Interview – Bullet Counter-Points: Getting to know the real Doc Holliday

The 1881 shootout at the O.K. Corral has become central to what people believe about frontier justice in the American West. The “winners” of this gun battle against the Clanton-McLaury gang—the Earp brothers and John Henry “Doc” Holliday—are still household names today because of popular films like “Tombstone” (1993) and “Wyatt Earp” (1994) and two recent books: “The Last Gunfight” by Jeff Guinn and “Doc” by Mary Doria Russell.

Mary Doria RussellWe were fortunate to catch up with Mary Doria Russell to ask her some questions about her new novel and the fascinating life of her lead character. Mary is the author of four previous best-sellers: The Sparrow, Children of God, A Thread of Grace, and Dreamers of the Day. Because of her historical knowledge about the Old West, and her familiarity with law enforcement (having grown up the daughter of a sheriff), she was able to provide valuable insight into the issue of gun violence and gun laws in the U.S. today.

What attracted you to the character of Doc Holliday?

I’m always interested borderlands, and in people who cross boundaries and defy categories. The characters in my novels are often migrants or foreigners, half-castes or marginal natives who don’t quite fit the place they’re in and who have developed a somewhat distanced and ironic view of their world.

John Henry Holliday certainly fits that pattern, but it’s important to realize that he was a real person—not just a fictional character—and he’d beaten some formidable odds simply by surviving infancy. He was born in Griffin, Georgia, in 1851 with a cleft palate and a cleft lip. His uncle, Dr. John Stiles Holliday, performed a successful surgical repair of that birth defect, although the achievement was kept private to protect the family’s reputation for “good breeding”—a term taken literally until quite recently. [Editor’s Note: Mary has established the Doc Holliday Memorial Fund at The Smile Train, an organization that provides free cleft palate and cleft lip surgeries to children around the world. To contribute, go to and click on DONATE]. When the toddler began to talk, it was obvious that he would have a significant speech impediment, so his mother developed a form of speech therapy to improve his diction. Alice Holliday was also an accomplished pianist who began her son’s lessons as soon as he could reach the keyboard.

The Hollidays were Georgia gentry, and John Henry was meant to be a minor aristocrat in a South that ceased to exist after the Civil War. Instead he went to the best dental school in the North, earning the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery when he was still only 20 years old. He was a skilled and serious professional who expected to live a quiet life in the East but just as he was beginning to establish his adult life, he was diagnosed with advanced pulmonary tuberculosis. So he went West in 1873, at the age of 22, hoping that the dry air and sunshine of the Great American Desert would restore his health.

Talk about crossing borders and never truly really fitting in!

In the movies, the “legendary gambler and gunman Doc Holliday” usually arrives in town with a bad reputation and a hooker named Big Nose Kate. The real John Henry Holliday had studied the Greek and Latin classics as well as rhetoric, history and mathematics. At the Philadelphia College of Dental Surgery, his coursework included metallurgy, chemistry, physiology, gross anatomy, dental histology, oral pathology, in addition to surgical practicum. Plus, he played classical piano!

Now, few of us have read Homer or Virgil in the original languages, but at least we’ve seen the movie “Troy” on television! We may not be able to play Chopin or Beethoven, but most of us know who they were. So if we’d been dropped into Dodge City in 1878, our frame of reference would be more like Doc Holliday’s than Wyatt Earp’s. With John Henry Holliday as the focus of the novel, I was able to write in a very different way about the frontier. That was the era of Western boomtowns and cattle drives and pioneers, but also of Tolstoy and Dickens and Flaubert, of the ballet “Coppelia” and the opera “Carmen.” Rockefeller had founded Standard Oil. Electric lights and the phonograph and the telephone were developed about the time that Doc Holliday met Wyatt Earp in Dodge City. John Henry Holliday’s knowledge and sensibilities bridge those worlds for us.

How did Doc Holliday—an educated, talented, skilled man—become involved with violence and gunplay?

Reluctantly, and as rarely as possible! Keep in mind that this was a sick young man, a six-footer who never weighed much more than 150 and was closer to 100 pounds when he died at just 36. One of the few true things Bat Masterson said about John Henry Holliday was that Doc “could not have whipped a healthy 15-year-old boy in a go-as-you-please fistfight.” As Doc himself told Wyatt Earp, “The only time I’m not nervous is when I’m working on someone’s teeth.”

I believe Doc initially played up his dangerousness. Today, the same sort of scared, skinny boy in a rough neighborhood might try to seem more “gangsta” than he is. As time went on, however, Doc’s reputation took on a life of its own. After the gunfight in Tombstone, the journalists of his day invented “The Infamous Gunman and Gambler Doc Holliday,” a character who could sell a lot more newspapers than Dr. John Henry Holliday, D.D.S.

There is so much mythology surrounding Holliday’s marksmanship and the shootout at the O.K. Corral. How much of it is accurate?

DocThe 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 3:00 A.M. on New Year’s 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. Milt Joyce decided to end the argument by picking Doc up bodily and flinging him into the street. Infuriated, Doc obtained a gun (it was illegal to carry one in Tombstone), 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 was 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, Colorado 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.”

Kate also disputed Doc’s reputation as a drinker. “He was not a drunkard. He always kept a bottle near, but when he needed something for his pain, he would only take a small drink.” Bourbon is, in fact, effective for calming a cough and also helped mute the chest and bone pain he suffered throughout his adult life. Tuberculosis is an awful disease.

Americans typically think of “the Wild West” as a place where gun laws were weak and permissive. Is that what you found in your research for the novel Doc?

Well, it depends on when and where you’re talking about. Typically, western boomtowns mushroomed into existence in a place that was generating gigantic piles of cash—the buffalo killing fields; gold and silver mining camps; a railroad under construction, etc. For the first two to three years in these places, there was a total absence of law just when the population consisted of minimally educated, testosterone-driven young men, most of whom had a family history of what we consider violent abuse today, but which came under the heading of “Spare the rod, spoil the child” back then.

Huge quantities of alcohol were made available by enterprising entrepreneurs, and there were few recreational alternatives to drinking. Whores, mostly young runaways or orphans, were vastly outnumbered and frequently fought over. Boredom, simmering rancor and the assiduous cultivation of grudges led to manly moments of indignation. Disagreements were likely to get physical. And the entire country was awash in firearms after the Civil War.

Then, as now, enraged young men used what came easily to hand. So it’s true that in those first couple of years in any given settlement, there was a lot of gun violence and many deaths, though stand-up shoot-outs in the street are almost entirely a movie fantasy (the gunfight at the O.K. Corral was one of very few such fights in real life). Frontier shootings were nearly always the result of momentary fury, drunken foolishness, or plain clumsiness in a place where guns were as common as trousers.

Soon, however, a city government would be organized by local businessmen, who noticed that dead men make poor customers. In Dodge City, for example, it was illegal to discharge firearms within the city limits except on the Fourth of July and New Year’s Day. The rest of the year, when you came into town, you were required to surrender your firearms in the first place you entered. Most public buildings had peg racks for the purpose and you were given a claim number; when you left town again, you could retrieve your gun. If you were discovered to be carrying a gun, and the police officer decided you were not on your way in or out of town, you would be arrested, jailed and fined. The police commonly pistol-whipped anyone who showed the slightest sign of resistance to being disarmed. Concussions must have been epidemic, but that was considered more humane than shooting the idiot.

During the cattle boom of the 1870s and ’80s, all the Kansas cow towns had gun control ordinances, and those laws were enforced by men like Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan Earp; Ed, Bat and Jim Masterson; by Bill Tilghman and Dave Mather. They all had formidable reputations. Their presence on the police force made these laws stick, despite the fact that the towns were seasonally flooded by thousands of young cowboys with no head for liquor, intent on blowing three months’ wages as quickly as possible in saloons, gambling halls, and brothels.

And while the gunfight in Tombstone had many causes, what finally set it off that afternoon was a misdemeanor: carrying firearms inside city limits.

Wyatt Earp is purported to have written, “Doc was a dentist not a lawman or an assassin, whom necessity made a gambler.” Do you agree with that assessment?

The whole quote is “Doc [Holliday] was a dentist whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a frontier vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit; a long lean ash-blond fellow nearly dead with consumption, and at the same time the most skillful gambler and the nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a gun that I ever knew.”

I suspect that whole quote is bogus, although Wyatt always defended Doc’s good character. You can usually tell when a ghostwriter or a journalist put a colorful quote in Wyatt’s mouth. Wyatt was not well educated and not terribly articulate.

If you want an authentic quote about Doc Holliday, I believe this one by Virgil Earp, who said, “Tales were told that [Doc] had murdered men in different parts of the country, that he had robbed and committed all kinds of crimes, and yet when people were asked how they knew it, they could only admit it was hearsay, and nothing of the kind could really be traced up to Doc’s account.”

Unlike Wyatt and Morgan, Virgil never really warmed to Doc, but he was a fair man and that’s a fair statement. Everyone who really knew Doc agreed that he was a fine dentist, a quiet person who bore his illness with fortitude, and a gentleman who was grateful for the smallest kindness when he was ill. And he was generous when he tipped!

Holliday was once asked if his killings had ever gotten on his conscience and was reported to have said, “I coughed my conscience up with my lungs, years ago.” But Kate Harony, his long-time companion, remembered a different Doc Holliday, saying that after the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, he came back to their room and wept.
Doc HollidayAgain, the quote about Doc’s conscience is probably bogus. But, yes, Kate wrote that he came back to their room after the gunfight, sat on the side of the bed, and said over and over, “This is awful. This is just awful.” That was his private reaction to the only killing he ever did.

He was also horrified when the incident made national news. Soon after the gunfight, he wired his family in Georgia to assure them that he had been deputized before the event and was acting within the law, but the damage was done. The papers identified him as a professional gambler, and that was something he’d hidden from his family for years.

It’s hard for us to understand now, but in those days, a professional gambler was beyond the pale. As John Henry Holliday’s cousin Margaret Mitchell wrote in Gone with the Wind, “A man could gamble himself to poverty and still be a gentleman, but a professional gambler could never be anything but an outcast.” When John Henry Holliday’s father found out his son was gambling professionally, he never spoke his son’s name again. The Hollidays were besieged by reporters after the Tombstone event, and began to run them off by claiming that they were no relation to that man.

That was devastating for John Henry. He was profoundly ashamed of how his life turned out, but really—what were his alternatives? He’d arrived on the frontier just as the Crash of 1873 sent the country into a depression that lasted for years. Who had money for dental care? It was play cards, beg, steal, or starve in the street. So he played cards.

How did their participation in violence affect Holliday and the Earp family?

That’s a difficult question to answer. And I’m not sure I should try, in the context of an interview like this. As a novelist, I can draw plausible conclusions about the mental states of the people I write about, but it’s all conjecture.

We know that Nicholas Earp beat the daylights out of all his sons, and that had a big effect on all of them. Beaten boys often repeat the cycle: bullying others and abusing their own kids. Sometimes, however, they rebel against the abuse by becoming protective of others. Such men are often drawn to law enforcement, and the Earp brothers follow that pattern.

We also know that the older brothers—Newton, James and Virgil—served in the Union army during the Civil War. James was horribly wounded in battle and lost the use of his left arm. Newton and Virgil served until the end of the war. We now know that post-traumatic stress is common among combat veterans, but the older brothers’ lives are not well documented and in any case, the symptoms of PTSD would not have been mentioned in their time. Wyatt, Morgan and Warren Earp were too young to enlist, as was John Henry Holliday, who was just 13 when the war ended. As mentioned above, he was severely injured and permanently lamed in 1877; we may presume that a gunshot wound like that would have had significant emotional aftereffects as well.

We do know, however, that the gunfight at the O.K. Corral changed the lives of everyone who participated—even peripherally—and all for the worse.

Tom and Frank McLaury were killed, as was Billy Clanton. Virgil and Morgan Earp were seriously wounded, and John Henry Holliday was grazed by a bullet; Wyatt was unscathed physically. Ike Clanton lost a beloved brother, and filed murder charges against the Earps and Holliday, who were only exonerated because—quite frankly—Wyatt and Virgil seem to have perjured themselves to protect Morgan and Doc. Sheriff John Behan has been denigrated as a coward and a conniver ever since the incident, and the men on both sides of the fight have been vilified for over a century.

Vendettas happen when people do not believe that the police or the courts can be relied on to serve justice. No justice, no peace. I think that is what happened in Arizona. Friends of those who died during the shoot-out decided the law wasn’t going to punish the killers, so they took it on themselves. Virgil Earp was ambushed; a shotgun blast destroyed his arm. Morgan was shot in the back and died in Wyatt’s arms. In reaction, Wyatt, Doc and several others hunted down those they held responsible for crippling Virgil and murdering Morgan. The Earp posse wore badges at the time, but Wyatt was certain the men would not be convicted if he brought them in for trial, so he gunned them down personally. We’d call those deaths “extra-judicial executions” today.

Wyatt was led to believe he’d be pardoned by the territorial governor, but that never happened. All the men in the Earp posse were wanted for murder the rest of their lives and had to flee across the Arizona border. Any arrest elsewhere could have resulted in extradition to Arizona, where they might be tried for murder, if not lynched. Direct retaliation was a constant threat for all of them. And they all had to deal with their (now deserved) reputation as killers.

For the next 50 years, Wyatt was suspicious of anyone who approached him. Even the little kids were unwelcome because he suspected “they just wanted to shake the hand of a killer.” Wyatt lived into his 80s, long enough to see the gunfight in Tombstone be turned into movie entertainment. He was really bitter about that.

What would the Earp brothers have thought of contemporary laws that allow cursorily screened individuals with a day-class in training (if that) to carry loaded, concealed handguns into bars?

I suspect Virgil would have snorted, “Idiots making laws for idiots…”

Wyatt might have thought, “That’s going to set public order back 150 years.”

And Morgan would have told Doc, “You’ve got to be more careful now. I can’t always be around to protect you.”

Have you or your family been impacted by gun violence or the threat of it?

OK CorralWell, now, my father was a career cop. He was an MP in the Marines during the occupation of Japan, and later a village constable, a county deputy in a cruiser, a plain clothes detective, and an undercover narcotics officer. He also served five terms as the sheriff of DuPage County in Illinois, just west of Chicago. So I grew up with guns and cops. Police work was dinner table conversation in our house.

But I should point out that my father never once fired his gun in anger. That’s typical. Most cops go their whole careers without pulling a trigger except at the gun range. If they do shoot someone, they’re taken off active duty, there’s an investigation, and every decision they ever made comes under scrutiny by people who have no idea what that job is really like.

Believe nothing you see in the movies or on TV. Nothing.

Do you still own a gun or have one in your house?

My dad always wanted me to keep a pistol in the house “for protection.” I always told him, “I believe in statistics. Any bullet fired in the middle of the night by a startled, stupefied homeowner is more likely to hit a family member, a pet, or a neighbor in the house next door than an alert intruder.”

A few years ago, my father—an ex-Marine, career policeman, five-term sheriff—was showing a pistol to one of the grandkids. It went off and the bullet went through the sliding glass door and into the neighbor’s back yard. Dad was stunned and said, as people always do, “I was sure the gun wasn’t loaded.”

It was: Q.E.D.

So no guns in my house. But I have a very ferocious dachshund.

Original post from Bullet Counter Points by Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.