Death at his Elbow The moral of this story is: Don’t take a drunk dentist to make an arrest.

Doc Holliday Tombstone Gunfight True West Magazine
— All illustrations by Bob Boze Bell —

If you took all the alcohol out of the Wild West era, you would certainly save a forest of trees, because all of the printed stories of shooting, mayhem and violence would be much, much shorter, including the page count of this magazine.

How much did alcohol factor into the O.K. Corral gunfight in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, on October 26, 1881?

Historians have a pretty clear picture of Ike Clanton’s condition: he had an all-night binge buzz, capped with a buffaloed head.

Doc Holliday Tombstone Gunfight True West Magazine
On the evening of October 25, Ike Clanton plays cards with Virgil Earp, Johnny Behan and others in an all-night poker game at the Occidental. When the game breaks up at dawn, Ike reportedly is incensed that Virgil had a pistol in his lap during the game.

Doc Holliday’s condition is less clear. Doc was “tight”—intoxicated—the night before the fight, Wyatt Earp later recalled. On the day of the fight, Doc got up around noon, likely hungover, and went uptown to see what all the fuss was about. Did he have a nip, or two or three?

I believe Doc was “in his cups” and livid when he realized the cow-boys were waiting to confront him in the side yard of C.S. Fly’s boarding house, where Doc was rooming. The two conditions combined to set off the spark that started the gunfight.

Not everyone agrees with me. Wyatt Earp biographer Casey Tefertiller states, “There is no testimony that [Doc] stopped in a saloon, and he did not have time to become heavily inebriated. Was he still drunk enough from the night before that it carried over? Possible, I guess, but not probable. More likely that Holliday was sober by the time the guns went off in the mid-afternoon. He certainly seemed to shoot sober.”

Did Doc Holliday start the fight? Find out in this edited excerpt from my third edition of The Illustrated Life & Times of Doc Holliday.

Doc Holliday Tombstone Gunfight True West Magazine
Doc Holliday is obscured from the smoke while trying to get a clear shot at Tom McLaury, who is stumbling across the boardwalk. (From left) Billy Clanton and Virgil Earp; Ike Clanton and Wyatt Earp, fighting it out; Morgan Earp, facing into the lot.

October 25, 1881

Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury arrive in Tombstone at 11 a.m., put up at the Grand Hotel and explore the town’s 66 saloons.

Around midnight, Ike grabs a bite at the Alhambra Saloon. While he’s eating, a drunk Doc Holliday enters and starts to call Ike every name in the book. Doc is angry at Ike for thinking that Doc would betray Wyatt Earp.

Wyatt’s brother Morgan intercedes, but then Doc and Ike step outside and go at it again. Virgil, another Earp brother, comes up and threatens to arrest them both if they don’t stop. Doc finally leaves.

Later on, as Wyatt is closing his faro game at the Eagle Brewery, Ike tells Wyatt that, the next morning, he will have “man for man.” Wyatt says he doesn’t want to fight because “there’s no money in it.” But Ike continues his feuding harangue until Wyatt tires of the whiskey talk and retires for the evening. “Go home Ike,” he says, “you talk too much for a fighting man.”

Ike continues drinking and ends up in an all-night poker game with Virgil and others at the Occidental. By morning, he is primed. He retrieves his Winchester and a pistol from the Grand, and begins walking the streets yelling at anyone who will listen, “The ball will open.”

Doc Holliday Tombstone Gunfight True West Magazine
As the afternoon wears on, quite a crowd gathers at the corner by Hafford’s saloon, expecting a fight. While Wyatt and Virgil talk to various townsmen, Morgan and Doc (above left) stand in the center of Allen and Fourth Streets and look for signs of the cow-boys.

The rivalry between lawmen Johnny Behan and Wyatt Earp is already a rough and tumble political brawl in Arizona Territory when the Benson stage robbery attempt on March 15, 1881, focuses the tension.

In June, Wyatt enlists Ike Clanton, a member of the cow-boys gang, to capture Billy Leonard, Harry Head and Jim Crane—the trio of robbers widely thought to have attempted the heist and committed the murders of stage driver Bud Philpot and passenger Peter Roerig. Ike would get the reward and Earp, the glory, which he hopes will get him elected sheriff of Cochise County.

Doc Holliday Tombstone Gunfight True West Magazine
Several eyewitnesses testify that Doc Holliday walks right up to Tom McLaury and then steps back before the firing becomes general. Doc’s anger likely stems from his realization that the cow-boys have been waiting to confront him in the sideyard of his residence at C.S. Fly’s boarding house, outside Fly’s Photographic Gallery and down the block from the rear entrance to the O.K. Corral. Despite Virgil Earp admonishing Doc to keep the shotgun under his coat, the dentist probably brandishes the smoke wagon and makes a threatening lunge at his adversaries. This “lunge” is the linchpin to understanding the gunfight.

Wyatt and Ike’s unholy alliance produces nothing as Leonard and Head are killed by the Hazlett brothers in New Mexico Territory in late May. On or around June 21, the Hazlett brothers, Bill and Ike, are playing cards at a saloon in Eureka when they end up murdered by a party of 20 cowboys.

Wyatt’s pal Doc Holliday gets mixed up in the debacle. Having settled in Tombstone, Arizona Territory, around September 1880, the dentist counts Leonard among his friends. Doc met the jeweler in Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory. Leonard is also consumptive, so a bond of sympathy and mutual misery connects the two. Yet Doc has never approved of Leonard’s friends Head and Crane, members of the cow-boy gang who recruited Leonard to melt down stolen jewelry from their robberies.

Doc ends up getting blamed for the Benson stage robbery attempt and killings, thanks to his lover, popularly known as “Big Nose Kate.” Under the headline “An Important Arrest,” the Nugget reports on July 6, “A warrant was sworn out yesterday before Judge Spicer for the arrest of Doc Holliday, a well-known character here, charging him with complicity in the murder of Bud Philpot, and the attempted stage robbery near Contention some months ago, and he was arrested by Sheriff Behan. The warrant was issued upon the affidavit of Kate Elder, with whom Holliday had been living for some time past.”

Doc provides an alibi for the time of the stagecoach murders, saying he had ridden to Charleston for a poker game. He is acquitted and released.

In August, the last surviving member of the Benson stage robbers, Crane, is ambushed and killed with Old Man Clanton and others at Guadalupe Canyon near the U.S.-Mexico border.

Doc Holliday Tombstone Gunfight True West Magazine
In the final phase of the fight, Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday confront Frank McLaury out in the middle of Fremont Street. With his pistol across his left arm, Frank aims at Doc and says, “I’ve got you now.” Doc turns sideways toward Frank, aims back and says, “You’re a daisy if you have.” Morgan, who has tripped on a mound of dirt for the new waterline, rises to a sitting position and fires at Frank. The ball takes effect below the right ear, killing him instantly.

Ike Clanton is Rattled

Meanwhile Ike is plagued by demons. Though nothing resulted from his deal with Wyatt, he grows nervous that Wyatt is talking of their arrangement.

Wells Fargo Agent Marshall Williams earlier figured out what was going on when Wyatt wired the home office about reward money. One night, a drunk Williams foolishly assures Ike that any deal he has with Wyatt is just fine with him. Stunned, Ike’s suspicions grow feverish.

On October 20, Ike corners Wyatt and demands to know if he has told Doc about their “agreement.” When Wyatt replies he has not, Ike does not calm down. Ike grows obsessed with Doc’s possible knowledge of his intended betrayal of Leonard, Head and Crane. To settle the matter, Wyatt sends his brother Morgan to Tucson to retrieve Doc.

The next day, Doc and Kate are enjoying Tucson’s San Augustin Feast and Fair at Levin Park, Kate remembers, when Morgan comes up and taps Doc on the shoulder as Doc is “bucking at faro.” Morgan says, “Doc, we want you in Tombstone tomorrow. Better come up this evening.”

Doc cashes in his chips. “Morgan Earp did not want Doc to take me back with them; although he didn’t say anything,” Kate recalls. Doc tries to convince Kate to stay, but she wins this pot, and the three return home, traveling on a freight train to Benson and then a buckboard to Tombstone.   

When they arrive on October 22, Wyatt is waiting with Ike and simply asks Doc if he knows of any deal between Ike and him. When Doc answers in the negative, Wyatt considers the matter closed. Ike leaves town, but returns on October 25.

Doc Holliday Tombstone Gunfight True West Magazine
I said to him one day: ‘Doctor, don’t your conscience ever trouble you?’ ‘No,’ he replied, with that peculiar cough of his, ‘I coughed that up with my lungs long ago.’” — Col. John T. Deweese

Hunting for the Earps

Around 8:45 a.m. Ned Boyle wakes Wyatt and tells him of Ike’s threats. Boyle quotes Ike as saying, “As soon as those damned Earps make their appearance on the street today, the ball will open. We are here to make a fight. We are looking for the sons of bitches!”

Officer Andy Bronk comes down to Virgil’s house (he lives kitty-corner from Wyatt) for commitment papers regarding a prisoner. While Virgil is getting it, Bronk says, “You had better get up. There is liable to be hell. Ike Clanton has threatened to kill Holliday as soon as he gets up. He’s counting you fellows in too.”

Virgil waves off Bronk and goes back to bed, hoping the situation will take care of itself. But Virgil is awakened again and told Ike is hunting the Earps with a Winchester and a six-shooter. He gets dressed and goes up town.

Doc sleeps late at his room he is sharing with Kate at C.S. Fly’s boarding house. Around noon, Kate rousts him out of bed, saying, “Doc, Ike Clanton was here looking for you and had a rifle with him.”

Meanwhile, Virgil comes up behind Ike in an alleyway on Fourth Street and says, “I hear you are hunting for some of us.”

With that, Virgil slams the barrel of his revolver against the side of Ike’s head. Morgan and Virg then drag Ike to Judge Albert O. Wallace’s courtroom where, after a heated hearing, Ike is fined $27.50 for carrying weapons.

When Wyatt leaves the courtroom, he bumps into Tom McLaury. The two exchange words, and Wyatt slaps Tom and buffaloes him, sending him sprawling into the street.

As Ike is having his skull tended to by Dr. Charles Gillingham, Frank McLaury and Bill Clanton ride in from Antelope Springs and dismount at the Grand Hotel. Seeing the new arrivals sparks the devil in Doc, and he walks right up and shakes Billy’s hand.

Puzzled by Doc’s cheery display, Frank and Billy retire to the Grand Hotel bar for a drink. At the bar, Billy Allen asks Frank if he’s heard what’s going on. When told of Wyatt’s buffaloing of his brother Tom, Frank rises agitated.

“What did he hit Tom for?” he asks. Then he declares, “We won’t drink.”

With that, the cow-boys leave the barroom in search of Ike.

Doc’s movements are hard to trace. After leaving Kate, he heads to a restaurant for breakfast. Then he goes to the Alhambra Saloon to see about a game. While there, Morgan comes in to advise him of the growing tension between the Earps and the cow-boys.

Doc Holliday Tombstone Gunfight True West Magazine
The rematch.

The Doctor Will See You Now

Arriving at the corner outside Hafford’s saloon, Doc offers to join the Earp brothers. When Wyatt tells him, “There’s no call for you to mix in,” Doc replies, “That’s a hell of a thing for you to say to me.”

The men walk four abreast on Fourth Street. Since Doc has no experience as an officer, Morgan briefs him on tactic and procedure. It would be best to let Virgil do the talking. Doc should post himself on the street to cover their right flank. Morgan says if anyone moves, “Let them have it.”

As the Earps and Doc round the corner to head west on Fremont Street, Doc realizes the cow-boys are at his house, standing in his sideyard. His woman is inside! Armed men who have already been to his residence once before and threatened his life are outside Kate’s woman.

Some onlookers think Doc is whistling under his mustaches. Knowing his temper, he is probably seething as well. In his inebriated rage, Doc no doubt feels the cow-boys are waiting to ambush him.

If any man came home and saw armed men in his yard, who wouldn’t fight to protect his loved one?

Meanwhile, seeing the Earps and Doc approach, now walking two by two,  Cochise County Sheriff Behan holds up his hand and shouts, “Hold up Boys! Don’t go down there or there will be trouble.”

Virgil is firm about enforcing the ordinance banning guns within the city limits. “Johnny, I am going down to disarm them,” he tells the sheriff.

“I have been down there to disarm them! Behan cries.

But the Earps and Doc never break stride. When they walk into the lot, they see Behan was not quite telling the truth. Both Billy Clanton and Frank McLaury have on holsters with their pistols in plain sight.

“Boys, throw up your hands,” Virgil demands. “I want your guns.”

While Frank makes a move to follow Virgil’s command, Doc lunges threateningly at Tom McLaury, with the Wells Fargo shotgun Virgil gave him.

History does not record Doc saying anything, but several witnesses report Wyatt saying, “You sons of bitches have been looking for a fight and now you can have it.”

That doubly applies to Doc.

History is made when some 30 shots are fired in less than 30 seconds. Did Doc start the Old West’s most famous gunfight?

If you take Doc out of the confrontation, this likely would have been a simple misdemeanor arrest, with a little attitude at most. With Doc in the mix, you get promiscuous shooting and death.

You’re a Daisy

Of all the shots fired, the final confrontation between Frank McLaury and Doc Holliday is the one eyewitnesses comment the most about.

Bob Hatch recalls: “Saw Doc Holliday and…Frank McLaury near the middle of Fremont Street, probably about ten or twelve feet apart. McLaury made a remark like this: ‘I’ve got you this time!’ McLaury seemed to be retreating across the street…as he got near the corner of an adobe building…he stopped and stood with a pistol across his arm, in the act of shooting…”

The Nugget also describes the scene: “As he [Frank McLaury] started across the street, however, he pulled his gun down on Holliday saying, ‘I’ve got you now.’ ‘Blaze away! You’re a daisy if you have,’ replied Doc.”

In 1896, Wyatt Earp recalls, “Morgan wheeled round and in doing so fell on his side. While in that position he caught sight of Doc Holliday and Frank [McLaury’ aiming at each other. With a quick drop he shot [McLaury] in the head. At the same instant [McLaury’s] pistol flashed and Doc Holliday was shot in the hip.”

The Nugget reports that Billy Clanton is still shooting. That boy will not stay dead. Finally, he feebly fires a last shot up into the air and the gunfight is over.

A throng of people rush up. As bystanders crowd in, they notice that, incredibly, Frank’s lips are still moving. Doc tries to make his way through the thickening mob. He bellows, “The son-of-a-bitch has shot me and I mean to kill him!”

Doc’s Symptoms

Consumption can go undetected for some good time, especially if the sufferer denies his condition.

Fatigue is more and more pronounced as one’s appetite seems to disappear. One feels “out of sorts” and clammy. Periods of fever come and go. One wakes up in the dead of night drenched in sweat. In the morning, the sufferer chokes, coughing and spitting up, at first, watery fluid, later, blood and chunks of lung tissue. The chest feels as if it is imploding, and the pain of it all leads many to seek temporary respite by drinking alcohol.

To crown it all, many thought the illness a result of moral laxity. Compounded with terror of contagion, the consumptive becomes something of a pariah—a “lunger” despised in and for his infirmity.

The disease may be acute or chronic and generally attacks the respiratory tract, although any tissue may be affected. The symptoms (fever, loss of weight, etc.) are caused by the toxins produced by the infecting organism, which also cause the formation of characteristic nodes consisting of a packed mass of cells and dead tissue.

The Rematch: January 17, 1882

The inevitable rematch between the cow-boys and the Earp Gang almost becomes reality, with Doc Holliday and John Ringo facing off on Allen Street in front of the Occidental Saloon.

The Earps and their supporters are lined up on the north side of Fremont Street, with the cow-boys on the south side.

Before a fight can open, police officer Jim Flynn grabs Ringo from behind and arrests him and Doc. Taken to city court, Ringo and Doc are fined $30 each for carrying concealed weapons.

Wyatt Earp, who was watching in the crowd, is also arrested on a weapons charge, but that is dropped because he is allowed to carry a weapon as a deputy U.S. marshal.

What do you think?

Bob Boze Bell

In 1999, Bob Boze Bell and partners bought True West magazine (published since 1953) and moved the editorial offices to Cave Creek, Arizona. Bell has published and illustrated books on Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, as well as Classic Gunfights, an Old West gunfight book series. His latest books are The 66 Kid and True West Moments.