Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
Celebrated gunfighter Doc Holliday earned his nickname at the PA College of Dental Surgery.
John Henry Holliday was born on August 14, 1851 in Griffin, Georgia. After experiencing the South’s fall during the Civil War, Holliday traveled to Philadelphia as a student at the Pennsylvania Dental College of Surgery. He became a skilled dentist during his time, and soon decided to travel to the Western frontier. Holliday became a legend of the West due to his friendship with Wyatt Earp and his participation in the O.K. Corral fight. His eventful life came to a close on November 8, 1887 after suffering from tuberculosis for most of his life.
John Henry Holliday was born on August 14, 1851, in Griffin, Georgia. He was the second-born child to Henry and Alice McKey Holliday, who had lost their first child one-year earlier. The family was surrounded by many close relatives, which created a warm and happy childhood for Holliday.
The Civil War began when Holliday was merely nine years old, dramatically altering his family life. His father and close members of his extended family were called to duty for the Confederate Army. This left Holliday alone with his mother, at a crucial age for a young boy. It was during these years that his mother taught him how to be a polite and charming Southern gentleman. The manners taught by Mrs. Holliday during these years would stay with her son forever.
The family moved to Valdosta, Georgia at the end of the war and began a new life. It was here that Alice Holliday succumbed to tuberculosis in 1866, devastating Holliday. His father married Rachel Martin only two months after, causing Holliday to immerse himself in his school work. He was a model student in mathematics and science, and he decided to attend dental school after his secondary education.
Holliday moved to Philadelphia in 1870 and became a student at The Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery (later known as the University of Pennsylvania’s Dental School). There he excelled in his studies and graduated the program in 1872, earning the moniker “Doc” in years thereafter. Holliday traveled to Missouri and Atlanta after graduation, working in dentistry with several partners.
Despite the many opportunities that awaited him back home, Holliday fled the South in 1873 for Texas. Although there are several theories for this abrupt move, many believe that Holliday learned at this time that he was suffering from tuberculosis. Having seen what the disease had done to his mother, Holliday would have wanted a healthier Western climate to fight it.
Holliday arrived in Dallas, Texas in September of 1873. There he found an old acquaintance John Seegar, and the pair soon became partners in a dentist office. During this time, Holliday was introduced to the nightlife and darker side of Dallas. He began gambling and drinking, which forced Seegar to drop Holliday as a partner in 1874. Holliday worked at his own dental practice during the day and began working a card game called faro at night.
Holliday soon uprooted to Denison, Texas after being charged in Dallas for gambling and shooting in a saloon. He traveled between the two towns until he was charged with assault to murder in 1875 in Dallas. After being found not guilty, he decided to leave Texas and moved on to Colorado.
Holliday traveled the West looking for the up and coming towns for gambling. He frequented towns such as Fort Griffin, TX; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Denver; St. Louis and many more places throughout his travels. During his time on the road, his famous nickname of “Doc was introduced, as was his penchant for trouble. It was also during these years that Holliday met two of the most influential people in his life. The first was Kate Elder who would be his companion on and off for the rest of his life. Second, and more importantly, he met Wyatt Earp for the first time in Fort Griffin. The two would later become close friends and allies.
In 1878, Holliday found himself in Dodge City, Kansas. Here Holliday saw great opportunities for not only gambling but also dentistry. He set up an office for his services and placed an advertisement in the local paper. Holliday felt comfortable in Dodge City and was clearly trying to make a place for himself in the daily lives of its citizens. Because of its association with gunfighters like Holliday, Dodge City would later become the setting for the television drama Gunsmoke, as well as the origin of the idiom “to get out of Dodge.”
It was in Dodge City that Holliday saved Wyatt Earp’s life, solidifying their friendship forever. Several criminals one day accosted Earp, the assistant marshal at the time. As an outlaw approached Earp with a pistol from behind, Holliday shot the man and saved Earp. As Bat Masterson stated in Human Life Magazine in 1907, “Damon did no more for Pythias than Holliday did for Wyatt Earp”—referring to the Greek legend that symbolizes loyalty between friends.
The prosperity in Dodge City began to weaken, as did Holliday’s health. He was soon on the move again to Las Vegas. Holliday hoped to find medical help from the springs there, while still participating in Vegas life. Holliday opened his last dental practice here (he would become a professional gambler for the rest of his life).
During this time, Wyatt Earp and his brothers were becoming well known figures in Tombstone, Arizona Territory. Holliday soon migrated to Tombstone, which allowed him to be close to both his friends and the therapeutic hot springs.
Tombstone was the birthplace of the Doc Holliday legend. There he was known as a gambler, hothead, and gunfighter who was prepared to fight at any time, which often caused him trouble. One such instance, in October 1881, became one of the most famous gunfights in American history.
For a long period of the time, cowboys were becoming an issue in the Tombstone area. Coming into town to gamble with their stolen money, they often provoked fights and shootings. On October 25, 1881, Holliday and cowboy Ike Clanton had a heated argument over a previous criminal case. Clanton continued to provoke Holliday and the Earp brothers, insisting that there would be a fight the following day. The Earps and Holliday did not take his talk seriously.
However, on the morning of October 26, Clanton had gathered his group, including the McLaury brothers, for a fight. He was seen and heard around town making threats against the lives of Holliday and the Earps. Virgil Earp, Wyatt’s brother and an officer at the time, gathered his brothers together to disarm Clanton and his group. Things did not go as planned. Virgil Earp called for all weapons to be discarded, but Clanton and the McLaurys’ drew them instead. This began the infamous O.K. Corral gunfight.
The fallout of this fight was immense. Three were killed (one by Holliday) and Holliday, Morgan Earp and Virgil Earp were wounded. The following day Holliday and Wyatt Earp were arrested for murder. The subsequent hearing showed that there was not a sufficient amount of evidence to hold up in trial. Holliday and Earp were let go, but the events of the Corral would stay with them forever.
Shortly after the Corral gunfight, Morgan Earp was murdered. With one brother dead and the other severely wounded from the October fight, Wyatt Earp made it his mission to defend his family. He brought together a group of men and began the Earp Vendetta Ride into the Western frontier. Being Earp’s closest friend, Holliday had a large part in the vigilante group, who murdered those who were believed to have caused harm. The most infamous murder was that of Frank Stilwell, the man believed to have killed Morgan Earp.
After the vendetta ride was finished in 1882, Holliday and Earp went their separate ways. It was unclear whether or not a fight had occurred between the two, but they would never be as close again. Holliday fled to Denver in May 1882, where he was soon arrested for the murder of Frank Stilwell.
Holliday was wanted for Stilwell’s murder, while also wanted in Arizona for the many crimes done by the vendetta ride. However, Holliday was never convicted of any of these. He and the Earps had many friends who helped. He was released in July of 1882 and traveled to Colorado to return to the gambling world.
During his time in Colorado, it was clear to see that Holliday’s health was failing. He continued in the gambling circuit for as long as his health would allow. On November 8, 1887, Doc Holliday died from tuberculosis in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, where he is believed to be buried.
Although Holliday died in 1887, his legend continued to grow. He was the quintessential man of the Wild West, whose gambling and gun fighting brought him renown. Despite his stoic exterior, Holliday was a Southern gentleman to all and a friend to many. This mysterious combination has made him an American icon.
Doc Holliday’s story has been portrayed and embellished in many films and television shows. His legend can be seen in films such as Tombstone, Doc, and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Throughout all of these representations, the man remains something of a mystery. As Wyatt Earp best stated in the San Francisco Examiner in August 1896, “He was a dentist, but he preferred to be a gambler…He was a philosopher, but he preferred to be a wag. He was long, lean, an ash-blond and the quickest man with a six-shooter I ever knew.” John Henry “Doc” Holliday, the man and legend, will be with American culture forever.
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“Doc Holliday.” Benson, Alvin K. American Villains: Volume One, Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2008.
“How Wyatt Earp Routed a Gang of Arizona Outlaws.” San Francisco Examiner 16 Aug. 1896.
Marks, Paula Mitchell. And Die in the West: The Story of the O.K. Corral Gunfight, New York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 1989.
Masterson, Bat. Human Life Magazine 1907.
Roberts, Gary. Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2006.
Tanner, Karen Holliday. Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait, Norman, OK: U of Oklahoma P, 1998.