As a young man, Holliday earned a D.D.S. degree in dentistry and set up a practice in Atlanta, Georgia. However, in 1873 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, the same disease that had claimed his mother when he was 15. He moved to the American southwest in hopes that the climate would prolong his life. Taking up gambling as a profession, he acquired a reputation as a deadly gunman.
During his travels, he met and became good friends with Wyatt Earp and Earp's brothers. In 1880, he moved to Tombstone, Arizona, and participated alongside the Earps in the famous gunfight. This did not settle matters between the two sides, and Holliday was embroiled in ensuing shootouts and killings. He successfully fought being extradited for murder, and died in bed at a Colorado hotel / sanatorium at the age of 36.
The legend and mystique of his life is so great that he has been mentioned in countless books, and portrayed by various actors in numerous movies and television series. For the 100-plus years since his death, debate has continued about the exact crimes he may have committed during his life.
Holliday was born in Griffin, Georgia, to Henry Burroughs Holliday and Alice Jane Holliday. His father served in the Mexican-American War and the Civil War. His family baptized him at the First Presbyterian Church in 1852. In 1864 his family moved to Valdosta, Georgia. Holliday's mother died of tuberculosis on September 16, 1866, when he was 15 years old. Three months later his father married Rachel Martin. While in Valdosta, he attended the Valdosta Institute, where he received a strong classical secondary education in rhetoric, grammar, mathematics, history, and languages - principally Latin, but also French and some Ancient Greek.
In 1870, the 19-year-old Holliday left home to begin dental school in Philadelphia. On March 1st, 1872, at the age of 20, he met the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery. He graduated 5 months before his 21st birthday, which would have been problematic since this age was needed both to hold a D.D.S. degree or to practice dentistry as anything other than a student under a preceptor, in Georgia.
After graduation, Holliday did not go home, but worked as an assistant with a classmate, A. Jameson Fuches, Jr., in St. Louis, Missouri. By the end of July he had moved to Atlanta, where he lived with his uncle and his family while beginning his career as a dentist. A few weeks before his birthday the Atlanta papers carried an announcement by noted dentist Arthur C. Ford in Atlanta that Holliday would fill his place in the office while he was attending dental meetings. This was the beginning of Holliday's career in private practice as a dentist, but it lasted only a short time, until December. Holliday's cousin by marriage was Margaret Mitchell, who wrote the novel “Gone With The Wind”.
In September 1873, Holliday moved to Dallas, Texas, where he opened a dental office with fellow dentist and Georgian John A. Seegar. Their office was located between Market and Austin Streets along Elm Street, about three blocks east of the site of today's Dealey Plaza. He soon began gambling and realized this was a more profitable source of income, since patients feared going to his office because of his ongoing cough. On May 12th, 1874, Holliday and 12 others were indicted in Dallas for illegal gambling. He was arrested in Dallas in January 1875 after trading gunfire with a saloon-keeper, but no one was injured and he was found not guilty. He moved his offices to Denison, Texas, and after being found guilty of, and fined for, “gaming” in Dallas, he decided to leave the state.
Holliday made his way to Denver, traveling the stage routes and staying at Army outposts along the way practicing his trade as a gambler. In the summer of 1875 he settled in Denver under the alias “Tom Mackey“, working as a Faro dealer for John A. Babb’s ’Theatre Comique’ at 357 Blake street. Here he heard about gold being discovered in Wyoming and on February 5th, 1876 he relocated to Cheyenne, working as a dealer for Babb's partner, Thomas Miller, who owned a saloon called the Vella Union. In the fall of 1876, Miller moved the Bella Union to Deadwood, site of the gold rush in the Dakota Territory, and Holliday moved with him.
In 1877, Holliday returned to Cheyenne and Denver, eventually making his way to Kansas to visit an aunt. He left Kansas and returned to Texas setting up as a gambler in the town of Breckenridge, Texas. On July 4th, 1877 he got involved in an altercation with another gambler named Henry Kahn, whom Holliday beat with his walking stick repeatedly. Both men were arrested and fined, but later in the day, Kahn shot Holliday, wounding him seriously.
The Dallas Weekly Herald incorrectly reported Holliday as dead in its July 7th edition. His cousin, George Henry Holliday moved west to take care of him during his recovery. Fully recovered, Holliday relocated to Fort Griffin, Texas, where he met “Big Nosed Kate”, who’s real name was Mary Katherine Horony, and began his long-time involvement with her. In Fort Griffin, Holliday was initially introduced to Wyatt Earp through mutual friend John Shanssey. Earp had stopped at Fort Griffin, Texas, before returning to Dodge City in 1878 to become the assistant city marshal, serving under Charlie Bassett. The two began to form an unlikely friendship; Earp more even-tempered and controlled, Holliday more hot-headed and impulsive. This friendship was cemented in 1878 in Dodge City, Kansas, when Holliday defended Earp in a saloon against a handful of cowboys out to kill Earp, and where both Earp and Holliday had traveled to make money gambling with the cowboys who drove cattle from Texas.
Holliday was still practicing dentistry on the side from his rooms in Fort Griffin and in Dodge City, as indicated in an 1878 Dodge newspaper advertisement (he promised money back for less than complete customer satisfaction), but this is the last known time he attempted to practice. Holliday was primarily a gambler although he had a reputation as a deadly gunman. Modern research has only identified three instances in which he shot someone. In the summer of 1878, Holliday assisted Earp during a bar room confrontation when Earp was surrounded by desperadoes. Earp credited Holliday with saving his life that day and the two became friends as a result.
One documented instance happened when Holliday was employed during a railroad dispute. On July 19th, 1879, Holliday and noted gunman John Joshua Webb were seated in a saloon in Las Vegas, New Mexico when a former U.S. Army scout named Mike Gordon tried to persuade one of the saloon girls to leave her job and come away with him. When she refused, Gordon stormed outside and began firing into the building. Holliday followed him and killed him before he could get off a second shot. Holliday was placed on trial for the shooting but was acquitted, mostly based on the testimony of Webb.
Dodge City was not a frontier town for long; by 1879, it had become too respectable for the sort of people who had seen it through its early days. For many, it was time to move on to places not yet reached by the civilizing railroad - places where money was to be made. Holliday, by this time, was as well known for his prowess as a gunfighter as for his gambling, although the latter was his trade and the former simply a reputation. Through his friendship with Wyatt and the other Earp brothers, especially Morgan and Virgil, Holliday made his way to the silver-mining boom town of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, in September 1880. The Earps had been there since December 1879. Some accounts state that the Earps sent for Holliday when they realized the problems they faced in their feud with the Cowboy faction. In Tombstone, Holliday quickly became embroiled in the local politics and violence that led up to the famous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in October 1881.
The gunfight happened in front of, and next to, Fly's boarding house and picture studio, where Holliday had a room, the day after a late night of hard drinking and poker by Ike Clanton. The Clantons and McLaurys collected in the space between the boarding house and the house west of it, before being confronted by the Earps. Holliday likely thought they were there specifically to assassinate him.
It is known Holliday carried a coach gun from the local stage office into the fight; he was given the weapon just before the fight by Virgil Earp, as Holliday was wearing a long coat which could conceal it. Virgil Earp in turn took Holliday's walking stick: by not going conspicuously armed, Virgil was seeking to avoid panic in the citizenry of Tombstone, and in the Clantons and McLaurys.
An inquest and arraignment hearing determined the gunfight was not a criminal act on the part of Holliday and the Earps. The situation in Tombstone soon grew worse when Virgil Earp was ambushed and permanently injured in December 1881. Then Morgan Earp was ambushed and killed in March 1882. After Morgan's murder, Virgil Earp and many remaining members of the Earp families fled town. Holliday and Wyatt Earp stayed in Tombstone to exact retribution on Ike Clanton and the corrupt members known as the Cowboys. In Tucson, while Wyatt, Warren Earp, and Holliday were escorting the wounded Virgil Earp and his wife Allie on the first stage of their trip to California, they prevented another ambush, and this may have been the start of the vendetta against Morgan's killers.
After the famous Earp Vendetta Ride and the subsequent death of Johnny Ringo, Holliday spent the rest of his life in Colorado. After a stay in Leadville, he suffered from the high altitude. He increasingly depended on alcohol and laudanum to ease the symptoms of tuberculosis, and his health and his ability to gamble began to deteriorate.
In 1887, prematurely gray and badly ailing, Holliday made his way to the Hotel Glenwood, near the hot springs of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. (The Hotel Glenwood was not a sanatorium, as is popularly believed. The sanatorium in Glenwood Springs was not built for many years after Holliday's death. He hoped to take advantage of the reputed curative power of the waters, but the sulfurous fumes from the spring may have done his lungs more harm than good. As he lay dying, Holliday is reported to have asked the nurse attending him at the Hotel Glenwood for a shot of whiskey. When she told him no, he looked at his bootless feet, amused. The nurses said that his last words were, “Damn, this is funny.” Holliday died at 10 am, November 8th, 1887. He was 36. It was reported that no one ever thought that Holliday would die in bed with his boots off.
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