Biography of Doc Holliday, Wild West Legend

Holliday stood along side Wyatt Earp at famous OK Corral gunfight

O.K. Corral
A sign hangs over the entrance to the site of recreated gunfights in historic Tombstone, Arizona, known as 'The Town Too Tough to Die.' The town, featuring staged gunfights and reenactors dressed in 1800s western attire, is a popular tourist attraction. It is the site of the famed 1881 'Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.'.

Robert Alexander / Getty Images 

Doc Holliday (born John Henry Holliday, August 14, 1851—November 8, 1887) was an American gunfighter, gambler, and dentist. A friend of fellow gunslinger and lawman Wyatt Earp, Holliday became an iconic character of the American Wild West through his role in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Despite his reputation for having gunned down “dozens” of men, more recent research suggests Holliday killed no more than two men. Over the years, Holliday’s character and life have been depicted in many movies and television series.

Fast Facts: Doc Holliday

  • Full Name: John Henry (Doc) Holliday 
  • Known For: Old West American gambler, gunfighter, and dentist. Friend of Wyatt Earp 
  • Born: August 14, 1851, in Griffin, Georgia
  • Died: November 8, 1887, in Glenwood Springs, Colorado
  • Parents: Henry Holliday and Alice Jane (McKey) Holliday
  • Education: Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery, D.D.S. Degree, 1872 
  • Key Accomplishments: Fought beside Wyatt Earp against the Clanton Gang in the Gunfight at the OK Corral. Accompanied Wyatt Earp on his Vendetta Ride 
  • Spouse: "Big Nose" Kate Horony (common-law) 
  • Famous Quote: “All I want of you is ten paces out in the street.” (to gunfighter Johnny Ringo).

 Early Life and Education 

 Doc Holliday was born on August 14, 1851, in Griffin, Georgia, to Henry Holliday and Alice Jane (McKey) Holliday. A veteran of both the Mexican–American War and the Civil War, Henry Holliday taught his son to shoot. In 1864, the family moved to Valdosta, Georgia, where Doc attended first through tenth grade at the private Valdosta Institute. Considered an outstanding student, Holliday excelled at rhetoric, grammar, mathematics, history, and Latin. 

Doc Holliday
Doc Holliday. John van Hasselt / Getty Images

In 1870, the 19-year-old Holliday moved to Philadelphia, where he received a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery on March 1, 1872. 

Holliday Heads West 

In July 1872, Holliday joined a dental practice in Atlanta, but was soon diagnosed with tuberculosis. Hoping the drier climate would help his condition, he moved to Dallas, Texas, eventually opening his own dental practice. As his coughing spells increased and his dental patients abandoned him, Holliday turned to gambling to support himself. After having been arrested twice for illegal gambling and being acquitted of murder, he left Texas in January 1875.

Gambling his way west through states and cities where betting was treated as a legal profession, Holliday settled in Dodge City, Kansas, in the spring of 1878. It was in Dodge City that Holliday befriended assistant city marshal Wyatt Earp. Though there were no reports of the incident in the Dodge City newspapers, Earp credited Holliday for saving his life during a shootout with outlaws at the Long Branch Saloon. 

The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral 

In September 1880, Holliday rejoined his friend Wyatt Earp in the wild and booming silver mining camp town of Tombstone, Arizona Territory. Then a Wells Fargo stagecoach security agent, Wyatt joined his brothers, Deputy U.S. Marshal Virgil Earp, and Morgan Earp as Tombstone’s “police force.” In Tombstone’s gambling and liquor-fueled atmosphere, Holliday soon became involved in the violence that would result in the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. 

Opposing the Earps for control of Tombstone was the infamous Clanton Gang, a group of local cowboys led by the notorious cattle rustlers and murderers Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury.

On October 25, 1881, Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury came to town for supplies. Over the course of the day, they had several violent confrontations with the Earp brothers. On the morning of October 26, Ike’s brother Billy Clanton and Tom’s brother Frank McLaury, along with gunfighter Billy Claiborne, rode to town to provide backup for Ike and Tom. When Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton learned that the Earps had just pistol-whipped their brothers, they vowed revenge.

At 3 p.m. on October 26, 1881, the Earps and the hastily-deputized Holliday faced the Clanton-McLaury gang behind the OK Corral. In the 30-seconds of gunfire that ensued, Billy Clanton and both McLaury brothers were killed. Doc Holliday, and Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded. While he was present at the gunfight, Ike Clanton was unarmed and fled the scene.

Though a territorial court found that the Earps and Holliday had acted within their duties as lawmen at the O.K. Corral, Ike Clanton was not satisfied. In the following weeks, Morgan Earp was killed and Virgil Earp was permanently maimed by a group of unknown cowboys. In what has become known as the Earp Vendetta Ride, Holliday joined Wyatt Earp as part of a federal posse that pursued the suspected outlaws for over a year, killing four of them. 

Later Life and Death in Colorado 

Holliday moved to Pueblo, Colorado, in April 1882. In May, he was arrested for the murder of Frank Stilwell, one of the cowboys he had chased down while riding with Wyatt Earp’s federal posse. When Earp learned of the arrest, he arranged to have the request to extradite Holliday to Arizona denied.  

In the winter of 1886, Holliday met his old friend Wyatt Earp for a final time in the lobby of the Windsor Hotel in Denver. Earp’s common-law wife Sadie Marcus later described Holliday as a constantly-coughing skeleton standing on “unsteady legs.”  

Holliday spent the last year of his life in Colorado, dying of tuberculosis in his bed at the Glenwood Springs Hotel on November 8, 1887, at age 36. He is buried in Linwood Cemetery overlooking Glenwood Springs, Colorado. 

Legacy 

One of the best-recognized characters of the American Old West, Doc Holliday is remembered for his friendship with Wyatt Earp. In an 1896 article, Wyatt Earp said of Holliday: 

“I found him a loyal friend and good company. He was a dentist whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit; a long, lean blonde fellow nearly dead with consumption and at the same time the most skillful gambler and nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever knew.” 

Sources and Further Reference

  • Roberts, Gary L. (2006). Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend. John Wiley and Sons, Inc. ISBN 0-471-26291-9 
  • Doc Holliday—Deadly Doctor of the American West. Legends of America.  
  • OK Corral. History.net 
  • Urban, William L. (2003). “Tombstone. Wyatt Earp: The Ok Corral and the Law of the American West.” The Rosen Publishing Group. p. 75. ISBN 978-0-8239-5740-8.