J.D.R. Hawkins

One bullet can make a man a hero… or a casualty.

Colorado Desperadoes (Part 1) – The Infamous Doc Holliday

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Although he never fought in the Civil War, John Henry “Doc” Holliday was a product of that war. His father fought for the Confederacy. His cousin by marriage was Margaret Mitchell, who wrote “Gone with the Wind.”

Doc was born on August 14, 1851 in Griffin, Georgia. The family moved to Valdosta, Georgia in 1864. In 1866, when Doc was 15, his mother died of tuberculosis. He became fluent in Latin, Greek, and French, and obtained a degree in dentistry in Philadelphia. He didn’t practice dentistry for long, though.  He was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and only given a few months to live.

Thinking that a dryer climate would slow his deteriorating condition, Doc moved to Dallas in 1873 and took up gambling because it was more profitable. From there, he moved to Denver. Hearing about the discovery of gold, he traveled to Cheyenne, and then to Deadwood. By 1877, Doc had become accomplished with a gun. He met Wyatt Earp in Texas, along with “Big Nose” Kate, who became his lifelong companion. In 1878, he defended Earp in a saloon fight, which took place in Dodge City, Kansas.

In 1880, Doc travelled to Tombstone, Arizona to meet up with the Earp’s. It wasn’t long before trouble found him. Wyatt had been dealing with problems caused by the “Cowboys,” and the situation escalated. In October 1881, the conflict exploded in what became known as the Gunfight at the OK Corral. The situation in Tombstone grew worse. Virgil Earp was seriously wounded, and Morgan Earp was killed. The Earp’s left town, but later, the body of Frank Stilwell, who was one of the Cowboys, was discovered near the railroad tracks, riddled with buckshot. The Earp’s returned to Tombstone to meet up with Texas Jack Vermillion. From there, the posse rode out on what became known as the Earp Vendetta Ride, and killed other members of the Cowboys, including “Indian Charlie” Cruz and “Curly Bill” Brocius. Because there was a warrant out for Doc in the killing of Stilwell, he decided to return to Colorado.

Doc was arrested for murder in Denver on May 15, 1882 under an Arizona warrant. Wyatt asked his friend, Bat Masterson, who was Chief of Police in Trinidad, Colorado, to get Doc released. Masterson convinced Colorado’s Governor Pitkin to refuse Arizona’s extradition. Doc was released in Pueblo two weeks later. He and Wyatt briefly met up in June 1882 in Gunnison. On July 14, one of the notorious Cowboys, Johnny Ringo, was found dead. His death appeared to be a suicide, but controversy surrounds it. Speculation arose that Wyatt and Doc returned to Arizona to do Johnny Ringo in, but it has never been proven.

After traveling to Salida, Doc went to Leadville for a short time. His health was rapidly deteriorating, worsened by severe alcohol and laudanum use. Told that the hot springs would improve his condition, he went to Glenwood Springs. The sulfuric fumes did just the opposite, however, and it wasn’t long before his health failed. He spent his last few days in the Hotel Glenwood. His final words reflected the irony of his situation, because he always thought he would be the victim of an assassin’s bullet. Looking down at his bootless feet, he said, “Damn, this is funny.” He died on November 8, 1887. He was 36 years old.

Doc was buried in Linwood Cemetery, on a mountaintop overlooking Glenwood Springs. Speculation exists as to whether he is actually buried there, since the ground might have been frozen. He was either buried in an unmarked grave to prevent grave robbers from desecrating the corpse, or in Potter’s Field, which was a section of the cemetery set aside for blacks and paupers. He was penniless at the time of his death, so this is a possibility. The records showing exactly where his body was located within the cemetery were lost.

According to research, he only killed three people in his lifetime. However, it is possible that he never actually killed anyone. He was involved in several altercations, and let his reputation grow as a murderer. Virgil Earp told a reporter from the Arizona Daily Star in March 1882, that “There was something very peculiar about Doc. He was gentlemanly, a good dentist, a friendly man, and yet outside of us boys I don’t think he had a friend in the Territory. Tales were told that he had murdered men in different parts of the country; that he had robbed and committed all manner of crimes, and yet when persons were asked how they knew it, they could only admit that it was hearsay, and that nothing of the kind could really be traced up to Doc’s account.” The violence experienced during the Civil War was carried on through the settling of the Wild West, and Doc Holliday was one result of that time.

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