John Henry “Doc” Holliday has emerged as more than just a sidekick to Wyatt Earp, thanks to the 1990s movies Tombstone and Wyatt Earp and a string of Earp-Holliday-Tombstone books that followed. But, while the dentist-turned gambler has stepped out of the shadows of his Earp pals and other gunfighters, he remains an enigma. Gary Roberts’ 2006 biography Doc Holliday: The Life and Leg end (John Wiley & Sons, New York, $30) does a good job of explaining what Doc did or didn’t do in Arizona Territory and elsewhere, as well as to filter through the many perplexing contradictions.
Roberts, professor emeritus of history at Abraham Baldwin College in Tifton, Ga., and author of at least 75 articles on West ern history for Wild West and other publications, has long been fascinated by the Georgia-born Holliday. In a recent interview, Roberts talked about his latest book.
Wild West: Tell us a little about your interest in Doc Holliday.
Roberts: I grew up in Georgia, a little more than 40 miles from Valdosta, Doc Holliday’s home. I became interested in the Old West as a kid, and in high school I started writing historical societies and well-known Western historians and writers for information. I sold my first articles, one on Wyatt Earp, the other on Doc Holliday, when I was a senior in high school, and I’ve continued to write ever since, mostly about the West’s gunmen and the Indian wars. I received my Ph.D. in history from the University of Oklahoma, and I taught American history for 33 years before retiring to devote full time to research and writing. My special interest has always been frontier violence. In 1992 I published a book called Death Comes for the Chief Justice: The Slough-Rynerson Quarrel and Political Violence in New Mexico, in which I explored some of my ideas about the causes and nature of violence in the West.
WW: Why was there a need for another Holliday book?
Roberts: First, no truly comprehensive biography of Doc Holliday has been written since John Myers Myers’ Doc Holliday, published in 1955. His was the only book that attempted to place Holliday in a broad context. Other works published since then have focused more on details of life or special points of view. Unfortunately, Myers’ book is hopelessly dated and relies too heavily on Stuart N. Lake’s Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, which has been seriously discredited by later research. Each of the subsequent biographical efforts added important details in light of additional research, and they all contributed in one way or another to my effort. I do have new information in the book—about his youth, about his time in Texas, New Mexico and Colorado, and about the growth of the legend—but the more important contribution may be the context this new book provides by absorbing and synthesizing the research of a host of others.
WW: Are there other areas of Doc’s life that require further research?
Roberts: Several. The Texas years are especially frustrating. Many of the county and town records for the places Doc stayed have disappeared or been destroyed, and newspaper coverage for some of the towns he visited is limited at best. Besides that, he was not famous during that period, so there was no real reason for him to be singled out or identified. I also still have questions about his reasons for leaving Georgia (as detailed in the book). In fact, I’d say that all of the pre-Tombstone years could profit from more research, although I’m not sure how much more material is out there since he didn’t have a “frontier-wide reputation.”
WW: Is Doc’s reputation deserved?
Roberts: Deserved is an interesting word. If you mean, was he significant historically, probably not. He is a compelling example of the legend-making process, however, and I have tried in the book to show how the legend emerged and why. Doc appeals to something deep and visceral in the human psyche which explains why he remains so fascinating to people—I would argue more so than Wyatt Earp, who was the more important figure historically. I’ve always been fascinated by the mythical gunfighter and what the gunfighter mystique reveals about the rest of us and what we need. Doc helps us understand that process—and ourselves.
WW: Have Hollywood portrayals distorted the true Doc?
Roberts: Of course. But distortion of the true Doc began a long time before Hollywood discovered him. As a result of the Tombstone experience and the notoriety that resulted from his arrest in Denver afterward, Doc literally became a “legend in his own time.” This obscured the real Doc during his last years, even to the point of affecting the way he lived and how others viewed him while he was still alive. Occasionally, the movies will give you a glimpse of the real Doc, but I would not go there to understand who he was or why.
WW: You certainly have a large amount of data on Doc’s adolescence.
Roberts: I believe that growing up during the prelude to the Civil War, the war itself, and Reconstruction marked him and shaped his character long before he went West. Contracting tuberculosis certainly affected him, but I think he was also affected by other events in his youth. One of the things I tried to do in the book was to trace the events that shaped his character. In doing this, I was the beneficiary of a lot of research by family members and others who graciously shared the fruits of their own labors about Doc, his family, his time and place, and influences. I was able to consider options that family members might be reluctant to explore for understandable reasons, but importantly I tried to use this considerable body of source material to present a plausible explanation of how his life evolved and why.
WW: You question whether Doc’s decision to leave Georgia and go West was simply because of a diagnosis of tuberculosis (consumption). Did his relationship with his cousin Martha Anne (“Mattie”) Holliday influence his decision?
Roberts: This is one of those tough questions that needs more research but may never be answered. There’s no doubt that there was a special relationship between the two of them. Whether it was a romantic one or not is still an open question. Some family members emphatically deny it; others think something was there. The true nature of the relationship is obscured not only by Doc’s unsavory reputation but also by Mattie’s saintly reputation. I suspect that as a youth, Doc was infatuated by her. Marriages between first cousins were not that uncommon in their time and place (in fact, it was sometimes encouraged), but Mattie’s Catholic faith (which forbade such unions) was an insurmountable obstacle. If Doc was “in love” with her that could well have been a contributing factor to his decision to go West. One explanation for the long-term, close relationship between the two of them, consistent with the reputations of both, is that Mattie kept up the correspondence with Doc because she felt that he needed her as a stabilizing and positive influence in his life. That’s not the only view, of course, but it is plausible.
WW: Could you explain, based on your research, whether Doc had a death wish, or was his quick-draw temperament the result of another part of his psyche?
Roberts: I think the notion of a death wish has been greatly overplayed, although it is true that some of those associated with him—John Clum, for example—credited him with saying that death would be welcome. It is one thing not to fear death, quite another to actively seek it. What is interesting is that in his later years in Colorado, as the real possibility of death became more real, there is evidence of his clinging tenaciously to life. This is especially evident during his troubles with Billy Allen in Leadville, Colo. I’d add that, as I argue in the book, there was a streak of anger in Doc that ran very deep (and back into his childhood). Under pressure, especially when intoxicated, this anger flared; what surprises me most, though, is the extent to which he controlled it.
WW: Doc also had a habit of not sticking around when he was guilty of legal offense or had simply been accused of something, right or wrong. Please explain.
Roberts: He was a drifter who followed the boomtown circuit. Once he moved into the gambler’s life, he traveled to the places with the greatest opportunity. He did appear to make an attempt or two to settle down, most notably in Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory, but he was not unlike many other gamblers who followed the circuit. And, he didn’t always run away from trouble. In Dallas, he settled his legal problems. He went back to Las Vegas after leaving to settle some matters and tie up loose ends. He did not leave Leadville after the Billy Allen trouble as some have reported.
WW: Why has Doc been vilified?
Roberts: It is the easiest explanation of his role and character. Let’s face it, as John Clum said, Doc “was not a constructive citizen.” He is an easy target for a lot of reasons. At times, even Wyatt had trouble defending him. I’m not trying to whitewash him, but I would say that the faint praise of his friends did as much to maintain his image as a bad man as the vilifications of his enemies. Doc walked a thin line that made him vulnerable to attack, although he was accused of many things he never did. Besides, people like the imagery of the “good bad man.”
WW: How important was the October 26, 1881, O.K. Corral shootout to Doc’s future in Tombstone and with the Earps?
Roberts: It may well have been the defining moment of his life. That event and its aftermath gave him the first real sense of purpose he had known since his plans for a career as a dentist died with the news of consumption, and it made him the notorious figure that became the legend.
WW: Doc viewed Colorado after the 1882 Frank Stilwell shooting as his home. Did he ever try to get back to Georgia?
Roberts: No evidence beyond a newspaper account or two suggests that he ever seriously thought of returning to Georgia. There are family accounts that Doc met his father in New Orleans in 1885 and that his father asked him to return to Georgia. Even by those accounts, Doc refused.
WW: What other projects do you have in the works?
Roberts: My next major project is the completion of a book on the Sand Creek Massacre, which occurred in Colorado in 1864. This has been an interest of mine for a very long time. I’ve always had interests in the Kansas cattle towns, Wyatt Earp’s life before Tombstone, the Cowboy troubles along the Mexican border, and the evolution of what might be called “gunfighter history.” There are lots of options. We’ll see.
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.