Doc’s notoriety cemented in state

A famous photo of Doc Holliday, from a postcard labelled “Doc Holliday in the Early 1880s.” There is some dispute whether this really is Holliday, but it is generally believed it is from a studio photograph he had taken while in Tombstone, Arizona. Public domain photo.

Photo of John Henry “Doc” Holliday taken in Prescott, Arizona., in 1879. Public domain photo.

Editor’s note: This is the second of two columns on Doc Holliday.

The Old West stories of lawless boomtowns were sometimes overblown. But not for Tombstone, Arizona.

One Tombstone resident put it this way in March 1882: “Fourteen murders and assassinations in 10 days. A regular epidemic of murders is upon us.”

Before that “epidemic of murders,” John Henry “Doc” Holliday and the Earp brothers became famous in a gunfight near Tombstone’s OK Corral.

But Holliday would become even more notorious when he was arrested in Denver in 1882 and Arizona authorities tried to extradite him.

Tombstone in the 1880s was a hotbed of factions, shifting alliances, illegal activities and violence.

Cochise County officials battled Tombstone’s town leaders. Cattle rustlers known as the Cow-Boys despised most law enforcement, while businessmen sought some degree of law and order. Gambling halls and two newspapers allied themselves with opposing sides. Robberies, shootings and assaults were common.

Doc Holliday arrived at this cauldron in September 1880, at the urging of Wyatt Earp.

Doc and his sometime girlfriend, Kate Elder, had spent the previous year in Prescott, Arizona. But Kate was no fan of the Earp brothers. She refused to accompany Doc to Tombstone.

Doc came to gamble, not practice dentistry. He dealt faro at the Alhambra gambling hall, but frequently visited other halls.

By the time Doc arrived, Wyatt Earp was a deputy county sheriff. His brother, Virgil, was a deputy town and U.S. marshal, and Morgan was a guard for Wells Fargo.

Although their police skills were applauded, the Earps also made enemies, most notably, Wyatt, and his boss, Sheriff John Behan.

Doc made his own powerful adversary when he got in a barroom dispute with Cochise County Supervisor Mike Joyce, a Behan ally.

In March 1881, a stagecoach was robbed outside of Tombstone, and the driver killed. Rumors — perhaps started by Joyce — quickly spread that Doc had been one of the bandits.

Behan arrested Doc for the murder of the stage driver on July 5. Four days later, the district attorney had all charges dismissed, saying there was not even “a suspicion of the guilt of the defendant.”

But many in Tombstone remained suspicious of Doc.

Summer and fall of 1881 transpired with typical Tombstone rowdiness, and events occurred that led the Clantons and McLaurys — two ranch families associated with the Cow-Boys — to despise Wyatt Earp and his allies.

That enmity came to a head on Oct. 26, 1881, the day after Ike Clanton and Doc had a heated dispute in the Alhambra.

The next morning, Clanton told people all over town he was gunning for Doc and the Earps. His brother, Billy, arrived in town, as did Tom and Frank McLaury.

Marshal Virgil Earp decided to uphold town rules and disarm the Clanton-McLaury faction, accompanied by his brothers and Doc.

Exactly what occurred near the OK Corral that day — who shot first and who killed whom — remains in question. Billy Clanton, Frank and Tom McLaury were all killed. Tom likely died from a shotgun blast fired by Doc. Virgil and Morgan Earp were both injured.

Later, Ike Clanton and a brother of the McLaurys claimed the group had been ambushed and the three victims murdered.

On Oct. 29, warrants were issued for the arrest of the Earps and Doc Holliday, and an inquest was held over several weeks.

On Nov. 30, all charges were dismissed with a judicial ruling of justifiable homicide.

But that wasn’t the end. In the next few months, Virgil Earp was ambushed and seriously injured. Then Morgan Earp was killed by a shotgun blast fired into the saloon where he was playing pool.

Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and others embarked on a revenge journey, during which they killed the Cow-Boy believed to have assassinated Morgan, as well as several of his allies.

Even some of their supporters believed the Earps and Doc had crossed the line from legal to criminal. It was time to leave Arizona.

They headed first to New Mexico, then to Trinidad, Colorado, where they split up. Doc moved briefly to Pueblo, then went to Denver, with then-Trinidad Marshal Bat Masterson.

There, a conman name Perry Mallon, later revealed to be hired by Sheriff Behan, made a citizen’s arrest of Doc Holliday.

Newspapers there and around the country vilified Doc. For a time, he was more famous than the Earps, and he was viewed as the instigator of the Arizona shootings.

One paper said that compared to Doc, “Billy the Kid, or any of the many other Western desperados … fade into insignificance.”

But others argued that Doc and the Earps just enforced the law in Arizona. Support for Doc began to grow, and many believed he would be murdered if he was returned to Arizona.

Bat Masterson helped organize Doc’s legal defense. On May 30, 1882, Colorado Gov. Frederick Pitkin denied Arizona’s extradition request.

Doc was free, and he soon moved to Leadville, which offered plenty of action for a gambler.

In 1884 in Leadville, he shot and wounded a man who had threatened to kill him. He was arrested, but was again acquitted on self-defense.

The high altitude and cold didn’t help Doc’s tuberculosis. He had thrived in the warm, dry climate of Tombstone. But nearly four years in Leadville took their toll.

Doc moved to Glenwood Springs in May 1887, hoping the hot springs would boost his health.

The springs provided little relief, however, and his job as a faro dealer and bartender probably exacerbated his disease. In September, he became bed-ridden, and he lapsed into a coma a few weeks later.

When Doc Holliday died on Nov. 8, 1887, friends and acquaintances took up a collection for his funeral. He was buried in the city’s Linwood Cemetery.


Information for this column came from “Doc Holliday: the Life and Legend,” by Gary L. Roberts; “Roll Call: the Violent and Lawless,” by Lena M. Urquhart; and the Frontier Historical Museum in Glenwood Springs.

Bob Silbernagel’s email is .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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