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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.’”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.