Doc Holliday – Deadly Doctor of the American West

Johnny Ringo

Johnny Ringo

On January 17, 1882, a supposedly famous confrontation took place between WyattDoc and John Ringo. Many writers would say that John Ringo challenged the Earp brothers and Holliday. But, this cannot possibly be true as Virgil and Morgan were incapacitated with painful wounds from the shoot-out.  So, while Ringo might have offered the challenge, he obviously wasn’t running much risk as there was little chance that they could accept. The Earps also knew that Ringo had been drinking heavily and that the whiskey was talking.

On March 18, 1882, the cowboy gang struck again while Morgan Earp was playing pool at Campbell and Hatch’s Saloon. A shot was fired from the darkness of the alley striking Morgan in the back. Morgan’s body was dressed in one of Doc Holliday’s suits and shipped to the parents in Colton, California for burial.

Just two days later, the Earp party encountered Frank Stilwell and Ike Clanton at the Tucson Railroad Station and Wyatt chased Stilwell down the track, filling him full of holes. A Coroner’s Jury named Wyatt and Warren Earp, Doc Holliday, “Texas Jack Vermillion”, and Sherman McMasters as the men who had killed Stilwell and warrants were issued for their arrest.

Earp sought vengeance on the men who shot Virgil and killed Morgan and killing Stilwell was just his first step, and Doc Holliday rode beside him all the way. Wyatt heard that Pete Spence was at his wood camp in the Dragoons and on March 21, 1882, he and his men quickly headed out, finding not Pete Spencer, but Florentino Cruz.

The frightened Cruz named all the men who had murdered Morgan, himself included. Earp and his men filled Cruz with bullet holes. The Earp “posse” rode out once again and on March 24, 1882, they ran into Curly Bill Brocius and eight of his men near Iron Springs. A gunfight ensued where Curly Bill was killed and Johnny Barnes received a wound from which he eventually died.

In just over a year, the Earp “posse” along with Doc Holliday eliminated “Old Man” ClantonBilly ClantonFrank McLauryTom McLaury, Frank Stilwell, Indian Charlie, Dixie Gray, Florentino Cruz, Johnny Barnes, Jim Crane, Harry Head, Bill Leonard, Joe Hill, Luther King, Charley Snow, Billy Lang, Zwing Hunt, Billy Grounds and Hank Swilling. Pete Spence turned himself into the authorities where he could “hide” in the penitentiary.

In May 1882, Wyatt and Doc left Tombstone, swearing they would never return, but still vowing vengeance on Ringo, Clanton, Spence, and Swilling if they could ever find them. Riding their horses to Silver City, New Mexico, they sold them, rode a stage to Deming, and boarded a train for Colorado.


Shortly after his arrival in Denver,  Doc was arrested by a man named Perry Mallan. Some people thought that Perry Mallon was actually a brother to Johnny Tyler, a foe of Holliday and a would-be gunman that Doc ran out of Tombstone. On May 22, 1882, while Doc was in jail, the Denver Republican printed the following:

“Holliday has a big reputation as a fighter and has probably put more rustlers and cowboys under the sod than any other one man in the west. He had been the terror of the lawless element in Arizona, and with the Earps was the only man brave enough to face the bloodthirsty crowd which has made the name of Arizona a stench in the nostrils of decent men.”

Mallan told the paper that he was standing alongside when Curly Bill Brocius was killed. Doc related his thoughts as to that: “…eight rustlers rose up from behind the bank and poured from thirty-five to forty shots at us. Our escape was miraculous.

The shots cut our clothes and saddles and killed one horse, but did not hit us. I think we would have been killed if God Almighty wasn’t on our side. Wyatt Earp turned loose with a shotgun and killed Curly Bill. The eight men in the gang which attacked us were all outlaws, for each of whom a big reward has been offered…If Mallan was alongside Curly Bill when he was killed, he was with one of the worst gangs of murderers and robbers in the country.”

Finally, Doc’s troubles concerning extradition to Arizona ended. On May 30, 1882, the Rocky Mountain News printed: “Doc Holliday’s case was finally disposed of by Governor Pitkin yesterday, his Excellency deciding that he could not honor the requisition from Arizona. The District Attorney’s Office was represented by Honorable I.E. Barnum, Assistant District Attorney, who was accompanied on his visit to the Governor by Deputy Sheriff Linton and Sheriff Paul of Arizona Among others present were Deputy Sheriff Masterson (Bat) of Trinidad and several friends of Holliday.”

Doc left Denver, supposedly traveling to Pueblo, Colorado. However, on July 14, 1882, when Doc Holliday was allegedly still in Colorado, John Yoast, a teamster in Arizona Territory, discovered a body intertwined among the branches of an oak tree east of the Dragoon Mountains. A bullet had entered the head in the right temple and exited through the top of the head.  The body turned out to be John Ringo, sworn enemy of Doc Holliday. Though Bat MastersonWarren Earp and some newspaper friends attempting to create an alibi, claimed that Doc had never left Colorado, the truth was Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday had returned to Arizona. While there, they met up with some of their friends – Fred Dodge, Oregon Smith, Johnny Green, John Meagher and probably Lou Cooley. Ringo had been spotted by the group and next, he was found dead.

Leadville, Colorado by William Henry Jackson, 1901

Leadville, Colorado by William Henry Jackson, 1901

Doc then headed to Leadville, where he led a quiet and uneventful life until the afternoon of August 19, 1884.  Around 5 PM Doc was in Hyman’s Saloon and as Billy Allen entered Doc, having known Allen was looking for trouble, leveled his pistol, sailing a bullet over Allen’s head, barely missing him. Allen turned, intending to flee but tripped over the threshold, and pitching forward landed on his hands and knees. Reaching over the tobacco counter, Doc fired again, hitting Allen in the right arm. Holliday would have shot him again, but the bartender rushed up from behind and clamped down on his gun hand. In a news report only days later, the Leadville Daily Democrat August 26, 1884, stated, in part, the following: “The public sentiment, which has nothing to do with the law, is largely in favor of Holliday. The manlier class of the community not only appreciate this but have little criticism to make as to his actions in connection with his trouble with Allen.”

Holliday faced a long legal process, his popularity notwithstanding, but on March 28, 1885, a jury found him not guilty of the shooting or attempted murder. The courthouse in Leadville today still shows the arrests of the infamous gunfighter and gambler, Doc Holliday in its jail records.

There was one more flurry of activity during the last week of October 1885, when word on the street told of more gunplay. But the Leadville police kept a strict watch out for concealed weapons and no violence came to pass. By the winter of 1885, Holliday fearing a bout of pneumonia in the city in the clouds migrated to Denver. Though he did not improve in Denver, he was able to see his old friend, Wyatt Earp in the late winter of 1886, where they met in the lobby of the Windsor Hotel. Sadie Marcus described the skeletal Holliday as having a continuous cough and standing on “unsteady legs.”

Holliday’s health continued to deteriorate. As a realist, Doc was not one to believe in miraculous cures, but hoping that the Yampah hot springs and sulfur vapors might improve his health, he headed for Glenwood Springs, Colorado in May 1887. Registering at the fashionable Hotel Glenwood, he grew steadily worse, spending his last fifty-seven days in bed at the hotel and was delirious fourteen of them.

On November 8, 1887, he awoke clear-eyed and asked for a glass of whiskey. It was given to him and he drank it down with enjoyment. Then, looking down at his bare feet he said, “This is funny”, and died. He always figured he would be killed with his boots on.

Doc Holliday had come West years before, knowing his days were numbered.  He never believed that he would die in bed.  He often said that his end would come from lead poisoning, at the end of a rope, a knife in his ribs, or that he might drink himself to death.

Doc Hollliday

Doc Holliday

His obituary, appearing in the Leadville Carbonate Chronicle on November 14, 1887, stated the following:

“There is scarcely one in the country who had acquired a greater notoriety than Doc Holliday, who enjoyed the reputation of being one of the most fearless men on the frontier, and whose devotion to his friends in the climax of the fiercest ordeal was inextinguishable. It was this, more than any other faculty that secured for him the reverence of a large circle who were prepared on the shortest notice to rally to his relief.”

The Glenwood Springs cemetery sits high upon a steep hill overlooking the valley below. But at the time of his death, the steep road was too icy so they buried him at the bottom of the hill with the intention of moving his body when the ice thawed. But, they never did. Many years later, a housing development was built at the base of the hill and though a marker sits in the cemetery, his actual remains are probably buried in someone’s back yard.

Doc Holliday claimed he almost lost his life a total of nine times. Four attempts were made to hang him and he was shot at five times.

How many men Holliday killed is unknown.

© Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated June 2019.

Doc Holliday Gravesite

Doc Holliday’s Tombstone in Glenwood Springs, Colorado


8 thoughts on “Doc Holliday – Deadly Doctor of the American West”

  1. I am more than a little skeptical regarding all these accounts of men that Holliday supposedly killed. The number that can actually be verified is….one. Tom McLaury at the ‘OK Corral’ shootout. In Kate’s account, she says that Doc told her he only killed one man and that was in self-defense. That would be Tom McLaury. There is no doubt he shot a few and cut a few but his targets managed to survive.

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