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Why Doc Holliday Left Georgia (Book Review)

Originally published on Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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Reviewed by Louis Hart
By Gene Carlisle
Carl Isle Publishing, Macon, Ga. 2004

Doc Holliday was once a dentist in the East and later became a gambler and gunfighter in the West, most notably standing side by side with three Earp brothers in deadly Tombstone. People know that, and they no doubt believe they have a handle on why Doc, born John Henry Holliday, abandoned his beloved Georgia for the Wild West: He had been diagnosed with tuberculosis and was told that the drier Western climate would prolong his life. But there's more to it than that, argues Gene Carlisle (which figures, considering the title of his book): "This [tuberculosis] may have played a part in Doc's relocation to Dallas, but as a solitary cause it comes up short. In the West, Doc never talked about why he left Georgia, which strongly indicates something concealed."

Something like murder. In his well-researched book, Carlisle makes a case, based on strong circumstantial evidence, that Doc is the main suspect in the September 1873 death of W.R. Venable, who had been the Jackson County (Ga.) adversary of Doc's uncle, Dr. John Stiles Holliday. Jackson County was also where a Ku Klux Klan "posse" had shot down Doc's Unionist cousin J.R. Holliday on June 16, 1873. Carlisle offers the possibility of deadly retaliation by Doc in the aftermath of the killing of J.R. At the very least, the author provides evidence that Doc and the other Atlanta Hollidays were not removed from the troubles of the Jackson County Hollidays. But even "murder" isn't the whole answer. "His relocation to Dallas had been previously arranged," notes Carlisle.

So if Doc didn't depart Georgia solely because he was a "lunger" or because of the Jackson County troubles and revenge murder (no conclusive proof, Carlisle admits), then what else was involved? Alas, Holliday's time in the South was not all fragrant magnolia blossoms and clean white teeth. The author contends that Doc's saloon addiction, which is known to have disrupted his dental practice in Dallas and other frontier posts, was already spiraling out of control while he was in Atlanta — from March 1872 through August 1873. "Definitely figuring into Doc's Georgia exit is an Atlanta dental career obliterated in whiskey-drenched, poker-addicted, Whitehall Street ruin," Carlisle writes. By contrast, in Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait, Karen Holliday Tanner writes about John Henry's growing reputation among Atlanta's dental community and how his bright future was disrupted by a disturbing diagnosis — pulmonary tuberculosis. Readers can decide for themselves the merits of Carlisle's arguments that John Henry Holliday was transformed into "Doc" Holliday in the saloons of Atlanta. In any case, this 197-page book provides all the Holliday fans out there with plenty of food — and drink — for thought.

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