"YOU'RE A DAISY IF
Henry "Doc" Holliday 1851-1887
Shortly after graduating
from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery and establishing a successful
Atlanta dental practice, the well-educated John Henry Holliday, D.D.S.
discovered that he was suffering from a slowly advancing case of pulmonary
tuberculosis, the same disease that had killed his mother when he was
fifteen years old. On the advice of his family physician, who was also
his uncle, he left his aristocratic Georgia home in 1873 (at the age of
22) and attempted to establish a dental career in the West, where the
family hoped that the dry climate might prolong his life. But his Texas
dental practice flagged (partly due to his illness and partly due to his
increasing involvement in Dallas night life), and he soon found himself
giving up dentistry for the life of a roving professional gambler. At
various times, he practiced dentistry along with gambling. Doc apparently
used his dental practice as something of a cover at times, but he also
took pride in his work (he was, by all accounts, a good dentist). His
livelihood, however, was mostly derived from his skill at the card table,
which was substantial. He dealt faro and Spanish monte and played poker.
His keen intelligence and particular skill in mathematics stood him in
good stead, as he could quickly calculate percentages and count cards.
He didn't often need to cheat during a card game, although he was not
entirely honest in his faro dealing. Almost no actual faro dealers of
the time were entirely honestand Doc owned a fine pair of card-trimming
shears as well as other implements of the trade. He moved around a lot,
due to the nature of his gambling pursuits, and he became involved in
a number of armed confrontations, although he is undoubtedly most famous
for the part he played in the shootout at the OK Corral with the Earp
brothers in Tombstone, Arizona in 1881.
Doc was tall (just slightly over 5 feet 11 inches) but sickly, with a
persistent TB cough, and not much good in an un-armed physical encounter,
so, for protection, he usually carried a knife and at least one pistol,
usually in a shoulder holster, sometimes with an additional gun on his
hip. It is perhaps not surprising that when Doc was brought up on gaming
charges there was usually an accompanying charge of carrying a deadly
weapon. Doc may not have been a gunslinger in the classic Hollywood sense,
but he had to be skilled at using weapons, or he would not have survived.
Western lawman Wyatt Earp once described him as the nerviest,
speediest and deadliest man with a gun he had
ever seen, although, in terms of his documented activities, he appears
to have drawn said gun relatively seldom (considering his formidable reputation)
and not always with impressive results. Docs less impressive encounters
seem to have been fueled by whiskey. There were, nevertheless, several
occasions upon which Wyatt would have seen him draw and/or fire his pistol
in a non-inebriated state, sometimes with few or no other witnesses around.
Given this fact, it seems reasonable to take Wyatts word for it,
especially since it is not terribly likely that Wyatt, fond of Doc as
he was, would have fabricated such high praise. It is also, once again,
reasonable to consider that Doc, a physically frail, but quite successful,
gambler, whom Wyatt also described as a caustic wit, would
have needed to be able to defend himself with speed and assurance.
To do him justice, self-defense does seem to be the most frequent reason
Doc ever drew his knife or pistol. Court records and other accounts tend
to corroborate claims that he didnt look for trouble but defended
himself forcefully when he had to. Even lawman Bat Masterson, who, when
all was said and done, did not particularly like Doc, and who described
him as having a "mean disposition," proclaimed that when he
got into trouble he was usually in the right more often than in the wrong:
"Holliday seemed to
be absolutely unable to keep out of trouble for any great length of time.
He would no sooner be out of one scrape before he was in another, and
the strange part of it is he was more often in the right than in the wrong,
which has rarely ever been the case with a man who is continually getting
himself into trouble."
-Bat Masterson, from Gunfighters of the Western
Notably, Masterson never
emphasized Doc's illness in his largely negative portrait, merely referring
to him somewhat dismissively as "physically...a weakling." Wyatt
Earp, on the other hand, stressed the fact that Doc was ill, thus putting
a more positive spin on his physical endurance and mental fortitude, highlighting
his bravery in spite of being "nearly dead with consumption."
He also called him "a loyal friend and good company." Virgil
Earp described Doc as gentlemanly, a good dentist
and a friendly man, who nevertheless had something very
peculiar about him, which kept him from making very many friends.
Virgil's wife Allie, on the other hand, apparently simply did not like
Doc, calling him "cold and disagreeable," and he may indeed
have appeared aloof to her. Usually, though, it was Doc's wit and his
propensity for derision, along with his deadly willingness to back up
most of what he said, that garnered him more enemies than friends. Bat
Masterson said he was "given to quarreling," but it is very
likely that frequent disputes were merely part of his life as a gambler.
And, his circle of friends and friendly acquaintances actually did extend
beyond the Earp family, although the circle was somewhat limited and tenuous.
Many have called him a cold-blooded killer, and it is true
that he would not hesitate to kill if he was threatened. However, biographers
Ben Traywick and Karen Holliday Tanner have both shown that, overall,
he did not kill as many men as some have previously claimed. The only
documented killings by Doc Holliday were of Ed Bailey and Tom McLaury,
although he shot at least three others and was probably responsible for
the deaths of still others while a member of the Earp posse. Most, if
not all, of his documented violent acts were arguably in self-defense.
Tombstone historian Ben Traywick says Doc was not a cold-blooded murderer
but merely a hot-tempered Southerner who stood aside for no man.
On the other hand, writer Jeff Morey points out that Doc could also be
quite composed under pressure. He certainly appears to have behaved in
a cool-headed manner during his most well-documented confrontation at
the OK Corral.
Doc was partly committed to the genteel southern notion of honor,
and he had a temper to go along with it, but the key to the mix was probably
his illness, which sometimes made him a target, and which produced a rather
strangely manifested survival instinct. As many have noted before, Doc
was aware that he did not have long to live, and this awareness probably
contributed to his tendency to manifest profound indifference in certain
dangerous situations. His obituary in the Leadville Carbonate Chronicle
referred to his reputation as "one of the most fearless men on the
Many descriptions of Doc are on record by journalists of the time (mostly
from the early 1880s) with at least some interest in accuracy, all
of which describe him as a tall, slender, elegant gentleman and a fine
dresser (he usually wore a black tailored suit with a cravat and a diamond
stickpin). He had blue-gray eyes, dark blonde hair with a sandy moustache,
and he was cultured and witty. One journalist from the Denver Republican
on May 22, 1882 noted that the first thing one noticed about Doc upon
meeting him was "his soft voice and modest manner." Docs
companion Kate (Harony, Fisher) Elder also described him as neat, modest
and gentlemanly and noted that he always ensured that she was as well
dressed as he was. It was Docs refined ways, as a matter of fact,
that drew Kate, the "fallen" daughter of a respectable European
family, to him in the first place.
Well-mannered and usually soft-spoken, Doc was also highly literate and
a good conversationalist. He kept up on current events by reading newspapers,
and he was classically educated, familiar with Latin, Greek and French,
as well as various English literary works, and he could play the piano
quite well. In addition to his own extensive formal vocabulary and knowledge,
however, he used, and apparently enjoyed, the slang of the South and West.
He also used, and apparently enjoyed, profanity. He was fond of irony
and of irreverent rejoinders and, depending upon the situation, was likely
to use either understatement or exaggeration, especially in the service
of a desired immediate effect on his listener. The admixture of these
elements produced a unique verbal style. The Denver Republican once quoted
one of his attorneys, Colonel Deweese, who stated that Doc would just
as lief kill a man as not, adding: All he looked out for usually
was to have the law on his side. Deweese further added: I
said to him one day, Doctor, dont your conscience ever trouble
you? No, he replied, with that peculiar cough of his,
I coughed that up with my lungs long ago. But Doc also
said, apparently in a more serious mood, and interested in setting the
record straight: I've had credit for more killings than I ever dreamt
Doc drank a good deal, partly in an attempt to relieve the symptoms of
his illness, and it did not always improve his ability to get along with
others. But he was not actually chemically dependent until the last few
years of his life (1883-1887). At that point, his advancing illness, compounded
by several bouts with pneumonia, contributed to dramatic weight loss as
well as to growing alcoholism and laudanum dependency. All of this also
took a toll on his prosperity, and he found himself in narrowed financial
straits. He even had to pawn most of his jewelry (he did not pawn his
stickpin, which had been a going-away present from his uncle and which
he valued as a family gift and marker of his identity). It was a vicious
circle: as he grew more wasted by disease, he grew more dependent upon
alcohol and, later, laudanum, to relieve his symptoms, which, in turn,
exacerbated his illness. He also grew more withdrawn. Toward the end,
he was enervated and frequently intoxicated, a skeletal shadow of his
former self. But Doc, for a very long time, took pride in being able to
hold his liquor and to comport himself as a gentleman. And Kate, who had
doubtless seen her fair share of alcoholics, emphatically denied he was
Doc Holliday finally lost his grueling battle with tuberculosis on November
8, 1887 at the Glenwood Hotel in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. One of the
last people, besides Kate, to see him alive was the bellboy at the hotel,
who recalled that the dying Doc was a generous tipper.
He is buried in the Linwood Cemetery in Glenwood Springs, although the
exact location of his grave is unknown.
"YOU'RE A DAISY IF