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John “Doc” Holliday: Infamous Gambler & Gun-Fighter

John “Doc” Holliday is a Western Cowboy from the mid-eighteen hundreds who was a successful poker player that not only had beaten the odds in cards games but in the myriad of gunfights he participated in as well.

John was an excellent poker player, as he had learned how to play at a very young age and had developed his skills over the years through hours of practice at nearby saloons.

He accomplished many things during his short life, passing away from Tuberculosis at age thirty-six. He was a fearless man with many interesting qualities and some would even say he changed the way the West dealt with gamblers and gunfighters.

The Denver Republican Newspaper wrote this upon his death,

“Few men have been better known to a certain class of sporting people, and few men of his character had more friends or stronger companions. He represented a class of men who are disappearing in the new West. He had the reputation of being a bunco man, desperado, and bad-man generally, yet he was a very mild-mannered man, was genial and companionable, and had many excellent qualities.”

Early Years

John Henry “Doc” Holliday was born on August 14th, 1851 in Griffin, Georgia. He was an only child, as his older sister died just a few months before he was born and his parents didn’t have any more children after that.

His father, Henry Holliday, was a Medical Doctor who also served as a Major in the Civil War for the South. His mother, Alice, was a loving, stay at home mother who always wanted what was best for her son.

John was born with a cleft palate, having to undergo corrective surgery during his infancy.

John’s uncle, Doctor John Stiles Holliday, performed the surgery himself and to show their gratitude, his parents named their son after him.

Due to John’s previous condition, his speech was very poor and it was his mother who spent hours upon hours working with him to improve his speech. They had a beautiful relationship until John was fourteen years old and she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. The disease slowly weakened her body, leading to her death just one year later.

Besides having to cope with the death of his mother, John had a typical upbringing for a wealthy boy growing up in the South during the 1800s. He spent the majority of his free time riding horses and learning how to shoot a variety of guns.

He was also very well educated, having been taught how to read, write, and speak the languages of French, Greek, and Latin in addition to his core classes.

One of the family’s slaves, a young African-American woman named Sophie Walton, taught John how to play various card games including poker. Another game she taught him that you may have never heard of was “Skinning,” which is based off of the rules of Faro.

Little did he know that this would be the foundation he needed to become an excellent gambler later on in life.

Choosing a Career

In 1870, John picked up his belonging and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to attend dental school. John managed to meet all the requirements for his degree in just a matter of two years, which is the shortest amount of time in which anyone has ever graduated from that program.

John’s thesis was titled “Diseases of the Teeth,” as he was particularly interested in preventing the spread of mouth related diseases.

John Holliday was presented with several awards for his accomplishments in Dentistry school at the Annual Fair of the North Texas Agricultural, Mechanical, and Blood Stock Association in Dallas including, “The Best Set of Artificial Teeth and Dental Award,” “The Best Set of Teeth in Gold Award,” and “The Best in Vulcanized Rubber Award.”

Each award came with a crisp five dollar bill, which was a decent amount of money during the late 1800s.

After graduation, John moved back to Georgia to open his own private practice in the booming city of Atlanta.

His clientele grew quickly, as his customers were not only very pleased with his work but they were also impressed by his stature. John was a tall, handsome man who showed kindness to everyone he encountered.

All of this would soon change though, as within a year of arriving in Atlanta, John was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

After discovering that he was going to face the same disease that took his mother’s life, John decided to head West in hopes that the warmer temperatures and good weather would help him overcome his disease. He partnered up with John Seeger to open a Dentist office in Southern Texas.

Gambling His Pain Away

It was during his time in Texas that John developed an interest in gambling, often visiting the nearby saloons to play poker and drink heavily. The tuberculosis soon started to take over his body; he would cough uncontrollably and it was starting to get in the way of his work.

The worse his condition got, the more time he would spend gambling and drinking.

To make things worse, he would often get into fights at the bar and word spread like wild fire about his violent attributes. His gambling addiction and his poor health condition started to hinder his career. He worked as a dentist for approximately four years, earning the name “Doc Holliday” until he was forced to retire.

He decided to use his winnings from poker to travel across America, gambling at all of the saloons along the way. His worsening condition made him angry and he would often become very violent at the bars when he got drunk, often hurting people who tried to hustle him at the gambling tables.

It wouldn’t have been uncommon for John to whip out a knife or gun to help persuade his rivals to give him back the money they had cheated out of him.

The Earp Family

John spent the next few years traveling even further out West, becoming recognized as a professional gambler. Somewhere along the way he met a man named Wyatt Earp with whom he got along with quite well.

They started playing poker together until one of their opponents drew his gun, pointing it at Wyatt. John instinctively drew his gun and shot the man; the two always had each other’s back from that point on.

John was introduced to Wyatt’s family and they took him in like he was one of their sons, providing him with meals and making sure he took care of himself. They took the place of his family he left back in Georgia and he grew very fond of them.

O.K. Corral Gunfight

One of the most famous western gunfights took place in Tombstone, Arizona on October 26th, 1881. Wyatt’s brother, Virgil Earp, was an officer stationed in Tombstone during this time when he was called over to arrest a group of rowdy cowboys.

He asked John, Wyatt, and his other brother, Morgan, to join him for back up. The men he was planning to arrest were the Clanton Brothers (Billy and Ike) and the McLaury brothers (Frank and Tom).

Virgil politely warned them to leave their town but they refused; no one knows who fired the first shot but before they knew it, shots were being fired in every direction. During this gunfight, better known as the O.K. Corral, more than thirty shots were fired in less than thirty seconds.

By the time the gun fight was over, both of the McLaury brothers were dead along with Billy Clanton. Wyatt and Virgil were slightly injured and neither John nor Morgan had a scratch on them. Ike was the only one who managed to slip away during the fight and no one knew what type of condition he was in.

O.K Corral Gun Fight

John and the Earp brothers were all arrested and put on trial for the murders of these three men; they were all found innocent and weren’t convicted of any crimes. The boys were ecstatic about the outcome of the fight until a few days later when Morgan Earp was shot by an unknown gunman.

This enraged the family and soon Wyatt and John set off on a killing spree known as the Earp Vendetta Ride, as they were trying to find out who killed Morgan. John and Wyatt eventually made their way to Fort Griffin, Texas, where they stopped to play poker. They were competing against a hustler by the name of Ed Bailey who discreetly kept sifting through the discard pile.

This action wasn’t only against the rules but it made John livid; he kept warning Ed not to do it but he didn’t listen. John managed to win a large pot against Ed, after he folded on his bluff.

To irritate Ed, he refused to show his hand after the game was over. Ed, annoyed, pulled a gun on John but before he could even fire one shot, John already had his knife out and was stabbing him to death. This wouldn’t be the last time that John got in a fight for gambling related reasons but it is the last recorded time that Wyatt and John were together.

While travelling through Colorado, John had an argument with two of his opponents over whether or not the play he made was legal. Because John hated being questioned, he pulled out his revolver and shot both of them to death.

In addition to the stories mentioned above, John was responsible for a myriad of other deaths including Mike Gordon, Johnny Ringo, and Charley White to name a few. One unique quality that gave John an upper-hand over his rivals was the fact that he was ambidextrous, being able to shoot with both hands at the same time.

There are many stories out there about the violent and crazy tactics that John used to kill people during this time, so it’s very difficult to separate the true stories from the made up ones.

Many historians have revealed that the majority of the untrue stories about John “Doc” Holliday were told by him in order to build up his reputation and instill fear in his enemies.

Early on during John’s career, his weapon of choice was an 1851 Colt Navy revolver that his Uncle gave to him when he was just a boy. John also supposedly carried a nickel-plated .41 caliber Colt Thunderer and a .38 caliber Colt Lightening. He rarely used a shotgun but was forced to at the O.K. Corral Gunfight, as it was the only weapon that was handed to him.

Big Nose Kate

Mary Katherine Harony, better known as Big Nose Kate, was the only women John ever claimed to have a relationship with. Big Nose Kate had Hungarian heritage but she lived in America her entire life and was very well educated, as her father was a physician.

There are no pictures available of Big Nose Kate but she’s believed to have been a heavy set woman with bold features and wavy hair.

The couple met in Fort Griffin, Texas around 1877 and stayed together until John passed away. Many people are led to believe that they eventually were married but there are no papers to confirm those rumors.

Their true relationship remains a mystery but we do know that she came to visit him just a few days before he passed away, supposedly there to say her goodbyes.

His Final Days

John desired to leave a legacy behind after he died, so when his tuberculosis started getting out of control he decided to pay someone to build a saloon in his name.

Since the Santa Fe Railroad system was building tracks near Las Vegas, New Mexico, John believed this would be an opportune place to build his saloon where gambling and prostitution would be encouraged.

Before the bar came to fruition, John travelled back to Colorado; he passed away on November 8th, 1887 at only 36 years of age in his room at The Hotel Glenwood.

Prior to his death, John contemplated contacting his family to tell them about his worsening condition but before he could send word to them, it was already too late.