead of law determined issues…. Holliday had a mean disposition and an ungovernable temper, and under the influence of liquor was a most dangerous man…. Physically, Doc Holliday was a weakling who could not have whipped a healthy fifteen-year-old boy in a go-as-you-please fist fight.

Stabbings and shootings

Much of Holliday’s violent reputation was nothing but rumors and self promotion. However, he showed great skill in gambling and gunfights. His tuberculosis did not hamper his ability as a gambler and as a marksman. Holliday was ambidextrous.

No contemporaneous newspaper accounts or legal records offer proof of the many unnamed men whom Holliday is credited with killing in popular folklore. The only men he is known to have killed are Mike Gordon in 1879; probably Frank Mclaury and Tom McLaury in Tombstone; and possibly Frank Stilwell in Tucson. Some scholars argue that Holliday may have encouraged the stories about his reputation, although his record never supported those claims.

In a March 1882 interview with the Arizona Daily Star, Virgil Earp told the reporter:

There was something very peculiar about Doc. He was gentlemanly, a good dentist, a friendly man, and yet outside of us boys I don’t think he had a friend in the Territory. Tales were told that he had murdered men in different parts of the country; that he had robbed and committed all manner of crimes, and yet when persons were asked how they knew it, they could only admit that it was hearsay, and that nothing of the kind could really be traced up to Doc’s account.

Arrests and convictions

Biographer Karen Holliday Tanner found that Holliday had been arrested 17 times before his 1881 shootout in Tombstone. Only one arrest was for murder, which occurred in an 1879 shootout with Mike Gordon in New Mexico, for which he was acquitted. In the preliminary hearing following the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Judge Wells Spicer exonerated Holliday’s actions as those of a duly appointed lawman. In Denver, the Arizona warrant against Holliday for Frank Stilwell’s murder went unserved when the governor was persuaded by Trinidad Chief of Police Bat Masterson to release Holliday to his custody for bunco charges.

Among his other arrests, Holliday pleaded guilty to two gambling charges, one charge of carrying a deadly weapon in the city (in connection with the argument with Ringo), and one misdemeanor assault and battery charge (for his shooting of Joyce and Parker). The others were all dismissed or returned as “not guilty.”

Alleged murder of Ed Bailey

Wyatt Earp recounted one event during which Holliday killed a fellow gambler named Ed Bailey. Earp and his common-law wife Mattie Blaylock were in Fort Griffin, Texas, during the winter of 1878, looking for gambling opportunities. Earp visited the saloon of his old friend from Cheyenne, John Shannsey, and met Holliday at the Cattle Exchange. The story of Holliday killing Bailey first appeared nine years after Holliday’s death in an 1896 interview with Wyatt Earp that was published in the San Francisco Enquirer. According to Earp, Holliday was playing poker with a well-liked local man named Ed Bailey. Holliday caught Bailey “monkeying with the dead wood” or the discard pile, which was against the rules. According to Earp, Holliday reminded Bailey to “play poker”, which was a polite way to caution him to stop cheating. When Bailey made the same move again, Holliday took the pot without showing his hand, which was his right under the rules. Bailey immediately went for his pistol, but Holliday whipped out a knife from his breast pocket and “caught Bailey just below the brisket” or upper chest. Bailey died and Holliday, new to town, was detained in his room at the Planter’s Hotel.

In Stuart Lake‘s best-selling biography, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal (1931), Earp added to the story. He is quoted as saying that Holliday’s girlfriend, “Big Nose Kate” Horony, devised a diversion. She procured a second pistol from a friend in town, removed a horse from its shed behind the hotel, and then set fire to the shed. Everyone but Holliday and the lawmen guarding him ran to put out the fire, while she calmly walked in and tossed Holliday the second pistol. However, no contemporary records have been found of either Bailey’s death or of the shed fire. In addition, Horony denied that Holliday killed “a man named Bailey over a poker game, nor was he arrested and locked up in another hotel room.” She laughed at the idea of “a 116-pound woman, standing off a deputy, ordering him to throw up his hands, disarming him, rescuing her lover, and hustling him to the waiting ponies.”

Author and Earp expert Ben Traywick doubts that Holliday killed Bailey. He could find no newspaper articles or court records to support the story. He found evidence to support that Holliday was being held in his hotel room under guard, but for “illegal gambling”, and that the story of Horony starting a fire as a diversion to free him was true. The story about Bailey as told in San Francisco Enquirer interview of Earp was likely fabricated by the writer. Years later, Earp wrote:

Of all the nonsensical guff which has been written around my life, there has been none more inaccurate or farfetched than that which has dealt with Doc Holliday. After Holliday died, I gave a San Francisco newspaper reporter a short sketch of his life. Apparently the reporter was not satisfied. The sketch appeared in print with a lot of things added that never existed outside the reporter’s imagination …


Life-sized statues of lawman Wyatt Earp and deputy Doc Holliday at the Historic Railroad Depot

Doc Holliday is one of the most recognizable figures in the American Old West, but he is most remembered for his friendship with Wyatt Earp and his role in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Holliday’s friendship with the lawman has been a staple of popular sidekicks in American Western culture, and Holliday himself became a stereotypical image of a deputy and a loyal companion in modern times. He is typically portrayed in films as being loyal to his friend Wyatt, whom he sticks with during the duo’s greatest conflicts, such as the Gunfight at the OK Corral and Earp’s vendetta, even with the ensuing violence and hardships which they both endured. Together with Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday has become a modern symbol of loyalty, brotherhood and friendship.

The Holliday birth home is marked with a historical marker located in Fayetteville, Georgia.

A life-sized statue of Holliday and Earp by sculptor Dan Bates was dedicated by the Southern Arizona Transportation Museum at the restored Historic Railroad Depot in Tucson, Arizona, on March 20, 2005, the 122nd anniversary of the killing of Frank Stilwell by Wyatt Earp. The statue stands at the approximate site of the shooting on the train platform.

“Doc Holliday Days” are held yearly in Holliday’s birthplace of Griffin, Georgia. Valdosta, Georgia held a Doc Holliday look-alike contest in January 2010, to coincide with its sesquicentennial celebration.

Tombstone, Arizona also holds an annual Doc Holli-Days, which started in 2017 and celebrate the gunfighter-dentist on the 2nd weekend of August each year. Events include gunfights, a parade, and a Doc Holliday look-alike contest. Val Kilmer, who played Doc in 1993’s Tombstone, was the grand marshal in 2017 and Dennis Quaid, who played Doc in 1994’s Wyatt Earp, was the grand marshal in 2018.

Mary Catherine Elder Haroney, a.k.a. Big Nose Kate

DOC HOLLIDAY was one of the truly fascinating personalities of the Old West. He was not an admirable man, except in the sense that anyone is to be admired who can consistently cope coolly with dangerous situations.

“A shiftless, bagged-legged character – a killer and professional cut-throat and not a wit too refined to rob stages or even steal sheep.” The Las Vegas Optic.

“Without question a stone killer, an alcoholic and a whoremonger. He was known to cheat at cards.” Doc O’Meara, Guns of the Gunfighters, Krause Publications, 2003.

“Few men of his character had more friends or stronger champions.” Denver Republican, November 10th, 1887.

“He was a dentist whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit…” Wyatt Earp as told to Stuart N. Lake, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, copyright 1931.

“Doc had but three redeeming traits. One was his courage; he was afraid of nothing on Earth. The second was the one commendable principal in his code of life, sterling loyalty to friends. The third was his affection for Wyatt Earp.” Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, copyright 1931, Stuart N. Lake.

What hasn’t been said about John Henry “Doc” Holliday? Depending on your point of view, whether you see the man as unjustly maligned or just getting his comeuppance, either too much or not enough. Was he good, bad or perhaps something in between, something more human? 

Doc was an award-winning dentist. Exhibits John Henry prepared for dental school were entered at the Annual Fair of the North Texas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Blood Stock Association at the Dallas County Fair by Holliday and his dental partner Doctor John A. Seegar. Holliday took all three awards – “best set of teeth in gold,” “the best in Vulcanized rubber” and “the best set of artificial teeth and dental ware.” The prizes, a plate and five dollars for each display, were quite a tidy stipend for 1873.

It is in Fort Griffin that Doc meets the only woman who will feature prominently in his life from that point on, Mary Katherine Harony (or Haroney), aka Big Nose Kate, aka Kate Fisher, aka Kate Elder, aka Kate Holliday. The couple remains together, off and on, until Doc’s death ten year later. Doc did not engage in violent behavior against his live-in love, Kate. This supposed truth was promulgated by an author, he who shall not be named, whose works were published under the guise of being non-fiction; it turns out this was a hoax. However, much of this fiction lives on, unfortunately for Doc’s reputation.

Big Nose Kate was well-educated and came from a fine Hungarian family; her father was a physician. Doc must have found her to be as pleasant a surprise in the often crude surroundings he was forced to endure as she did him. Although Kate stated on more than one occasion that she and Doc were legally married, no license exists.

Doc was not the prolific killer myth has alleged. Proof points to the fact he killed only one man for sure, Tom McLaury at the Tombstone gunfight near the O.K. Corral. However, by his own admission to Ike Clanton, whether the truth or just a ploy to goad Ike to action, Doc also killed Newman Haynes “Old Man” Clanton while a member of Wyatt Earp’s federal posse in Guadalupe Canyon in August of 1881 while in pursuit of cattle rustlers.

On November 8th, 1887, John Henry “Doc” Holliday, D.D.S. died in The Hotel Glenwood, in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. He did not die in a sanitarium. Doc was just barely into his 36th year, but lived an amazing 14 years after being diagnosed with consumption. For a man who many claimed had a “death wish,” Doc’s ability to cling to life with a tenacity second to none puts those claimants to shame.

Events that helped shape his character

Doc’s Health and Pain History
Holliday’s health problems began at birth—he was born with a cleft lip and possibly a cleft palate. His lip was surgically repaired and the Holliday family took the time and effort to teach him to speak properly. Whether there was a genetic aspect to his birth defect will never be known, but it is commonly believed that genes and the environment play a role in the development of these orofascial clefts.

The second major, but critical, event in Holliday’s life was the death of his mother Alice from TB in 1866 when he was 15. He had been very close to his mother, because during many of his formative years his father was away fighting for the South in the Civil War. At the age of 21, while practicing dentistry in Georgia, Holliday started to lose weight. He initially attributed this to his active schedule. About 6 months later in the summer of 1873, he developed a nagging cough that forced him to take some time off from his dental practice. When the cough did not subside, he sought out his uncle, Dr. John Stiles Holliday. Using a stethoscope and a bronchoscope he diagnosed Holliday with pulmonary TB, which at the time was commonly called “consumption” or “phthisis pulmonales.”

Although the science of contagion was poorly understood at the time, the Holliday family believed his problems were somehow related to the TB that killed his mother. It was not until 1882 that Robert Koch, who already had identified the bacterial cause for anthrax, identified the tubercle bacillus (Mycobacterium tuberculosis) as the agent responsible for TB. The treatment recommended by Holliday’s uncle was that proffered by Dr. George Bodington (1799-1882) and the renowned Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia. It consisted of a climate of warm, dry air combined with a nutritious diet, a moderate amount of wine, and prolonged rest during convalescence. Of course, Doc did not follow this advice completely considering that he spent a great deal of his life staying up late and living in smoke-filled rooms. Of extreme importance is that Holliday was told if he remained in Georgia’s hot and humid climate he would live about 6 months, but he could extend this time to 2 years if he moved west to a drier, arid location. In other words—his hand was forced; he had no other choice but to move.

Legend has it, it wasn’t just Holliday’s affliction with tuberculosis that inspired him to seek more arid climates. His supposed love for his first cousin Mattie Holliday is also one of the main reasons why the former dentist made the long exodus to the West from his home state of Georgia. After Doc left Georgia, she became a nun.

On a hot and humid Atlanta day in September 1873, he boarded the Western and Atlantic Railroad; destination—Dallas, Texas. There was no return ticket. He was met at the Dallas train depot by his dental partner Dr. Seegar. Due to his consumption condition, which often brought about coughing episodes, as well as a long depression, he couldn’t build much of a dental practice. Thus, he turned to the “sporting life.”

Although less common today than during the mid-to-late 19th century, TB remains a horrible, painful disease. The disease may be acute or chronic and generally attacks the respiratory tract, although other parts of the body, such as the brain, the kidneys, and the spine, may be affected. The symptoms (fever, loss of weight, etc) are caused by the toxins produced by the infecting organism, which also cause the formation of characteristic nodes consisting of a packed mass of cells and dead tissue.

Pain from the disease comes as the tubercle bacilli invade nerve tissue; additionally, incessant coughing may cause fractured ribs, ruptured lung tissue, and irritation of the phrenic, vagus, and intercostal nerves. The noted Western writer and historian, Bob Boze Bell, gives a description of “consumption” in his 1994 book, The Illustrated Life and Times of “Doc” Holliday. It would be difficult to better describe untreated TB, so it is given here verbatim:

“Consumption can go undetected for some good time, especially if the tendency towards denial is followed. Fatigue is more and more pronounced as one’s appetite seems to disappear. One feels ‘out of sorts’ and clammy. Periods of fever come and go. One wakes up in the dead of night drenched in sweat. In the morning, choking, coughing, and spitting up, at first watery fluid, later blood and chunks of lung tissue, rack the sufferer. The chest feels as if it were imploding and the pain of it all leads many to alcohol for temporary respite. To crown it all, many thought the illness a result of moral laxity. Compounded with terror of contagion, the consumptive becomes something of a pariah—a ‘lunger’ despised in and for his infirmity.”

As has been reported, Holliday was physically impaired by his consumption disease throughout his 14 years as a professional gambler on the Western Frontier. He could hardly fight with fisticuffs, so he apparently became the most deadly and feared gunman of the era. John C. Jacobs, a fellow gambler and casino operator said of Doc: “This fellow Holliday was a consumptive and a hard drinker, but neither liquor nor the bugs seemed to faze him. He could at times be the most genteel, affable chap you ever saw, and at other times he was sour and surly, and would just as soon cut your throat with a villainous-looking knife he always carried, or shoot you with a 41-caliber double-barreled derringer he always kept in his vest pocket.” Jacobs describes a volatile man who has exacerbations of intolerable pain as well as mood swings and hostility.

“Doc” Holliday lived until age 36, some 14 years longer than he was predicted to live. His major medicinal treatments were alcohol and opium. Additionally, he likely took “bugleweed,” a standard treatment for TB in the 1800s.  For the cough and pain of TB, which is a disease of exacerbations and remissions, alcohol and opium were the only potent available treatments at the time. Much has been written about “Doc’s” alcohol intake including references to his being intoxicated at times and drinking up to 4 quarts of whiskey per day. He is called an alcoholic by several writers. There is another side, however, to their claims. His common-law companion, Kate Elder, reportedly said this about his alcohol intake: “He was not a drunkard. He always had a bottle of whiskey but never drank habitually. When he needed a drink, he would take only a small one.” Considering that he had to be alert to count cards, professionally gamble, accurately wield a gun and knife, and ride a horse, it is difficult to believe that Doc spent much time being inebriated. It is quite likely that Holliday suppressed his coughing and pain with a daily maintenance dose of alcohol. For example, he likely knew that a certain daily dosage taken on a regular interval schedule kept him stable. Unfortunately, alcohol is difficult to manage as a medicine because it is a volatile compound and Doc, like other pain patients who use it therapeutically, overdosed on occasion.

Historians agree that Doc’s health began to dramatically fail in about 1884. While working as a Faro dealer in Leadville, Colorado, he began to deteriorate into what is called stage 2 TB. This stage is characterized by severe weight loss, mental confusion, extreme fatigue, and weakness. It was later discovered that tubercle bacilli like to invade the adrenal glands and produce symptoms of Addison’s disease or adrenal failure. At one point in history, TB was the most common cause of adrenal failure. It was most likely the cause of Holliday’s severe late-stage debilitation and his death. Today, with the waning of TB, autoimmune disease and iatrogenic corticoid administration are the major causes of adrenal insufficiency.

When Doc started to severely deteriorate, he began the regular use of the opium formulation called laudanum. Nearly all consumptives used some form of opium to quiet their cough, control diarrhea, reduce stress, and relieve the pain of TB. As he deteriorated, observers could see that Doc could no longer deal cards or work as a gambler. Consequently, he was unable to make much of a living and lived on odd jobs in Denver, Leadville, and Trinidad, Colorado. When Doc was really sinking, Leadville druggist Jay Miller provided Doc with laudanum at no charge. With his health failing, he checked himself into the Glenwood Hotel in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. He had heard that the sulfur springs in the town might bring relief. This was not to be. He became bedridden, lapsed into a coma typical of TB patients, and died within a few weeks, on November 8, 1887.

“Doc’s” Self-help Program
As noted, Doc used alcohol and opium to treat his symptoms of TB. Before you think this was a ridiculous notion, be aware that Dr. John Fothergill, regarded by many to be the world’s most prominent physician in the late 1700s, recommended alcohol and opium for the management of TB. He wrote: “Fresh white poppy [opium] seeds, in the proportions of half an ounce to a pint of Bristol [alcohol], make an excellent emulsion. The cough will abate and gradually cease entirely.” In today’s world of high-powered pharmacology, it seems almost ludicrous to think of these two chemicals as a treatment. Be clearly advised, however, that Holliday didn’t have any choice. Aspirin wasn’t even invented until about 1895, some 8 years after Doc died. There were no such things as antibiotics or neuropathic agents or antidepressants. The point to be made, particularly to those who believe pain is just a nuisance to endure, is that patients who have severe pain assuredly will take whatever medicinal agent is available—including alcohol and illicit drugs. Furthermore, they will incessantly harangue the medical system and even commit unsavory acts to obtain pain relief. In summary, it is pure ignorance and foolishness for any physician, regulator, and insurance payer to withhold adequate pain treatment with a cavalier, naive attitude that the patient should “tough it out” or “its only psychological.” Colonel John T. Devers reportedly asked Holliday about his life: “Doctor, don’t your conscience even trouble you?” Doc replied, “I coughed that up with my lungs long ago.”

Here are some historical and scientific notes about Doc’s self-help medications.

Alcohol has been used for centuries as a pain reliever. During both the American Revolution in the 1700s and the Civil War in the 1800s, a soldier with an arm or leg that had to be amputated was given alcohol before the surgeon sawed off the appendage. Surveys today indicate that as many as 28% of people with chronic pain use alcohol as a pain management strategy.

Doc’s behavior indicates that he primarily used alcohol as a maintenance drug. Please recall, he was an accomplished gambler, gunfighter, and horseman. These feats are not compatible with intoxication. He likely kept alcohol in his blood pretty much throughout the 24-hour cycle to suppress his cough and pain. Holliday undoubtedly exceeded his alcohol maintenance blood level at times due to accident or intent, and, consequently, became intoxicated at times. Such is the problem when alcohol is used as a chronic pain treatment agent. The lesson here for pain practitioners is simple. If alternate, safer pain treatments are not provided, the pain patient may well resort to alcohol. The author once asked two Alcoholics Anonymous members who were patients in his pain clinic to survey their local support groups and find out how many drank to relieve their pain because they couldn’t get adequate pain relief. The answer they gave—about 30%.

Opium preparations for medicinal use date back 2,500 years. Various formulations, including a poppy head soaked in water, have gone under the names meconium, theriac, diascordium, mithridate, philonium, and diacodium. Laudanum is known today as “tincture of opium.” The laudanum formulation used in the 1800s contained not only opium but also wine, and was flavored with cinnamon or saffron. It was primarily used in Doc’s time as a pain killer, sleep aid, and tranquilizer—just like modern-day prescription opioid preparations. Because laudanum could be taken orally, it was easily administered. Essentially no other pain medication was available because morphine only was available as an injectable compound. Other opioids were not developed for oral pain treatment until some years after Doc’s death. Opium was sold without a prescription, and it was a primary ingredient in the so-called “patent” medicines sold in the 19th century. Opium preparations contain small amounts of codeine, morphine, and other opioids. Regardless of what it is called or which formulation has been historically used, opium has, in the words of the 16th century physician George Wolfgang Wedel, been a “heaven-born gift.” Opium was the standard treatment for TB throughout the 1800s.

Unfortunately, we do not know the dosages and frequencies of alcohol and opium used by Doc Holliday. This is unfortunate, because he managed to live a considerable time, despite spending his days in smoke-filled rooms. There is some new evidence that opioids may suppress some infections and increase immunity in some patients. If this is the case, Doc Holliday may have extended his life with opium. The pain associated with lung conditions has been described by patients as deep, visceral, and agonizing. 

“Doc” Found Some Happiness
When “Doc” was dying in Glenwood Springs, he asked Kate to come see him. It is not known, however, for how long she stayed or whether she was at his bedside when he died. Prior to this, they had split over her false accusations about the stagecoach robbery in Tombstone. In the end, however, they were reunited. She claims that among Doc’s last words were: “Well, I’m going just as I told them—the bugs would get me before the worms did.” On the day of his death, his nursing attendant stated he woke up for a moment and asked for a drink of whiskey. He looked at his bare feet and said, “This is funny.” Apparently, he expected to lose a gunfight somewhere along the way and die with his boots on.

Mary Dorian Russell is an anthropologist who has written a semi-fiction book simply called Doc about Holliday and Kate in Dodge City.  She theorizes that one reason gamblers love to gamble is that the split-second throw of a card or roll of the dice provides an anticipation that removes the individual from the toils and fears of life. Maybe the thousands of “life exits” of Doc Holliday is a major reason he lived beyond his doctor’s predictions.

Chronically Ill Patients
An increasing number of chronically ill and palliative care patients are seeking treatment in pain practices. Rather than TB, patients have a variety of genetic, infectious, and autoimmune diseases that, in their late stages, produce pain and cause premature death. Pain practitioners who deal with intractable pain patients with a short life span must encourage them to find some “happiness” and “quality of life” in the time they have left. The other options are hopeless remorse and depression, which only worsen the pain. The hostility, remorse, and fear that pain patients develop often get in their way and bar them from making the critical decision to find some happiness. There is no question that Holliday found some happiness and quality of life. He lived about 14 years longer than his doctor predicted. In contemporary terms, he carried out his “bucket list.” He loved to gamble and found a woman he could love and with whom he could travel. She was someone who participated in and accepted his lifestyle and risky existence. May we practitioners help all our patients achieve the happiness and satisfaction I believe “Doc” found.

‘Few men have been better known to a certain class of sporting people, and few men of his character had more friends or stronger champions,’ said the Denver Republican in Holliday’s obituary. That obituary went on to say that Doc had ‘killed several men during his life in Arizona.’ Wrong. But then most writers get Holliday’s kill total dead wrong. There is no doubt whatsoever that he killed Tom McLaury near the O.K. Corral. Enough evidence exists to convince this author that Holliday killed Old Man Clanton, too. That makes a total of two. He shot eight more men — White, Joyce, Parker, Frank McLaury, Billy Clanton, Stilwell, Cruz and Allen — but none of those men died by his bullets. No matter how much blood he did or did not contribute to the blood-stained pages of Western history, though, Doc Holliday will not be forgotten. His deeds, his dentistry, his disease, his death and that name ‘Doc’ have brought the Southern boy named John Henry a secure place among the immortals who inhabited the Old West.

Doc Holiday entered this world with a cleft pallet, he overcame that, his mother died of TB and he eventually contracted that himself. However he never let it stop him. He went on to get a degree in dentistry and actually for a time had a solid practice. He eventually had to stop practicing medicine due to his chronic cough and weakness. He took to gambling as one of the only viable sources of gaining a living due to his weakened condition. He became a very skillful gambler. To protect himself from becoming a mark he practiced with a six gun, until he became quite proficient in the art of pistolero. He actually obtained a deadly reputation and became a man to be feared. Through all this he developed a friendship with perhaps the most famous wild west sheriff, Wyatt Earp, and developed a relationship with Big Nose Kate, who despite a tumultuous stayed by his side to the very end, with a few interruptions along the way. Even though he died at the ripe old age of 36, his legacy has endured to this day. While he has a checkered history, most of it is myth. While he was involved in several gunfights, he is only accredited with two killings. He was a loyal friend and husband. He has never been recorded that he cheated on his wife, though she was a professional lady. He is accredited with a toughness that belies his physical condition. TB was an insidious disease and still is. It is quite painful, and there was no treatment in his time, only remedies that helped to lessen the side effects. It is amazing that he could even ride a horse in the later part of his life.

His spirit and perseverance is what makes America great.

Resources, “Meet the Legendary Doc Holliday: The Man Who Went From Being a Dentist to a Gambling Gunslinger on the Run From the Law,” By Fred Foster;, “Doc Holiday,” By Wikipedia editors;, “THE REAL “DOC” HOLLIDAY,” By Matt Blitz;, “painting Doc’s personality,” By Ben Carlton Mead;, “Facts any good Doc Holliday aficionado should know: (and probably doesn’t),” By Susan Ballard;, “‘Doc’ Holliday: A Story of Tuberculosis, Pain, and Self-medication in the Wild West,” By Forest Tennant, MD, Dr.PH;, “Doc Holliday: Gambler, Gunfighter… Dentist,” By Marc Vance;, “Doc Holliday: Facts, information and articles about Doc Holliday, gunslinger from the Wild West,” By Ben Traywick;, “‘I’ll be your huckle bearer’? Glenwood Springs historian Bill Kight sheds light on Doc Holliday’s myths 133 years after his death,” By Ray K. Erku;


Famous Quotes

According to historian Bill Kight, it’s speculated that Holliday never uttered the word “huckleberry” right before he’d take a man’s life. Instead of paying homage to Mark Twain and the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which was actually written three years after the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, Holliday was arguably in fact referring to something a lot more morbid when he was addressing fellow gunfighter Johnny Ringo.

“That line in the movie, ‘I’ll be your Huckleberry,’” Kight said, ‘that’s actually ‘huckle bearer,’ which is the piece of hardware on a casket that you carry the casket with.”

In other words, Holliday was warning Ringo that he was going to put him six feet under.

Some say his deathbed was accompanied by former lover Big Nose Kate, whose brother, Alexander, lived in Redstone. Others say that Walter Devereux, who opened the Glenwood Hot Springs Resort, was by Holliday’s side. All accounts, said Kight, have to be taken with a grain of salt.

One thing is certain, however: Holliday’s ailing self would finally succumb to tuberculosis. And just before he passed, it’s rumored he said, instead of getting taken by bullet, “the bugs got me.”

Dying in bed at the age of 36, Doc Holliday is said to have taken a final drink of whiskey and looked down at his feet and said “This is funny.” 

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