He was an unlikely gunslinger: a slight, well-dressed, almost delicate-looking man, with piercing blue eyes set in a head “a phrenologist would delight in examining,” as one Colorado newspaperman put it in May 1882. “He is well educated,” the Pueblo Daily Chieftain’s reporter continued, “and his conversation shows him to be a man of considerable culture.”

A few days later, a reporter from the Denver Republican also admitted to being “very much surprised at Holliday’s appearance, which is as different as could be from the generally conceived idea of a killer.” Holliday’s hands were “small and soft like a woman’s,” he added, “but the work they have done is anything but womanly. The slender forefinger which has dealt the cards has dealt death to many a rustler … ”

Both those articles were written some seven months after the shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, which burned the legend of Doc Holliday into the national memory. Not all the papers were so respectful, however. Holliday was then wanted for murder in Arizona, and the Rocky Mountain News referred to him as the “notorious” leader of “the infamous Earp gang of thugs, murderers, and desperadoes.”

He could have easily gone down in history as a big-time villain, a small-time thug, or nothing. To become a legend by killing people, you need to be in the right place at the right time. It also helps to have the chroniclers—most of them, anyway—on your side.

For Penn to claim Doc Holliday as an alumnus is really not much of a stretch. True, he attended the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery (PCDS) rather than the University itself, but the PCDS was more or less absorbed into Penn’s School of Dental Medicine in the years after Holliday earned his DDS degree in 1872. (Penn’s Department of Dentistry, which soon became the School of Dental Medicine, was founded in 1878.) One of Holliday’s professors, Dr. James Truman, later became the dental school’s dean; his students would include one Pearl Zane Gray (see main story).

When Holliday arrived in Philadelphia from Georgia in the fall of 1870, the PCDS was located at 10th and Arch streets, though he probably spent some time in West Philadelphia, since clinical lectures at Blockley Hospital were open to all students. According to Dr. Frank Heynick, author of Doc Holliday, DDS, the college’s two-year curriculum was “unsurpassed for its day and age,” and Holliday, who wrote his thesis on “Diseases of the Teeth,” graduated near the top of his class. He spent eight months at the dental practice of a preceptor, Dr. Lucien Frank of Valdosta, Georgia, Holliday’s hometown. A gold molar crown that he supposedly made for a six-year-old girl in 1871 was still intact when she died in 1967 at age 102.

In the summer of 1872, he began practicing his trade in Atlanta, but was plagued by a persistent, debilitating cough. A doctor diagnosed it as tuberculosis, which had already killed Holliday’s mother and stepbrother. If he wanted to live a little longer, the doctor said, he should head out to the drier, healthier West.

“There, by one of those singular transformations that nobody can understand,” noted the Leadville (Colorado) Daily Democrat in 1884, “he became widely known as a desperate man.”

He settled first in Dallas, and “shared top prize in several categories of dental craftsmanship at the annual North Texas Fair,” according to Heynick. “But [his] persistent coughing made patients shy away from him. And his fatalism about his disease together with a certain love of risk and liquor led him to spend more and more nights in the gambling halls.”

One of those gambling halls, in Dallas, was the site of his first shootout, on New Year’s Day, 1875. He apparently wasn’t much of a shot then; nobody was hit. For the next five years he drifted about the West, from Texas to Kansas to New Mexico, sometimes practicing dentistry, often dealing cards—and getting into increasingly deadly dust-ups.

During that time he met the other characters in his brief, two-act drama: the Hungarian-born Mary Katherine Haroney, better known as Big Nose Kate, a part-time prostitute and sometime girlfriend. Wyatt Earp, saloon-keeper, gambler, and part-time lawman; and his brothers, Virgil and Morgan. Bat Masterson, gambler and lawman. Various cowboys and cattle-rustlers, some good, some bad, most somewhere in between.

It was a dissolute, flash-point life, and one suited to Holliday’s brand of nervous energy. He once told Wyatt Earp that his edginess abated only when he was in a gunfight or doing dental work. (Now that’s a pathology.) Earp didn’t leave us any words about Holliday’s dental artistry, but he did describe him as “the most skillful gambler, and the nerviest, fastest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever saw.”

Holliday didn’t limit himself to a six-shooter. In Fort Griffin, Texas, he stabbed a recalcitrant gambler named Ed Bailey to death with a knife. (After he was arrested for murder, the story goes, he was held in a hotel room—until Big Nose Kate set a fire in the hotel as a diversion, then used a pistol to persuade the reigning deputy to let him go.) And when he got to Tombstone, he showed himself to be pretty lethal with a shotgun, too.

The brief, murderous gunfight near the OK Corral, which took place on October 26, 1881, became a defining moment in the national psyche. The story is usually told from the point of view of the Earps and Holliday, with clearly drawn Good Guys (them) and Bad Guys (the cattle-rustling cowboys). The reality was more complicated. If it happened today, it would be written off as a turf-war, fueled by trash-talking and booze.

When it was over, three cowboys—Billy Clanton, Frank McClaury, and Tom McClaury —were dead, and Holliday, Virgil Earp (Tombstone’s city marshal), and Morgan Earp were wounded. Holliday and the Earps were arraigned on homicide charges, but Judge Wells Spicer ruled that they had acted lawfully, if not very wisely.

Five months later, friends of the dead cowboys shot and killed Morgan Earp while he was playing pool. Wyatt and Holliday led a “vendetta posse” across Arizona, killing one of those friends in Tucson. Holliday fled to New Mexico and then to Denver, where a “crank” named Perry Mallen identified himself as a sheriff and stuck two pistols under his nose. He demanded that Holliday be returned to Arizona, where a murder warrant had been issued for his arrest by Sheriff John Behan.

“If I am taken back to Arizona, that is the last of Holliday,” the dentist told the Denver Republican. “We hunted the rustlers, and they all hate us. John Behan, Sheriff of Cochise County, is one of the gang, and a deadly enemy of mine, who would give any money to have me killed.” (Holliday traced their feud to the fact that he had once told Behan, in front of a crowd, that the sheriff was “gambling with money which I had given his woman.”)

In the end, Holliday avoided extradition through some clever legal maneuvering and some influential friends. “The results of their efforts,” noted the Republican, “led to the coining of a new word in Colorado—‘Hollidaying.’”

Two years later he shot another man in Leadville, but it appears to have been in self-defense, and Holliday was released. After that, his only arrests were for vagrancy.

By 1887, Holliday’s luck was running out and his health was failing fast. He headed to Glenwood Springs, a health resort along the Colorado River famous for its therapeutic hot springs.

“To help finance the treatment, he hung up his dentist’s shingle for the last time,” writes Heynick. Unfortunately, sulphurous hot springs were not what the doctor ordered for tuberculosis, and soon Holliday slipped into a coma at the Hotel Glenwood, coming out of it long enough to ask for a glass of whisky, which he drank with some satisfaction. His last words were: “This is funny.” Some attributed that remark to the fact that he realized he was going to die without his boots on, despite his prediction to the contrary.

He died on November 8, 1887, at the age of 36. His remains are thought to be buried somewhere in the Linwood Cemetery, though no one knows exactly where.

After his death, a number of newspapers published lengthy eulogies. Among those quoted by the Denver Republican was Holliday’s attorney, one Colonel Deweese, who allowed that the good dentist would “just as lief kill a man as not,” adding: “All he looked out for usually was to have the law on his side.

“I said to him one day, ‘Doctor, don’t your conscience ever trouble you?’ ‘No,’ he replied, with that peculiar cough of his, ‘I coughed that up with my lungs long ago.’”


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2004 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 02/27/04

Dentist of the Purple Sage
By Samuel Hughes
Illustration by David Hollenbach

Have Drill, Will Travel

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