Gunfighters · Old West · Tombstone · Tuberculosis

November 8, 1887–Doc Holliday Dies of TB


he Wild West tends to conjure up images of dusty dirt roads, saloons, loud piano music, and gun-slingin’ cowboys with spurs on their boots. As it should. This is how it has been portrayed in so many movies.

Enchanted Springs, TX

The best part of this imagery–to me–is that I never picture it in my home state even though I’m in “the West.” For some reason, I picture it in Texas and Colorado primarily. The truth is, I don’t think I’ve ever paid attention to which states were part of the “Wild Wild West.”

As I looked up interesting events that happened on this day in history, I discovered today was the day Doc Holliday passed away of tuberculosis. I was excited about this as I pulled up a few articles on him–only to realize I did not know who he was. However, I wanted to! Part of this blog is to share a wholehearted love of all things history, and that includes writing about topics that inspire me to research and push myself beyond what I know.

So, who was Doc Holliday? Some of you may know. For those of you like me, let’s get to know this colorful character of times long past.

Doc Holliday,cs_srgb,dpr_1.0,g_face,h_300,q_80,w_300/MTE4MDAzNDEwNTU4MDkyODE0.jpg

We’ll paint our picture of the Wild, Wild West with a photograph that sets the scene. Of course, this is in Texas. 🙂

Six Gun Saloon in Texas

Doc Holliday began his life as John Holliday from Georgia, who later lost his mother and step-brother to tuberculosis. He earned a degree in dentistry from Pennsylvania when he was only 20 years old–however, he didn’t receive his degree until he was 21 because that was the legal age to practice dentistry. good ol’ Wikipedia info

When he was around 21, he himself was diagnosed with the disease that had killed his family members–tuberculosis. On the supposition of his doctors that warmer, drier air would give him longer to live, he moved to Texas. By 1874, he had an established dental practice, but his coughing due to his disease deterred many patients and his practice wasn’t thriving. To supplement or even replace his income, he used his newly discovered talent of gambling.

Wild West Saloon

By 1875, he’d allegedly been involved in a few shootouts–one of which was confirmed after a gambling conflict led to a shootout in a saloon. He was arrested, fined, and found guilty of illegal gambling; he ended up leaving Texas shortly after this.

He settled in Denver, Colorado and went by an alias of “Tom Mackey.”

On a coincidental note–at this point in my research I’m laughing because my stereotype that the “Wild West” was in Texas and Colorado is incredibly ironic considering that Holliday had his first old West experiences in none other than Texas and Colorado. Maybe I’m not as ignorant as I thought!

By 1876, he headed to Cheyenne, WY after hearing about gold discoveries (this was the Gold Rush Era after all!). However, more of the gold in this Gold Rush was being found in the Dakotas, so he followed a friend to South Dakota in the fall of that same year.

Long story short, he traveled back around to WY and Colorado, and settled back in Texas where he had yet another violent incident in which he supposedly beat someone and was shot in return. Check the “Heads Further West” section for this info

Around 1877, he made friends with US Deputy Wyatt Earp. Holliday was given credit for saving Earp’s life in an incident at the Long Branch Saloon–although the actual details and events vary wildly. Probably because the tales of the Wild West were just as entertaining when entirely inaccurate.

Wyatt Earp

He headed to Dodge City, Kansas after an another shooting situation in which he supposed he’d killed someone; it turns out the other guy lived after all . Another pause in this story– I have never understood the phrase “Get out of Dodge” or…with a hell added in there. Apparently Dodge City was the site of many frontier confrontations and full of “reckless men.” It was a wild place, for sure. So, the phrase “get out of Dodge” was basically synonymous for getting out of a dangerous, potentially volatile situation. Huh. Who would have thought the meaning of a colloquialism would hit me when learning about Doc Holliday?

Anyway, back on track. Dodge had lost some of its wildness by 1879 so Holliday headed to Tombstone, AZ. Tombstone, AZ info!

So, as I read through account after account of altercations and gun fights, arrests, deaths, etc., I saw a common theme: “supposed.” A lot of “facts” about his life and his gunfights are supposition! It’s pretty hard to tell what are stories and what are facts. I decided not to list all of the various gunfights and their details–not because they are possibly inaccurate–but because it’s sufficient for me to say he had a “wild” reputation as a fierce gunman and was most likely involved in a whole lot of gun slinging. Despite his many arrests and fines for gambling and getting in these fights, his marshall buddy Earp had deputized him so it appears he was on the better side of these fights. I think the main theme I got from reading these accounts is his legacy and reputation were the biggest part of his character. Facts don’t matter as much as the effect he had on the stories of the West. He was the wild cowboy to an extreme and stories about him have inextricably weaved themselves into folklore, books, tv shows, movies, etc. He–in a lot of ways–represents The Old West along with a few other larger-than-life characters.

As if my ignorance of Doc Holliday’s stories wasn’t enough, I’m pretty sure I was sufficiently humbled when seeing the following list of media representations of this man:

In popular culture[edit]

Holliday was nationally known during his life as a gambler and gunman. The shoot out at the O.K. Corral is one of the most famous frontier stories in the American west, and numerous westerns TV shows and movies have been made about it. Holliday is usually a prominent part of the story.

In film and television[edit]

Actors who have portrayed Holliday include:[62]

In fiction[edit]

In song[edit]

  • “Linwood”, written and performed by Jon Chandler on The Grand Dame of the Rockies – Songs of the Hotel Colorado and the Roaring Fork Valley; winner of the 2009 Western Writers of America Spur Award for Best Song[67]
  • Danish metal band Volbeat performs the song “Doc Holliday” on their album Outlaw Gentlemen & Shady Ladies.
  • The song “Doc Holliday” is featured on the 2010 album Suffocation by Latent Anxiety.
  • The band Doc Holliday
  • The band Doc Holliday Takes the Shotgun
  • The song “Tombstones” from the album “Larry Keel Experience” [written by Larry Keel]

–taken from a Doc Holliday Wikipedia Article

In summary, November 8, 1887 was the day Doc Holliday finally succumbed to the tuberculosis that he’d had for years, despite being initially being given less than a year to live upon his diagnosis. Picture this wild, dynamic character that had been involved in so many gunfights and had been such great friends with Wyatt Earp–and then remember he did all of this with a crippling, fatal disease.


One thought on “November 8, 1887–Doc Holliday Dies of TB

  1. This is an awesome post!! – Thank you!

    I have this to add about Doc.

    “Doc had but three redeeming traits. One was his courage; he was afraid of nothing on Earth. The second was the one commendable principal in his code of life, sterling loyalty to friends. The third was his affection for Wyatt Earp.” Bat Masterson, Wyatt Earp, Frontier Marshal, copyright 1931, Stuart N. Lake.


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