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What we can learn from Doc Holliday by David C. Stolinsky, MD

Grave marker in Tombstone’s Boot Hill Cemetery

Doc Holliday received a classical education in his native Georgia. He then graduated from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery, class of 1872. But his frequent cough from tuberculosis, from which his mother and brother had died, caused patients to go elsewhere. Holliday abandoned his dental practice and went west to the Arizona Territory, hoping that the dry air would help his condition. He settled in Tombstone, a boisterous mining town.

The character of the town is exemplified by this grave marker in Tombstone’s Boot Hill Cemetery. Whether it is real or a grim joke remains unknown. There is no Les Moore in the town’s death register, but an old man recalled a Wells Fargo stagecoach driver by that name who was killed in a robbery.

Doc became a gambler and gunfighter. He remained unscathed by these dangerous activities, while the disease continued to take its toll. Perhaps he hoped to die by gunfire rather than by tuberculosis.

This brings us to the First Doc Holliday Rule:

Sometimes we can alter our fate, sometimes we can’t, but at least we can try.

In the 1993 film “Tombstone,” lawman Wyatt Earp, his brothers, and his friend Doc Holliday confront a violent outlaw gang. Doc has tuberculosis — of which he will die at age 36 — and should be resting. A member of the posse asks Holliday why he is exerting himself. Doc explains, “Wyatt’s my friend.” The man objects, “Hell, I’ve got lots of friends.” Doc replies, “I don’t.” Here we have the Second Doc Holliday Rule:

When trouble comes, it’s not how many friends we have that counts — it’s what kind of friends they are.

This is relevant to what we call “coalitions.” Some members of the coalition in Afghanistan send only a few hundred troops. Even worse, some of these troops do not patrol at night, do not go into “hot” zones, and fire only when fired upon. That is, even if they spot a Taliban leader, they do nothing if they aren’t fired upon first.

This concept of a “coalition” accords more with the posse member’s idea of friendship than with Doc’s. The concept is so broad that it includes all acquaintances except actual enemies. It bears no relation to loyalty. On the other hand, we have the Brits. They accord more with Doc’s concept of friendship — those who are there when we really need them, even if the situation is dangerous, and even if they are in a weakened condition.

Then we have so-called “friends” who get us into trouble, not out of it. Take the situation in Libya. The Europeans, especially the French, urged military action against Qaddafi’s brutal regime. But because of decades of military decline, they were too weak to take on even a third-rate power, so again they depended on America to do the heavy lifting. As a result, Qaddafi is dead, but Libya is now in chaos and a base for Al Qaeda.

As Mark Steyn observed, “You can have massive welfare or a credible military, but not both.” Europeans found this out years ago. It worked for them — they enjoyed the welfare while America provided the defense. We have yet to discover this sad fact. But if we continue cutting our military, we will be forced to confront it. Then who will provide defense for us?

But back to “Tombstone.” Wyatt Earp is challenged by Johnny Ringo, an unstable killer. Earp knows that Ringo is faster on the draw, yet feels honor-bound to meet him. But as Ringo is waiting at the appointed place, who should show up but Doc Holliday.

Ringo insists that he has no quarrel with Holliday. Doc reminds him that they challenged each other. Ringo protests, “I was only fooling about.” Doc replies, “I wasn’t.” They proceed with the gunfight, and Ringo comes out second best. Here we come to the Third Doc Holliday Rule:

In matters of life and death, the first thing to decide is whether the person is serious or just pretending. And if he is serious, it is best to be careful.

It is essential to decide whether the other party is serious, but it is equally essential to decide whether we are serious. Sending our young people into a life-and-death struggle without being serious about it is a sin — and even worse for a nation, it is a mistake. Half a war is an oxymoron, and those who try to engage in one are real morons.

It is impossible to have half a gunfight. Johnny Ringo wasn’t serious about the challenge, but Doc was. It takes only one side to make a fight. If the other party isn’t serious, he can lose just as badly. The runner-up doesn’t get a silver medal — he gets six feet of dirt.

President Obama declared that he didn’t want “perpetual war,” but the choice wasn’t his to make. If extremist Muslim terrorists continued attacking us, Obama’s desires were irrelevant. Narcissists imagine that the world revolves around them. Realists know better.

President Obama talked about ending the war “responsibly,” hardly an inspiring expression. Can you imagine Churchill or Roosevelt declaring that they intended to end World War II “responsibly,” or that they wanted to “contain” the Nazis? Can you imagine President Trump abandoning his favorite word — “win” — and talking about ending the war on terrorists “responsibly”? You can’t picture it? My point exactly.

If people claim, “It’s not our grandfathers’ war,” I reply, “No, we’re not our grandfathers.” They knew what they were fighting for — to preserve Western civilization. We’re not sure what Western civilization is, much less that we want to fight to preserve it. Yes, it is our grandfathers’ war. It’s just slower paced and requires more patience. Patience was never an American strongpoint, but now we need it.

Movies, like all art, are not meant to provide a precise picture of reality, but to reflect and clarify some aspects of reality. “Tombstone” did not show us exactly what happened during the gunfight at the OK Corral. It did something far more important. It showed us the value of true friends, and it emphasized the difference between being deadly serious and merely fooling about.

The world has changed remarkably since the days of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday. But some things haven’t changed at all. The value of true friends hasn’t changed, nor has the importance of recognizing them and treating them accordingly. This lesson we seem to have forgotten. Our best friends through two World Wars, Korea, the Gulf War, Afghanistan, and Iraq are the Brits.

But how did President Obama treat the Brits? On entering the Oval Office, he removed the bust of Churchill the Brits sent us after 9/11. He ostentatiously snubbed Prime Minister Gordon Brown. He gifted Queen Elizabeth with an iPod, and Brown with a set of DVDs of movies — DVDs which could not be viewed on European players. But Obama bowed before the Saudi king. On entering the Oval Office, President Trump did the opposite — restored Churchill’s bust, and had a cordial meeting with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

How long would Wyatt Earp have lasted in Tombstone, if he had insulted Doc Holliday, but shown weakness before Johnny Ringo and his outlaw gang? How long would he have lasted, if he had been unable to distinguish between people who were serious and people who were just fooling about?

Like it or not, we have been cast in the role of Wyatt Earp. Like him, we too have reluctantly put on the badge of lawman in a lawless and dangerous world. We too have many faults, as do our friends. But despite these faults, we alone have the capability to stand up to the outlaws.

The question is this: Like Wyatt Earp, do we also have the courage and steadfastness to stand up to outlaws? Or, unlike Earp, are we so busy apologizing for our faults, and so occupied with distancing ourselves from our friends and being submissive to our enemies, that we have no time or energy left for fighting evil?

Finally, we have the Fourth Doc Holliday Rule:

Loyal friends are hard to find. Some, like Doc, are taken from us far too soon. Others we are blessed to have for many years. But there is no way to know this in advance, so we need to cherish them while we can.

Author’s Note: Bill Paxton’s untimely death impelled me to watch “Tombstone” on DVD and post this column. Paxton was the actor who played the youngest Earp brother, Morgan. Morgan Earp was killed in Tombstone by the outlaw gang at age 30. Tombstone was a rough place. So is today’s world. Like the Earps, we need good friends — and we should do the best we can to keep them.

Written by David C. Stolinsky, MD

Dr. Stolinsky is a retired medical oncologist, scholar, and co-author of Firearms: A Handbook for Health Professionals, published by The Claremont Institute. For other articles written by Dr. Stolinsky, check out our search feature on this website.

This article may be cited as: Stolinsky DC. What we can learn from Doc Holliday., March 16, 2017. Available from:

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7 thoughts on “What we can learn from Doc Holliday by David C. Stolinsky, MD”

  1. Conversing with our own Doc Holliday!
    Submitted by Dr. Miguel A. Faria on March 17, 2017 — 3:03pm.

    I received a note from my dentist, Dr. Lindsay Holliday, of Macon, Georgia, also known locally as “Doc Holliday,” that the “pic of Doc is wrong” and sent me a link to an article from True West magazine, March 2004, with the title, “The Most Famous Photo of Doc Holliday — Too Bad It’s Not Him.” The article goes on to say that Bat Masterson, who actually knew Doc Holliday, somehow got the picture wrong in his 1907 Human Life magazine, and to make matters worse, the picture has been retouched over the years.

    Subsequently, “author Stuart Lake used it in Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, with this caption: ‘This photograph, made by C.S. Fly in Tombstone, 1881, was the only one Doc Holliday ever had taken.’ ” But according to this same article, this assertion is wrong because in 1973 the Holliday family (that originally came from Georgia as did Doc Holliday) released a portrait photo of the famous gunfighter dentist at age 20 (photo, below).

    Authenicated photo of Doc Holliday

    To complicate matters, Val Kilmer and Dennis Quaid (both actors, incidentally, playing Doc Holliday magnificently) in the films Tombstone and Wyatt Earp used yet another photo for Doc’s image, that of a “lady-killer” identified as John Escapule.

    My response to Doc Lindsay is that why would the famous Bat Masterson, who knew Doc Holliday personally, use the wrong or a fake photo? For one thing, many people would have remembered Doc Holliday and would have contradicted the veracity of the photo. Moreover, Doc Holliday was 12 to 17 years older, when the later picture was taken; he had had tuberculosis for many years and had led a rough life as a gunfighter and gambler. He also wore a mustache in the later photo. Whether or not the photo is wrong, Doc’s philosophy of friendship and loyalty is historic and admirable.

    As to the allegory of Doc Holliday’s philosophy and the Middle East conflict, Doc Lindsay further wrote: “Although I feel some of our Middle East interventions are necessary, many of our misadventures there are less like Doc’s Old West and more like the fight between Br’er Rabbitt and the Tar Baby by Uncle Remus: ‘The more Br’er Rabbit punches and kicks the tar “baby” out of rage, the worse he gets stuck.’ I think this parable illustrates the meme that decries getting mired in ‘forever wars’… ”

    As for me, as I said, Doc’s philosophy of friendship and loyalty is admirable and could be applied for friends and foe in any setting of the human sphere, good for men and good for nations. As for “forever” or perpetual wars , they are a threat to freedom; on the other hand, it is better to be prepared for war to deter enemies than be unprepared and inviting aggression. And as Doc Holliday acted, one must be prepared to help those few but true friend, as most of us have few of them! — MAF

    Another photo of Doc Holliday?
    Submitted by admin on March 18, 2017 – 11:39am.

    Doc Lindsay: I understand that Bat Masterson and Doc Holliday developed mutual animosity, so Masterson had no reason to accurately depict Doc. Much of my understanding has come from Dr. Mary Doria Russell (Anthropologist) who wrote 2 historically based novels about Doc. Highly entertaining too. Attached is what might well be a photograph of Doc Holliday taken shortly before his death from tuberculosis, explaining why “dying Doc” had a wrapped neck.

    Doc Miguel: That photo and obviously of a sick man with scrofula could very well be a last photo of Doc Holliday. Still it does not disprove Bat Masterson’s “retouched” conventional photo. Masterson would not have used the wrong photo because of personal “animosity,” and if, he would have done so, he would have added grotesque or malevolent features in spite; but in fact, the photo depicts the opposite, an urbane and calm Westerner. — MAF

  2. 1. The life of Doc Holliday by Kathie Bell. Dodge City Daily Globe, August 17, 2020. Available at: This article includes a new photo of Doc Holliday, which is the one used at the top of the article. That is a genuine photo of Doc Holliday.

    2. A new photo of Doc Holliday? by Mary Doria Russell., September 29, 2015. Available at:

    This article includes the following text: “A couple of years ago, Don McKenna sent me a jpeg of the image you see here. It was part of a large collection of 19th century photographs he bought at an estate sale in St. Louis, MO. How might a photo of Doc Holliday end up in St. Louis, Missouri? Well, we do know Auguste Jameson Fuches, of St. Louis, was one of John Henry Holliday’s classmates at dental school.”

    A photo of an image of an obviously ill gentleman sitting in a chair, Doc Holliday, was published in True West Magazine in an article written by Mary Doria Russell for that journal. It is also genuine, and features are similar to those in the previous photo. these are the picks used by us to illustrate the article.—MAF

  3. Doc Holliday and Gone with the Wind!
    Submitted by admin on April 13, 2017 — 8:20am.

    . . .One more thing. I just came across this on Doc Holliday. I was born and raised in Jonesboro [Georgia], so I naturally take special interest in all things related to Gone with the Wind. — Greg William, Macon.

    A few months ago I shared some of the true stories that fill the pages of Gone with the Wind (and I believe continue to breathe life into the book and movie) and the response was good, so today I thought you might like another ‘morsel of truth.’ To refresh your memories, Margaret Mitchell stated in July of 1936 that, ‘practically all of the incidences in GWTW were true’ (Letters from Margaret Mitchell 1936-1949) and that, ‘Prissy was a real person.’ Based on that statement and a number of others like it, I created the only GWTW Tour that documented the true stories and that tour is being presented daily in partnership with the Road to Tara Museum in Jonesboro ( . . Simply contact the museum and ask for a seat on the Gone with the Wind Tour (and please tell them I sent you).

    I have admitted it before and my wife is O.K. with it. . . I have always had a crush on Olivia De Havilland (because something about her reminds me of my wife) and so to connect her character to the real source in Jonesboro has always been a treat for me. Melanie’s character is based on Margaret’s cousin Mattie Holliday of Jonesboro. Mattie was in love with her first cousin and although she chose not to marry him (not an accepted choice for a Catholic), they corresponded until his death and her witness precipitated his conversion to her beloved Catholic faith prior to the end of his shortened life. Many know the story of the star crossed cousins Mattie and John Henry, and how Mattie Holliday became a Nun and took the name, “sister Mellie” and John Henry left Georgia because of his poor health and found fame as John Henry “Doc” Holliday of Tombstone, Arizona. But the story has more, “meat on the bone” than that. . .

    After Mattie became a Sister of Mercy she continued to correspond with John Henry Holliday and according to the obituaries in both Glenwood Springs, Colorado and Tombstone (yes, I have copies of both), . . .when Doc died in Colorado his personal items were sent back to Tombstone due to a trunk there that was filled with letters between him and his cousin, ‘a Sister Mary Melanie.’ When Sister Mellie died in Atlanta as a retired nun all of those letters were destroyed. . .but years ago I met a close family member who remembered her and told me stories of visits with the good sister (known among family to be, “the kindest woman they ever knew”. . . a statement close to that of Rhett Butler). On one visit Margaret Mitchell was there and asked Sister Mellie, “can I use you in my book,” and her response was, “if you use me make me somebody nice.”

    The breath of life still flows through the pieces of the Tara façade and its sister, Fitzgerald House, because their stories were filled with the truth of real people. I have just created a 501c3 ( which I hope will allow you to donate the funds needed to build a proper building, and to help tell the full story of this time of passion when all peoples in the story were forced to dig deep for the “gumption” (Margaret’s word) to go on with life. . . a reminder of the past that we can all use from time to time. — Peter Bonner.

  4. Life Principles of Doc Holliday
    Submitted by RBlaylock on March 18, 2017 – 12:29pm.

    Dr. Stolinsky’s article on Doc Holliday was entertaining and held some very important lessons. Miguel’s comment added greatly to the article and as always added important historical clarity. I always enjoyed reading about the gunslingers of old, most of whom were Confederate soldiers still angry about the war. Both of the Earp movies were extremely well done—I am partial to the Kirk Russell one.

    The idea of “no-win wars” was a creation of the new progressive military of the McNamara era and prior to that, of the Korean and Vietnam wars. While not a disciple of “unconditional surrender” except with the totalitarian monsters of this century, real soldiers adhere to some tried and true principles.

    One, this nation should never enter a war unless it meets the criteria of protecting the United States itself. Two, one plans carefully how the war is to be fought and most importantly—how it will be won. Exit strategies are for losers—that is, “progressive” non-win wars. It’s much like I was taught by my father—“never pull a gun on a man unless you intend to use it” and “never get into a fight unless you intend to win.” One of the most important things he taught me was that “a winner never quits and a quitter never wins.” Obama comes from a long line of quitters when it comes to defending this country. Yet, we must keep in mind that he is a communist and intends to destroy the United States as it exist—both as president and out of office.

    What we have witnessed over the past 70 years is a deliberate sabotage of our national interest. At present, we are being threatened by North Korea with nuclear tipped missiles. Yet, few want to deal with the fact that North Korea would not have had nuclear fuel had not Bill Clinton provided North Korea with modern nuclear reactors. We are also being threatened by communist China, which would have been a joke before the presidency of Bill Clinton. Why? Because before that traitor took office, communist China did not have a missile that could reach more than a nearby Chinese neighborhood several miles downrange from its launch point. You might recall they tried launching a missile and it exploded in a nearby town killing a large number of its own citizens. That all changed when the traitor-in-chief was offered a deal from the owner of Loral to not only provide the Chinese military with the latest missile guidance technology, but also to add MERV capability. The president of Loral was Bill Clinton’s biggest donor.

    Thanks to Bill Clinton and his most generous donor, the communist Chinese now have the capability to reach the United States with MERV nuclear warheads. So, not only have we elected a series of traitors for president, but we have allowed the Soviets to infiltrate all levels of our government for many years and allowed these traitors to endanger our country and involve us in costly, prolonged, no-win wars. If history should teach us anything—prolonged wars results in the collapse of great empires and nations. The Left Islamic coalition wants to tie us up in a never-ending war that will cripple our young people, drain our economy, demoralize our military and produce chaos at home. Unfortunately, it is working.

    I think Miguel’s friend, Dr. Lindsay was right. It is more like the Br’er Rabbit story and the tar baby. Great comments about Doc Holliday.

  5. Letter to an Arizonian journalist—Hello Mr [Mark] Nothaft,
    I’m sorry that it took me 5 years to find and read your column on Arizona’s imitator of Billy the Kid —i.e., William Claiborne, described with good reason (from among other things running away from the fight at the OK Corral, leaving 3 of his cowboy friends dead and two wounded, as “all hat and no cattle,” in your last sentence!

    We had this article published that same year, 2017, about Doc Holliday and friendship, which I’m sending to you via this email as a link… Sincerely, —- Dr. Miguel A. Faria

  6. One of my favorite dialogues, and a very short one comes from the film, tombstone, which I love: Doc Holliday coughs a lot because he has tuberculosis and should be taking care and not exerting himself in defending the Earps and tracking down the Earps brutal and treacherous enemies. A member of the posse asks Doc Holliday why he is exerting himself and risking his life. Doc answers, “Wyatt’s my friend.” The man objects, “Hell, I’ve got lots of friends.” Doc replies, “I don’t.”

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