Keeping track of “Doc” Holliday was like pulling teeth

August 14, 1851

On this day John Henry “Doc” Holliday, gambler/gunfighter/dentist and Wyatt Earp associate was born in Griffin, Georgia.

Perhaps most famous for his friendship with the sometime lawman and the legendary shootout at the OK Corral.  Holliday’s adult life was a travelog of  Western boom towns and trouble spots including Dallas, Denver, Dodge City, Deadwood, Cheyenne and Tombstone. 

He didn’t start out to be a footloose card shark.  Holliday (left, age 20) graduated from the Philadelphia School of Dental Medicine, a few months shy of 21 in 1872.  But too young to legally practice dentistry he worked as an assistant to a former classmate in St. Louis.  It was during this time that he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.  It had killed his mother, Alice Jane McKay Holliday, when he was 15, her illness most likely responsible for his own battle with the disease.  (Left, Holliday and Alice Jane)

Given just months to live, he moved to the more favorable climate in Dallas, Texas, and opened a dental practice just steps from today’s Dealey Plaza.  Things didn’t go well.  Understandably patients weren’t lined up to see a dentist with a persistent cough.  Born of necessity or convenience, he discovered that gambling was more profitable than pulling teeth.  Thus began his Wild West odyssey.

Dallas in 1872

He left Dallas under a cloud, the first of many, having traded gun fire with a saloon keeper.  He moved to Denison, arrested there and found guilty of “gaming.” 

In the summer of 1875, he caught the stage to Denver using the alias Tom Mackey.  There he worked as a faro dealer for casino owners John Babb and Thomas Miller.  When Miller moved to Deadwood after news of the Dakota Territory  gold strike, Holliday went with him.

By 1877, he’d traveled to Cheyenne and returned to Denver before going to Kansas, ostensibly to visit his aunt.  But by the Fourth of July that year he’d been arrested in Breckenridge, Texas, over a gambling altercation, charged with beating fellow gambler, Henry Kahn, with his walking stick.  Following his arrest, Kahn shot and seriously wounded Holliday. 

Back he went to Texas to recover from his injury under the care of a cousin, George Henry Holliday.  It was in Fort Griffin, Texas, he met two people who would be his companions the rest of his life; Wyatt Earp and Mary Katharine “Big Nose Kate” Horony (left).

Kate is generally referred to as Holliday’s common law wife.  Her unflattering moniker derived not from an outsized facial feature but for her unceasing interest in other people’s business.  Born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1850, the daughter of a doctor, she was orphaned in the United States at 14 when both parents were killed in a steamboat accident.  (Right, Kate and sister)

Like many of the women and girls left to make their own way on the frontier, she became a prostitute. Her second career was helping Holliday in and out of his frequent scrapes.

The gambler’s kinship with Earp was sealed during Earp’s tenure as the marshal in Dodge City, Kansas.  Holliday reportedly defended him in a saloon brawl against a group of  drovers and again in a bar room confrontation with several characters described as “desperados.”

How Doc got to Tombstone in 1880 in time for the 1881 gunfight is a matter for  debate.  Either Holliday followed the Earp brothers, Wyatt,  Virgil and Morgan, hoping to cash in snookering rich miners at the poker table or the Earps sent for him after discovering how bad things really were in Tombstone.  

Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp

The fabled gun fight with the Clanton’s actually occurred in the vicinity of the OK Corral, apparently a location with more cache than “shots fired” at C. S. Fly’s Photo Gallery.  The Earps and Holliday were cleared at an arraignment.  

But after Virgil Earp was seriously wounded and Morgan Earp was killed in an ambush, Wyatt and Holliday reigned retribution across several states on members of the Clanton gang.  At least three members, Frank Stilwell, Florentino Cruz and Curly Bill Brocius were killed and two others wounded.  

Holliday was charged in Stilwell’s death and fled to Colorado.  But in 1882, when Arizona attempted to extradite him, Wyatt Earp called on his friend and fellow lawman, Bat Masterson, (right) to intercede.  Masterson appealed to Colorado’s governor, Frederick Walker Piktin, who eventually refused to honor Arizona’s extradition order.

Holliday remained in Colorado until his death on November 8, 1887, at just 36.   He was buried at Pioneer Cemetery, Glenwood Springs.  The disease that finally killed him was, in fact, a family curse.  Holliday’s adopted brother, Francisco E’Dalgo (right), had died 14 years earlier at 35 from tuberculosis, as well.  Both were believed to have contracted it from Alice Jane.     

Kate remained in Colorado for a time after Holliday’s death  but later married  miner and a blacksmith George Cummings, and moved back to Arizona.  She died in Prescott in 1940 at age 90.

No other frontier trio, save perhaps Butch Cassidy, Sundance and Etta Place, (Cassidy and Etta, right), have received as much star treatment as Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp and  Big Nose Kate.  Over the years Holliday has been portrayed  by Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglas, Stacy Keach, Val Kilmer, Harrison Ford and Kevin Cosner.  Earp has been played by Burt Lancaster, Randolph Scott, Henry Fonda, Joel McCrea, Hugh O’Brian and James Garner.   Kate’s character figured largely in the  1971 movie “Doc,” portrayed by the glamorous Faye Dunaway. O.K. Corral and Historama, 308 E Allen Street, Tombstone, Arizona, while not the actual site of the famous gunfight which occurred on Fremont Street, visitors can see a multimedia presentation on the history of Tombstone as well as a re-enactment.  Part of the Tombstone Historic District, the district was declared a National Historic Monument in 1961.  The O.K. Corral is open 9 to 5 daily with re-enactments at 2 each afternoon.  Admission is $2.50 and $2 addition for the re-enactment.  For more information go to or call  (520) 457-3456. 

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.