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: 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 & 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

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