If you’ve seen the movie or heard of the town called Tombstone (and even if you haven’t), you probably know something about Doc Holliday. You may know developed a reputation as a real-life gunslinger. And you may know he partnered with Wyatt Earp and the Earp brothers.
But did you ever wonder where the Hollywood version Holliday begins and the a factual Holliday ends?
Historian Gary L. Roberts might. He brings the real man to life in Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend, a 544-page anatomy of the Old West legend. To do it, Roberts investigates old information, uncovers new sources, reveals surprise findings, and sets the stage for new legends to be born.
John Henry “Doc” Holliday was a man of intense contradictions.
Perhaps what makes Holiday so interesting is that he comes across as a genial gentleman, yet feared for his bad temper and unique ability to back it up. Of course, he was a dentist by trade despite being a sickly consumptive. He was also a businessman, a gambler, and an alcoholic.
He was dangerous. And he was a loyal friend. He appreciated fine luxuries. And enjoyed his fair share of debaucheries. He was a Southern gentleman. And he rightly earned his place as one of the most dreaded gunfighters living in the American West.
Roberts begins to unravel the enigma in Holliday's hometown. Doc, who was called John by his family, was raised with good values and impeccable Southern manners. He enjoyed an excellent education and excelled at history, math, and several languages. After school, he enrolled in the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery, one of the finest schools of its kind in its day.
After graduating as a doctor of dental surgery, Holliday started rambling around the country — Dallas, Denver and of course Dodge City, where he first met Wyatt Earp. It was also around this time that Holliday discovered he had consumption (tuberculosis), which historians suspect he contracted from his mother. She had died from the disease a few years prior.
It was the tuberculosis that drove him West to a dry climate. It was in Arizona where his exploits became better known. And later, in the dusty Arizona town of Tombstone, he would cement himself as a legend. Holliday dealt and played faro, drank too much, loved and fought with girlfriend Kate (known as Big Nose Kate), and pulled his gun any time it was called for.
The Gunfight At The O.K. Corral cemented Holiday as a legend.
It didn't matter that this particular gunfight lasted less than a minute. He sealed his reputation as one of the best gunslingers and biggest badasses in the West along with the three Earps — Virgil, Morgan and Wyatt when they shot it out with Billy and Ike Clanton, Tom and Frank McLaury, and Billy Claiborne. Holliday and Wyatt Earp walked away unscathed.
Most people back then assumed Holliday would eventually die in a gunfight. He might have even preferred it. But sadly, his rough, carefree lifestyle and consumption killed him. Roberts does an especially good job chronicling Holliday's last trip to Colorado in a fruitless search for healing springs. He died in Glenwood Springs at the age of 36, a bittersweet end for the fearless and fascinating man.
And as a story, Roberts does a fantastic job balancing fact and legend. A teacher for more than three decades, Roberts is an emeritus professor of history at Abraham Baldwin College (Tifton, Georgia) and has served as a consultant for the National Endowment for the Humanities. He also hails from Holliday’s boyhood stomping grounds in Georgia.
Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend Hits 7.2 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale.
Roberts has faced some criticism that his writing here could have been more imaginative and perhaps more stylish. But given he is first and foremost a historian, I found myself preferring clear research and well-documented footnotes over fluff. If you want to know the facts, this one brings the real Doc Holliday back from the grave.
Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend by Gary L. Roberts is available from Amazon. You can also find Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend at Barnes & Noble. The biography can also be downloaded from iBooks.