In a recent interview, the question of Doc Holliday’s reputation as a gunman came up.
There is so much mythology surrounding Holliday’s marksmanship and the shootout at the O.K. Corral. How much of it is accurate?
The mythology isn’t accurate, and neither was Doc! The most careful biographers – the ones who’ve gone over court records and contemporaneous newspaper reports to verify or debunk all the accusations – believe that John Henry Holliday was in five confirmed shooting affrays in his 15 years in the West.
At 3 A.M. on New Years Day in 1875, he and Charles Austin fired their pistols within Dallas city limits. While the peace was disturbed, neither man was hurt.
When Doc was 25, he was attacked and seriously wounded by Henry Kahn after a quarrel over cards, which Kahn started. Recovery took five months, and Doc needed a walking stick off and on for the rest of his life.
In 1880, a year before the famous gunfight, he got into an argument with the gambler Johnny Tyler over who was allowed to run card games in which Tombstone saloons. Saloon owner Milt Joyce decided to end the argument by picking Doc up bodily and flinging him into the street. Infuriated, Doc obtained a gun, returned to the saloon and emptied the revolver, hitting Joyce in the palm and a bartender in the big toe. I’m not downplaying those injuries – Milt Joyce almost lost the hand, and the bartender was lamed – but they are hardly evidence of deadly accuracy.
During the 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Tom McLaury was hit in the chest by a shotgun blast at a distance of six feet; he is believed to be the only man John Henry Holliday ever killed. Again, accuracy is not an issue when the weapon is a scattergun at two yards.
Finally, in 1884, Billy Allen threatened to kill Doc over a $5 loan that Doc – destitute and very ill – couldn’t pay back on time. When Allen came after him, Doc defended himself with a pistol, wounding Allen in the right upper arm, at close range.
Doc feared for his life, so I’m guessing he didn’t deliberately try to “wing” Allen. I think that was just the best he could do. At 122 pounds, he was sick and shaky; the pistol was heavy for him.
It’s important to note that Doc did everything he could to avoid that confrontation, including asking for an extension on the loan and then appealing to the Leadville, CO, police for protection from Allen. They declined to get involved until after the shooting.
Allen went down and if it were a movie, Doc would have “finished the job.” In real life, with Allen disabled, he allowed himself to be arrested without protest and stood trial for attempted murder. Doc pointed out in court that Allen outweighed him by 50 pounds, and noted, “If he’d got hold of me, I’d have been a child in his hands.” The jury could see that was true, and quickly acquitted Holliday on grounds of self-defense.
That’s it. Everything else is fiction. And no, he didn’t really knife a guy, as depicted in the movie “Tombstone.”As his long-time companion Kate Harony wrote of Doc, “Being quiet, he never hunted trouble.”
Since that interview, I’ve learned from Jeff Guinn’s book The Last Gunfight that Doc participated in a rifle contest while in Tombstone. He ranked very near the bottom of the contestants. My reading of all this is that Doc’s marksmanship was much like my typing skills: we’re quick but not accurate! At least I get to edit!