The river city of New Orleans has been called one of the most haunted places in America. It certainly is full of spirits — especially the kind found on the French Quarter’s Bourbon Street, lined with bars and restaurants and other, less reputable, places of entertainment. If Doc Holliday had visited the Crescent City, Bourbon Street would surely have been one of his favorite haunts…
I was in New Orleans for a somewhat more businesslike purpose, attending the Southeast Independent Booksellers Alliance Convention, where authors and publishers present their books for the new season, and where I was showcasing “Inheritance” and “Gone West” which comes out next spring. But what I really wanted to see was the hotel where Doc Holliday likely stayed on his own visit to New Orleans.
Doc’s trip to the Crescent City is a story told by an old-time Valdosta resident named William Alexander “Zan” Griffith. Zan was a young boy when Doc Holliday left Georgia, and a teenager when he accompanied Major Henry Holliday, Doc’s father, to a reunion of Mexican War veterans. The reunion was held in New Orleans in the spring of 1885 to coincide with the opening of the Cotton States Exposition — something like an early World’s Fair. The exposition occupied acres of former plantation land along the Mississippi River, seven miles north of the French Quarter.
The fairgrounds are now the serene Audubon Park, but in 1885 they were filled with grand exhibit buildings and concert halls, beautified by fountains and promenades, and lighted at night by incandescent bulbs strung from the overhanging live oak trees. The Mexican War veterans arrived at the fairgrounds by riverboat from the city, where they were lodged in the Gregg House Hotel on Canal Street.
According to Zan Griffith, Henry Holliday had invited his infamous son (this being four years after the OK Corral) to meet him in New Orleans, hoping to convince Doc to go home to Georgia. Doc was ailing from the consumption that had ravaged his lungs and could use the care of being home with his family. But Doc refused his father’s advice, so Zan was sent along to keep the doctor company on his return to Colorado. Zan recalled their riverboat journey up the river from New Orleans and their journey west to the Rocky Mountains — and a prized saddle he said Doc bought him as a souvenir of their adventures together.
It’s the saddle that gives the most credence to Zan’s story of his travels with Doc Holliday, for in the 1880′s Colorado was famous as the home of the A.C. Gallup Company’s “Pueblo Saddle,” and there wouldn’t have been a more appropriate parting gift for a young man. Zan kept that special saddle until the 1920′s, when the old hotel where he lived was destroyed by fire — sadly, along with the saddle. But family and friends remembered Zan’s story of accompanying Major Holliday to New Orleans and meeting there with the Major’s famous son, Doc Holliday. If he’d been making up the story, the local folks would surely have known and challenged his facts.
As for the Gregg House in New Orleans where the Mexican War veterans stayed and where Doc likely stayed, as well, it’s still standing — though now it’s a Sports Plus shoe store. But some of the original facade remains, along with the plastered pilasters and the antique embossed ceiling. It was fine accommodations and a suitable place for a sporting man like Dr. John Henry Holliday.
And as for my own accommodations in New Orleans, I stayed at the beautiful Sheraton on Canal Street, just a couple of blocks down from Doc’s hotel. Though I didn’t run into any famous Western legends at the booksellers convention, I did rub shoulders with famous authors like Richard Paul Evans (“The Christmas Box”), Elizabeth Gilbert (“Eat, Pray, Love”), and Sandra Brown (65 million detective books sold and counting). My favorite meeting, however, being with best-selling author Pat Conroy (“The Great Santini,” “The Prince of Tides,” “The Water is Wide,” “The Lords of Discipline” and a slough of others). I had first met Pat Conroy in Atlanta at the Margaret Mitchell House Museum’s celebration of the 65th anniversary edition of “Gone With the Wind,” for which he had written the preface. I told him then about a book I was working on, the true life story of Doc Holliday and his family connections to “Gone With the Wind” and he told me — “I wish I’d thought of it!”
Those words gave me courage that this story deserved to be told, and inspired me through the many long years of research, writing, and rewriting. So on this second meeting in New Orleans, I wanted to thank him for that inspiration that was my secret support through the years. And to my delight, when I recounted to him that former meeting, he grinned and said, “I remember that!” Then the great, the award-winning, the best-selling Pat Conroy gave me a hug — and kissed my hand! I doubt even the legendary Doc Holliday was more of a Southern gentleman than that!