When Doc chose to pursue a career in dentistry, he could not have predicted the forces that would eventually cause him to abandon it. Nowadays scientists recognize that the transmission of tuberculosis in dental settings is low, but this was not understood during the time in which Doc practiced. Doc’s tuberculosis diagnosis changed the course of his life dramatically, as it forced him to find new ways to support himself financially, in addition to making him move locations often in a desperate plea to find a climate more suitable for his condition. In a way, Doc’s aptitude for gambling spared him from a life of isolation in a sanatorium, and he had a family servant to thank for that.

In the home of Doc’s uncle and aunt, Dr. and Mrs. John S. Holliday, Sophie played many roles including housekeeper, seamstress, and nanny (despite being a child herself), but she also had expertise in a skill that intrigued the Holliday boys most – playing cards. Sophie’s preferred game was “Skin,” a gambler’s card game, most commonly played by African Americans at the time. The game, which was adapted from faro, was played with three players and a dealer. With all cards dealt face up, players bet against the dealer and each other that the face up card in front of the player they are betting against will be matched before their face up card. This meant that any player that could quickly calculate the changing odds would have an advantage.

Residence of Doc's uncle, John Stiles Holliday, M.D.. Photograph by Cdrcody is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0Residence of Doc's uncle, John Stiles Holliday, M.D.. Photograph by Cdrcody is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
Residence of Doc’s uncle, John Stiles Holliday, M.D.. Photograph by Cdrcody is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

When Doc moved to Atlanta in 1872, to work in the dental office of Dr. Ford, he stayed in his uncle’s home. This presented ample opportunity for Doc to finesse his gambling skills under Sophie’s training, and he was especially interested in learning more about the method of skinning cards. Skinning the cards from a deck allows a proficient player to sufficiently determine the outcome of the game. Many would consider this cheating, but Doc saw it as a way to increase his chances of winning, if only he could master it in a way that the other players did not realize what he was doing.

With his competitive spirit and mathematical ability, Doc was soon able to do just that – compute the odds and influence the game’s outcome, without giving himself up. His experience playing cards with Sophie and his cousins provided the foundation for Doc’s future success at another popular game, faro. Later in life, Sophie often spoke of her most prized student, who she had unknowingly prepared for a life of gambling.

The Hand he was Dealt

Prior to his tuberculosis diagnosis, Doc was not gambling in any professional manner. The skills he learned from Sophie were typically used to trick his friends and family, and he understood that his career as a dentist came before his desire for entertainment. Unfortunately, all of that distorted when he learned that he had the same disease that killed his mother in 1873. Despite moving to Dallas’ warm, dry climate to partner with Dr. Seegar, Doc was struggling with the constant pain and suffering his condition caused. Luckily, Dallas offered something that the small towns of Georgia did not – vibrant nightlife and saloons.

The 1873-74 Dallas City Directory showing Seegar & Holliday's office location and residence.
The 1873-74 Dallas City Directory showing Seegar & Holliday’s office location and residence.

In the 1800’s, the only potent treatments for tuberculosis included alcohol, opium, and bugleweed. Doc took advantage of his proximity to multiple saloons, steadily drinking to ease his pain. As each day brought more discomfort, Doc increased his intake and frequency, like a doctor trying to find the right mix. He began gambling in the saloon dens, giving himself a reason to spend most of his evenings out. This habit quickly turned problematic, as he was gaining an undesirable reputation, forcing Dr. Seegar to end their partnership. On March 2, 1874 a Dallas newspaper reported that the two dentists went their separate ways.

Doc was likely upset when his partnership with Dr. Seegar ended, but perhaps optimistic to begin his own practice, which he opened over a bank in town. Sadly, Doc’s tuberculosis would once again combat his efforts, as his practice was short-lived. The coughing spells brought on by his tuberculosis made his patients uneasy, and his clientele swiftly decreased in size. The science of contagion was poorly understood at the time, and preventive measures in an office setting were almost non-existent.

It was not until 1882 that the bacteria that causes tuberculosis was discovered, and it would be many years still until scientists truly understood how infectious diseases spread. Because of this, all Doc’s patients saw was a very sickly man, suffering from an illness they witnessed mercilessly kill millions. Tuberculosis was the single greatest cause of death between 1870 and 1910, and Doc’s career was a victim.

Doc needed to find another way to make a living, which proved relatively easy to do. The worse his condition got, the more time Doc spent gambling and drinking. In addition to his physical pain, Doc was likely under great mental distress in learning that he might not be able to successfully practice dentistry; all of his hard work and dedication were for nothing. Although Doc’s aptitude for card playing provided him the opportunity to easily make money playing faro and other games, Doc was now entering a dangerous world of criminals and vagabonds. This weak man with a debilitating disease now needed to calculate a way to keep himself safe, as he bet on both the cards and his life.

Fitting in with a New Crowd

The gambling dens of the Old West were inherently treacherous places. With lucrative businesses and activities comes people looking to take advantage of them. Most towns were beginning to adopt anti-gambling ordinances in the late 1800’s in an attempt to flush the undesirable company of cowboys, outlaws, and prostitutes from their streets. This made desolate and dangerous tent cities and boomtowns the prime locations to visit in order to engage in these illicit activities.

These towns were often overrun by bands of cowboys or outlaws, as these groups weren’t afraid to use violence to get their way. Even worse, losers at the gaming tables often turned to their guns to resolve disputes or accusations of cheating. How could Dr. John Henry Holliday survive in this environment? Even though he knew how to operate a gun, he was not accustomed to using it so loosely. Doc decided the best way to protect himself was to become someone people feared.

Whether Doc truly became the outlaw his reputation stated he was will never truly be known. Historical records indicate that he was involved in a number of disputes, mostly with saloon keepers and other gamblers, but many of these incidents were deemed self-defense. Additionally, his gun typically remained holstered, as it was meant to intimidate rather than kill. One crime that Doc was undoubtedly guilty of many times was gambling. 

Doc was indicted and charged with multiple counts of gambling throughout his lifetime. The mid-1800’s brought new attention to social problems in America, and a focus on morality led to an end to most legal gambling in the States. As gambling fell out of favor as a hobby for respectable people, it grew in popularity with the lower classes. Being labeled as a quickdraw gambler would surely be considered shameful to Doc’s southern aristocratic family, but Doc needed this reputation in order to navigate the dark places he visited.

This internal strife caused Doc to maintain and enhance his grave reputation in the West, while doing his best to conceal it from reaching his family in the South. Doc recognized the protection that his artificial reputation could provide him, and as his body weakened from his condition, he made efforts to enhance his image as a gunfighter even more. His friendship with Wyatt Earp would provide an opportunity to be involved in an event that would solidify his notoriety greater than he could have ever imagined.

To learn more about specific events from Doc’s adventures throughout the West, visit our StoryMap timeline.


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The Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry is an auxiliary enterprise of the University of Maryland, School of Dentistry at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

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