Doc Holliday: A Gunfight Waiting to Happen, Part 1
Tuesday, 2 April 2013
By Johnny Hughes
John H “Doc” Holliday (1851-1887) was a skilled professional gambler, making his living playing poker and dealing and banking faro in boomtowns across the Old West. He was also one of the best poker players.
Born in Griffin, Georgia, to an aristocratic, affluent, upper-class family, Doc learned to gamble at cards at an early age. Playing with buttons as chips, the family servant, Sophie Walton, taught Doc and his two cousins the old slave game of “skin”, which was adapted from faro and poker. Doc learned to remember what cards had been played, calculate percentages and to detect a little sleight of hand.
Doc graduated from dental college at age 20 and soon after was diagnosed with consumption, or tuberculosis. He moved west for the drier climate, first starting a dental practice in Dallas, Texas, in 1875 near Dealey Plaza and the red light district, called Scream Town. Although, at the time, tuberculosis was not thought of as contagious, Doc's coughing cost him dental patients, so he started spending more and more time at the poker tables, and could make more money there right off. He bought expensive, tailor-made clothes and had them designed with the weapons he would always carry.
Around this time, Doc and another man had a brief shootout, but both missed their target. Doc was fined for gambling and carrying a pistol. This made the newspaper, as Doc's exploits would do for all of his life. In fact by the time he was 30, Doc Holliday would be nationally famous, written up coast to coast in newspapers, dime novels and magazines. In my view, the fame and publicity shaped Doc's actions and those of his long-time friend Wyatt Earp. Both were overly proud men.
Doc was six feet tall and a thin 140 pounds, with ash-blond hair, a handlebar moustache and eyes that three newspapers described as “piercing blue”. Being frail from his illness, he knew his battles had to be waged with a weapon. He often practiced his fast draw with his two guns, one from his left shoulder holster and one on his right hip, and the large, sharp knife in his breast pocket. Bat Masterson said, “As desperate a man in a tight place as the West ever knew.”
Doc had a fatalistic view, living under a death sentence from consumption. As his reputation grew, he became a bit of a bully, challenging men to shoot it out if he was offended, and he was easily offended. He also enhanced his own reputation as the “Deadly Dentist”. The number of men he killed is not known, but it was never as many as the newspapers reported.
Myth and fact are hard to separate but new books by Tefertiller, Tanner and Roberts are fantastically researched and accurate. Myth says Doc shot a prominent citizen in Dallas over a $500 poker pot and had to flee. He shot another, or maybe two, in Jacksboro, also over poker disputes.
Another poker squabble, in Denver, saw him cut a man up bad in the face and neck; and another, in Breckenridge, Texas, saw him beat a man severely with his cane. Later that day, the man shot him, injuring Doc seriously.
Ft Griffin Flat, here in West Texas, was the hell hole of all Texas, and why Doc was even there mystifies this humble scribe. It was called "the Sodom of the West”. It was near an army fort, the buffalo hunters, and the trail drives. Famous gamblers to pass through there included John Wesley Hardin, Wyatt Earp, Lottie Deno and Pat Garrett, the man who killed Billy the Kid.
Ft Griffin was known for the Tin Hat Brigade, a vigilante group that had shot or hanged more men than any such group in Texas. If that wasn't bad enough, a group of Tonkawa Indians lived there too. They were hated by all the other tribes because they were US Army scouts and cannibals. When the tribes were settled in Oklahoma, five other tribes banded together and attacked the Tonkawas, killing a great many. The sheriff and head of the Tin Hats was John Larn, himself a rustler, later killed by the Tin Hats. His deputy was a rustler, John Selman, who, years later, killed the outlaw John Wesley Hardin.
Doc first came to the Flat in 1875 and was fined for gambling. It was here, in 1877, that Doc first met “Big Nose” Kate Elder, a prostitute who would become his off and on companion for many turbulent years. Doc called her his intellectual equal, and like Doc she came from an upper-class family. She was called Big Nose because she was nosy, always into everyone else's business. Kate had been arrested with Wyatt Earp's sister-in-law as whores. She disliked the whole Earp family, especially Wyatt and thought the influence Wyatt was to have over Doc was sinister. Wyatt had three pimping charges on his record in Illinois. Pimping was the family business.
In the Flat, the most famous gambler was Lottie Deno, a red-headed beauty who always wore the latest fashions. She was the model for Miss Kitty on the TV series Gunsmoke and the lead character in a series of novels by Alfred Henry Lewis, who became one of America's most famous writers. He was also in the Flat. The name Lottie Deno comes from the Spanish word for money, lots of dinero. She got the name when she won all the money on the table in a poker game. In different towns she was called Faro Nell, the Poker Queen, Mystic Maude, The Angel of San Antonio, and other names.
Kate and Doc had become a couple. One night, Kate, being jealous of Lottie, started a fuss and pulled her gun. Lottie pulled her gun and they cursed each other, but Doc stepped between them.
Another time in Fort Griffin, two poker players stood up and shot each other dead across the table. The room emptied out, except for Lottie, who kept her chair at the faro table. The sheriff ran in and told Lottie he could not see why she didn't run like everyone else. Lottie said, "You have never been a desperate woman."
It was in Ft Griffin that Doc met his lifelong friend and fellow professional gambler Wyatt Earp. Earp was a natural-born leader of men, gaining loyalty with his quiet persuasion and the dreams that would take him to most historic Old West boomtowns. He told Doc all about a bigger boomtown, Dodge City, Kansas, where the Texas cowboys ended the long trail drives with pockets full of money and an urge to gamble. Rich Texas ranchers were there in the poker games after selling their herds.
Wyatt told the story of how Doc left Fort Griffin Flat “fast, very fast!”, as he did more than a few towns. He was in a big poker game with a man named Ed Bailey. Bailey kept looking at the deadwood, the discards. Doc told him not to, saying, “Play poker!” This meant “stop cheating” in the Old West. When Bailey did it again, Doc pulled down the pot without showing his hand, which was correct under the rules. Bailey made a move for his pistol, but Doc was faster with his knife, stabbing Bailey in the stomach and killing him. The crowd disarmed Doc. He was held in his hotel room under heavy guard. Kate heard that the Tin Hat Brigade was getting up a lynch party. She knew Doc would become one of a couple of dozen men who had been left swinging from pecan trees near the banks of the Brazos River.
Kate procured, maybe stole, two horses, and borrowed another pistol. She set a shed on fire as a diversion, and it worked. Fire in those tinderbox wooden towns was a huge threat. All of the guards watching Doc, except one, left to fight the fire. Kate came in with guns in both hands and rescued Doc. They rode off across the wilds of the Texas panhandle to Dodge City. The very deep loyalties that Doc felt towards Kate, and later to Wyatt Earp, were to shape the major events of his life.
Johnny Hughes is the author of Famous Gamblers, Poker History, and Texas Stories which is available from Amazon.