Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait

Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait

by Karen Holliday Tanner


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John H. Holliday, D. D. S., better known as Doc Holliday, has become a legendary figure in the history of the American West. In Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait, Karen Holliday Tanner reveals the real man behind the legend. Shedding light on Holliday’s early years, in a prominent Georgia family during the Civil War and Reconstruction, she examines the elements that shaped his destiny: his birth defect, the death of his mother and estrangement from his father, and the diagnosis of tuberculosis, which led to his journey west. The influence of Holliday’s genteel upbringing never disappeared, but it was increasingly overshadowed by his emerging western personality. Holliday himself nurtured his image as a frontier gambler and gunman.

Using previously undisclosed family documents and reminiscences as well as other primary sources, Tanner documents the true story of Doc’s friendship with the Earp brothers and his run-ins with the law, including the climactic shootout at the O. K. Corral and its aftermath.

This first authoritative biography of Doc Holliday should appeal both to historians of the West and to general readers who are interested in his poignant story.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806133201
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 03/15/2001
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 252,917
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Karen Holliday Tanner is the author of Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait. She received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Wild West History Association.

Read an Excerpt

Doc Holliday

A Family Portrait

By Karen Holliday Tanner


Copyright © 1998 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-3320-1



In September 1873 John Henry Holliday, D.D.S., of Atlanta, Georgia, boarded the Western and Atlantic train. He was bound for Dallas, Texas, where, it was hoped, the dry climate would cure his consumption and eventually allow him to return. All the family members who had played an important role in his life were gathered at the depot to see him off, with the notable exception of the most important of all, his mother, who had died seven years earlier.

Young John Henry had endured much in his twenty-two years. His physical handicap caused by a birth defect had required years of therapy. Alice Holliday had assumed the role of therapist for her son, overseeing his rehabilitation while attempting to protect him from the cruelties of society. The family credited her with instilling in him his gentle qualities—his respect for women, love of animals, fine manners, and strong faith. In contrast, it was generally known that Maj. Henry Burroughs Holliday, John Henry's father, had taught his son the prerequisites of manhood—the ability to shoot, ride, fish, and hunt. While the major was away fighting for his ideals, for southern rights, and for the Confederacy, ten-year-old John Henry was left with the manly responsibilities of taking care of the home and animals and protecting his mother. During the war, John Henry and his mother never experienced personal confrontation, though they were surrounded by death and injury, disease, and crime, which caused an overwhelming sense of anger and bitterness throughout the South.

Alice's untimely death came the year after the end of the war. John Henry's devastating loss was magnified when his period of mourning was interrupted by the shameful remarriage of his father a mere three months after his mother's funeral. The farewell party at the depot did not include Rachel, Major Holliday's young wife, who was only eight years older than her stepson. The tension between father and son was evident to the entire family. Henry, after awkwardly embracing his son, must have realized that he might never again set eyes on his only son, who suffered from the same debilitating disease that had killed his first wife, Alice.

John Henry said good-bye to his cousin Robert, who was also his best friend. The two boys had shared a lot through the years. Robert had introduced John Henry to many of the young ladies of Atlanta. The two handsome young bachelors had been very much in demand on the social scene. Both had matured a great deal after having been forced to endure the horrors of war, and they planned to share a dental practice when Robert completed dental school and John Henry recovered and returned home.

Robert's parents, John and Permelia Holliday, were also among the well-wishers. They had assumed the role of surrogate parents for their nephew when the major married Rachel. John Henry had spent a year and a half as part of his uncle and aunt's household when he came to Atlanta to begin his career in dentistry. Aunt Permelia had made sure that he met everyone who mattered in the local society. Uncle John was equally generous to his brother's only son. He presented him with a gold and diamond stickpin as a going-away present. The diamond was from Dr. Holliday's private collection. In the years to come, this stickpin served as John Henry's link to his aristocratic past and the home he would never see again.

Also at the depot was Sophie Walton, who had come to the Holliday family eight years ago, a frightened little black girl with nowhere to go. The former slave became the family mainstay—servant, seamstress, nanny, source of strength, and, as John Henry knew, an expert at manipulating cards.

John Henry waved his last good-byes. He was wearing his new diamond stickpin as he boarded the train. Perhaps at that moment some of the family's thoughts drifted back to the day of his birth in August 1851. They could not have realized that John Henry Holliday, D.D.S., age twenty-two, would soon become a legend.


Birth of a New Holliday

It was hot and humid in the middle of August 1851 when Alice Jane Holliday asked her husband, Henry, to go fetch his brother, Fayetteville physician John Stiles Holliday, M.D. Alice knew that her new baby would be arriving within a day and, like most women, probably had little faith in the local midwives because of the high infant mortality rate of the times. Only fourteen months before, Henry and his wife had lost their first child, Martha Eleanora, in infancy (she was born on December 3, 1849, and died on June 12, 1850), possibly due to diphtheria, which was appearing in epidemic proportions in many areas of the South.

Alice's brother-in-law, Dr. John S. Holliday, had graduated from the highly regarded Georgia Medical College only seven years previously and was already considered one of the finest surgeons in the area. Even so, he had not able to save the life of his little niece. Yet Henry and Alice were both confident in his abilities and felt it was important to have the best professional assistance in the delivery of this coming child. Their home on Tinsley Street in Griffin, Georgia, was about twenty miles from Fayetteville, where the doctor resided.

Dr. Holliday would also bring his wife, Permelia. Alice and Permelia were not only sisters-in-law but, in spite of their widely differing personalities, close friends as well. Permelia would be a welcome sight. She was nice looking and fun-loving, but also an intelligent and capable woman. It was said that she took after the women of her prominent family, the Wares of Georgia, who were warm-hearted, generous, outgoing, and impulsive, Episcopalian by birth and rearing. The staid Presbyterians of Fayetteville said that Permelia, who dressed well and enjoyed the pleasures of life, was worldly and outspoken. Today's society would definitely consider her a progressive, modern woman who was born ahead of her time. Alice, in contrast to her sister-in-law, was a benevolent, soft-spoken woman with an artistic bent whose main interest was tending to her home and her husband. She gave much of her time and effort to the First Presbyterian Church of Griffin.

Perhaps the two women hoped that Alice's new baby would be a boy so that he could be a playmate for John and Permelia's year-old son Robert Alexander, who had been named after his grandfather, Robert Holliday. The four-year age difference between Robert and his older brother, George, prevented them from being good playmates. Alice's new baby, if a boy, was to have been named Henry Burroughs Holliday, Jr., but the events of the next twenty-four hours would result in his being named John Henry Holliday.

The entire family was waiting to celebrate this birth as they did all births in the family. The baptism would be followed by a joyous gathering with family and friends and lots of food and drink. The branches of the Holliday family were closely knit, and they spent much time together. The men had family business partnerships and invested in real estate together. The deeds in Fayette and surrounding counties verify the Hollidays' proclivity for joint buying and selling of property. The family played an integral part in their social lives. Fortunately, most of their homes were large, so they had plenty of room to gather for holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, and births.

Alice and Henry Holiday's unborn child would become a part of this large family, whose members were not only socially prominent and politically influential, but successful in their chosen professions. Henry, who had been inclined to the military, had developed quite a disciplined personality. Alice's gentleness proved to have a softening effect on his somewhat rigid outlook. Following his marriage, Henry decided to adopt his father's approach to success. He began to invest in commercial real estate, purchasing three lots in West Griffin, and joined the professional ranks, becoming a druggist. Henry was therefore able to be near his wife as they awaited this birth, rather than being posted to some distant military installation.

Also anxiously awaiting the news were Alice's parents, William and Jane McKey. Since the death of little Martha the year before, this would be their only grandchild. Alice remained close to her family after her marriage. While the McKeys' farm was off the Old McDonough Road on the Towaliga River nine miles northeast of Griffin, their other residence in town was much nearer to Alice and Henry's home.

On August 14, 1851, Dr. Holliday, accompanied by his brother and Permelia, arrived in time to deliver Alice and Henry's new baby, a son. It was immediately evident that his new nephew had a serious birth defect: a cleft palate and partially cleft lip (commonly called a harelip), a trait that was to recur several times in future Holliday generations. This made it impossible for the baby to perform the normal sucking action. Dr. Holliday cleared the air passages and later taught Alice the proper way to feed her new son with the aid of an eyedropper and a small teaspoon. If not fed properly and carefully, the newborn could quickly choke to death. Pneumonia was another hazard for cleft-palate infants due to possible introduction of fluids into the lungs during ingestion. When the baby gained some weight he would be able to drink from a shot glass. (It is ironic that John Henry started off his life sustained by a shot glass since excessive use of a shot glass may have hastened his death many years later.) Dr. Holliday was also able to reassure his brother and sister-in-law that surgery could be performed to correct the malformation when their son was approximately a month old. Though the surgery still would not enable the baby to suckle, it would ensure that he would be able to eat and breathe normally as he grew older. The child would have minimal obvious scarring because the lip was involved only to a minor extent.

Henry prevailed upon his brother to promise to do the surgery himself as soon as was prudent. At this time, Henry and Alice had no trouble deciding that their new son should be named after his Uncle John, who had saved their newborn's life. The infant was named John Henry Holliday, namesake of both his uncle and his father.

In the weeks to come, Alice was diligent in the care of young John Henry. With the use of the implements recommended by her brother-in-law, she was able to provide the infant with the nourishment that enabled him to thrive. Feeding him took approximately an hour and a half. The effort required would tire the newborn, who would fall asleep before the feeding ended. Because of this, he was not receiving an adequate amount to eat at any one time. He would cry out with hunger within an hour or two of having been fed. Alice must have been consumed with exhaustion. It required patience to get up and repeat the feeding routine with the shotglass and eyedropper. Weariness did not prevent her from spending all the time necessary to ensure that her son gained enough strength for his operation. An intense bonding began between mother and child because of all this special care. The two were never apart. Alice's determination must have rubbed off on little John Henry as they overcame the odds together and he slowly gained weight and strength.

When Dr. Holliday returned to Fayetteville, he informed the family of the arrival of John Henry. Robert and Rebecca Holliday must have been especially pleased to hear that they had another grandson. The birth of a Holliday grandchild was a rare occurrence. Because they had lost five of their eleven children, they must have feared that a similar tragedy could occur at the home of their oldest son.

While the rest of the family celebrated the arrival of little John Henry, Dr. Holliday sought advice concerning the future surgery on his nephew's cleft palate. Permelia contacted her father's cousin, Dr. Crawford Williamson Long, who was then living in Atlanta. He was a graduate of Franklin College (now the University of Georgia) and had received his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1839. In 1842 Dr. Long was the first physician to use ether as an anesthetic, in the removal of two small tumors from the neck of a young student, James M. Venable, in Franklin, Georgia. Dr. Holliday, along with other physicians of the area, had great respect for Dr. Long's knowledge of how and when to administer ether for various types of surgeries and childbirths. The two surgeons consulted, and Dr. Long accompanied Dr. Holliday to Griffin to examine John Henry. Following the examination, the two doctors agreed to combine their skills when the time came to operate on the infant.

When John Henry was eight weeks old and had gained enough weight and strength, Dr. Holliday and Dr. Long operated on his mouth and lip. Permelia was present to provide moral support. There is no doubt that the members of the Ladies Guild of the First Presbyterian Church of Griffin provided spiritual support. After several hours of surgery, Drs. Holliday and Long completed the successful operation. Often two operations were needed on cleft palates, but in this case one was sufficient. John Henry came through the surgery splendidly and was left with a lip that would heal to reveal only slight scarring. He also had a misshapen palate that, with proper therapy, would cause only a minor speech impediment. This speech defect would become negligible with diligent exercises a few years later. Fortunately, his Georgia drawl helped to camouflage the imperfect speech in years to come.

John Henry was a healthy, beautiful baby with blue eyes and wavy blond hair. With considerable thankfulness, the Holliday, McKey, and Ware families gathered at the First Presbyterian Church in Griffin to celebrate his belated christening on Sunday, March 21, 1852. This was the same church in which his mother had been baptized only one and one-half years earlier, on September 1, 1850. Though born into a Methodist family, Alice had never joined a church prior to 1850. At the age of twenty-three, ostensibly to please her husband, she became a Presbyterian.

Six weeks prior to John Henry's baptism, his father was commissioned as the first clerk of the Superior Court for Spalding County on February 5, 1852. Spalding County had been created three months earlier, in December 1851. The area formerly had been part of Fayette, Henry, and Pike Counties. Though this new position made considerable demands on Henry Holliday's time, it was politically, financially, and socially very gratifying. The family had everything needed to be happy. Alice remained very devoted to her husband and little son. The baby still required much of her attention, but it was worthwhile as she saw him improve. His crooked little smile was delightful. He was a sweet child who must have been adored by all who saw him.

Alice and Permelia spent as much time as they could together, and their sons became very close. The lively, impish Robert was a good change of pace for quiet little John Henry, who was very sheltered by his mother. The children spent most of their time playing outdoors. Frequently their mothers would make a picnic lunch and take them to nearby Cabin Creek in Griffin, where they would eat in the shade of the large trees. The boys would run around in the sunshine and play with the dogs while their mothers chatted and did their needlework. Though the children were very active, both women demanded good behavior and proper manners.

In 1852 the sisters-in-law hired a photographer to preserve the likenesses of the two little cousins, who could pass for twins if it were not for their age difference. Robert was two years old and John Henry one year old at the time of the picture. They looked more like brothers than did Robert and his own brother, George. Their features were remarkably similar. Both had blue eyes and were developing the high cheekbones and broad chins typical of the Holliday men. The main difference was Robert's hair, which was a darker blond than John Henry's. After the daguerreotype was developed, the image was encased in an eighteen-karat gold pendant and was presented to the boys' grandmother, Rebecca Burroughs Holiday, on the occasion of her fifty-second birthday, on November 11, 1852. Rebecca proudly wore this pendant on a black velvet ribbon until her death two years later.


Excerpted from Doc Holliday by Karen Holliday Tanner. Copyright © 1998 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
List of Maps,
List of Charts,
Foreword, by Robert K. DeArment,
1. Farewell,
2. Birth of a New Holliday,
3. Early Childhood,
4. The War Years,
5. Reconstruction,
6. Atlanta Dentist,
7. Gone to Texas,
8. From Denver to Dodge,
9. Following the Circuit,
10. Arrival in the Arizona Territory,
11. Gunfight in Tombstone,
12. Refuge in Colorado,
13. The Final Years,
Appendix: John Henry Holliday's Genealogy,

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