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

Click the book cover below for more info or to order.

The World of Doc Holliday: History & Historic Images
Southern Son
Dance with the Devil
Dead Man's Hand