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Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Doc Holliday Dies, November 8, 1887

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Today in 1887, John Henry “Doc” Holliday died in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Holliday is remembered today for his role in the shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona. But there is much more to the story of this complicated, physically fragile man.

Holliday was born in Griffin, Georgia in August, 1851. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was 15, after which his father remarried and the family moved to Valdosta, Georgia. Holliday attended the Valdosta Institute and received a classical education with courses in math, grammar, history, Latin, French and ancient Greek. From there, he attended dental school in Philadelphia. In March, 1872, Holliday received the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery.

Soon after he began his dental practice, Holliday received a diagnosis that would change his life: he had tuberculosis. He would not live long if he stayed in the humid south, but it was thought that the warm, dry air of the southwestern United States might allow him to live a longer life. So in September, 1873, Holliday made his way to Dallas, Texas.

After trading gunfire with a saloon owner and being arrested for gambling, Holliday decided that he had had his fill of Texas. The problem was not the state, but Holliday’s short-tempered, impulsive nature. He also drank heavily as a reputed remedy for his nearly constant cough. In the course of his time in Texas, Holliday had discovered that gambling was a better source of income than dentistry; all told, he only worked as a dentist for about five years.

Holliday traveled all over the Wild West and ended up back in Texas as Fort Griffin. It was there that he met the man who would become his closest friend: Wyatt Earp. Earp was the calm, more rational half of the relationship, a good counter-balance to Holliday’s hot-headed impulsiveness. The two traveled to Dodge City, Kansas in 1878 in order to sample the gambling there.

While in Dodge City, Wyatt Earp became a deputy City Marshal. One day in September, 1878, he found himself surrounded by gunmen with no route of escape. Just when things seemed hopeless, Doc Holliday showed up and held his gun on the men from a different angle. After some threatening talk, the situation was defused. For the rest of his life, Wyatt Earp told people that Doc saved his life that day.
Holliday arrived in Tombstone, Arizona in September, 1880, several months after Wyatt Earp and his brothers took up residence there. Most of the Earps had experience as lawmen, although they also knew what it was like to be on the other side of the law. As a friend of Wyatt Earp, it was only a matter of time until Holliday became involved in local politics and law enforcement.

The Gunfight at the OK Corral was the culmination of a feud between the Earps and a group known as the Cowboys. The details of the feud could fill a month’s worth of podcasts, but suffice it to say that things became heated the night before the shootout when Holliday and Cowboy Ike Clanton, a local with a big mouth and a seething hatred for Holliday, had words. The next day, Clantons, McLaurys and other members of the Cowboys gathered in the lot next to the boarding house in which Holliday was staying. Several eyewitnesses report that Holliday thought the men were there to kill him, although no firm evidence of this exists today. Whatever the true intention, it wasn’t long before the Earp brothers and Holliday showed up to confront the gang.

Virgil Earp, who was the Tombstone town marshal, had every intention of disarming the group peacefully in accordance with a local ordinance banning firearms within city limits, but it was not to be. Who fired first remains a source of speculation, but one thing is certain: Doc Holliday discharged the shotgun he was carrying into the chest of Tom McLaury, killing him. Despite a reputation to the contrary, this is the only man undoubtedly killed by Holliday up to that point in his life. While the shootout was soon over, the killing had just begun.

After a local court cleared the Earps and Holliday of any wrong-doing in the shootout, Virgil Earp was attacked and severely injured in December, 1881. The following March, Morgan Earp was killed. The remaining family members left town along with Holliday. While Wyatt, Warren Earp and Holliday escorted Virgil Earp and his wife to California, they prevented another attack on the family. It was then that the men decided to take the law into their own hands. What would become known as the Earp Vendetta had begun.

Holliday never acknowledged any of the killings that followed, but he did ride with a gang made up of Wyatt and Warren Earp, Sherman McMasters, Turkey Creek Jack Johnson and Texas Jack Vermillion. In the end, four men were dead, three of whom were suspected in the death of Morgan Earp. The six riders ended up with warrants against them in Arizona; they had become outlaws in their pursuit of justice. They headed for New Mexico, then Colorado, where Wyatt and Doc went their separate ways. They would meet only one more time during Holliday’s life.

Holliday was involved in a shooting in Leadville, Colorado in 1884, but was found not guilty because he had acted in self-defense. By 1887, he was down to 122 pounds, had grey hair and was constantly sick. His final days were spent in a hotel at Glenwood Springs, Colorado with his longtime companion, Kate Fisher, at his side. He is buried in Glenwood Springs.

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