In the opening scenes of the movie “Tombstone,” Wyatt Earp asks his brother Virgil if he happened to see anything of Doc Holliday while he was in Prescott on his way to Tombstone. Virgil replies, “Yeah. He had a streak when we left, him and Kate.” The scene soon cuts away to show Holliday sitting at cards in a saloon, with a monumental painting of a nude woman on the wall behind him and his elegantly dressed Hungarian mistress, Kate Elder, at his side. On the green baize table in front of him are the scattered paraphernalia of poker: paperboards, poker chips and silver coins, a gold pocket watch. And across the table, his anger seething, sits gambler Ed Bailey who is clearly losing this hand.
“Why, Ed Bailey,” says Doc in his best gentlemanly Southern drawl while he gives a tap to the pearl-handled pistol in his pocket, “are we cross?”
“Them guns don’t scare me,” replies Ed Bailey darkly. “‘Cause without them guns you ain’t nothin’ but a skinny lunger.”
“Ed, what an ugly thing to say. I abhor ugliness. Does this mean we’re not friends anymore? You know, Ed, if I thought you weren’t my friend, I just don’t think I could bear it.” And to show his cordial intent, Doc pulls out his pistols and lays them down on the table with the coins and the poker chips. “There. Now we can be friends again.”
But the words only enrage Ed Bailey, who lunges across the table at Doc – and gets a knife slid into his side by the smiling doctor while Kate pulls a derringer to cover their retreat. It’s one of the classic scenes from the legend of Doc Holliday: the knifing of Ed Bailey in a Fort Griffin, Texas, saloon – only this time set in the Arizona Territory capital of Prescott. The change of venue was just a convenience for the sake of the film, letting the audience know two important things in this opening scene of Doc Holliday: he was a cold-blooded killer and he passed through Prescott on his way to Tombstone. And as long as those two things are true, does it really matter where the knifing happened?
What matters is that the knifing of Ed Bailey likely didn’t happen anywhere – not in Fort Griffin, Texas, nor in Prescott, Arizona, nor any of the other towns Holliday visited in his Western travels. In fact, the story of the Ed Bailey knifing was never even told during Holliday’s lifetime. The first appearance of that story comes nine years after Doc Holliday’s death, in an 1896 article in the San Francisco Enquirer. The article claims to be an interview with Wyatt Earp, who was in San Francisco at the time, and tells a gory tale about Doc slicing up Ed Bailey and leaving him for dead. Problem is, the story as told is so flowery and wildly descriptive that it’s hard to believe it came from the famously laconic and spare-on-words Wyatt Earp. And it may have been this very article that Wyatt was referencing years later, when he said:
“Of all the nonsensical guff which has been written around my life, there has been none more inaccurate or farfetched than that which has dealt with Doc Holliday. After Holliday died, I gave a San Francisco newspaper reporter a short sketch of his life. Apparently the reporter was not satisfied. The sketch appeared in print with a lot of things added that never existed outside the reporter’s imagination…”
Was the Ed Bailey knifing one of those imaginary incidents? As far as researchers can determine, poor Ed Bailey himself never existed, as his name appears nowhere in historical record. And how did Doc Holliday manage to kill a man who didn’t exist?
But although the Ed Bailey story is likely just the imaginings of a reporter looking for a good story, when author Stuart Lake included it in his 1931 historical novel, Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, the story became legend. Now it’s one of the pillars of the Doc Holliday myth, and even though the pillars are sunk into very shallow ground the incident is used to show how Holliday had turned from a gentleman to a killer. It’s a convenient example – but not real history.
The problem with legends is that if we believe they’re true, we stop looking for the truth. And the truth of Doc Holliday’s life is even more intriguing than the legend. As his cousin Mattie said, “He was a much different man than the one of Western legend.” The real Doc Holliday is waiting to be found, but to find him we have to look beyond the legends – and the ghost of Ed Bailey.