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.