John Henry “Doc” Holliday was born in Georgia in 1851. His mother died when he was a teenager, and his father quickly remarried. His family had great expectations for John Henry since his father was an important person in town and had even been elected mayor, and so to please his parents, John Henry chose a profession – dentistry. He completed dental school, served a two-year apprenticeship, received the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery, and with a partner, opened a dental office in Atlanta.
Not long after he started working, the doctors told him that he was severely ill with tuberculosis and gave him only a few months to live. He might add a few months to that death sentence, they suggested, if he moved to a drier climate. Doc quickly packed his gear and moved to Dallas, which was as far as the railway ran at that time. He tried his best to practice as a dentist but his frequent coughing spells made it impossible to be successful. It’s hard to pull a tooth or insert a filling when hacking with a cough. As his business declined, he looked for another way to make a living and discovered that he had a lot of talent and natural ability as a gambler, and he decided to make this his career.
The American West at that time lived up to its reputation of being wild, dangerous, and lawless, so in order to protect himself Doc practiced with a knife and gun until he became an expert. He traveled around the southwest buying bars, gambling, and getting into a series of arguments, gunfights, shootings and killings, which earned him a well-deserved reputation for being a nasty man with a bad attitude. You can understand his recklessness; he felt he had nothing to lose since he would be dying soon anyway. He thought it would be better to die in a gun or knife fight than from tuberculosis. He constantly ran from one town to the next, often a few steps ahead of a posse out to string him up. He excelled as a gambler and in spite of all the upset in his life built up a small fortune from his winnings.
In Fort Griffin, Texas, he rescued Wyatt Earp from an angry group of men who had him surrounded and was about to kill him. Doc’s usual troubles – fights, arguments, and killings – forced him out of Fort Griffin and he joined Wyatt and Wyatt’s brothers in Tombstone, Arizona, a booming silver-mining town. The Clancy bunch, a gang of cattle rustlers, thieves and murders according to most reports, ran freely around town. The locals tolerated them because they frequented the bars and other businesses and while in town took care to behave themselves. Ike Clancy, the leader, and his supporters resented the arrival of the Earps and Holliday who started to bring law and order to the area. They picked a fight with Doc (easy to do given Doc’s quarrelsome nature) and set out to kill him. The quarrel escalated and eventually resulted in the famous Gunfight at the O. K. Corral in 1881. It’s unclear exactly who started it and in spite of all the hype it only lasted thirty seconds and only three men were killed. Doc Holliday took a bullet in the hip, which only caused a bruise, and he survived. Many gunfights in the Old West were bloodier but this achieved the most notoriety. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday were arrested for murder, but they were never tried since the grand jury said there wasn’t enough evidence.
In 1887 Doc’s health deteriorated rapidly and in November of that year he died saying, “This is funny.” What was he thinking? He was certain he would be killed in a gunfight, or hanging at the end of a rope, or by a knife in the ribs. He died peacefully in bed and to him that was funny. Friends and enemies eulogized Doc Holliday as perhaps the best gambler of the Old West.