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5 Facts About the Wild West's Deadly 'Doc' Holliday

Doc Holliday
Doc Holliday was a dentist by trade who became an icon of the American West. Wikimedia/Howstuffworks

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In the canon of the Wild West, you can't separate Wyatt Earp from "Doc" Holliday. They go together like guns and holsters. Whiskey and shot glasses. Cowboys and horses.

"Wyatt Earp is the hero, the stalwart lawman, the primary figure," says Gary Roberts, the author of "Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend," a 1997 biography of the real-life John Henry Holliday. "But Doc is the individual who adds color. People like the guy who tells it like it is and doesn't back down and stands up for right. But the person who is the most intriguing is the charming, surly, quick-tempered, loyal, educated one."

We talked to Roberts about some of the lesser-known aspects of one of the West's best-known second bananas.

1. Doc Was a Real Doctor

Holliday was born in Griffin, Georgia, spent some of his childhood in Valdosta, Georgia, and was educated in the classics. He moved to Philadelphia at 19 to enroll in the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery, and later practiced dentistry in stops that included St. Louis, Atlanta and Dallas. He gave it up as he moved about, his health declined and he found more success as a gambler.

Holliday's reputation — as a fast gun, a killer and as perhaps someone with a death wish — was probably more fearful than the man himself. He's believed to have killed fewer than a handful of men in his life.

2. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday Weren't That Close

It's true that Holliday and Earp were friends. The two fought side by side in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881's famous gunfight at the O.K. Corral. But they'd met only four years earlier, while passing through Texas. In between, they had crossed paths, but it's not as if they went everywhere together.

"Doc is frequently portrayed as if he's kind of Wyatt Earp's sidekick, almost a lapdog who was there on hand to always help Wyatt out, and that Wyatt was indebted to him," Roberts says from his home in Tifton, Georgia. "Which was true. He was. Holliday did help to save his life in Dodge City [Kansas]."

After the gunfight in Tombstone, though, and once they completed a bloody vendetta against those who ambushed Earp's brothers after the O.K. Corral, Holliday and Earp drifted apart. They may have even had a falling out in Albuquerque a few years later.

"They didn't need each other anymore," Roberts says. "I don't think that their friendship was over, necessarily. They just went their different ways."

3. Earp Wasn't Doc's Only Friend

Holliday was an oddity in many parts of the West. He was an educated Southerner who made his money gambling, so he could rub people the wrong way.

"There were a number of people who did not like Doc, for a variety of reasons, I suppose. He was a person who could be moody," Roberts says. "[But] he had friends in every place that he went."

Holliday's moodiness, a product perhaps of suffering for years with tuberculosis, often was compounded by drinking and, later, by the drug laudanum he took for pain. That added to his reputation as a loner. But he was longtime friends with a Colorado newspaperman and saloon keepers all over the West. He kept in touch with people he grew up with in Georgia. And as Holliday lay dying in a Colorado hotel room in 1887, practically penniless, fellow gamblers and saloon keepers helped pay his bills.

Unlike the scene in the movie "Tombstone," Earp was not there when Holliday died, at age 36.

4. Doc Didn't Have a Death Wish

Holliday contracted tuberculosis, then known as consumption, at an early age. He probably got it from his mother, who died of it. He fought with it for much of his adult life, often traveling to places that he thought would help ease the symptoms.

Holliday's movement alone makes Roberts bristle at the suggestion that he longed for an early death.

"He is portrayed in most accounts as a fatalist. Somebody who knew he was going to die from the disease and in a sense, gave up on life, so that he didn't care whether he lived or died," Roberts says. "I think it was certain that he knew that he was going to die eventually from it ... he knew enough about consumption that he knew he would not have a long life. I expect that explains some of the melancholy and some of the cynicism that you see from him.

"But there's too much evidence, too many instances where it becomes very clear that he wanted to live."

His travels — getting out of Georgia, going to Dodge City, Kansas; to Las Vegas, New Mexico; to Leadville, Colorado; to Arizona and, even later, to Butte, Montana — all showed that he was looking for a place to live more comfortably. Before a shootout in Leadville, Roberts says, Holliday implored law officers and friends to step in to stop things, showing his desire to live.

His last trip was to Glenwood Springs, Colorado, famous then for its supposedly restorative hot springs. That's where he died.

Tombstone, Arizona graves
After just 30 seconds of shooting in Tombstone, Arizona, Billy Clanton and brothers Tom and Frank McLaury were dead at the hands of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday during the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Wikimedia Commons

5. 'I'm Your Huckleberry' and 'You're a Daisy'

The 1993 movie "Tombstone" has gone a long way toward stoking Holliday's image as an eccentric, thanks to an iconic performance by Val Kilmer as Doc. At least two lines in it are memorable. One of them might even be historically accurate.

When Kilmer, as Holliday, meets up with bad guy Johnny Ringo (played by Michael Biehn) in the film, he declares, "I'm your huckleberry." The phrase, Roberts says, was popular at the time, meaning, "I'm the one you're looking for," or "I'm the man for the job." In a critical showdown late in the film, Holliday again announces his presence with the phrase, although Roberts says there's no historical basis for the scene.

"I'm Your Huckleberry" is the title of Kilmer's recent memoir.

At the O.K. Corral, witnesses say bad guy Frank McLaury got a late advantage on Holliday during the 30-second fight, and declared "I got you now, you son of a bitch," as he leveled a gun at him. Holliday answered — historically, this is close to accurate — "You're a daisy if you do." (Some versions say it was, "You're a daisy if you have [got me].") The meaning, Roberts says, is basically, "Good for you if you do."

McLaury didn't have the drop on him. Holliday escaped unharmed. McLaury was killed.

Still, Doc Holliday's reputation as one of the worst of the Wild West's lives on. Holliday has been played in movies by a dapper, strong Kirk Douglas (1957's "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral"), Stacy Keach (1971's "Doc,"), Kilmer, Dennis Quaid (in 1994's "Wyatt Earp") and many others.

"In most," Roberts says, "Doc Holliday steals the show."

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