The Story Of Infamous Western Outlaw Doc Holiday Was Darker Than We Ever Knew

The Story Of Infamous Western Outlaw Doc Holiday Was Darker Than We Ever Knew

The American West is famous for its notorious outlaws — who robbed banks, trains, and stagecoaches — as well as bold lawmen who chased them down. But none were quite like Doc Holliday. He wasn’t as lawless as many others, but engaged in his fair share of gunslinging and gambling. His reputation endures thanks to the classic character in Tombstone, played by Val Kilmer. But in separating fact from fiction, historians found that there’s a side to this legend that no movie or book has managed to capture.

Southern Born

Doc Holliday was born John Henry Holliday in Griffin, Georgia, on August 14, 1851. He had a cleft palate, which required surgery and impacted his speech. His doting mother worked with him for countless hours on proper pronunciation, and eventually, they vanquished the impediment.

Facebook / Doc Talk

Great Life

Doc had a wonderful childhood. His father was a pharmacist and his mother was a dedicated caregiver and teacher, bestowing the importance of manners on him. He was also an excellent student, especially in math and science. He was also a big reader.

Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Becoming A Dentist

Sadly, his mom died in 1866 from tuberculosis. Doc threw himself into his studies to cope with her death, and his good grades got him into dentistry school at the University of Pennsylvania. Doc graduated in 1872 and began working as a dentist. 

Photo by Oxford Science Archive/Print Collector/Getty Images

New Interest

When Doc was 22, he moved his practice to Dallas, Texas. It was a rowdy place. His business was steady, but Doc quickly grew distracted by another passion: gambling. He loved the nightlife and frequented the many saloons.

Wikimedia Commons / Conkling Studio

Getting A Reputation

Doc was an excellent card player, which he often combined with drinking and fighting. This soon eclipsed his dental practice. He was arrested for these activities, as well as for getting into a gunfight with the saloon keeper.

Hollywood Pictures

Finding Love

Texas was also where he met Mary Katherine Horony, or Big Nose Kate. She was an independent woman who danced, bartended, engaged in sex work, and was incredibly intelligent. Kate and Doc got married at a dance hall, though their good times wouldn’t last forever.

Wikimedia Commons / Phillips Collection Photography Studio

Another Outlaw Town

The newlyweds faced major trouble when Doc was accused of murder. Historians aren’t sure if he was guilty, but fearing for his safety, he and Kate fled to Dodge City, Kansas — another town filled with outlaws. Though not all the company was bad.

Wikimedia Commons / Btphelps

Making Enemies

In Dodge City, Doc met fellow gunslinger, Wyatt Earp. Wyatt was a temporary deputy who’d made enemies from rounding up lawbreakers. A few of them rode into Dodge one night and attacked the Long Branch Saloon, where Doc was playing cards.

Wikimedia Commons / American Experience: Wyatt Earp on WXXI-TV

Saloon Fight

Wyatt barged in when he heard the commotion. The gunmen aimed at him, but Wyatt surprised the attackers by backing up Doc with his own gun. After this incident, the two became great friends. Eventually, the pair moved to Tombstone, Arizona, together.

Photo by MPI/Getty Images

Lucky For Them

Wyatt’s brothers were the marshals in Tombstone, and Wyatt picked up a job as a bank security guard. These enforcers couldn’t keep to themselves for too long and ran afoul of some cowboys who were also part-time outlaws. The Earps decided to arrest the Clanton and McLaury gang.

Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Legendary Shootout

Their feud came to a head on October 26, 1881 at the O.K. Corral. Nobody knows who fired first, but there was no doubt about the victims. Virgil Earp shot Billy Clanton, and then Doc shot Tom McLaury in the chest. Wyatt hit Frank McLaury.

Robert Alexander/Getty Images

Arrested And Charged

Everything happened quickly. Billy and the McLaury’s were dead within 30 seconds of shooting. And soon after, Wyatt and Doc were arrested for murdering their rivals. Public favor was firmly divided about the crime.

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Arrested With The Bestie

Though the vigilantes were in hot water, Wyatt himself was glad to be arrested with his best friend. He said Doc was the “most skillful gambler and nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever knew.”  

Wikimedia Commons

Divided Opinions

Some thought Doc and Wyatt were protecting themselves from a threat, and others heard the McLauries and Billy weren’t armed and were holding up their hands when they were shot.

Hollywood Pictures

Who Started It?

During the trial, witnesses provided conflicting accounts, based on who the witness was supporting. Even reliable third parties couldn’t agree on who started the attack.

Photo via John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

The Ruling

Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer presided over the trial. On November 30, 1881, the judge ruled that the accused couldn’t be convicted a crime because they were acting as lawmen and defending themselves.

YouTube / Leslie Derkovitz

Ruined Reputation

Wells also expressed his opinion that the men shouldn’t have been deputized at all. A few weeks later, a jury agreed to not convict the lawmen. Though they escaped formal punishment, socially their reputations took a major blow. 

Hollywood Pictures

The Gunslinging Dentist

Nationally, Doc Holliday earned a legendary reputation for being a gambling, gunslinging, dentist with manners and a well-kept mustache. People wanted to be like him — or maybe they had a crush.

Photo by John van Hasselt/Sygma via Getty Images

Western Drifter

After the public trial, Doc decided to flee from Arizona. He spent his remaining years drifting across the Western front, continuing to gamble. At this point, he seemed to give up on the dentistry.

Wikimedia Commons / Internet Archive Book Images

“This Is Funny”

On November 8, 1887, Doc succumbed to tuberculosis in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, at 36. In his dying moments, he took a shot of whiskey and said, “This is funny.” It can be difficult for historians to pinpoint the truth about Western heroes like Doc Holliday, but a recent find has brought their stories to life.

Facebook / The Adventures of Finius the Skinniest

History Buffs

Keith and Brian Collins’ history obsession leads them to areas of the country where historic artifacts are prevalent. Hoping to get their hands on something meaningful, they charted a course for the famous Old Western town of Tombstone.

Daily Press

No Strangers To Attention

People from all over flock to Tombstone for a taste of life during the 1800s. Many of the buildings are old-fashioned replicas, which was right up Keith and Brian’s alley. A previous experience hinted the small town might be a hot spot for historic artifacts.

Robert Alexander / Getty Images

Carriage House Antiques

The 2011 trip to the Carriage House Antiques shop in Hesperia, California, garnered plenty of public attention. The men visited the shop in search of some historic finds, and they came away with quite the discovery.

Real Living Real Estate

Wyatt Earp

They found an authentic photo album of the famous Wyatt Earp with several members of his family. The album was among a pile of other old photos, but none of them were nearly as special as this.

Daily Press

Thrift Store Hunting

Wyatt Earp was an Old West lawman and gambler, as well as the deputy marshal of Tombstone. Now that the brothers were actually visiting Tombstone, they hit the thrift stores in hopes of finding more history.

True West Archives

Making A Purchase

In the first store they entered, they immediately asked if there were any old photos for sale — they were hoping to find something like the Wyatt Earp album. They eventually ended up purchasing this tintype of two men.

Daily Press

Examining The Photo

They bought the tintype, as well as two other old photographs, for a total of $13. They tossed the pictures in the glove compartment at first, but later that night, Keith examined the image of the two men.

Wikimedia Commons

Billy The Kid

He stared at the photo closely, then passed it to his brother. “I’m looking at it, and I’m thinking, ‘That can’t be who I think it is.’ So I passed it to Brian (who said,) ‘That’s Billy the Kid.’”

Daily Press

Could It Be?

Could the brothers really have stumbled upon an actual photo of Billy the Kid, the infamous outlaw who was a major player in the Lincoln County Regulators gang? He’s perhaps the only Regulator anyone really even remembered.

via Joe Rondone / Tallahassee Democrat

Needing Answers

Even to this day, the name “Billy the Kid” is recognizable. Heck, abstract artwork of the outlaw hangs in a modern museum! This guy was a big name, and now Keith and Brian needed answers.

Robert Alexander / Getty Images

Excitement Brews

When they asked the man who sold them the photos where he’d gotten them, he told them, “Oh, we actually dug it up at a tent.” The tent was located in an area known for gambling, which excited the brothers.

Wikimedia Commons

Casting Doubt

According to Keith, Billy the Kid and the other man in the photo, his half-brother Joseph Antrim, were big gamblers, which added to the evidence the photo was legit. However, not everyone held this belief.

Bournemouth News

Labeling It fake

The executive editor of True West Magazine, Bob Boze Bell, had no doubt in his mind the photo was a fake. According to Bob, he sees people who have “authentic” Billy the Kid photos “almost every week.”

Julia Robb

No Hard Evidence

He continued, “Short of a letter from someone who actually knew the Kid and who specifically mentions this photo, there is no way to prove anything.” He even doubted the 2010 Billy the Kid photo that sold for $5 million.

Kingman Daily Miner

Randy Guijarro

In 2010, a man named Randy Guijarro purchased a photo of Billy the Kid playing croquet from a thrift store in Fresno, California. With the help of a National Geographic producer, he was able to prove its authenticity.

Randy Guijarro

Help’s On The Way

Jeff Aiello, the producer who helped Randy for over a year to determine whether his photo was legit, was obviously just as interested in Keith and Brian’s find, so he volunteered to help them as well.

The Business Journal

Not A Match

The biggest factor in determining photo authenticity, as Jeff learned with Randy, was facial recognition technology. Unfortunately, when the brothers’ find was put to the test, it didn’t land nearly enough percent points to justify a match.

Iowa State University

Never Disheartened

Jeff admitted, “In my opinion, neither one of those guys is close to Billy. I laid out facial recognition data over them. The facial geometry doesn’t match. It’s a cool image though.” The brothers, however, weren’t disheartened.

Daily Press

A Great Attitude

Keith said, “Brian and I are trying to preserve history before it’s gone.” These guys simply want the importance of the era appreciated by others. Still, they’re on the lookout for all Old West photos they can get their hands on.

Daily Press