Frontier Reporter Dirt asks...
Doc Holliday and friends

Question by Frontier Reporter, November 1877, 4:00 in the afternoon:

Oh, hide me quick! That looks like the fast-draw gambler, Doc Holiday! And is that the lawman, Wyatt Earp, with him?

Well, they say curiosity killed the cat (but perhaps not armadillos), and I just have to know. Oh, Doc,, Mr. Holliday, sir, can you tell my readers why you're here at The Flat?

Doc Holliday answers:

Why is anyone here? To have a good time! Stick around and see what I mean. Right now the only real activity you see in the street is merchants and saloonkeepers getting ready for business, right? In another hour, though, look up the hill toward the fort. Tens of soldiers on pass will be coming this way. Out of the west, cowboys and buffalo hunters will appear on the horizon, galloping in from their camps. Visitors lodging in local hotels and boardinghouses will drift out into the streets. photo of Doc HollidayAll will be headed here—to Griffin Avenue—with purses and pockets just bursting with money. They'll duck into one of the saloons clustered on this main street to gamble, dance, and drink.

That's where I step in. My name is John Henry Holliday—Doc Holliday, to you. I once was a dentist but I deal faro and poker now, right here, at Dick Shannessy's Saloon. I'm a professional gambler. I make my living winning at cards. [He pauses. He is seized by a fit of coughing.] Now you know why I had to switch occupations. What patient wants a dentist who coughs in his face while his tooth is being pulled? [He reaches inside his waistcoat and produces a handkerchief, coughing into it. When he does so, a gun is visible in his breast pocket.]

I was dealing faro and poker in Jacksboro before I came to Griffin. I had to leave Jacksboro, though, or face the hanging tree. I killed a soldier there. I plugged him with my six-shooter because he cheated me at cards. He can't say I didn't warn him because…[Again, he is wracked by coughing. This fit is so strong that he doubles over with pain. He recovers himself and continues.] Anyway, Jacksboro was over for me even before I killed the soldier. For a year I had high times there playing poker with the cowboys on their way to Kansas with their herds. But those days are over for Jacksboro. The cattle trails have shifted west. This new trail—the one that leads not to Wichita but to Dodge—goes straight through Ft. Griffin. This is where the money is now.

Now look at the town. It's starting to happen. You can almost hear a buzz as the town hums to life. Already a few customers are lining up at the bar behind us. Soon, gamblers will be placing bets at my faro table. Time for me to roll up my sleeves and get to work…A man has to live while the living is good…[He disappears through the swinging doors of the saloon.]

Gunman and gambler John H. Holliday became a legendary figure in the West during the late 1800s. Some of that legend began in Texas, at Fort Griffin—the town called The Flat. It was there that Holliday met the Earp brothers and the woman who was to be his lifetime companion, "Bignose" Kate Elder. Born in Georgia, John Holliday was a sickly and sensitive child whose mother doted on him. But she died when he was only 15, and the grief-stricken young man went away to school to study dentistry and escape his unhappy home. Well-educated, well-dressed, and charming with the ladies, Holliday's future looked bright as he began practicing as a dentist in Dallas, Texas, in 1873. He hoped the dry climate there would help cure his sickness, tuberculosis—known then as "consumption."

"Doc" Holliday, as he was called, might have lived a quiet, even ordinary life had it not been for his disease. But Doc was frequently overcome by fits of terrible coughing that frightened his patients, who worried they might catch the sickness. Coached by his cousins, Doc turned to gambling to help pay his bills. So began his journey, one that was to take him far from his very proper upbringing in the old South.

In the following years, Doc traveled from town to town, but was "escorted" out by the sheriff on many occasions. In The Flat, he dealt faro at the Beehive Saloon, and began a life-long friendship with Wyatt Earp and the Earp family. Their paths crossed again in other wild west towns, such as Dodge City, Kansas. In Tombstone, Arizona, Doc and the Earp brothers faced off with the Clanton family in the "Gunfight at the OK Corral." Doc's skill in handling guns made him famous, but some people believe that the gentleman dentist made up some of the stories to create his legend and protect himself as his sickness weakened him over the years. He died in a hotel room in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, in 1887.

Credits: Character dialogue by Lisa Waller Rogers; top painting by Charles Shaw; photo of Colt "Thunderer" pistol courtesy of Jimmy Amburn; photo of John H. Holliday, Craig Fouts Collection.

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