Dentists in History-Doc Holliday

Dentists in History

John HenryDocHolliday (August 14, 1851 – November 8, 1887)

was an American gambler, gunfighter, dentist, and a good friend of Wyatt Earp.  He is best known for his role in the events leading up to and following the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

At age 21 Holliday earned a degree in dentistry from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery.  He set up practice in Atlanta, Georgia, but he was soon diagnosed with tuberculosis, the same disease that had claimed his mother when he was 15, having acquired it while tending to her needs while she was still in the contagious phase of the illness.  Hoping the climate in the American Southwest would ease his symptoms; he moved to that region and became a gambler, a reputable profession in Arizona in that day.  

Holliday practiced dentistry from his room in Fort Griffin, Texas, and in Dodge City, Kansas.  In an 1878 Dodge newspaper advertisement, he promised money back for less than complete customer satisfaction, but this was the last known time that he worked as a dentist.  He gained the nickname “Doc” during this period.

Over the next few years, he reportedly had several confrontations.  While in Texas, he saved Wyatt Earp‘s life and they became friends.  In 1879, he joined Earp in Las Vegas, New Mexico and then rode with him to Prescott, Arizona, and then Tombstone.  In Tombstone, local members of the outlaw Cochise County Cowboys repeatedly threatened him and spread rumors that he had robbed a stage.  On October 26, 1881, Holliday was deputized by Tombstone city marshal Virgil Earp . The lawmen attempted to disarm five members of the Cowboys near the O.K. Corral on the west side of town, which resulted in the 30-second shootout.

Following the Tombstone shootout, Virgil Earp was maimed by hidden assailants and Morgan Earp was murdered.  Unable to obtain justice in the courts, Wyatt Earp took matters into his own hands.  As the recently appointed deputy U.S. Marshal, Earp formally deputized Holliday, among others.  As a federal posse, they pursued the outlaw Cowboys they believed were responsible.  They found Frank Stilwell lying in wait as Virgil boarded a train for California and killed him.  The local sheriff issued a warrant for the arrest of five members of the federal posse, including Holliday. The federal posse killed three other Cowboys during late March and early April 1882, before they rode to the New Mexico Territory.  Wyatt Earp learned of an extradition request for Holliday and arranged for Colorado Governor Frederick Walker Pitkin to deny Holliday’s extradition.

Holliday spent his remaining days in Colorado.  After a stay in Leadville, he suffered from the high altitude.  He increasingly depended on alcohol and laudanum to ease the symptoms of tuberculosis, and his health and his skills as a gambler began to deteriorate.  Holliday’s last known confrontation took place in Hyman’s saloon in Leadville. Down to his last dollar, he had pawned his jewelry, and then borrowed $5 from Billy Allen, a bartender and special officer at the Monarch Saloon, which enabled Allen to carry a gun and make arrests within the saloon.  When Allen demanded he be repaid, Holliday could not comply. He knew Allen was armed, and when Allen appeared ready to attack him, he shot him, wounding him in the arm. Holliday was arrested and put on trial. He claimed self-defense, noting that Allen outweighed him by 50 pounds and he feared for his life.  A witness testified that Allen had been armed and in Hyman’s earlier in the day apparently looking for Holliday. On March 28, 1885, the jury acquitted Holliday.

In 1887, prematurely gray and badly ailing, Holliday made his way to the Hotel Glenwood, near the hot springs of Glenwood Springs, Colorado.  He hoped to take advantage of the reputed curative power of the waters, but the sulfurous fumes from the spring may have done his lungs more harm than good.  As he lay dying, Holliday is reported to have asked the nurse attending him for a shot of whiskey. When she told him no, he looked at his bootless feet, amused.  The nurses said that his last words were, “This is funny.”  He always figured he would be killed someday with his boots on.  Holliday died at 10am on November 8, 1887. He was 36. Wyatt Earp did not learn of Holliday’s death until two months afterward.

Holliday’s colorful life and character have been depicted in many books and portrayed by well-known actors in numerous movies and television series.  Since his death, researchers have concluded that, contrary to popular myth-making, Holliday killed only one or two men.