Cover Page



Half Title page

Title page

Copyright page



Prologue: The Measure of A Man

Chapter 1: Child of the Southern Frontier

Chapter 2: The World Turned Upside Down

Chapter 3: Gone to Texas

Chapter 4: Cow Towns and Pueblos

Chapter 5: The Price of A Reputation

Chapter 6: Friends and Enemies

Chapter 7: The Fremont Street Fiasco

Chapter 8: Vengeance

Chapter 9: The Out Trail

Chapter 10: A Holliday in Denver

Chapter 11: A Living-and Dying-Legend

Chapter 12: The Anatomy of a Western Legend

Epilogue: The Measure of A Legend




Title Page

Susan McKey Thomas,
John Henry Holliday’s cousin,
a true Southern lady in the finest sense of the term
and the inspira tion for this book.


A book such as this is built on the generosity of others. Teachers, scholars, researchers, artists, and encouragers (many of whom never realized the role they played) influenced both this work’s conception and explication while instilling a profound sense of humility in me. Countless individuals shaped not only my knowledge of and enthusiasm for this story but also the worldview and sense of history that gave it form and meaning. Regretfully, I cannot acknowledge or even remember all of them, but I am profoundly grateful to each.

My greatest debt is to Susan McKey Thomas, the granddaughter of John Henry Holliday’s uncle, William Harrison McKey. Her encouragement and willingness to share the results of her own prodigious research made this book possible. She has been my mentor, my collaborator, and my friend. Long before I met Susie, though, the seed that spawned this book had already been planted in the living room of the late Alva McKey of Valdosta, Georgia, a first cousin of John Henry Holliday’s. “Miss Alva” made Doc Holliday human for me that afternoon long ago; Susie revived my interest and challenged me to tell his story.

Other members of John Henry’s family helped as well, some directly, some through collaboration with others: Edward R. Holliday, J. William F. Holliday, Robert Lee Holliday, Angeline De La Gal, Cathy E’Dalgo, J. C. E’Dalgo, Morgan De Lancey McGee, J. D. McKey, John McKey, Martha Wiseman McKey, Constance Knowles McKellar, Mac McKellar, Carolyn Holliday Manley, Catharine Holliday Neuhoff, Regina Rapier, Karen Holliday Tanner, I. H. Tillman, and Mrs. Clyde McKey White.

Casey Tefertiller, whose landmark Wyatt Earp: The Life behind the Legend set a new standard for students of frontier violence and its accompanying myths, encouraged me to make an old dream a reality, and provided advice and materials from his own research to help make it happen. Jeffrey J. Morey, a close student of Wyatt Earp and the Tombstone troubles, shared his own research and insights in ways that proved essential to the evolution of this book. Victoria Wilcox was generous to a fault with the fruits of her own research (especially relating to the Holliday family) as well as her unique and challenging perspectives on critical issues that helped me to see old questions in new ways. Robert F. Palmquist, a Tucson attorney and close student of Tombstone’s colorful history, provided sage advice both on the substance of this story and on the peculiarities of the nineteenth-century legal system. Dr. David O. Moline, a dental surgeon and a historian of dental practice, shared critical information based on his own interest in Doc Holliday. The late Robert N. Mullin tutored me in this field for years with rare balance and perception. Without this half dozen, this book would never have been written.

Other researchers took the time to share unselfishly from their own important research in ways that provided new information that modified or informed my understanding. Regina Andrus, John Boessenecker, Arthur W. Bork, Peter Brand, Jack Burrows, Woody Campbell, Bob Cash, Paul Cool, Bruce Dettman, Bill Dunn, Mark Dworkin, Marcus A. Gottschalk, Teresa Green, Chuck Hornung, Roger Jay, Paul L. Johnson, Scott Johnson, Shirley Ayn Linder, William B. Shillingberg, Emma Walling, and Roy Young made critical contributions of this kind.

I have also benefited from the work of Doc Holliday’s previous biographers—John Myers Myers, Patricia Jahns, Albert Pendleton Jr., Sylvia D. Lynch, Ben T. Traywick, Bob Boze Bell, and Karen Holliday Tanner—whose works blazed the trail for my quest for understanding and raised new questions that I might otherwise have missed.

Several private collectors—Carl Chafin, Craig Fouts, Robert G. McCubbin, Kevin J. Mulkins, and C. Lee Simmons—made it possible for me to examine documents that I could not have seen otherwise.

Other individuals, living and dead, who have contributed to this work include Rita Ackerman, Robin Andrews, Scott Anderson, Lynn R. Bailey, Allen Barra, Dr. Ernest Beerstecher, Verner Lee Bell, Mary Billings-McVicar, Peter Blodgett, Mark Boardman, Patrick A. Bowmaster, Jim Bradshaw, Donaly Brice, Richard Maxwell Brown, Tom Bryant, Neal Carmony, Robert J. Chandler, Peter Christoph, Ann Collier, Wayne Collier, Sharon Cunningham, Donald O. Davis, Joe Davis, Robert K. De Arment, Jack DeMattos, Jim Dunham, Joan Farmer, Timothy W. Fattig, Steve Gatto, Tom Gaumer, Treese Hellstrom, Cindy Hines, Dr. L. C. Holtzendorff, Billy Johnson, Troy Kelly, Larry Knuth, E. Dixon Larson, Jennifer Lewis, Joe Lineburger, Randy Lish, Larry Martin, Gary McClelland, Nyle H. Miller, Carolyn Mitchell, Jan Morrison, Roger Myers, Bruce Olds, Clay Parker, Chuck Parsons, Chris Penn, Roger Peterson, Nancy Pope, Pamela Potter, Cyn Poweleit, S. J. Reidhead, Max Roberts, John Rose, Rod Rothrock, Clark Secrest, Larry G. Shaver, Keith Sladic, Chuck Smith, Jean Smith, Joseph W. Snell, Russell Street, John D. Tanner, Ben Tingenot, Kenneth Vail, Lawrence Vivian, Mark Warren, Jeff Wheat, Erik Wright, and Ronald Yeomans.

In my youth I was tutored patiently in the history of Western violence by a remarkable group of historians, book collectors, writers, researchers, and a few direct links to the Western past who shaped my approach to the field. They are gone now, but they were giants to me, and acknowledging them is both appropriate and necessary because of my great debt to them. In addition to Bob Mullin, Ramon F. Adams, Henry Allen (aka Will Henry and Clay Fisher), Ed Bartholomew, William R. Cox, J. Frank Dobie, Jefferson C. Dykes, John D. Gilchriese, Waldo E. Koop, Ethel Macia, Nyle H. Miller, Philip J. Rasch, C. L. Sonnichsen, Zoe A. Tilghman, and Opie Vermillion fed the vision that made this book possible.

The tyranny of space has forced me to confine my acknowledgments of numerous institutions, both public and private, to the extensive notes appended to this volume. I hope that the staffs of these institutions, past and present—literally dozens of people—who so generously helped me across the years will understand. I do not take lightly my debt to them or the places where they work, or have worked.

I am especially grateful to my editor, Hana Lane, and my production editor, Lisa Burstiner, whose patience, direction, and toughness made this dream become a reality.

Finally, I would like to thank my family and friends, especially my stepdaughter, LeahAnn Driscoll, who with one bright smile reminds me that there is a future as well as a past.

I can only hope that the results are worthy of the effort of all of these people—and more—on my behalf.



There’s no such thing as a normal life, Wyatt. There’s just life. Now get on with it.

—Doc Holliday to Wyatt Earp, Tombstone(1993)

At ten o’clock on the morning of November 8, 1887, at Glenwood Springs, Colorado, a slight, frail man of thirty-six succumbed to the effects of chronic pulmonary tuberculosis. In his last days, John Henry Holliday, his hair silvered and his gaunt form bent and worn from the ravages of his disease, hardly seemed the stuff of legend, although in the words of the local paper, “the fortitude and patience he displayed in his last two months of life, made many friends.”1 But when the Denver Republican noted his passing, the measure of the man came clearer: “Doc Holliday is dead. Few men have been better known to a certain class of sporting people, and few men of his character had more friends or stronger companions. He represented a class of men who are disappearing in the new West. He had the reputation of being a bunco man, desperado, and bad-man generally, yet he was a very mild-mannered man, was genial and companionable, and had many excellent qualities.”2

This somewhat gentle assessment of the career of Doc Holliday underscored a problem that has plagued his biographers across the years since his death. The man was already obscured by his reputation before he was laid to rest in Glenwood Springs. He would be variously described as a Byronic aristocrat embittered by illness, the black sheep of a fine Southern family, a cynical and deadly killer, and a quarrelsome and profligate drunkard, but despite periodic rumors of personal correspondence and other papers that might throw light onto his values and attitudes, Doc Holliday remains more myth than man.

Opinions always varied. Wyatt Earp (through his ghostwriter in 1896) described him as a “mad, merry scamp with heart of gold and nerves of steel; who…stood at my elbow in many a battle to the death.” Earp’s ghostwriter produced a vivid and compelling portrait of Doc—although he had him hail from the wrong state: “He was a dentist, but he preferred to be a gambler. He was a Virginian [actually a Georgian], but he preferred to be a frontiersman and a vagabond. 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.”3

Bat Masterson was less kind, saying that Doc “had a mean disposition and an ungovernable temper, and under the influence of liquor was a dangerous man.” Describing him as “a weakling who could not have whipped a healthy fifteen-year-old boy in a go-as-you-please fight,” Masterson saw him as “hot headed and impetuous and very much given to both drinking and quarreling, and among men who did not fear him, [he] was very much disliked.”4

Virgil Earp called him “gentlemanly,” a “good dentist,” and a “friendly man” and mused that Doc had been blamed for many things that could not be “traced up to his account.”5 The editor of the Las Vegas (New Mexico) Daily Optic—who was safely distant from Doc at the time—described him as a “shiftless bagged-legged character—a killer and a professional cut-throat and not a whit too refined to rob stages or even steal sheep.”6 A fellow Georgian who knew him as a young man and later dabbled in silver mining in Colorado said of him following his death, “He was a warm friend, and would fight as quick for one as he would for himself. He did not have a quarrelsome disposition, but managed to get into more difficulties than almost any man I ever saw.”7

An unidentified newspaperman remarked about Doc in 1882, “Here is a man who, once a friend, is always a friend; once an enemy is always an enemy.”8 Ridgely Tilden, a correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner in 1882, wrote of him:

Now comes Doc Holliday, as quarrelsome a man as God ever allowed to live on earth. A Georgian, well bred and educated, he happened in Kansas some years ago. Saving Wyatt Earp’s life in Dodge City, Kansas, he earned his gratitude, and notwithstanding his many bad breaks since, has always found a friend in Wyatt. Doc Holliday is responsible for all the killing, etc, in connection with what is known as the Earp-Clanton imbroglio in Arizona. He kicked up the fight, and Wyatt Earp and his brothers “stood in” with him on the score of gratitude.9

E. D. Cowen, a Denver newspaperman who met Holliday in 1882, provided yet another view:

A person unfamiliar with Holliday’s deeds…would pass him off as a specimen of human insignificance. Holliday was of medium stature and blonde complexion. He was small boned and of that generally slumped appearance common to sufferers from inherited pulmonary disease. The clenched setting of his firmly pointed lower jaw and the steadiness of his blue eyes were the only striking features of his pallid countenance. He was scrupulously neat and precise in his attire, though neither a lady’s man nor a dandy.…[H]e was too deeply sincere to be voluble of speech and too earnest in his friendships to make a display of them.10

But Charles D. Reppy, John P. Clum’s partner at the Tombstone Epitaph, said flatly, “Holliday was the most thoroughly equipped liar and smoothest scoundrel in the United States.”11

In such fragments, tantalizing glimpses of truth doubtlessly appear, all the more intriguing because of the contradictory images they pose. Yet the measure of the man remains incomplete. The Doc Holliday of history is an individual seen almost entirely through the eyes of others. He remains, essentially, a man without a voice, a circumstance that makes him at once a compelling subject and a frustrating figure. He was a Southerner, a dentist, a gambler, and a consumptive who seemed to have no fear of death. He was Wyatt Earp’s friend and stood with him at the most famous gunfight in the history of the American West. But those are all impersonal qualities and descriptive terms devoid of any true insight into character, personality, or motivation. They explain what he did, not who he was. They are so vague that they permit today, as in his own time, the diversity of opinion expressed by those quoted here.

Not a single sample of his writing that would provide insight into how he felt or what he believed appears to have survived.12 In his lifetime he gave precious few interviews, and they are disappointing—except to the extent to which they reveal Doc’s humor and studied disdain for the whole process of interview. He never stands clear as a historical figure in sharp relief. Perhaps that is his charm, the reason that in history books, novels, and motion pictures, though he would be unknown without his association with Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday forever steals the show from the plodding, humorless, but always imposing Mr. Earp, who was clearly the central figure in the events that transpired in Tombstone, Arizona, during the troubled months of 1881 and 1882.

And so, curiously, for one so well known, Doc Holliday remains a mystery, a legend in the shadows. That is his charm and his frustration for would-be biographers. Biography is, after all, an arrogant, intrusive enterprise. It probes lives in all the places that people prefer to have left alone. Those who do it justify it usually because they find something compelling about a life or because they have a passion to bring down idols. In either case, biographers have purposes more complicated than simply “telling it like it really happened.”

Biographers reveal much about themselves as well as about their subjects. None of them writes in a vacuum, nor should they, because biography—like all history—amounts to processing lives and events through third-party perceptions to gain the measure of a person and a time. Biographers inevitably see their subjects differently than the subjects saw themselves. No matter how honest, how forthright a subject is, distortions will come from what he or she says, or what he or she leaves out.

The truth of a life is more than a sum of the facts. A life is not merely about what a person does, but also about what a person thinks, feels, and values and how he or she affects the people and events around him or her, because ultimately what biographers and readers want to know is what a person’s life means. And meaning involves more than how a person sees himself or herself or even what a person does. Meaning also involves how others see a person, and the perception of others is not always based on the truth of a life or even complete knowledge of it. So, then, approaching the life of a man like John Henry Holliday is complicated by the fact that the man behind the legend is obscured by conclusions and opinions that created the legend in the first place.

Without a body of letters or even reminiscences written by him that would serve as a corrective to the half-known life presented in the opinion-gripped contemporary press and the memories of men and women who saw him through the lenses of their own agendas and emotion-packed prejudices, John Henry Holliday tantalizes the biographer with unanswered questions. He did not have a frontierwide reputation until after his experiences at Tombstone in 1881 and 1882. Before then, his life did not always leave a clear trail. As a result, much of his life—even many of its most critical moments—are left to informed speculation and possibilities. This work, then, is not the final word on the life of Doc Holliday; it is, rather, an informed quest to understand the man and his legend that will point the way to further discoveries, raise new questions, and provide some answers in the search for meaning in the life of this brooding metaphor of the moral contradictions of life on the late nineteenth-century frontier.