A couple of autumns ago, Hubs and I visited Colorado during peak aspen season and found ourselves in Leadville.
Well, you don’t just find yourself in a place two miles high…we went on purpose, had a great visit and lunch in a historic saloon. Finding Wild West memorabilia all over the walls of the Silver Dollar Saloon (formerly The Board of Trade) told me I had to set a story in this “Cloud City” breathing and seething with history, and somehow, Doc Holliday would play a part.
1. John Henry Holliday, was born in Griffin, Georgia, on August 14, 1851, with a cleft pallet. His uncle, physician John Stiles Holliday surgically repaired the newborn’s defect and possibly the baby was named for him. The doctor’s first cousin Dr. Williamson Crawford Long was the anesthesiologist. John Henry Holliday most likely had a slight life-long speech impediment.
2. John’s beloved mother Alice died of tuberculosis when he was 15. His father’s remarriage only three months later to a woman just a few years older than John added to his terrible loss.
3. His father Henry Burroughs Holliday was a planter, druggist, and a soldier who moved the family near the Florida-Georgia line when he realized their home in Griffin GA was in the warpath of U.S. General Tecumseh Sherman’s March to the Sea.
4. John Henry Holliday had been close friends with his first cousin Martha Anne “Mattie” Holliday since childhood, and after his father’s second, unpopular marriage, he spent even more time with her family. Romance bloomed, to both families’ displeasure. Although John eventually went west and Mattie joined a convent using the name Sister Mary Melanie, the two were in touch his whole life. Mattie is said to have burned his letters upon his death. The great granddaughter of her step-uncle named a character Melanie after her in her one and only novel. A character in love with a first cousin. The author, Margaret Mitchell. The book—Gone With the Wind.
5. I don’t know if the nature of John’s birth defect influenced his decision to become a dentist, but his family’s status required a respectable profession. One of 26 candidates, he graduated from Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery during its 16th commencement ceremony in 1872. His thesis was titled “Diseases of the Teeth.”
6. In 1873, John H. Holliday and his partner Dr. John Seegar won dentistry awards for “best set of teeth in gold”, “best set in vulcanized rubber”, and “best set of artificial teeth and dental ware”. (From “Facts Any Doc Holliday Aficionado Should Know and Probably Doesn’t” by Susan Ballard)
7. Not long after graduation, John Henry Holliday set up practice in Atlanta. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and given the prognosis of a short life. It is highly likely he contracted the incurable disease from his mother. To improve his condition, he headed to the drier climes of the west. Eventually, wracking coughs during dental procedures and extractions helped him accept that dentistry was not for him and he needed to seek anther profession.
8. He discovered a natural ability for gambling. Which meant developing gun fighting and knife skills to protect himself against disgruntled opponents. His reputation spread. Tall but often pale and frail from his illness, he encouraged and maybe even embellished stories about the “deadly dentist” out of self preservation. Supposedly he aimed overhead or for the hand or arm, so as to disarm, not kill, an opponent.
9. He could handle his liquor, but the tales of him consuming three bottles a day were highly exaggerated. As are the numbers of his purported massacres. Holliday most likely killed 2 men and wounded 8 others. No legal reports or newspaper accounts support anything else. Some believed Holliday accepted his diagnosis of a short life and lived dangerously because he didn’t have much time left anyway.
10. Oh, not that he didn’t make enemies. And friends such as Wyatt Earp. Truth is, Holliday was very much a part of the 30-second shootout at the OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, and was himself wounded. Not long after, he was accused of killing Frank Stilwell, the man who murdered Wyatt’s brother Morgan in cold blood. Wild with grief and vengeance, Wyatt and Doc did pursue the man but Wyatt fired the fatal shots. Doc let loose two bullets after the fact. He willingly stuck by Wyatt on his ride for bloody retribution.
11. After embalming, Morgan Earp’s body was dressed in Holliday’s own blue suit before beginning the funeral cortège from Arizona to the elder Earps’ home in Colton, California.
12. Doc ended up in Denver by 1882. When The Territory of Arizona tried to extradite him, Colorado’s Governor Frederick Pitkin refused. Safe in Colorado, Doc spent time in Leadville at exactly the same time I set my story Outlaw Heart, 1885. This was shortly after a jury acquitted the popular Doc from shooting a man he actually did shoot. I found I simply could not tell Doc to stay silent when he asked for a speaking role in my story.
13. In addition to Mattie, Doc found romance with Mary Katherine Harony, but their complex 10-year on and off relationship deserves its own blog and I’ll do one on her in the near future.
14. Whatever his crimes, misdemeanors, and reputation, the flaxen-haired, elegant John Henry Holliday was easily likable, had many friends, inspired loyalty from just about anyone, and ever remained a gently-spoken, easy tempered charming Southern gentleman. He died of his long illness in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, on November 8, 1887, at only 36 years old.
I hope you enjoy meeting my highly, and apologetically fictionalized version of Doc Holliday in OUTLAW HEART, which releases tomorrow and is available for preorder. Please leave a comment for a chance to win an ecopy…what was the Doc fact that most surprised you?
Outlaw Bronx Sanderson, saved from the hangman five years before, trudges two-miles high to Cloud City to find absolution and forget the wrongs caused by a redheaded widow up in Canada.
Then Lila Brewster enters his new world and opens his heart to new possibilities. But this flame-haired beauty married to a memory won’t break the vow she made to a dead man. How can Bronx convince her, and himself, the time is right to take a chance? Especially when her brother-in-law blusters into Leadville with impossible demands.
Here’s a little excerpt, when Bronx first meets Doc Holliday:
Bronx ran past a laundry and four saloons before he stumbled into one called the Board of Trade.
Not many noticed him, which was a good thing, but not many men crowded the tables, either. Then again, most were likely still digging or sweating or otherwise earning their wad. Guilt shoveled through him. He ought to be finding an occupation himself instead of lollying an afternoon away with a red-headed widow, and now, taking the edge off because of it.
The place was civilized, though. Tall dark paneled walls with a long horizon of mirror behind the bar.
“Take a seat, newcomer.” A somehow familiar face invited Bronx to a faro table. The voice wore a silky drawl, the hand tapped the chair next to him. “Welcome to this fine establishment.”
Bronx nodded, polite, for sometimes the impolite invited gun fighting. “Thanks but kindly. Not a gambling man,” he said, meaning it, despite eager for masculine company.
Instead of a red-headed widow.
“Well now, sit anyway. You look like a Kentucky bourbon man, if I may be so bold. My tab is yours.”
The brown mustache and smooth-cut hair. Many a wanted poster described just this face. Oh, and Bronx had studied them all for years, since turning outlaw at fifteen. Been both proud and terrified when his own face showed up on one. Recognition niggled like fleas. Then familiarity smacked him hard as legend became life. Asa’d been right.
“John Henry Holliday. You’re John Henry Holliday.” Bronx sank to the chair, out of breath like he’d been running fast on a hot day. The deadly dentist.
“Pleased if you’d simply call me Doc. So many already do. I’m charmed to meet you, I’m sure.” Doc Holliday raised an empty hand from his belt.
Bronx half rose and shook it, found his words. “Doc, then. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance. Bronx. Bronx Sanderson.”
Pleased how easy his true name slipped off his tongue, Bronx relaxed against the hard back of the chair. Nodding at the barkeep for a second glass, Doc filled it up half.
Bronx raised it in a toast of sorts, while Doc Holliday studied him, careful, finally tapped a fingernail on his front tooth. Eyebrows clenched together over a fine-looking nose if Bronx might say so himself. But his neck twitched where his hair lay against it when Doc Holliday’s eyes narrowed.
“I’m recalling such a name from my Arizona days,” Holiday mused. “And yourself on a poster or two. Yet…I was led to believe…” He took a long drink. “…a man with your face and name died in a jail break in Prescott. Just hours before getting your neck stretched. It was a sad thing, dying just as one got free.”
For a flash, Bronx’s thoughts turned black at the momentous day. The jailer’s granny had believed in him, tucked the key in a cake. Seems like she’d spread a lie to keep him safe all the way through…
Bronx clenched his fists in disbelief. Who had she buried in his stead?
“You did not know?” Doc Holliday stared at him, thoughtful, like he was thinking many thoughts himself. “So you have been someone else. Someplace else. Four, five years now?”
Nodding, Bronx gulped a huge swallow. Shuddered as the raw brew struggled down his tight throat.
Doc burst into laughter. “So…how many know you’re back here? From whenever you came back from?”
“Uh, three. No, four including you and two ladies at the boarding house.”
“Well, if they’re proper females, they likely won’t suspect you have been a wanted man. And the improper ones, well. Likely they can be bought off.”
“I won’t be showing them my face, there.” Bronx huffed. “I need to save my coin. But truth is Doc, I didn’t kill the U.S Marshal. They were folks in Prescott out to get me.”
Doc grunted, amused, as his mouth touched his glass. “Always the same story, my friend. Never quite one’s own fault. But I won’t say a word. We’re a brotherhood of sorts, are we not?”