Meandering the Mesquite

John Henry “Doc” Holliday is pictured in 1872 at age 20 as a graduate of the Pennsylvania School of Dental Surgery.


Raise your hand if you enjoy medical appointments. Stand up and cheer if you look forward to dental work. Thought so.

Imagine what went on in a dentist's chair in 1880. Wait, it gets even scarier. How 'bout your dentist is John Henry Holliday? That's right, Wyatt Earp's buddy.

Bad enough that the late 1800s medical tools were crude. With Holliday, you might have gotten someone to work in your mouth who was drunk and angry. "Which molar is it? I'll take this one. Hold still or I'll shoot!"

Holliday was born in Georgia on Aug. 14, 1851. Easy to remember as that was my wedding day, albeit a few years later.

He entered the world in a less than ideal condition. He was born with a cleft palate and a hare lip. The uncle/physician who delivered the boy taught his mother Alice (another coincidence?) how to feed him in a manner replacing the conventional nursing.

Initially an eyedropper and tiny spoon were used. Later on, a shot glass did the trick. Appropriate for Doc, as he would spend his lifetime attached to a shot glass.

Another relative, Dr. Crawford Long, was approached to see what could be done to repair the birth defects. Long carried with him the title of the "father of ether" for his earlier work with the crude anesthetic. Both doctors operated successfully on the 8-week-old infant.

Doc's childhood was disrupted with the death of his mother, and his father taking another wife barely three months later. To add to the discomfort of the young man, his stepmother was only eight years his senior.

Heading Out West

John Henry attended and graduated from the Pennsylvania School of Dental Surgery in 1872. He was soon after diagnosed with "consumption," or tuberculosis. He set out west, as the medical opinions were that a dry climate could be a cure.

Dallas was the destination. There he opened a practice, but soon his life would incorporate a love of gambling. The combination of his volatile temper and an alcoholic nature led to a reputation. He would sooner pull a gun than a tooth.

Holliday was 23 when he got to the West. He was slender, blue-eyed and had ash blond hair. Funny thing about that, most of the Earps — Doc's later companions — were blond and blue-eyed. For that matter, so was Ike Clanton, but we'll leave him for another story.

Given Doc's frail health and slight build, he learned quickly that survival depended on a fearful reputation. The gambling saloons were not populated by tweed-coated chess players. This was a rough crowd.

He cultivated an image of someone not to be messed with, who would pull a knife or gun at the least provocation. Bat Masterson years later commented that Doc "would get whipped by a 15-year-old boy."

The real truth is that Doc was not a proficient gunman. Once in Tombstone, he finished 10th out of 13 participants in a shooting contest. However, his hair-trigger temper and willingness to combat, along with a death-wish persona he created, made most men hesitant to challenge him.

He did get embroiled in a few shooting scrapes, but for the sake of accuracy, no lives were lost until Tombstone. He shot an unarmed man in the hand from 10 feet. He was trying to kill him. Pretty lousy shooting. The wounded man took Doc's gun away and clubbed him.

He also was rumored to have sliced up a foe's innards with a Bowie knife, but no records exist to verify that. I spent several days in the Albany, Texas courthouse looking for that incident. Nothing.

However, Doc did show up in the arrest records. Contrary to several authors' versions, he was arrested for gambling in a saloon with another man "together.” What I believe others have missed is the obvious conclusion Doc and another feller were cheating the table.

A "Kate" also showed up in the records. Whether it was his paramour "Big Nose Kate" is unclear, but if it ain't her, it oughta be.

Famous Friendship

Wyatt Earp claimed to have met Doc here, but his attendance went unverified. The famous friendship of the dour Wyatt Earp and the alcoholic dentist probably developed in Dodge City, Kansas.

Wyatt alluded that Doc had saved his bacon while Wyatt was outgunned while performing law enforcement. For sure, Wyatt forever held a fondness for Doc that no others could understand. Masterson thought Doc was nothing but an intemperate drunk who begged trouble.

Doc, for his part, was awed by Earp and proved he would risk his life for him. He did just that in Tombstone, even if there is a strong opinion that Doc instigated the shootout called the "gunfight at the OK Corral." One thing for sure, Doc and a borrowed Wells Fargo short-barreled shotgun sent Tom McLaury on a local express to Boot Hill.

An interesting sidebar to that famous, long-analyzed gun fight, rarely commented on by other historians, Doc was shot and grazed on his left hip, which held a pistol scabbard. Point is, fellas, was Doc left-handed? Or did his pistol hang for a cross draw? Ponder that.

The ensuing shooting of Virgil Earp and the murder of Morgan Earp culminated in a Wyatt Earp vengeance ride with Doc at his side. Only God and the desert know how many these guys really killed out there.

Movies have portrayed Doc as a wheezing, coughing participant in the Tombstone story. Truth is, his tuberculosis was in remission there.

Noted Tombstone historian and author Ben Traywick came to the same conclusion about Doc that I learned on one of my research trips. When visiting Leadville, Colo., I sensed that the great altitude could have and should have been a death knell for the sick dentist. He went there in 1883 after the Earp posse broke up.

Upon my return, Ben asked me what I had learned. When I told him about Leadville, he smiled. He had reached that conclusion years ago.

Death, But No Closure

Later on, Doc settled in Denver. Wyatt's third wife, Josie, told her biographers they had met with Doc in a hotel. She commented that they both were saddened by his condition, as the consumption was getting the better of him.

Doc traveled the short distance to Glenwood Springs to avail himself of the sulphur springs there. Old girlfriend Kate said in her memoirs that she was summoned by him. It was way too late. He passed away at 10 a.m.on Oct. 8, 1887 in the Glenwood Hotel.

Kate packed his belongings and sent them to relatives in Georgia. There were no guns, no dental equipment, mostly jewelry and gaming devices.

Even death did not bring any closure for John Henry Holliday. Kate, who's real name was Mary Haroney, died in 1940 in the Pioneer Home in Prescott, listed as "Mary Cummings." Before she died, she had written letters to a niece about Holliday and Tombstone.

She considered herself as Doc's wife. However, she conveniently omitted any reference to a particularly un-wifely incident in Tombstone.

While drunk and sore at Doc, she accused him of being in a robbery. He was exonerated. Kate felt obliged to do some quick traveling when she sobered up, lest Doc unleash his ungovernable fury upon her.

A late 1890s newspaper interview with Wyatt had him labeling Holliday as a "merry scamp." Pretty sure that was the reporter's words. "Loveable" would have been a worse adjective.

Doc's final resting place in the Linwood cemetery is also in doubt. There is a marker there, but probably not that exact location.

John Henry Holliday, DDS, would have it no other way.

Scott Dyke is a Wyatt Earp historian, writer, Western lecturer and researcher. He can be contacted at

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