Doc Holliday . . . The Man and Myths

 Any western afficionado who watched any or all of the Wyatt Earp movies were probably as taken with Doc Holliday as Wyatt Earp.

Doc Holliday has been portrayed in various Wyatt Earp films by some of Hollywood’s finest actors, including Victor Mature in “My Darling Clementine,”

Jason Robards in “The Hour of the Gun,” Kirk Douglas in The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral,” Dennis Quaid in “Wyatt Earp,” and Val Kilmer in “Tombstone.” They are all portraits of a lonely, haunted and doomed man.

The portraits in the movie was fascinating enough but other parts of Doc Holliday’s life were even more intriguing, including a rumored forbidden love.

In each one, he is an enigmatic figure who has one strong admirable quality: loyalty. Loyalty to the Earp brothers, particularly Wyatt. He had one other great loyalty, and that was to a nun.

Born of moderately well-to-do parents in Georgia in 1851, he became estranged from his family when his father married a woman one half his age within a few months of his mother’s death. She died of tuberculosis, a disease he probably caught from her and that eventually killed him at age 36. Betrayal was a sin that Doc would forever despise.

The one person to whom he remained attached, though, was his cousin Mattie who lived with his family during the Civil War. More about her later.

As a young man, he was drawn to trouble, and an aura of danger began to be associated with Doc. Still, he graduated from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery and started a practice in Atlanta. Bouts of coughing, though, plagued the young, handsome man and in late 1872 he received the diagnosis of tuberculosis. He was advised to go West for the climate. Bob Boze Bell, author of “The Illustrated Life and Times of Doc Holliday,” reports “tradition says his doctor gave the 21-year-old John Henry Holiday six months to live. We don’t know. There is no record of it. However, he banished himself to the frontier where he intended to meet Death head on and wrote many letters to his cousin Mattie.”

He used an inheritance from his mother to go west and went into the practice of dentistry in Dallas. The TB faded, but there was still pain, and he used whiskey for oblivion, and gambling as a way to focus his mind away from the disease. According to Bob Boze Bell, “The best defense is a strong offense, so Holliday assumes the persona of one whiskey-soaked, bullet-spitting Son o’ Thunder whose only saving grace is that he will soon be dead.”

He met Big Nose Kate, a prostitute who worked in a sporting house, and after a shooting involving Kate, he gave up his practice and took up gambling. He traveled with Kate on the gambling circuit and first met Wyatt Earp in Ft. Griffin.

Fiction and reality clash now. Doc killed a local man who cheated at a card game while, apparently, Wyatt looked on. Doc was arrested and was in danger of being lynched. In many films, Wyatt rescued him. Not true. Kate saved his life by setting fire to a building, and when townspeople rushed to put it out, Kate helped Doc escape and they traveled together four hundred miles to Dodge. It was there that Doc saved Wyatt’s life, and the fabled friendship started.

According to Wyatt Earp, “It wasn’t long after I returned to Dodge City that his (Holliday’s) quickness saved my life. He saw a man draw on me behind my back. ‘Look out, Wyatt!’, he shouted, but while the words were coming out of his mouth, he had jerked his pistol out of his pocket and shot the other fellow before the latter could fire. On such incidents as that our built the friendships of the frontier,’” he wrote.


They were intrinsically linked then. Wyatt was Doc’s only real friend, and Doc’s relationship with Kate faltered during this time. She bitterly resented his attachment to Wyatt and his brothers. He dropped her anytime Wyatt called. His relationship with Kate was a love hate one, with little respect between them. She saved him once, but later signed an affidavit accusing him of murder.

Wyatt left Dodge for Tombstone, and Doc and Kate followed, Kate apparently protesting all the way. It was in Tombstone, of course, that the west’s most famous gun battle occurred with the 30 second shootout at the O.K. Corral.

The day was October 16, 1881. The aftermath is as legendary as the gunfight itself. The killing led to the murder of Morgan Earp and finally Wyatt’s and Doc’s vendetta against a group of outlaws called the Cowboys.

There is no question that Doc killed many a men. But the view of him varied considerably from cold blooded killer to hero. According to the Denver Republican, “Holiday had a big reputation as a fighter, and has probably put more ‘rustlers’ and cowboys under the sod than anyone in the west. He has been the terror of the lawless element in Arizona, and with the Earps was the only man brave enough to face the bloodthirsty crowd, which has made the name of Arizona a stench in the nostrils of decent men.”

The Cincinnati Inquirer, on the other hand, contended he had killed over fifty men and that Jesse James “is a saint compared to him.”

Sometime after leaving Arizona in 1882, Doc and Wyatt quarreled – no one seems to know why – and split up. Kate also seemed to disappear from his life. Doc drifted, mostly living in Colorado. His TB worsened and he moved to a hotel in Glenwood, Colorado, where he died in 1887. Wyatt visited him the day before he died, and in his final moments Doc reverted to the Catholic religion to satisfy his cousin.

Remember Mattie, his cousin? As a nun she became Sister Mary Melanie and spent her life as a teacher and Sister Superior in Atlanta . Doc regularly corresponded with her, and Sister Melanie told her family that had she not destroyed some of Doc’s letters, “the world would have known a different man from one of western fame.” The question has always been why had Sister Melanie destroy some of the letters? Some say a member of her family burnt the rest as having been inappropriate for a Catholic nun to receive.

It is known that she is the only one with whom Doc maintained a lasting relationship, even if only by letter. It is rumored that she was his one true love.

And here’s the rest of the story. Her gentle and kindly spirit was so wildly respected that her cousin wanted to the world to know what a wonderful person she was. So when she wrote a novel, she used her beloved cousin as a character. She also based a character on Doc Holliday.

The author? Margaret Mitchell. The book? “Gone With the Wind.” The characters? Melanie and Rhett.

Doc Holliday remains an enigmatic character today. Good? Bad? Certainly a combination of the two but who is to say which dominated. He certainly seemed to enjoy his notoriety all through his short life, but I, like so many western historians, would love to know what was in those letters to Mattie.

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26 thoughts on “Doc Holliday . . . The Man and Myths”

  1. Pat, what a great article on Doc Holliday. I have to admit to always being curious myself about his and Mattie’s relationship and wondered what he might have written to her that she felt the need to destroy the letters. In my mind, he poured his love out to her (respectfully, of course).

    I never knew that about Gone With the Wind!! Fascinating, thanks for sharing that with us.

  2. What a story, Pat. It reads like a novel in itself. LOVED your ending. I’ve always been fascinated by Doc. There’s one account of a young woman who was wounded in a stage holdup. One of the bandits tended her injuries with the skill of a doctor. He told her, “Don’t tell anybody I was here.” She never revealed the name, but historians assume it was Doc.
    The whole story of Wyatt, Doc, and the things that happened in Tombstone is the stuff of legend.
    Thanks for a great start to my writing day!

  3. Great story, Pat, love it.
    It’s so much HARDER to make a character three dimensional isn’t it. We’re so comfortable with the quick draw Doc who was loyal to Wyatt.

    But as always, there is more to a character.

  4. Wow! I, too, had not heard the connection with Gone With the Wind. Very interesting. But now that you mention it, I can absolutely see the way it all fits together.

  5. Pat, This is a great post! I loved hearing all about Doc Holliday and his connection to Gone With the Wind. This is the reason I come read the posts here.

  6. Pat, what a great post! I too would love to read those letters. I bet they were full of informations that we will never know. I have never heard of any connection with the book Gone With The Wind, wow this is some awesome information. I loved the book Gone With The Wind it was one of my favorites.

  7. Hi Pat,
    It’s hard to figure out if Doc Holliday was a good guy or a bad guy. I’ll admit, I haven’t done much reading about him, but the movies do show him as a very flambouyant character… I’d like to think he was a good man.

  8. Quilt Lady. . . I’m a great Gone With The Wind fan. Read it every two years from the time I was thirteen to my mid-twenties. Now that IS obsession. Then when the so-called sequel was released, the Atlanta Journal called and wanted a quote on it. To prepare, I went back and read the book again, and I was blown away anew. As a writer, rather than a reader, I could better appreciate the characterization. Wow! My quote, by the way: “it was a misappropriation of characters.” I didn’t blame the author, but I did blame the nephews who sought to milk every dime from their aunt’s legacy. I was at the Atlanta Journal in the 1960’s (Margaret Mitchell worked there on the Sunday magazine before my time), and so I heard many a tale about her. She would not have appreciated the sequel.

  9. What an interesting man. Doc fed many people’s imagination. He was just one of those larger than life men of the West. I’m sure he had a lot of good in him. He proves it with his soft spot for his cousin and Wyatt. And I’m sure the ones who earned his loyalty were immensely blessed.

    Thanks for drawing attention to such a huge western presence!

  10. I liked Val Kilmer’s Doc, but I loved Tombstone so much, better than Wyatt Earp. I’m a Kurt Russell fan but just generally, I liked the movie better, not that the other one was bad.

    It flickers through my head every once in a while, Val Kilmer saying (to someone?) “I’ll be your huckleberry.”

    Never was sure what that meant but when Doc said it, I couldn’t help thinking it sounded cool.

  11. Fascinating!!! I think I liked Val Kilmer as Doc the best. He just seemed to portray him as I thought he’d be.

  12. Thank you so much for this article. I never knew the whole story behind Doc but I’m glad you filled in some missing pieces of his history for me. I believe if we could read those letters. We would find a love story that no one has ever truly written about.

  13. What a fantasataic post, Patraicia! I never expected the Margaret Mitchell tie in. =) GWTW is one of my favorite books and I think the movie did it justice, too, even though it left out Scarlett’s other two kids.

    I totally love Van Kilmer and the whole “I’ll be your hucklberry thing” whether it’s fictional or not LOL. He truly did a great job as that character, likeable and hard-nosed at the same time.

    I love Tombstone. Evern time it’s on TV somewhere, I catch at least a few minutes of it.

  14. For anyone who wants to know more about Doc, I highly recommend “The Illustrated Life and Times of Doc Holliday” by Bob Boze Bell. It’s a terrific book with a lot of information about the times as well as about Doc and the various films about Wyatt and Doc. The ISBN is 1-887576-00-2. Although I’ve read a lot on Doc, this is by far the most comprehensive.

  15. Love this posting! Had to call and share the
    article with Honey, who is an even bigger Western
    fan than I am!! Thanks for bringing such great
    stories to us!

    Pat Cochran

  16. So interesting, Pat! I always loved him as a character in movies. Especially Dennis Quaid’s portrayal, and Vil Kilmer’s. He was such a rich deep character to portray, I’m sure actors love to get his role.

  17. Pat – what a terrific post! I felt like I was reading ‘…The Rest of the Story’.

    And I love the background info on Margaret Mitchell.

    Thanks, Pat. It’s a great way to start the week!

  18. Pat, what a wonderful post. I have always wondered about the families of the western ‘outlaws’. This is facinatig and I want to rerad more. Thanks for sharing with us.

  19. This is a great post. Never knew about Gone With The Wind and Doc . Very infomative. I love both Tombstone and Wyatt Earp. He seemed to have a loyalty to those he respected that couldn’t b denied. Thanks for this info. 🙂
    Carol L.

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