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 rediscovery of a photographer's photos from Tombstone are giving us a much clearer picture..
With the legend of Tombstone already spreading across the United States, photographer C.S. Fly decided to capture the historic moments unfolding in the booming mining town.
In December 1879, he and his wife Mary arrived in Tombstone where they immediately set up a temporary photo studio inside a tent. In June of the following year, they opened this studio and gallery in their 12-room boarding house.
In March 1886, Department of Arizona General George Crook learned that feared Apache leader Geronimo was prepared to meet with him. C.S.
Fly caught word of the meeting and decided that he would accompany the military man to the historic encounter. Here is a photograph of an Apache council meeting being held by Geronimo himself.
For much of the 19th century, Tombstone was a budding mining town. Here, we see the entrance to the ever-prosperous Tough Nut Mine.
This mine was owned by Tombstone founder Ed Schieffelin, along with his brother Al and partner Richard Gird.
John Horton Slaughter was a celebrated cowboy, lawman, and rancher, known for dedicating his life to the security of both Arizona and New Mexico. The men pictured here were members of John Slaughter's Ranch Outfit; cowboys tasked with bringing Slaughter's first herd to Arizona..
In addition to his reputation in combat, John Slaughter was also known to be the guardian of a young Apache girl named May. While tracking a group of Apaches in Mexico, Slaughter stumbled upon this young girl, assuming she had either been abandoned by her parents or that they had been killed.
Slaughter proceeded to adopt and care for her as his own.
Between all the gold, silver, and copper mining, the residents of old west Arizona sure knew how to make the most of their free time! Here, we see a group of men playing a card game called Faro at the Orient Saloon in the town of Bisbee. Gambling was a common pastime in Tombstone as well..
Before it became a part of Wild West folklore the sleepy town of Tombstone sure lived up to its name, as it only had about 100 residents at the turn of the 20th century. In the seven years following the town's silver mining boom, the population grew to 14,000, with plenty of outlandish incidents were soon to follow..
Here, we see Tombstone resident George Parsons, the man responsible for codifying much of the history of Tombstone during the peak of its Wild West exploits. A licensed attorney turned banker, it was Parsons' diary documenting life in Tombstone that became his lasting legacy..
After meeting with Crook and C.S. Fly, Geronimo quickly developed a fondness for photography.
It was at Geronimo's request that Fly took this photograph of him with his fellow tribesmen. Here, Geronimo is seen mounted on his horse, with his son Tsisnah standing alongside him.
All of the Wild West antics aside, the real reason for Tombstone's prosperity was its mining activity. Here, C.S.
Fly photographed a team of mules hauling ore from the mines to a nearby stamping mill.
Pictured here is Samantha Fallon, owner of the San Jose House Hostel and a millinery shop in Tombstone. Samantha famously dated Tombstone founder Ed Schieffelin before the two wound up marrying other people..
In a truly surreal moment, C.S. Fly witnessed the appearance of this group of Apache warriors led by their brave leader Geronimo.
This photo was taken on March 27, 1886, just before Geronimo surrendered to General Crook in the Sierra Madre mountains of Mexico.
October 26, 1881, marked one of the most iconic moments in Wild West history. This was the day that Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, along with their ally Doc Holiday defeated the notorious "Clanton Gang".
Here lies Tom McLaury, Frank McLaury, and Billy Clanton himself.
Before Geronimo's surrender to Crook, the terms of the deal had to be discussed. In what was a rarity in times of such tension, soldiers from General Crook's army sat together with Apache warriors to conduct peace talks..
Pictured in this landscape is the Grand Hotel, Tombstone's premier accommodation for weary travelers. Unfortunately, this establishment burned down in the great fire of 1882, though not before C.S.
Fly managed to cement its place in history.
Here, we see a group of young Apache children. At front and center is Santiago "Jimmy" McKinn — an 11 or 12-year-old boy who was captured by the Apaches near Silver City, New Mexico.
Despite initially being held against his will, he was later unwilling to abandon his new home in favor of his old life.
Here, we see the ruins of the O.K. Corral, the scene of one of the most iconic shootouts of the Wild West era.
Standing alongside the wreckage is Wyatt Earp, a central figure in the gunfight during which he and his fellow lawmen defeated a group of outlaws known as The Cowboys.
Prior to Geronimo's surrender, the US military wasn't sure what resistance to expect from the Apache leader. Here we see a company of US scouts, led by Lt.
Marion Perry Maus, preparing to take on any trouble that might lie ahead.
Here is yet another photo that was taken at Geronimo's request, featuring the great Apache leader along with some of his tribesmen. While not a chief of any tribe, Geronimo became one of the most famous Wild West figures due to his resilient leadership and military tactics..
After C.S. Fly's death in 1901, his wife Mary decided to continue their shared photography efforts — that is until a fire destroyed the Flys' studio in 1915.
Before leaving Tombstone for Los Angeles, Mary took this photo of the burning studio, a final memento of a life that once was.