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.

Bat Masterson’s story first appeared in Human Life Magazine in 1907, then was repeated in newspapers across the country at a time when most of the men who’d known Doc Holliday were still alive and could have refuted the story—but no one ever did. And there were other versions of the story told by people who lived in Valdosta at the time of the shooting, although they disagree on the number of casualties. None of the locals mentioned sickness as a reason for his leaving Georgia, but they were still talking about the shooting on the Withlacoochee decades after his death. The following report is from the Valdosta Times in 1931, based on the recollections of John Henry’s favorite uncle, Tom McKey:

“Accompanied by Mr. T. S. McKey…John one day rode out to a point northwest of the city which was noted throughout this section for its fine ‘washhole.’ Arriving there, they discovered that several negroes had been throwing mud into the water and stirring it up so that it was unfit to swim in. Holliday began scolding the negroes and one of them made threatening remarks back to him. John immediately got his buggy whip and proceeded to punish this hard-boiled negro. The negro fled and returned in a few minutes with a shot gun.

He shot once and sprinkled Holliday with small bird shots. Holliday promptly got his pistol and pursued the fleeing negroes. When the negro who had shot at him saw that the youth meant business, he took to his heels and could not be caught.”

No matter the body count, the story is generally consistent in the events, and although disturbing for its racist overtones, it’s true to the tenor of the times of Reconstruction. And it’s not surprising that, given those times, the family would report a less violent version. What is surprising is that, given the opportunity to deny the story completely and blame Holliday’s exodus from Georgia on a case of consumption, they did not.

So where did that “Doc Holliday left Georgia for his health” story come from? Turns out, that story was never told in Doc’s lifetime—or by anyone who actually knew him—first appearing nearly fifty years after his death in 1931’s Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal. The book’s author, Stuart Lake, had hoped to write a true biography of the famous lawman that would include stories of his friend Doc Holliday, but unfortunately found Wyatt to be the strong, silent type without much to say. Over the course of their eight interviews, Lake remembered the 82 year-old Wyatt Earp as being “illiterate” and his speech “at best monosyllabic.” In other words, Wyatt Earp was a terrible interview and Lake had to elaborate much of the story himself to create a truly heroic epic. So the Doc Holliday we find in Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal is partly fact and partly Stuart Lake’s creative writing. But although the book was essentially a historical novel it was promoted as Wyatt Earp’s first-hand account of the Wild West and became a wildly popular bestseller, spawning movies like Frontier Marshal (four versions) and even the John Ford classic, My Darling Clementine. Then came radio dramas and TV shows like Wyatt Earp and comic books like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday biographies based mostly on Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, then more movies and more biographies, all spouting the by-now accepted history: Doc Holliday went west to Texas because he was dying of consumption and needed the “high, dry plains of the Western plateau,” as Stuart Lake put it, to heal himself. Even a noted “family portrait” recounted the same tale—likely based on the family’s reading of Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal and remembering that it happened just that way. But just because something has been said over and over again doesn’t make it true—though it can make it legend.

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

I’m Your Huckleberry

I’m Your Huckleberry

Tombstone

Tombstone

Wyatt Earp

Wyatt Earp

The films “Wyatt Earp” and “Tombstone” both had scripts by Oscar nominated writers. Wyatt Earp’s Lawrence Kasdan was nominated for “The Accidental Tourist,” “The Big Chill,” and “Grand Canyon.” Tombstone’s Kevin Jarre won for “Glory.” But only “Tombstone” brought us a whole new dialogue for the men of the OK Corral. Although there is enough conversation to carry the story, the script is filled with great one-liners that have become classics over the twenty years since the film was released. And Doc Holliday had some of the best lines.Continue reading

Bringing Doc Holliday Home

Bringing Doc Holliday Home

John_Henry

John Henry Holliday

John Henry Holliday wasn’t always Griffin, Georgia’s favorite son.  For generations, he was the black sheep of his hometown, the good boy gone bad who was rumored about behind his back.  How could a young man of such promise turn out so poorly?  Surely, his parents had raised him better than to spend his life as a killer and a drunk.  The Hollidays were, after all, fine Southern folk who been some of the pioneers in the area and helped to put Griffin on the map.  His mother’s family, the McKeys, were large landholders with a plantation along Indian Creek and several business buildings in town.  And weren’t they kin to the Elijah Cloud family who owned half of north Georgia and claimed Stone Mountain as their own private property?  And although his father, Henry Holliday, came from somewhat less prosperous circumstances – wasn’t his own father a tavern keeper over in Fayetteville? – Henry had made something of himself as a landholder, too, and been clerk of the first county court in Griffin before moving to South Georgia when the Yankees came through.  No, one couldn’t blame John Henry’s folks for not teaching him his responsibilities.  His mother was a refined, religious woman and his father had served honorably in three wars.  Yet somehow John Henry had turned out all wrong, wandering from Georgia to Texas and the frontier west to make his fame and infamy in gun battles and gambling halls.  That sort of story made for entertaining novels and movies, but it didn’t suit the reputation of a Southern town like Griffin. Continue reading

Tucson, Trainyards, and Festival Tents

Tucson, Trainyards, and Festival Tents

Photo by Steve Nguyen / The Daily Wildcat

Tucson, Arizona, is a small city with a big blue sky and wonderful warm temperatures when the rest of the country is still shivering from a too-long winter.  So we were glad to get away from chilly Atlanta in March to sunny Arizona and the Tucson Festival of Books, an annual celebration of all things literary, with author speakers and signers and over 100,000 eager readers.

Historic Train Depot, Tucson

Historic Train Depot, Tucson

Tucson is also the place where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday left their days as lawmen and became outlaws.  They had come to Tucson honestly enough, escorting Virgil Earp and wife to the California-bound train after the murder of Morgan Earp by the cowboys in Tombstone.  Virgil had been attacked a few months earlier and was still recovering from a crippling gunshot wound; now it was clear that Arizona was too dangerous for the Earps, and Virgil would need to do his recuperating elsewhere.  Was it only a coincidence that Frank Stilwell, one of the suspects in Morgan’s murder, was at the train station, too, skulking around the tracks?  Wyatt Earp didn’t wait to find out.  According to some stories, Wyatt put a shotgun to Frank’s belly and blew him to hell.  The coroner’s report on the body of Frank Stillwell, found the next morning along the railroad tracks, doesn’t support that single-shooter scenario, placing the blame on an assassination-style attack by several assailants, including Doc Holliday.  According to witnesses, they had “never seen a man so shot up.”Continue reading

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

Searching for Doc’s Grave

Searching for Doc’s Grave

Griffin, Georgia is a long way from the ghost town of rowdy Fort Griffin, Texas, but they both have something in common: Wild West legend Doc Holliday once lived in both places. But only his Southern hometown has a real ghost story to tell: Although Doc died of consumption and was buried in the mountains of Colorado, some say his body was later moved back home and now lies in a quiet grave on a grassy hillside in Griffin.

Doc Holliday memorial in Glenwood Springs, Colorado

Doc Holliday memorial in Glenwood Springs, Colorado

As the story goes, John Henry “Doc” Holliday (he was a dentist by trade and training) passed away on the chilly morning of November 8, 1887, and was buried later that day in the Linwood Cemetery in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The local newspaper noted his passing and the place and time of his burial, along with mentioning that his family in Georgia would be notified through his “only correspondent, a nun living in Atlanta.” The nun was his first cousin Mattie Holliday, who had taken orders in Savannah and was known as Sister Melanie. His obituary mentions that his last belongings would be sent to her.Continue reading

St. Louis and the Southern Son

St. Louis and the Southern Son

In this 20th anniversary year of the movie “Tombstone,” which gave us Val Kilmer’s iconic Doc Holliday and his “hot-blooded Hungarian devil” of a mistress named Kate Elder, it seems appropriate to celebrate their love affair – or at least trace its origins. Which, according to Kate, were something different than the movies might lead us to believe.

Kate Elder in the movie <em>Tombstone</em>

Kate Elder in the movie Tombstone

The real Kate was, indeed, Hungarian, but had lived most of her young life in the Mississippi River town of Davenport, Iowa, not Budapest. Her given name was Maria Katarina Horoney, the daughter of a Hungarian doctor who had fled his home country during political upheavals there. When her father and mother both later died in a fever epidemic, young Kate left home and traveled down the Mississippi to St. Louis, where she met a young man named John Henry Holliday – or so she said in her memoirs years later. But as everyone knew Doc Holliday had never been in St. Louis, her story was discounted for decades and largely ignored by historians. More likely, she met Holliday in the rowdy trail town of Ft. Griffin, Texas, where he also first met lawman Wyatt Earp, and was just trying to give herself a more respectable past.Continue reading

Roads To Tara

Roads To Tara

Peggy Mitchell Marsh was at a loss for words, and it could not have come at a worse time.  Gerald was dead, killed by a fall from his horse, and there needed to be a proper eulogy spoken, but Peggy couldn’t think of anything to say.  The mourners were gathered around the grave, their faces strained with emotion and flushed with the heat of the June sun, waiting for the words of comfort that only she could give.  No one knew Gerald better than Peggy, or understood what his loss would mean to them all – more than the death of a man; the end of an era as well.

Suellen and Careen, Gerald’s two younger daughters, stood sobbing quietly, leaning on Melanie’s fragile shoulder, and Melanie was crying too.  She had loved Gerald like a father though she was no real relation to him.  Only Scarlett stood dry-eyed, alone and apart.  She was Gerald’s eldest, the most like him, and the one most shattered by his death.  But she had cried herself out last night and she couldn’t cry anymore. 

Beside the grave, golden hair shining in the sun, Ashley stood with the Book of Prayer laid open in his hands.  Scarlett watched him out of cat-green eyes and was glad that it was Ashley who would speak the service – his melodious drawl would be a comfort to her on this most awful of all days.  Ashley raised his eyes and for a moment Scarlett thought he might look her way, but he gazed past her and nodded to Will, the new foreman who had taken over at Fontenoy Hall when the Yankee Wilkerson had been fired.  Will nodded back to him, and Ashley cleared his throat and looked up at the waiting crowd…Continue reading

Haunting the Holliday House

Haunting the Holliday House

I love ghost stories, the spookier the better – like spectral figures that stalk the grounds of ancient estates, faces that appear in old windows and mirrors, doors that lock themselves when no one is in a room, things that go bump in the night…

Doc Holliday grew up in a world of such things, in a land where Indian legends still echoed in strange names like Etowah and Ocmulgee, where Irish ancestors left tales of wood sprites and banshees, where black slaves told stories of haints and bogymen and “boo hags” that hid in the dark piney woods.  When a beloved family member passed, even good Christian folk covered all the reflective glass in the house lest the dearly departed should peer back at them from beyond the veil.  So one would expect that the Holliday’s house, built in the 1850’s and a place where generations of family members lived and loved and died, should be filled to overflowing with spirits.  How could such a classic Southern mansion not have a few classically Southern ghosts to go with it?

So one of my first questions, on one of my first visits to the Holliday House, was whether or not it was haunted. Or, as I put it to the nice girl who worked nights at the answering service that had an office there, back when the house was still an unrestored old home with an interesting past and an uncertain future: “Have you seen any ghosts?”Continue reading