He was one of the most famous gunmen of the Old West; but in the end, he was felled by a bacteria rather than gunfire. Certainly as the 1870s and 1880s on the western frontier became years filled with unforgettable characters who became legends with tales of their exploits echoing across the wide-open plains and into the American imagination, only a handful of names stand out. Doc Holliday became one of the most famous of these figures, and his journey into legend began deep in the heart of Texas.
John Henry “Doc” Holliday was born in central Georgia in 1851. His father was a veteran of the Mexican War and the Civil War. The future gunslinger and gambler became an expert shot while a youngster, not unusual for that time period. When he was a teenager, his mother and stepbrother both died from tuberculosis, a widespread and deadly lung infection that was often called the “white plague” that left thousands dead each year.
Holliday was an ambitious young man with a brilliant mind. He reportedly absorbed languages such as Greek, Latin, and French. In 1870, he enrolled at the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery, the most prestigious dental school in the country at the time, though few such schools were to be had. In just over a year, at the age of 20, he completed his doctorate.
He soon established a dental practice in Georgia and was on his way to a quiet, respectable career when he also came down with tuberculosis. While the disease is curable today – and easily prevented with vaccinations — it was a death sentence in the 1870s. Little was known how tuberculosis spread and no treatments existed. Patients could die in a matter of months or linger on for years or die from any accompanying infection. The common belief at the time was that the warm, dry climates of the West could slow the deterioration of the lungs. So with little left to lose, Holliday moved to Texas.
He established a successful dental practice in downtown Dallas in 1873, initially working with a friend of his father’s. Within a few months, he set up his own practice at Main and Lamar Streets. However, his coughing fits during examinations and news of his contagious illness frightened away many patients. He could keep his diagnosis a secret no longer. As a result, the gambling he once enjoyed for recreation and the occasional thrill became an important source of income.
As Dallas leaders attempted to tame the wild frontier city into a respectable center for business, gambling became a crime to deter troublemakers. Well-known gamblers like Holliday were targeted, and he was indicted in 1874 for illegal gambling. The situation grew even worse in 1875 when he got into a shootout with a Dallas bartender. While he was acquitted in the incident, Holliday realized his days in Dallas were numbered.
Shortly afterward, he left Dallas and headed north to Denison. He attempted to restart his dental career in the small community, but his increasing complications from tuberculosis and his spreading reputation from Dallas made it difficult to stay in business. Within a few months after his 1875 arrival, he left for Fort Griffin, northeast of modern-day Abilene. His Grayson County office was the last known time he had a regular dental practice.
Holliday found himself in several gunfights over the years but survived them all. He was never injured in any of the confrontations. But his time ran out. His disease caught up to him, and he checked himself into a tuberculosis sanitorium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He succumbed to his lingering illness in 1887 at the age of 36.
Holliday’s fame rose in the years after his death as tales of his exploits and the famed gunfight at the O.K. Corral spread and eventually found their way into the movies.
Arrested more than a dozen times and responsible for shooting an untold number of men, Holliday was never convicted of a crime. Each April, Denison celebrates the Doc Holliday Festival in honor of its one-time resident.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.