My favorite movie of all time is “Tombstone”, released in the early 1990’s. The most interesting and inspiring aspect of the movie is the close friendship between lawman Wyatt Earp and John Henry “Doc” Holliday. While Tombstone was a fictional movie, the story of Doc Holliday may be more interesting than its fictional portrayal.
Holliday was born August 14, 1851 in Griffin, GA. His birth was a joyful event for his parents who just a year before had buried their first child, an infant daughter.
His father made his living as a druggist in Griffin, a booming west Georgia city that had become a central point for the South’s all important cotton industry.
Born with a cleft palate, Holliday had undergone surgery, but his speech needed considerable work. Ever mindful of her son’s condition and what others might say of his birth condition or the way he talked, his mother spent hours working with him to correct his speech. In addition she taught her son the Southern etiquette and manners that would forever reflect his demeanor.
Young Holliday was a bright student who excelled at school. In 1866, his mother died of tuberculosis. Her death devastated Holliday, and he poured himself into math and science as a way to cope with her loss. In 1870, he moved to Philadelphia to attend what is now called the University of Pennsylvania Dental School, where he graduated in 1872.
For a time, Holliday returned to the South to begin his dental career. But at the age of 23 he moved to Dallas, Texas. Historical records strongly suggest that Holliday, who’d contracted tuberculosis like his mother, thought he would find better health in the drier air.
Holliday continued with his dental career in Texas, but the Dallas nightlife, especially its drinking and card games, soon directed his path. By the mid-1870s, he’d already developed a strong reputation in the West for card playing and fighting.
After escaping a charge of murder in Dallas, Holliday relocated to a number of cities before settling down in Dodge City, Kansas, a notorious place for gun fighting and the city where he befriended the famous lawman, Wyatt Earp.
He later followed Earp to a booming mining and frontier town near the Mexican border; Tombstone, Arizona. It was in Tombstone that the Doc Holliday legend that would be born. On October 26, 1881, Holliday and the Earps found themselves in an intense firefight with outlaws including the Clantons and McLaurys. More than 30 shots were fired in a 30-second battle that came to be known as the shootout at the O.K. Corral. It is the most legendary gunfight ever fought in the American West.
The battle left three men dead and several others wounded, including Holliday. Both Holliday and Wyatt Earp were arrested for murder but quickly released of the charges.
Following the fight, Morgan Earp was killed, setting his brother Wyatt off on the “Earp Vendetta Ride.” Holliday accompanied his friend on the ride, which lasted well into 1882 and saw a vast number of killings. In 1883, Holliday moved to Glenwood Springs, Colorado. His health continued to deteriorate, and he died of tuberculosis at a hotel on November 8, 1887.
His death was well known around the country. Despite his lawless ways and his quick temper, Holliday’s character was gently formed by the same Southern etiquette his mother had taught as child. Val Kilmer probably portrayed him in the movie “Tombstone” as well as any actor could possibly do.
While this is pure speculation on my part, I would think that Doc Holliday’s death had a profound effect on his best friend, Wyatt Earp. Friends like that are rarer than a Royal Flush.