John Henry "Doc" Holliday was born August 14, 1851. A dentist by trade, Holliday became an icon of the American West and was close friends with fellow gunslinger Wyatt Earp. They were the two most famous faces in what is regarded as the most legendary battle of the West: the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which cemented Holliday's status as a legend.
One of the icons of the old American West, John Henry ("Doc") Holliday was born August 14, 1851, in Griffin, Georgia. His birth was a celebrated event for his parents, Henry Burroughs Holliday and Alice Jane Holliday, who just a year before had buried their first child, an infant daughter.
He hailed from middle-class stock. His father made his living as a druggist in Griffin, a booming Georgia city that had become a central point for the South's most important export: cotton.
Holliday was adored by his parents, in particular his mother. Born with a cleft palate, Holliday had undergone corrective surgery, but his speech needed considerable work. Ever mindful of her son's condition and what others might say of his birth condition or the way he talked, she spent hours working with him to correct his speech. In addition she imparted to her son the Southern etiquette and manners that would forever reflect his demeanor.
By all accounts, Holliday was a bright student who excelled at school. His devotion to his books accelerated in 1866, when his mother died of tuberculosis. Her death devastated Holliday, and he poured himself into math and science as a way to cope with her loss.
In 1870 Holliday moved to Philadelphia to attend what is now called the University of Pennsylvania Dental School, where he graduated in 1872.
New Life Out West
For a time, Holliday returned to the South to begin his dental career. But at the age of 23 he fled to Dallas, Texas. The reason for this abrupt move isn't entirely clear, but historical research strongly suggests that Holliday, who'd contracted tuberculosis, thought he'd fare better in the drier air.
Holliday continued with his dental career in his new home, but the Dallas nightlife, especially its drinking and card games, called to him. Soon, his gambling habits directed his life. By the mid-1870s, he'd already developed a strong reputation for card playing and fighting.
After escaping a charge of murder in Dallas, Holliday went on the move. He relocated to a number of different cities before settling down in Dodge City, Kansas, a hot spot for gunfighters and the city where he befriended Wyatt Earp. He later followed Earp to Tombstone, Arizona, a booming mining and frontier town near the Mexican border.
Wyatt Earp And The O.K. Corral
It was in Tombstone that the Doc Holliday legend that would be passed down from one generation to the next was made. On October 26, 1881, Holliday and the Earps found themselves in an intense firefight with cowboys Ike and Billy Clanton, and Frank McLaury and his brother Tom. More than 30 shots were fired in a 30-second battle that came to be known as the shootout at the O.K. Corral. It's arguably the most legendary gunfight ever fought in the American West.
The battle left three men dead and several others wounded, including Holliday. Both Holliday and Wyatt Earp were arrested for murder but quickly released of the charges.
Following the fight, Morgan Earp was killed, setting his brother Wyatt off on the Earp Vendetta Ride. Holliday accompanied his friend on the ride, which went well into 1882 and saw an assortment of killings.
After splitting from Wyatt Earp, Holliday moved to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. His health continued to deteriorate, and he died of tuberculosis at the Hotel Glenwood (today the Hotel Colorado) on November 8, 1887.
His death reverberated around the country. Despite his lawless ways and his quick temper, Holliday's character was augmented by the same Southern etiquette his mother had taught as child.
"Few men have been better known to a certain class of sporting people, and few men of his character had more friends or stronger companions," wrote the Denver Republican after his passing. "He represented a class of men who are disappearing in the new West. He had the reputation of being a bunco man, desperado, and bad-man generally, yet he was a very mild-mannered man, was genial and companiable, and had many excellent qualities."
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