Why Doc Holliday Killed Johnny Ringo in “Tombstone”

Why Doc Holliday Killed Johnny Ringo in “Tombstone”

Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday challenges Johnny Ringo in their last duel.

Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday challenges Johnny Ringo in their last duel.

It’s the dramatic final duel between Doc Holliday and his alter-ego nemesis, Johnny Ringo, in the classic Western film “Tombstone,” as Doc shoots Ringo dead and comments wryly, “the strain was more than he could bear.” Although that’s not what really happened (Doc wasn’t even in Arizona when Ringo died), there’s a reason screenwriter Kevin Jarre wrote it that way: this is drama not documentary, and the rules of

Screenwriter Kevin Jarre who wrote “Tombstone,” and Val Kilmer.

Screenwriter Kevin Jarre who wrote “Tombstone,” and Val Kilmer.

Westerns demand that the sort-of good guy kill the bad guy in the end.

And in this Western, Doc Holliday and Johnny Ringo have not just one, but three duels—and all of them portray Doc as the defender of his one-true friend, Wyatt Earp.

Lego version of the Doc and Ringo cup duel

Lego version of the Doc and Ringo cup duel.

DUEL #1: In the first duel, a faro-dealing Wyatt is threatened by the cowboys, until Doc steps in and bests Ringo in a fast-draw contest: Ringo’s gun versus the drunk dentist’s whiskey cup.

DUEL #2: In the second duel, a drunk Ringo challenges Wyatt on the streets of Tombstone, until Doc steps in and announces, “I’m your Huckleberry, fightin’s just my game,” and the cowboy backs down. (For what the famous phrase means, see my blog post here.)

Doc’s famous line, now appearing everywhere.

DUEL #3: In the third and final duel, Wyatt is on his way to meet Ringo in a shooting match he will surely lose, until Doc steps in and finishes off the cowboy with one bullet to the head. Three times Doc Holliday has defended Wyatt Earp from Johnny Ringo, showing his loyalty, while fulfilling the “good guy kills the bad guy” rule of Westerns. And it’s only fair that Doc gets to kill Ringo, as Wyatt kills his own nemesis, the cowboy leader, Curly Bill Brocious.

Ike Clanton, the real boss of the cowboys.

Ike Clanton, the real boss of the cowboys.

But that, too, is just movie reel drama—in the real world, Ike Clanton was the cowboy leader (a much smarter man than the film’s character) while Curly Bill was just a junior associate. But Wyatt didn’t kill Ike (who got away to be killed another day by another man), he killed Curly Bill, so Kevin Jarre smartly made Curly Bill the head bad guy to be killed by head good guy Wyatt. Which is one of the reasons we all love “Tombstone”: it’s good literature as well as good drama, with all the characters doing just what we want them to do and right winning out in the end. “Tombstone” isn’t history; it’s Historical Fiction, a drama based on historical events but telling a literary story.

Which is also what Doc fans will find in my award-winning historical novel trilogy The Saga of Doc Holliday which dramatizes Doc Holliday’s life from his boyhood in the Civil War South to his dealings in Tombstone and beyond. It’s a history-based retelling of Doc’s adventures, bringing the past to life like “Tombstone” brought the events surrounding the O.K. Corral gunfight to life, becoming a classic Western. Isn’t that a daisy?

Fun Links:
Read True West Magazine’s tribute to screenwriter Kevin Jarre.
Watch the Lego version of Doc and Ringo cup duel .
Buy the “I’m Your Huckleberry Poster” . 
Read the “Tombstone” script.

Order The Saga of Doc Holliday from your favorite bookseller.

 

Why Doc Holliday Went West

Why Doc Holliday Went West

According to popular legend, Doc Holliday left home and went west because he was diagnosed with consumption and told that he had to go to a kinder climate to save his life. And that’s partly true. He was eventually diagnosed with consumption (though when or where, we don’t know) and he did go to the western Territory of New Mexico for his health. But that was years after he left Georgia, after he’d already made a name for himself in several other states. The first place he went after leaving home was Dallas, Texas, which is in the South, not the West, and which did not have a kinder climate. The Dallas weather was much like Georgia, hot and humid in the summer, cold and humid in the winter. It had also been recently closed down by a yellow fever epidemic and was famous for being the second least healthy place in the country to live, right behind the bayous of Louisiana. No one would go there for his health.

Withlacoochee River

So what was it that made John Henry Holliday leave home? The more likely cause of his western exodus wasn’t sickness, but a shooting—a story told in various versions by people who knew him personally, most notably by lawman Bat Masterson. As Masterson tells it, near to the South Georgia village where Holliday was raised ran a little river where a swimming hole had been cleared, 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 to go, he took a shotgun to them and “caused a massacre.” In the troubled days of Reconstruction, his family thought it best that he leave the area, so he moved to Dallas, Texas. The village, of course, was Valdosta, and the river was the nearby Withlacoochee. Continue reading

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.Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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 & Dr. Long: Bringing Life to a Legend

Doc Holliday & Dr. Long: Bringing Life to a Legend

Doc Holliday is one of the great legends of the Wild West, his life an epic adventure that’s been told and retold in literature and film. But without the help of another legendary doctor, he might never have seen the Wild West at all.

According to one old family story, John Henry Holliday was born with a cleft palate that threatened his life and required a dangerous surgical procedure – the surgery performed by his medical doctor uncle, John Stiles Holliday, assisted by the Holliday’s relative Dr. Crawford Long, who pioneered the use of ether anesthesia in surgery (see links below).

Cleft lip and palate will develop very early in-pregnancy

Cleft Palate Baby

A cleft palate occurs during pregnancy, when the two halves of the baby’s mouth do not connect and grow together as they were designed to do.  It’s that joining together that makes a suture line down the roof of your mouth and gives your lips that pretty bow shape.  If that joining doesn’t happen, a baby is born with a “cleft” – a gap in the roof of the mouth that opens up into the sinuses.  If the cleft continues into the lip and up into the nose, it’s what is known as a “harelip”…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