Doc Holliday: The Man and the Legend
As a child growing up in rural Griffin, Georgia, several events occurred that greatly influenced
my life. As an infant, so I'm told, I was baptized in the First Presbyterian Church of Griffin.
Years later, I discovered that the poet Sidney Lanier, and the legendary folk hero Doc
Holliday, were also baptized and attended church there.
During my teenage years, my fascination with gunfighters greatly outweighed any interest I had
in poetry. I was obsessed with Doc Holliday, our hometown western hero. However, the
movie Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, as well as other western movies, raised questions in my
mind. Were the stories of Doc Holliday's life true? What really happened? Not until I was
grown did I have the resources and patience to learn the truth about this Southern gentleman.
In time, my research resulted in a greater understanding of the man, the myth, and the legend.
John Henry Holliday, later known as Doc, was born in Griffin on August 14, 1851. His
parents, Henry Burroughs Holliday and Alice Jane McKey, were from South Carolina. They
provided a good education for their son, but his primary interest was the great outdoors.
Nothing interested young John Henry more than hunting, fishing, and horseback riding.
In 1861, Henry Burroughs Holliday accepted a presidential appointment from Jefferson Davis
to serve as a Quartermaster in the 27th Ga. Infantry, Confederate States of America. After the
Battle of Manassas, he was promoted to the rank of major and fought in the Peninsula
Campaign as well as the Battle of Malvern Hill. In 1862, a short time after fighting at Malvern
Hill, he was forced by poor health to leave the army and return to his family in Griffin.
As the war came closer to home, the Holliday family moved south to Loundes County,
Georgia, where they settled on a 2,450 acre farm seven miles north west of Valdosta. Henry
Burroughs Holliday was hoping to find a safe haven for his wife and child. Unfortunately, this
would not happen. Generals James McPherson, John Logan, and William T. Sherman had
made their way to Atlanta, burning and killing everything in sight.
By 1864, Sherman and Logan had proved successful in devastating all of Georgia.
Southerners reeled under the impact. Plantations, farms and homes were torched and
destroyed. Wells were poisoned. Personal property and stores were pillaged. Clearly, the
South would never be the same. And the world of young John Henry Holliday was forever
On the heels of the war, John Henry graduated from the Pennsylvania College of Dental
Surgery. He returned to Georgia and lived with an uncle, Dr. John Stiles Holliday. Also
staying at Dr. Holliday's house was a black slave named Sophie Walton. Sophie had relocated
at the Holliday home after her master's plantation had been torched and burned. Sophie was
not the typical servant who reigned over the kitchen and household chores. She had other
interests, primarily playing cards. With a deck of cards in her hands, she performed wizardry.
John Henry was fascinated with Sophie's talent at cards and under her guidance, he became
addicted to the games. One of the tricks Sophie taught her apprentice was the art of "skinning."
She also taught him every other card trick she knew. The hours spent playing cards with
Sophie would soon have a great impact on his future.
At the age of twenty-one, John Henry had the unfortunate draw of contracting tuberculosis and
was given a year to live. His doctor prescribed a dry climate and suggested that he move west.
Following his doctor's advice, he moved to Texas and established a dental practice in Dallas.
Friends and patients began calling him Doc Holliday. Dutifully, he practiced dentistry by day.
But, at night, he found something much more exciting. He gravitated toward the local saloons.
This honed his appetite not only for drinking, but for card playing as well. Putting Sophie
Walton's card tricks into practice, especially the art of skinning, Doc soon gained the reputation
as a sporting man. The labels gunslinger and killer would soon follow.
The ill-fated dentist seemed to have thrown his life to the wind, not caring about the
consequences of tomorrow. With a medical death sentence hanging over his head, Doc figured
he had nothing to lose. Abandoning the dental practice, he left for Fort Griffin, Texas. Later, his
trail would lead to Jacksboro, Denver, Cheyenne, Deadwood, Dodge City, Las Vegas,
Tombstone, Leadville, and other hell-roaring boomtowns. While gun fighting and gambling
across the American West, he made friends with other characters who would in time become
One such person was the famous gunman Wyatt Earp. The two met early on the trail at Fort
Griffin. Having a great deal in common, they quickly became friends. The friendship escalated
when Doc saved Wyatt's life from a band of desperadoes in Dodge City, Kansas.
Another individual who became entangled in the life of Doc Holliday was a woman named
Kate Harony, aka Kate Elder. Some called her "Big Nose" Kate. When it came to Doc
Holliday, she claimed to be the only woman he remained close to for the rest of his life. Kate
also claimed that she and Doc traveled everywhere together. Most likely, this was true with
one exception, when they had a brief parting of the ways in Tombstone, Arizona.
One of the most famous gun battles of all time, the gunfight at the OK Corral, took place in
Tombstone on October 26, 1881. Wyatt, Virgil, and Morgan Earp, along with Doc attempted
to disarm a cowboy group consisting of Billy Clairburn, Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury, Ike
Clanton, and Frank McLaury. Three of the cowboys were killed and Virgil Earp was
wounded. The fight lasted only 30 seconds. At the time, the key players had no idea that they
had just been involved in the most famous gunfight in the history of the Wild, Wild West! After
the fight, a bystander, R. F. Coleman, commented, "Doc Holliday was as calm as if at target
practice and fired rapidly." Apparently, however, this was not the case. Doc returned to his
hotel room where Kate was waiting for him. She later recalled, "After the fight was over, Doc
came in, and sat on the side of the bed and cried and said, "Oh, this is just awful-awful."
The story of The Gunfight at the OK Corral, eventually became a moviemaker's dream. Many
say that Doc Holliday left Georgia and rode off into those make-believe Hollywood movies
that made him a legend. In the movies, he appeared a fearless gunman and killer. But, in
reality he was a very sick man whose only fear was his degenerating physical condition due to
the tuberculosis. Sadly, Doc's only consolation was gambling and the companionship of Kate.
In his heart, he secretly longed for Georgia and the family and friends he had left behind.
The legend of Doc Holliday and his gunfights provided Hollywood with movies that could only
be described as Western thrillers. However, using Hollywood's artistic license, scriptwriters
often portrayed Doc Holliday's life incorrectly. They had Doc killing men he never knew and in
places he had never been, and some men he is credited with killing were slain by other
gunfighters, and some were not killed at all.
In May of 1887, Doc's trail led him to Glenwood Springs, Colorado, and a town famous for
mineral baths. He hoped the baths would help to curb the symptoms of the tuberculosis.
Instead, he grew progressively worse. On November 8, 1887, he awoke, asked for a glass of
whiskey, drank it, and said "this is funny" and died. At the age of thirty-six, Doc played his one
last hand and lost.
Doc Holliday's life contradicts the myth of the man. He was not a sorrowful man, nor was his
life a sad one. Doc once said, "When any of you fellows have been hunted from one end of the
country to the other, as I have been, you'll understand what a bad man's reputation is built on."
Inaccurate reports followed Doc after his death. His obituary was printed in a variety of
newspapers, but none of them agreed on the facts. The local newspaper stated that Doc was
buried in Linwood Cemetery, Colorado Springs, Colorado, at 4:00 p.m. November 8, 1887.
However, the steep trail that led to the cemetery, which sits on a hill, was impassable because
of bad weather. In truth, Doc was buried in a temporary grave at the foot of the hill. The paper
also stated that many friends attended his funeral. Since he was buried the same day that he
died, this, too, is doubtful.
Today, Linwood Cemetery, overlooking Glenwood Springs, contains a headstone and a
monument to the memory of one Doc Holiday. Supposedly, he was buried there. But,
historians agree that he was not. Both the monument and headstone are filled with mistakes.
Tombstone historian Ben Traywick, states it best: "It is difficult to see how many mistakes
could be made on a headstone without trying."
Historical writings state that Doc Holliday died on November 8th, 1887, and was buried in the
Linwood Cemetery in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The records in Glenwood Springs do not
indicate where Doc is buried in the cemetery. In fact, some historians doubt that he is buried
there at all. As a member of the Doc Holliday Society, I have research that indicates Doc may
be buried in his hometown of Griffin, Georgia.
Bill Dunn of Griffin can tell you exactly where he thinks the remains of that legend are located.
Dunn, who is the head of the Doc Holliday Society and a distant relative of Holliday's, has
been engaged in extensive research on the Holliday family for the past 17 years. Bill states, "
There is no doubt in my mind why the people in Glenwood Springs don't know exactly where
Doc is buried, as he isn't there. I believe Doc is buried right here in his hometown of Griffin.
Doc was originally buried in Linwood Cemetery, but he is not there now. You just don't lose
the grave of a man who held his celebrity status."
Some researchers believe that Doc's father, Major Henry Holliday, C.S.A., went to Glenwood
Springs and claimed his son's remains. Anyone who says that Major Holliday didn't have
motive to return his remains back to his place of birth discounts the strength of a Southern
heritage. Money was not an issue. Major Holliday was a very wealthy man. Transportation of
the coffin would probably have been done by rail, as the train depot in Griffin was within a mile
of the cemetery.
Dunn thinks that if the Major did not retrieve Doc's remains himself, he had his nephew, Robert
Alexander Holliday, go for him. In fact, Doc's girlfriend, Kate Elder, recalled that one of Doc's
cousins visited him in Tombstone after the shootout at the OK Corral. Dunn believes that this
man was cousin Robert. After Doc's death, it seems reasonable that Robert would have
traveled out to retrieve the body, provided the Major had asked the favor.
Strangely coincidental, or maybe not, the grave of Major Holliday is also missing. Considering
that the Major was a wealthy landowner, hero of three wars, and mayor of Valdosta, Georgia,
that fact seems unlikely. Major Holliday outlived his son, but not the legend. He died on
February 22, 1893, in Valdosta, but his grave has never been located. Dunn has found the
grave of every Holliday except for the Major and Doc. Dunn now believes without a doubt that
he has found the unmarked graves of both in Griffin's Oak Hill Cemetery.
The two unmarked graves that Dunn has found are located in the Thomas plot. The families
were very close and the Thomas family may have agreed to an anonymous burial of Doc in
their family plot to avoid vandalism of his grave. "I believe they buried Doc in Oak Hill when he
was brought back from Glenwood Springs and Major Holliday was buried there when he
died,"Dunn said. "Why would a plot containing expensive marble markers of the Thomas family
contain two concrete slab graves with no marking? Could it be they wanted them to remain
Osgood Miller, an employee of Clark Monument Company for forty-six years, supports
Dunn's claim. He remembers the late Charlie McElroy, who was the cemetery superintendent
during the 1930s, telling him that Doc Holliday was buried in Oak Hill. Charlie had pointed in
the direction of the Thomas plot. Several years later the late Griffin historian Laura Clark
pointed out the same area as Doc's final resting place.
In 1906, The Washington Post stated, "Doc Holliday was a native of Georgia and take him all
in all, he was possessed of the most daredevil and reckless bravery of any of his associates."
After all these years, does Doc's ghost walk the streets of Griffin at night? Not likely, but if you
visit Oak Hill Cemetery on a moon-lit night you may encounter, as Wyatt Earp once said, "Doc
was the nerviest, fastest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever saw." As Doc once said, "You
may be a daisy if you do!"
Edward Jordan Lanham, (c) copyright 2000
Interpretive illustrations by R. David Boyd, (c) copyright 2000
A special thanks to my father, the late Edward J. Lanham Sr., who with his love of the Wild
West and his knowledge of the Griffin, Georgia connection to Doc, Doc's family, and the
Presbyterian Church that we all attended, made me fascinated with our national treasure...the
Edward J. Lanham, Sr.
1st Presbyterian Church, Griffin, GA.
Doc Holliday, by Karen Holliday Tanner
The Illustrated Life and Times of Doc Holliday, by Bob Booze Bell
John Henry, by Ben T. Traywick
Is this Doc Holliday's Grave
in Glenwood Springs,
|Or is this the grave of John
Henry "Doc" Holliday and his
father Maj. (CSA) Henry
Burroughs Holliday in the Oak
Hill Cemetery, Griffin,
|Doc Holliday, mid 30's
by David Boyd (c)