Old West History

Is this the face of Doc Holliday?

The first question that I had after watching Tombstone was “What did the real Doc Holliday look like?” At the time I was living in Scotland and the internet was not what it is now, so this question was a hard one to answer. I don’t know how many libraries I had to troll through before I finally found a gunfighter book that had a photograph. I found several other examples of Doc photos months after the first. Then more questions, “Does this guy look like the other?” “Is this really him?”

It’s over twenty years later and I’m still thinking those questions and honestly I’ll probably never know for sure and neither will you. But let’s not worry about that today. I can’t prove that these photos are Doc I can only show the photos to you and you can make up your own mind. I’m going to line the photos up in chronological order so that it’s easier to get an idea of the changes to Doc’s face both due to age and the progression of his Tuberculosis.

Holliday Family Photos

First of all I think it’s important to look at a photo of Doc’s father to do a compare and contrast. Since this photo is from the Holliday family, we know it’s authentic.

The photo above is a daguerreotype of Henry Burroughs Holliday taken around 1852, just a year after John Henry Holliday was born. Note that he has high cheekbones, a long straight nose, piercing eyes and sticky-out ears.

Doc Holliday’s Graduation Photo

graduation photo

 The photo on the right is Doc Holliday’s graduation photo and it is one of the only verified photos of him. It was passed down through the family by his cousin, Mattie Holliday. It was taken in 1872 just a year before he moved out to Texas.



The Dallas, Texas Photograph

The photo  on the left is not verified, but was taken in Dallas, Texas in 1873.  The first thing you may be thinking is, “hold on this guy has black hair and brown eyes.” Well yes, technically you’re correct. Doc Holliday by all accounts had blue eyes and blond hair as you can see from the Graduation photo. One of the problems with finding Doc Holliday photos, is that the quality of reproduction gets progressively worse the closer we get to the Tombstone era in his life. Printed copies have even been produced from photocopies. Some photos are badly doctored (if you pardon the pun). It was not uncommon for photographs to be touched up in faded areas.

Some things to point out about this photo: The hairline is the same as above. The bangs have been slicked up and back (a lot of hair product going on here). The hooded eyes and the nose are the same. The cheekbones are high like his father’s. The main difference here is the mustache. In Karen Holliday Tanner’s book, Doc Holliday – A Family Portrait, there is a section about John Henry Holliday having cleft palate surgery when he was a baby. If you look carefully at the graduation photo you can see a slight misalignment on the left-upper lip. While covered by a thick mustache in the Dallas photo, you can see that it is wavy on the left side. The ears protrude and there are no lobes which matches the graduation photo. Another Doc feature is his long neck and protruding Adam’s apple. Now that we’ve compared these facial features, go ahead and compare this photo to the photo of Doc’s father above. What do you think?

The Prescott Photo

Doc Holliday

This photo was taken in Prescott, Arizona in 1878 and has been verified by the Holliday family as being of Doc. The original even has “Yours truly, J. H. Holliday” on it, so presumably it was a photo that was sent home to Georgia. It was taken just before Doc moved down to Tombstone, Arizona. As you can see, it’s quite faint. Doc’s hair almost blends in with the background it’s so light, which again is the reason I think a lot of Doc photographs have ended up getting touched up over the years. If you look carefully you can see Doc’s sticky-out ears, the long neck with prominent Adam’s apple and again the kink in the mustache, although this time it’s on the right. The hairline is similar to the photo above although the bangs are not slicked back as tightly as the photos above. If you also look carefully, it looks as if Doc is wearing glasses. I wrote about this in a previous blog post if you’re curious to read more about this.

Tombstone Doc Holliday and Variations


The next photo was taken in Tombstone by C.S. Fly in 1881 and is the most famous photo of Doc and the most butchered and badly reproduced. This photo was used by Bat Masterson for the article he wrote about Doc Holliday in Human Life Magazine and was also said to be verified by Doc’s girlfriend, Big Nose Kate.

This photo frustrates me for many reasons, one being that I spent a small fortune trying to photocopy this image from a book, when I was in Scotland. The image in the book is a couple of degrees lighter than this image and the hair looks blonder than this. If you look, you can see that Doc’s hair has been touched up at the top. My second frustration is the right ear looks like it has a lobe when the left ear does not. One thing to note is that his nose is a bit more flared in places than in the Dallas photo. It still looks like the same nose though, just swollen, perhaps due to illness. Take a look at the mustache and you’ll see the same kink on the left side. The hairline is also the same as the above photos but there is a hint of a widow’s peak starting and the hair has been cropped short.

Now, I honestly don’t think the above photo is a decent copy of the photo, but wait until you see these reproductions. Are you ready? Take a look at this.

Note the cowlick which wasn’t there before. The image gets darker too, Doc looks like he has black hair and black eyes. Compare these photos to the graduation and Prescott photos and it’s hard to believe that this is the same guy.

The Final Years

The picture and photos below are thankfully clearer than the Tombstone photo, but they raise a few questions. The one on the left is a charcoal sketch that was drawn of Doc by an artist in Pella, Iowa around 1885, just two years before Doc died in Glenwood Springs. The drawing is hanging on the wall of The Frontier Society office in Glenwood Springs and was supposedly found hanging in the wall of a cabin near Glenwood. The obvious question to raise would be why the bleep was Doc in Iowa and was he even there? Pella has connections with Wyatt Earp of course, but it doesn’t really solve the mystery. Perhaps a photo was sent to the artist in Iowa and Doc stayed in Colorado? Strangely enough it does match up with the other images, especially the Graduation photo.

The next photo to the right was taken in Glenwood Springs, Colorado during Doc’s final year. This photo was supposedly given to Wyatt Earp after Doc’s death by Dr. Crook, who looked after Doc in his final days. I like to believe that it is Doc. There’s a strange similarity to the Prescott photo, but the faintness of both images doesn’t really help the comparison.

The final photo is one that was recently discovered and featured in True West magazine. It is claimed to be of Doc shortly before he died. This would fit perfectly into Doc’s story if it wasn’t for the fact that the photo was found in St Louis, Missouri. Apart from a similarity in features, there is absolutely no provenance that this is Doc. Was the photo taken in St Louis, MO and if so what was Doc doing there?  Of course it’s also possible that it was taken in Glenwood Springs, CO. I personally have very conflicted feelings about this photo. Certainly the subject is extremely weak looking. His neck is wrapped, this may have been so that supports could be used to keep his head up while the picture was taken or may also simply be a hot-wrapped compress to help relieve symptoms of his disease.

My issue, and perhaps this is an overly romantic notion, is that Doc would not have posed for a photo like this. Who would the photo have been taken for? Would his family have wanted a photo like this? I think perhaps he would have been too proud. I like to believe that he gallivanted around Colorado, playing out every last ounce of his being until one morning, he simply couldn’t get up any more. I then like to imagine that he spent his remaining days in a coma until he took his last breath. I don’t like to think of him frittering away, while clock-watching and posing for photographs.  However, that’s just a romantic notion of mine and has no bearing on the validity of this photograph.

So what do you think? I hope you enjoyed looking at the photos. There are others too that are obviously false, but I wanted to just include the ones that are plausible. Again, my frustration is the poor quality of the images. Even in books, it seems that it’s hard to get a good clear image of Doc. Presumably part of this is to do with the types of fixatives that were available for developing photographs at the time. Even with good care, photos from the 1870’s and 80’s are susceptible to all kinds of light and heat damage. I’m sure that a few of Doc’s photos may have been either crushed in the mail on the way home to Georgia or perhaps even in a trunk with Doc’s possessions.

By Elena Sandidge

Elena Sandidge is a Scottish novelist with a passion for the history of the Old West and the life of the legendary gunfighting dentist, Doc Holliday. "A Gentleman in Hell" chronicles the adventures of Doc Holliday as he travels from Dodge City, Kansas to Tombstone, Arizona and on to his final home in the mountains of Colorado

3 replies on “Is this the face of Doc Holliday?”

I think they are all of Doc. He looked so much like his father. Remembering Doc was famous in his day, I think it is very likely that someone would take his picture in his last hours for record/notoriety. Thank you for sharing.

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