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In honor of our new Big Fish Casino Guide, we just can’t get enough on the history of gambling! There’s so much adventure and excitement. From the rise of millionaire moguls to the secrets of prohibition, from old traditions to new technologies emerging, from in-laws to outlaws, across the Atlantic and back -we have the stories of how it all got started.  Discover how it began with our Big Fish series on Casino Legends: The History of Gambling.

John Henry Holliday, better known as Doc Holliday, may be the West’s most famous dentist. A close friend of Wyatt Earp, Doc is better known as a drinker, gunslinger, and gambler.

Doc Holliday’s Gambling Showdown: Monkeying with Dead Wood

Legend tells of the murder of Ed Bailey by Doc Holliday in Fort Griffin Texas in 1878. Holliday was playing poker with the local when he caught Bailey “monkeying with the dead wood” which was another way to say he was rifling with the discard pile. After calling Bailey on this highly illegal practice, Bailey chose to do so again. Holliday took the next pot without showing his hand [a legal move] and Bailey got angry. When Bailey pulled a pistol, Holliday whipped out a knife from his pocket and “caught Bailey just below the brisket”. Holliday was detained by local officials, and then was quickly rescued by his girlfriend “Big Nose” Kate who set a fire to create a diversion and let him escape. The facts of the story vary depending on who you ask, but few people tried to cheat while playing poker against Doc Holliday afterwards.

Crystal Palace Saloon
Crystal Palace Saloon in Tombstone Arizona around 1885. Image Courtesy Wikimedia Commons via unknown author.

Childhood and Upbringing

Born in 1851, Holliday is truly a man of legend. The only son of Henry B and Alice J Holliday, Doc was born in Griffin, GA. Henry Holliday was an established soldier, fighting the Indians in 1838, Mexicans in 1846, and the Yankees in 1861. The family moved to Valdosta, GA in 1862 where the senior Holliday was elected mayor in 1876.

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Doc Holliday’s at Dental School Graduation – Age 20. Image via Wikimedia Commons, via

With a soldier for a father who was away much of the time, the Doc grew very close to his mother. He was devastated when she passed away from tuberculosis in 1866, when the young

Holliday was only 15 years old. His father remarried only three months later, creating ongoing resentment in the family.

Due to his social status Holliday was expected to choose a profession, so he entered dental school in 1870 and graduated in 1872. He opened a practice in Atlanta shortly afterwards, but this was to be short-lived. A short time later he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Worried about his failing health, Doctors advised him he would do better in a warmer climate, so Holliday packed up and headed to the west.

The Making of an Outlaw

The Doc moved to Dallas in 1873 and opened a practice with Dr. John Seegar. This practice soon dissolved due to the coughing spells that frequently wracked Holliday’s body, especially during inopportune times such as tooth extractions and fillings. When the partnership dissolved in 1874, it appeared that he also lost interest in his business while discovering a natural ability for gambling. His frequent drinking also accelerated at this time, in part to relieve his pain and discomfort from the symptoms of consumption.

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Doc Holliday before 1881 – Image Courtesy Wikimedia Commons, Unknown User

As Holliday moved around through the Wild West, it quickly became evident that he couldn’t rely upon his size and physical prowess for protection. Weakened by tuberculosis and slight of build, he turned to guns and rumor to watch his back.

The Legend

Rumor has it that Doc Holliday killed at least 16 men. Historians have proven that few of these are true stories, and that many of the false statements were actually spread by Holliday himself. He is documented to have been involved in a number of famous shootings such as the shootout at the OK Corral, and a showdown in Dodge City. His most famous incidents involve his loyalty as friend and sidekick to the famed Wyatt Earp.

“Although he sometimes drank three quarts of whiskey a day, he was the most skillful gambler, and the nerviest, fastest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever saw.” Wyatt Earp

While sometimes being reported to use a shotgun, Doc’s prowess with a pistol was documented due to his ability to shoot ambidextrously, often sporting one pistol with each hand. He is known for at least five specific pistol duels, including one where he drunkenly shot a bartender in the toe at the Oriental Saloon. Holliday’s drinking was almost as legendary as his gunmanship, which may explain his frequent arrest record throughout the West. Despite popular rumor, he was most commonly charged with gambling violations and violations associated with gun possession, and only once charged and acquitted for murder in the gunfight at the OK Corral.

Throughout his brief and colorful life, Doc Holliday is remembered as a true legend of the Wild West. He is remembered in a book published by his friend Wyatt Earp and frequent movies, stories, and television shows in the current day. One of his best-known depictions may be by Val Kilmer in the movie Tombstone.He eventually fell victim to his tuberculosis affliction and passed away in a Colorado hotel at the age of 36 in 1887.

Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, Montana 1883. Image Courtesy Flickr User: Richard Elzey.
Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, Montana 1883.  Image Courtesy Flickr User: Richard Elzey.

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