Doc Holliday: Before the Legend

Doc Holliday: Before the Legend

No one knew when John Henry Holliday was born that he would die as a legend called “Doc Holliday.”  So no one bothered keeping the kind of records that his future chronicler would need to bring his story back to life.  The facts that were noted were nothing more than would appear in any old family Bible.  But if you mix together the few recorded facts of his life before he became a legend with details of the lives of his family and set it against the background of the Southern world in which he lived, the history begins to look something like a story… 

John Henry Holliday Baby PictureHe was born on the 14th of August in 1851 in the little city of Griffin, Georgia.  His father, Henry Burroughs Holliday, was a businessman and clerk of the county court.  His mother, Alice Jane McKey, was the musically talented oldest daughter of a cotton planter, set to inherit some of her family’s fortune.  There was another boy in the Holliday household when John Henry was born — a teenager named Francisco Holliday Family PhotosHidalgo who’d been orphaned during the Mexican War and brought to Georgia by Henry Holliday in his bachelor days. 

Before long there were girls coming to join the family: Alice Jane’s younger sisters Eliza and Ella and Margaret, given into Henry Holliday’s guardianship when their father William Land McKey died.  But there were no sisters or brothers for John Henry.  His parents’ only other child, a baby girl they named Martha Eleanora, had died six months after her birth and nearly two years before John Henry was born.

John Henry Holliday Family PhotoWhile young John Henry had no siblings, he had plenty of cousins, aunts, and uncles.  His uncle Dr. John Stiles Holliday, who lived thirty miles to the west in the town of Fayetteville, had three boys close to John Henry’s age.  His uncle Robert Kennedy Holliday, who lived twenty miles to the north in the town of Jonesboro, had eight children — with one daughter, Mattie, said to be John Henry’s childhood sweetheart.  His Holliday aunts had children as well, as did his McKey relatives.  In a time when family meant everything, John Henry was surrounded by kin.

But the Civil War scattered the family, as John Henry’s father moved his household to the remote village of Valdosta, close by the Florida border.  It was as far south as one could go and still be in the state of Georgia, and became a temporary home for cousin Mattie’s family as well when they became refugees from the Battle of Jonesboro.  So for one summer at least, John Henry had cousins close again.

Valdosta InstituteAs the War raged on, Valdosta was filled with more refugees – like Professor Samuel M. Varnedoe and his spinster sisters who arrived from Savannah and opened a private school they called the Valdosta Institute.  One former student described the curriculum as “the standard one of that time – the classics, mathematics, rhetoric, English composition, and history.”  John Henry attended and graduated from the school, his name appearing in class rosters alongside children of some of the other notable families in Valdosta.  He must have done well in his studies, because he was admitted to further education at the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery when he was only eighteen years of age.

Alice Jane HollidaySchool may have been his refuge when his mother died of a lingering illness.  Her obituary doesn’t mention the cause but says that she was confined to her bed for a number of years.  According to the reporter, “she was deeply anxious about the faith of her only child,” and had her testimony written down so her son might know her Christian beliefs.  There wasn’t much time for mourning, however, for within three months her husband had married again, causing scandal in the town and a lawsuit when the McKeys tried to stop Alice Jane’s inheritance from passing to Henry Holliday.  The suit was resolved by a division of her property, with part going back to the McKeys and part going to Henry Holliday in trust until John Henry came of age.

SoldiersThe War was over by then and Georgia was in and out of Martial Law.  Those were troubled days in the South, as Northern politicians made campaign trips looking for voters and the Ku Klux Klan arose to defend the property of the former plantation owners.  In the midst of the turmoil, a plot to blow up the county courthouse in Valdosta was discovered – a plot that would have killed a Yankee congressman scheduled to make a speech at the courthouse.  Some of the plotters were boys who had been John Henry’s classmates at the Valdosta Institute, and although his name was not on the arrest warrant that took the boys off to a military trial in Savannah, he was quickly sent out of town to spend the summer with his cousins in north Georgia.  And that meant spending the summer near his cousin Mattie, who was eighteen years old by then.

In 1870 he made the long trip by train and sailing ship to the city of Philadelphia to begin his dental training.  His coursework was rigorous, including an extensive list of scientific books to be read and clinical procedures to be learned.  During the summer between his two years at school, John Henry worked for local Valdosta dentist Dr. Lucian Frink, and is noted on the office records as having pulled and filled several teeth for a former Valdosta Institute classmate, Corinthea Morgan.  After his graduation from dental school, John Doctor Lucian FrinkHenry appears to have traveled home by way of the city of St. Louis on the Mississippi River, where his classmate Auguste Jameson Fuches opened a practice.   During his short time there, he likely met an actress who would be known later as Kate Elder.

On his return to Georgia, he worked for a time in the Atlanta dental office of Dr. Arthur C. Ford, as shown in an advertisement in the local newspaper.  He may have lived during that time at the home of his uncle Dr. John Stiles Holliday, who had moved from Fayetteville to Atlanta after the War.  John Henry turned twenty-one years old that summer and came into his inheritance, receiving his portion of his late mother’s family property.  He registered his deeds in the county courthouse in Griffin in the fall of that year.  John Stiles Holliday HomeSometime during that year he is believed to have opened his own dental office in his newly acquired business building on Solomon Street in his hometown of Griffin. 

There were two family funerals that winter, marking the passing of his Uncle Robert Holliday, who was buried in Fayetteville, and Francisco Hidalgo, who was buried in Jenkinsburg, near to Griffin.  John Henry likely attended both funerals, and soon after sold his Solomon Street property. The historic record does not say when or why he left Georgia, but by the fall of 1873 he was living and practicing in Dallas, Texas. 

Withlacoochee River GeorgiaAccording to a story written by Bat Masterson, who knew him in Dodge City and elsewhere, he left his home state after a shooting on a small river in south Georgia.  Masterson says there was a “massacre” but McKey relatives living in the area at the time denied such bloodshed, without denying a shooting.  Some say he left Georgia by way of Atlanta, but other evidence suggests a trail through Florida which would have taken him to Texas by way sailing ship to the port of Galveston.

That’s the beginning of Doc’s history as we know it, and just the start of the story told in Southern Son, Dance with the Devil, and Dead Man’s Hand. Follow the links to read more!

The Mysterious Dr. Holliday of Dodge

The Mysterious Dr. Holliday of Dodge

Doc Holliday arrived in Dodge City, Kansas in the spring of 1878, and opened a dental practice at the Dodge House Hotel. The town was lively that summer, keeping the local police force occupied with arresting drunks and cowboys who carried their pistols with them over the “deadline,” the boundary between the red light district south of the railroad tracks and the business district north of the tracks. Wyatt Earp had arrived back in Dodge soon after Doc got there, and took back his former job as Assistant to Marshal Charlie Bassett. Bat Masterson was in town, too, as the new Sheriff of Ford County, and it was there that he first met Doc Holliday. As he later wrote of Doc during his time in Dodge:

Bat Masterson & Wyatt Earp, Dodge City

He was slim of build and sallow of complexion, standing about five feet ten inches, and weighing no more than 130 pounds.  His eyes were of a pale blue and his moustache was thin and of a sandy hue.  Dodge City was then very much like Dallas and Denver, only a little more so, and the doctor did not express regret at having come.  It was easily seen that he was not a healthy man for he not only looked the part, but he incessantly coughed it as well.  During his year’s stay at Dodge at that time, he did not have a quarrel with anyone, and, although regarded as sort of a grouch, he was not disliked by those with whom he became acquainted.

But though Doc didn’t have any trouble in Dodge, the climate was disagreeable for him, with temperatures hovering near 100 degrees that summer and clouds of dust kicked up by thousands of head of Texas cattle. So by the fall of ’78, he was headed to the cooler air of Colorado, taking his mistress Kate Elder along with him. But he may have intended to return to Dodge the next summer to resume his dental practice during the cattle season, as it seems he left something important behind: a small leather satchel containing some dental instruments and personal items, and a photograph enscribed “Dr. Holliday.”

Doc’s Satchel

The satchel was found in a collection of memorabilia once owned by Chalkey McArtor Beeson, proprietor of Dodge City’s famed Long Branch Saloon. “Chalk,” as he was known by his friends, was a former cowboy who had worked for the famous cattleman Charlie Goodnight, who called him “the best cowboy on the trail … could stampede or quiet a herd quicker than any rustler I ever met.”  Following his career as a cowboy, Chalk worked for a time as a buffalo hunt guide, with his clients being such notables as Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of RussiaPhil Sheridan, and George Armstrong Custer. But it was as a Dodge City businessman that Chalk Beeson made his mark, when he opened the first “class” saloon in town, the Saratoga, with a five-piece orchestra instead of prostitutes to entertain the customers. As the Dodge City Times reported: “It is a rare treat to drop in at the Saratoga upon Mr. Beeson, and listen to his last and best musical combination. Mr. Beeson is a thorough lover of good music, and by his skillful selection of good performers … draws crowds of attentive listeners.”

The Long Branch Saloon

Building on the success of the Saratoga, Chalk next bought the Long Branch Saloon, which quickly became Dodge City’s most iconic watering hole, hosting regulars like Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, and Doc Holliday.  The love of music also led Beeson to form the Dodge City Cowboy Band, which performed at the inauguration of President Benjamin Harrison in full cowboy regalia, from spurs to Stetsons.

Dodge City Cowboy Band

Chalk’s later career included two terms as Sheriff of Ford County, Kansas, and four terms in the Kansas State Legislature. When he passed away in 1912, his family kept his memory alive by opening the Beeson Theater in Dodge City, and later the Beeson Museum, which became a popular tourist attraction. In 1964, the museum’s large collection of historic documents, photos and artifacts were sold to Dodge City’s Boot Hill Museum.

Chalk Beeson, Proprietor of the Long Branch

How Doc Holliday’s satchel became part of the Chalk Beeson collection isn’t known. Doc may have left it for safekeeping with the friendly saloon owner, or it may have simply made its way to the collection like many other artifacts of early Dodge. But it’s the photograph of “Dr. Holliday” found in the satchel that’s most mysterious, as the image looks nothing like John Henry “Doc” Holliday. So who is this mystery man?

Dodge City “Dr. Holliday”

Staff at Georgia’s Holliday-Dorsey-Fife House Museum, the antebellum home of the family of Doc Holliday, believe the man in the photo may actually be Doc’s uncle, the original owner of the house himself, Dr. John Stiles Holliday, as the Dodge City photo looks very much like other portraits of that man through the years. That Dr. Holliday graduated from the Medical College of Georgia and was the town doctor in Fayetteville when his nephew John Henry “Doc” Holliday was born and named after him.

Holliday-Dorsey-Fife House Museum

And it was that same Dr. Holliday who supposedly saved the infant with a pioneering cleft lip surgery using the new Ether anesthesia (see the blog post Dr. Holliday & Dr. Long: Giving Life to a Legend). What is certain is that the two were always close—“Doc” even lived for awhile in his uncle’s new home in Atlanta after completing his own dental education in Philadelphia. So it’s not surprising that Doc would have carried a photo of his uncle along with him for inspiration in his work.  Although the legendary Doc Holliday may not have had many friends to watch his back, the real Doc Holliday had lots of family behind him.

Fun Links:
Dodge City Boot Hill Museum
Buffalo Hunters
The Goodnight Trail
Dodge City Cowboy Band
Holliday-Dorsey-Fife House Museum

Doc Holliday’s Family Affair

Doc Holliday’s Family Affair

“I was in love once. My first cousin. She was… We were both so…
She joined a convent over the affair.
She was all I ever wanted.”

Doc & Wyatt's Last Game

Doc & Wyatt’s Last Game

Those are Doc Holliday’s words in his tragic but touching final scene from the film “Tombstone,” the cult classic that made Doc lovable and relatable again after a generation of his being cast as a movie villain. In Kevin Jarre’s brilliant version of the West’s most famous gunfight, gambling dentist Doc Holliday is lawman Wyatt Earp’s most loyal friend – and the heart of the whole story. Partly that comes from Jarre’s own script which gave Doc so many quotable lines. Partly that comes from actor Kurt Russell’s generous editing of the filming script that cut out many of Wyatt’s lines in favor of a focus on Doc. For as every follower of Westerns knows, if you have a sympathetic Doc Holliday, you have a hit movie.

But what about that iconic final scene, as Doc confesses his young love and then dies? Was that Jarre’s dramatic invention or Russell’s addition? Or was it based on something from Doc Holliday’s own life?

Ashley & Melanie: The fictional Doc & Mattie?

Ashley & Melanie: The fictional Doc & Mattie?

According to old Holliday family stories, the young romance between Doc and his first cousin really happened – and may have been one of the reasons he left Georgia. The girl was Martha Anne “Mattie” Holliday, daughter of Doc’s uncle Robert Kennedy Holliday. Doc (then just John Henry Holliday) grew up in the little city of Griffin, Georgia, while Mattie grew up in Jonesboro, thirty miles or so up the road. Although the families were a bit separated in those horse-and-buggy days, they gathered together whenever they could, often at the home of Doc’s medical doctor uncle, John Stiles Holliday, in nearby Fayetteville. Mattie was eighteen months older than John Henry, but the two were close as children and remained close – and reportedly even had a romance when they were teens. While we might not consider cousins as appropriate sweethearts, in 19th century America cousins did sometimes fall in love and marry. As Margaret Mitchell says in the classic novel of the Old South, Gone With the Wind: “The Wilkes and Hamiltons always marry their own cousins.” She was referring, of course, to Ashley Wilkes (Scarlett O’Hara’s crush) marrying his cousin, Melanie Hamilton.Continue reading

Doc Holliday and the Ghost of Ed Bailey

Doc Holliday and the Ghost of Ed Bailey

Doc Holliday in Prescott, Arizona Territory

Doc Holliday in Prescott, Arizona Territory

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.”Continue reading

GRAVES IN THE GARDEN – Doc Holliday’s Family & The Civil War

GRAVES IN THE GARDEN – Doc Holliday’s Family & The Civil War

Mary Anne Fitzgerald Holliday, Mattie’s mother

Mary Anne Fitzgerald Holliday, Mattie’s mother

Although John Henry “Doc” Holliday grew up in Georgia during the Civil War as the son of a Confederate officer, the closest he got to the action himself was seeing troops marching through his hometown of Griffin, location of two Confederate training camps. When his father returned home early from the war on a medical discharge, the family left Griffin and moved south to the little village of Valdosta, close by the Florida border and far from the advancing Yankee army. But other members of the family had a much closer view of the war, and their stories became part of his childhood memories – like the story of his Uncle Robert Kennedy Holliday (father of Cousin Mattie) who served under General Longstreet at Gettysburg, and Rob’s wife, Aunt Mary Anne Fitzgerald Holliday, who was home with the children in Jonesboro when Sherman’s Army marched south from Atlanta. With an army approaching and the road “filled with bluecoats,” Mary Anne took her children away to her uncle’s plantation for safety. The following comes from Mattie in her “Memoirs of the Holliday Family in Georgia”:Continue reading

FIRE AND ICE: Doc Holliday in Philadelphia

FIRE AND ICE: Doc Holliday in Philadelphia

John Henry Holliday, Dental School Portrait

John Henry Holliday, Dental School Portrait

It’s been one of the worst winters on record in the eastern United States: epic snowfalls in Boston, thunder snow in New York, fire and ice in Philly. With a temperature of 3 degrees in the City of Brotherly Love and a wind chill of 16 below, firefighters had a challenging job containing a blaze in a three-story medical building on Locust Street. By the time the fire was contained, icicles hung from the end of the fire hoses and the building the firefighters saved was covered in ice.Continue reading

The Face Behind The Fireplace

The Face Behind The Fireplace

Willis Swint was six years-old when his family moved from their hometown of Milner, Georgia to Jonesboro in Clayton County, and into an antebellum cottage across from the tracks of the Macon & Western Railroad. That was in 1933, during the Great Depression, and hobos riding the rails often stopped at the house looking for a meal and maybe some work to pay for another day of hard living. But the old house was used to strangers coming by through the years, from Yankee soldiers during the Civil War to young recruits during two World Wars. Willis liked to think about all the old house had seen, as he spent his growing up years there, finally moving out when he married and started his own home.

Willis Swint

Willis Swint

He was an older man himself when he moved back to the house on the railroad tracks, hoping to preserve the home and his family’s history. But it was another family’s surprising history that Willis discovered when he and his wife Beverly returned and began renovations on the 150 year-old property – the family of Western legend, Doc Holliday. In an old safe left in the house, they discovered a pile of deeds to the property reaching back to the 1860’s when the home was known as the “Holliday Office House.” The owner then was Captain Robert Kennedy Holliday, uncle of the famous Doc Holliday, and father of Doc’s rumored first love, Mattie Holliday. The home was Captain Holliday’s office, and a place that young Doc would have known and likely visited.Continue reading

Doc’s Last Cold Days

Doc’s Last Cold Days

danger-ice-on-road

Atlanta Ice Storm

We’re having an ice storm in Atlanta. Sounds strange, here in the usually balmy American South, but not all that unusual. Ice shuts down the city every ten winters or so, starting as cold rain that freezes when it hits anything below 32 degrees: bridges, overpasses, stone stairways, iron gates and rails, roofs, tree limbs, power lines. Eventually everything is covered in ice, looking very pretty but making for dangerous driving or even walking, as the ground is a skating rink and those ice-laden trees and power lines give way under the burden and come crashing down like shattered glass. Continue reading

Doc’s Holliday in New Orleans

Doc’s Holliday in New Orleans

Bourbon Street

Bourbon Street

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…

On the Exhibit Floor

On the Exhibit Floor

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.

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Doc Holliday’s Florida Getaway

Doc Holliday’s Florida Getaway

masterson_bat

Bat Masterson

Mattie Holliday, Doc’s cousin and rumored sweetheart, was quoted as saying, “He was a much different man than the one of Western legend.”  He was also a lot more interesting, with travels that took him far beyond the OK Corral.  But did Doc take a Florida beach break, as well?  That’s the surprising direction the research goes, as historians continue to explore the unanswered questions of why – and how – Doc Holliday left Georgia.  And one of the most intriguing of the answers comes from someone who knew Doc personally:  Dodge City lawman Bat Masterson.

Withlacoochee-rivee

Withlacoochee River

In his later years, Bat became a reporter and did a series of stories about the famous characters of the American West, including an article about Doc Holliday.  The story, published in 1907 in a Boston, Massachusetts magazine, tells a tale of murder and escape set during the troubled times following the Civil War.  According to Bat, there was a swimming hole on a little river near to the south Georgia village where Doc Holliday was raised, and where he one day came across some black boys swimming where he thought they shouldn’t be.  He ordered them out of the water and when they refused, he took a shotgun to them, causing a massacre.  His family thought it best that he leave the area, and he moved to Dallas, Texas.  Although the report of a massacre isn’t likely, there are some interesting points to Bat’s story: Holliday did, in fact, live in a little village in South Georgia, the town of Valdosta, near where there is a river named the Withlacoochee, along which Doc’s family owned some land.  And when Bat’s story was published and the family later asked about it by another reporter, they said that Holliday fired over the boys heads, not at them – but they did not deny the shooting.Continue reading