John Henry “Doc” Holliday: Outlaw and Gambling Enthusiast
“I found him a loyal friend and good company. He was a dentist whom necessity
had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a vagabond; a philosopher
whom life had made a caustic wit; a long, lean blonde fellow nearly dead with
consumption and at the same time the most skillful gambler and nerviest,
speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever knew.”
~Wyatt Earp, speaking about his dear friend Doc Holliday
John Henry “Doc” Holliday started out as a well-known dentist in Georgia, but
some bad news changed the direction of his life forever. He ended up becoming a
notorious gambler and violent outlaw of the Midwest. To discover more about
Holliday and why he turned his back on his noble career to start a life of
gambling and crime, please feel free to read through this entire biography. You
are bound to learn something you never knew before.
John Henry Holliday was born in Griffin, Georgia, on August 14th, 1851, to an
upper-middle-class family. His father was a pharmacist, and his mother was a
southern belle who was known for her hospitality. Holliday suffered from a cleft
palate and had to undergo corrective surgery when he was just an infant. He had
a noticeable speech impediment when he began to talk, so his mother spent a
couple hours with him each day to improve it. Thanks to her persistence, by the
time he entered kindergarten, his impediment was completely gone.
When Holliday was just 10 years old, his father left to serve as a major in
the Civil War. While he was away, his mother was diagnosed with tuberculosis,
causing her to have a persistent cough and an extreme loss of appetite. She died
just a few months after being diagnosed, which was very hard for young Holliday
to deal with. Luckily, the Civil War ended soon after she passed, and his father
was able to come home and help him through that difficult time.
After he graduated from high school, Holliday was eager to further his
education. He looked into several different schools before settling on the
Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in Philadelphia, PA. That school had an
excellent program that allowed its students to move at their own pace. Holliday
was able to finish the program in a little over 2 years, which was quicker than
any student before him.
A Career in Dentistry
After graduating from the program and passing his tests to become a certified
dentist, he moved back to Georgia to start his own private practice out there.
He picked up new clients quickly and was really enjoying his new trade. Things
took a turn for the worst, though, when Holliday was diagnosed with a mild case
He would not let this new diagnosis get him down; he was determined to make
the most out of the time he had left. He moved to Dallas, Texas, in hope that
the warmer climate and drier air would improve his condition. While out there,
he teamed up with John Seeger to start a very successful dentistry practice. As
the years went on, Holliday’s tuberculosis got increasingly worse. His constant
coughing was starting to interfere with his work; clients were hesitant to have
him come close to them, as they thought he might be contagious. At first, he cut
back his hours to part-time, but he eventually had to give up his practice
A Life of Gambling and Crime
Now that Holliday had a lot of time on his hands, he started spending his
afternoons at the nearby saloons. This is where he first learned how to play
poker. He spent several months honing his skills and playing against the
regulars at the saloon. He quickly became unstoppable; no one in Dallas could
So, what did Holliday do? He started traveling from state to state, playing
poker against people from all over the country. While on the road, he became
known for his temper and his willingness to solve his problems through violence.
His weapons of choice were often his Colt Army revolver and his 9-inch-long,
While passing through Tombstone, Arizona, he met a man named Wyatt Earp. Earp
was a good poker player who gave Holliday a run for his money. In the middle of
one of their playing sessions, they were interrupted by a group of outcasts that
were claiming Earp owed them thousands of dollars. Holliday abruptly pointed a
gun at their leader’s head and forced them to flee town; Earp was thankful that
Holliday was there to save his life.
Sometime later, the group of outlaws returned, this time threatening to kill
both Holliday and the Earl family. What started out as a heated argument quickly
turned into a nasty blood bath. This 30-second gunfight, known as the Gunfight
at the O.K. Corral, would go down in history as one of the most gruesome
gunfights of all time. 30 shots were fired in 30 seconds, and several people on
both sides lost their lives.
Holliday would eventually find himself in Fort Griffin, Texas. He played
poker against a man named Ed Bailey, who was notorious for cheating. Despite
seeing Bailey look through the discard pile on several different occasions, a
highly illegal move, Holliday was still able to beat him through a series of
great bluffs. One bluff in particular caused the entire table competing against
him to fold. Unwilling to show his cards, Bailey became furious. He pulled a gun
on Holliday, who didn’t hesitate to slit his throat.
Holliday was not a man you wanted to mess with. Two gamblers from Colorado
questioned whether or not one of his poker moves was legal. He shot them both
point-blank just because he didn’t like the manner in which they were speaking
to him. Holliday supposedly killed hundreds of people during his lifetime,
including Mike Gordon, Johnny Ringo, and Charley White, to name a few.
Doc Holliday and Big Nose Kate
There have been lots of rumors centered on Doc Holliday and his lover Big
Nose Kate. Born as Mary Katherine Horony, Big Nose Kate spent the first part of
her life as a prostitute in Hungary. She eventually broke free from that
lifestyle and headed to the United States in the hope of a better life. She
first met Holliday at John Shanssey’s Saloon in Fort Griffin, Texas, where she
was working as a dance hall girl.
Doc Holliday and Big Nose Kate had an instant connection, as they were both
very passionate, ill-tempered people. Once they met, they were practically
inseparable, traveling all over the Midwest together. Big Nose Kate would often
be found cheering Doc Holliday on as he played poker at the saloons of whatever
town they happened to be passing through.
Big Nose Kate was known to always have Doc Holliday’s back, allegedly
breaking him out of prison on more than one occasion. She would often confront
the officers holding him prisoner, flirting with them until they agreed to let
him go. If that didn’t work, she would pull out one of her many pistols and fire
away. Big Nose Kate supposedly killed almost as many people as Doc Holliday did.
Of course, Holliday and Big Nose Kate didn’t always get along. After one
nasty fight, Holliday kicked her out of his hotel room and told her to find a
new place to stay. As a way to get revenge, Big Nose Kate signed an affidavit
claiming that Holliday had robbed a stagecoach that was headed towards Benson,
Arizona, taking $26,000 in silver bullion. Holliday refuted her claims, and
although he was furious, he did eventually forgive her.
He Will Be Remembered
When Holliday’s health was at its all-time worst, he heard that the Santa Fe
Railroad was expanding their tracks to Las Vegas, New Mexico. Realizing that his
life would be coming to an end soon, Holliday wanted to do something memorable.
He paid a carpenter $372.50 to build a saloon along the tracks in his honor.
Holliday passed away on November 8, 1887, while staying at The Hotel Glenwood
in Colorado Springs, California. Big Nose Kate was there when he breathed his
last breath, making arrangements for his funeral service soon after he passed
away. Holliday’s headstone can be found in Linwood Cemetery just a few miles
away from the hotel, but his body was allegedly buried in his hometown of
Holliday may have passed away, but his legacy lives on. Every year, the town
of Griffin, Georgia, hosts a BBQ and musical festival in remembrance of his
life. He has also inspired numerous novels, including O.K. Corral by Eric
Adam and Xavier Fauche (1997), The Fourth Horseman by Randy Lee
Eickhoff (1998), Territory by Emma Bull (2007), and Southern
Son: The Saga of Doc Holliday by Victoria Wilcox (2013). Well-known films
that reference him and his antics include Frontier Marshall (1939),
Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Tombstone (1993), and The
American West (2016).
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