A hazy footnote in killer's life

Way Back When

History: Before `Doc' Holliday's illustrious career as a gambler and gunslinger, he studied to be a dentist -- some say in Baltimore.

July 31, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

On Nov. 8, 1887, John Henry "Doc" Holliday, the tubercular dentist who became one of the most feared and notorious killers on the Western frontier, awoke from his sleep and asked for a glass of whiskey.

It was said that Holliday, who was always "one cough away from the cemetery," had gone to Glenwood Springs, Colo., from either Denver or Leadville, where city directories showed he lived the final two years of his life, to seek treatment for his tuberculosis.

There he hoped that the inhalation of the resort's "Sulphur vapors" might affect a cure for the respiratory illness that had plagued him for most of his life.

He had spent the final 57 days of his life in bed and at times was delirious for weeks on end.

As he drank deeply from the tumbler of whiskey, he turned to an attendant and uttered his last words:

"This is funny," he said.

He then fell back onto the pillow, closed his eyes, and breathed his last.

Oddly enough, the death of the man who reportedly killed 16 men during his lifetime and was one of the Old West's most colorful figures, went unreported by The Sun.

Odd because legend has it that Holliday, who was born and reared in Griffin, Ga., the son of a druggist who later became a wealthy planter and lawyer, was sent to the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, where he was supposed to have learned the dental profession.

Founded in 1840 as the world's first school of dentistry, the school is today part of the University of Maryland School of Dentistry.

John Myers Myers, in his 1955 biography, "Doc Holliday," described him as an "alert, restless youth with not enough occupation to take up the slack of his energies."

Because of the Civil War, West Point and Annapolis, according to Myers, were not open to Southerners, so Holliday was "packed off to Baltimore" by his family to study dentistry.

"Whether this was Doc's own choice or that of his people cannot be ascertained. The chief reason for favouring the former notion is that dentistry puts a premium on good hands. Doc's were preternaturally strong and deft. In later life this was the one factor which compensated for his general bodily weakness. It was his hands which made him quick on the draw and slippery with cards," writes Myers.

He also suggests that Holliday learned something else besides dental techniques while supposedly studying in Baltimore.

"It is said in Valdosta (Ga.) that he did not drink to speak of while there. It can be taken on faith that he had learned what to do when the cork was out of the bottle, as well as something about the art of playing cards, by the time he left Baltimore," observed Myers.

Dr. John M. Hyson, who is director of curatorial affairs at Baltimore's Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry at the University of Maryland's School of Dentistry, said there is no record of Holliday ever having attended the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery.

"We keep very detailed lists of those who attended and graduated from the school, and this goes back to 1840," he says.

But "he was a graduate of the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in Philadelphia in 1872," Hyson reports.

"The reason people say he attended the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery was because in those days if you wanted to advertise yourself, you said that you were a graduate of BCDS. It gave you a certain status. Whether Holliday actually did that is pure conjecture," he said.

Hyson also suggested that Holliday may have contracted the TB that eventually ended his life while studying in Philadelphia.

As far back as 1958, Gardner Foley, noted professor of dental literature at the University of Maryland who died last year, told The Evening Sun, that "no name remotely like John Henry Holliday" was listed in the school's records.

Myers offers another theory for Holliday's Baltimore claims: According to a dental historian, Dr. Frank A. Dunn, Holliday may actually have attended the Baltimore Dental College, which he describes as an "imitator and would-be-rival" of the more prestigious institution.

In his 1996 book, "The Chronicles of Tombstone," author Ben T. Traywick puts Holliday in Philadelphia, and writes that he wrote his required thesis on "Disease of the Teeth."

"He served his required two years apprenticeship under Dr. L.F. Frank. On March 1, 1872, the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in Philadelphia, conferred the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery upon twenty-six men, one of whom was John Henry Holliday."

Later that year, Holliday opened an office with Dr. Arthur C. Ford in Atlanta. Because of his tuberculosis, he left Atlanta the next year and headed for the drier climate of Texas.

Because wracking coughs often interrupted his work as a dentist, Holliday abandoned dentistry and began making his living as a gambler.

In order to protect himself, Holliday "carried a gun in a shoulder holster, one on his hip and a long, wicked knife as well," writes Traywick, who said that by 1875, Holliday had been involved in three gunfights.

Just how fearsome a gunfighter the former dentist became can be seen in something Wyatt Earp wrote about his old friend in 1896. Earp, who had survived the 1881 gunfight at O.K. Corral with Holliday's assistance when the duo killed three men and wounded three in a 30-second gun battle, wrote what was has become Holliday's epitaph in the San Francisco Examiner.

Earp observed of his old companion: "Doc was a dentist whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a frontier vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit; a long, lean ash-blond fellow nearly dead with consumption, and at the same time the most skillful gambler, the nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever knew."

Pub Date: 7/31/99

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