“I found him a loyal friend and good company. He was a dentist whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit; a long, lean blonde fellow nearly dead with consumption and at the same time the most skillful gambler and nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever knew.” — Wyatt Earp
One of the main reasons that I wrote A Gentleman in Hell is because I am obsessed with Doc as a character. It’s hard not to like Val Kilmer’s portrayal of Doc in Tombstone. He’s educated, witty, clever, loyal, a slick dresser, a good pianist, fast with a gun, and can ride a horse while hocking up half a lung. Not bad considering! To top it all, he gets all the best lines in the film. Then there’s Quaid’s Doc, a bit darker and more world-weary than Kilmer’s Doc. He’s more of a drunk, has a mean temper and rather strangely an extremely filthy handkerchief. He’s a grinning skull and a fatalist.
So who is Doc Holliday to me?
“Doc Holliday’s eyes were the most memorable trait that he possessed. In bright sunshine they were light blue but when angry his eyes seemed black. His body was skeletal, wasted by tuberculosis and alcohol. The only depth to his chest was the derringer that he hid in the top pocket of his silk waistcoat.” — From A Gentleman in Hell
I’ve tried to present Doc as a human being more than anything. I don’t see him as a cold-blooded killer, he was involved in some shootings, the gunfight at the OK Corral being the most prominent. He was educated and from a wealthy family in Georgia. He knew Latin and Greek, he was well read and a dentist by profession. He was dying from Tuberculosis.
Consumption -a deadly condition
“He coughed over and over again, deep and hearty until he could barely catch his breath. There was a sharp rasping whistle as air seeped out the holes in his lungs. Doc sat down on the bed and pulled the handkerchief from his top pocket. He pressed it to his face. Minutes passed before the sputum finally surfaced from his lungs, to his lips and into the filthy material. He sat on the edge of the bed and placed his head in his hands. His fingers trembled under the weight. He could feel himself shaking although his skin was dripping with perspiration.” — From A Gentleman in Hell
I thought that it would be interesting to show his consumption in different stages. I think it’s easy to look at it as a stagnant thing but I see it as progressing both as Holliday travelled to different places and also aged. Clearly he drank whiskey as a way of dealing with his condition. I’ve also shown him using laudanum too which was the Victorian equivalent of using painkillers today. I tried to read and research as much as I could about the disease and have read several diaries and accounts of tubercular patients in Victorian times to get background information. I like to believe that Arizona may have helped slow his condition and give him a bit of a break but unfortunately for him, the circumstances in Tombstone didn’t allow him to stay.
Dentistry in the Wild West
Doc’s original profession was dentistry before his disease and love for gambling killed his career off. I think at the time dentistry was a very new industry. There’s always been people who would pull teeth, normally barbers or cooks on cattle drives but until the 1860s there wasn’t really any guarantee that you were dealing with someone who had any skill at what they were doing, any standard of hygiene or constancy. Once colleges began to offer dental courses, that all changed. Don’t get me wrong, there’s no way you would get me in a dental chair with a dentist from that era. However, I think improvements were being made. Doc graduated from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery in 1872. I like to imagine Doc as being precise and a bit pedantic, perhaps even smelling of soap and rubbing alcohol. Although honestly considering Doc’s drinking habits, whiskey would be a more authentic odour.
How much alcohol did Doc Holliday Drink?
According to Wyatt Earp, Doc could drink three-quarts of whiskey a day, which is quite a lot for anyone to consume let alone a skinny guy. Wyatt also mentioned that he never remembered seeing Doc drunk. This may of course be an exaggeration and some people have said that this is an impossible amount to drink, but I disagree. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it would be easy to do. However, you’ve got to take into account that a lot of the whiskey in saloons at the time was watered down. Another aspect to consider is that as a gambler, Doc wasn’t holding down a regular nine to five job. If you take it literally to mean a day as in 24 hours and spread it out and include a few meals here and there it doesn’t seem so impossible. Bottom line is Doc drank a lot. I don’t think it ever really affected his accuracy with a gun or with cards but I think it certainly did affect his temper.
In a strange way the accuracy and attention to detail that Doc needed for dentistry would have served him well as a gambler. He played poker, was dealer at several Faro games throughout the West and played Spanish Monte too. It’s interesting to think that despite Doc’s drinking, as a professional player and dealer, he would still have been far superior to any drunken cowhand that had ridden into town from a ranch or off a cattle drive. I don’t imagine him as an out and out cheat but I do believe he knew all the tricks. He may have marked the edges of cards, used a reflective object to see opponents cards and worn shades to hide his eyes.
Was Doc a Fatalist?
I don’t like to think of Doc as someone with a death wish. He certainly was willing to get himself in dangerous situations. He wasn’t afraid, but I don’t think that necessarily means that he was trying to get himself killed. He managed to survive 14 years on the frontier and that was as a gambler and gunfighter which was a fairly precarious position to hold. If he was looking for a quick, clean, death I think he would have got it over with long before he ever made it to Tombstone.
There’s plenty more that can be said about Doc but at this point I think you should read A Gentleman in Hell and let me know what you think. I love talking about Doc so if you have questions, please ask away or if you just want to chat about him by all means let me know.