|Legends and Lies: The real Doc Holliday versus Hollywood’s vision|
By VICTORIA WILCOX
Prescott is famous for the Wild West exploits of some of its former citizens-including stories of dangerous dentist John Henry “Doc” Holliday, who paused here before moving on to the silver mining camp of Tombstone. But one bit of Holliday’s Prescott lore didn’t actually happen here-if it ever happened at all.
In the opening scenes of the movie “Tombstone,” Wyatt Earp asks his brother Virgil if he happened to see anything of Doc Holliday while he was in Prescott. Virgil replies, “Yeah. He had a streak when we left, him and Kate.” The scene cuts away to show Holliday playing cards in a saloon, with his elegantly dressed Hungarian mistress, Kate Elder, at his side. On the green baize table in front of him are the scattered paraphernalia of poker: paperboards, poker chips and silver coins, a gold pocket watch. And across the table, his anger seething, sits gambler Ed Bailey who is clearly losing this hand.
Words are exchanged, and the enraged Bailey lunges across the table at Doc, getting a knife slid into his side by the smiling doctor while Kate pulls a derringer to cover their retreat. It’s one of the classic scenes from the legend of Doc Holliday: the knifing of Ed Bailey in a Fort Griffin, Texas, saloon, only this time set in the Arizona Territory capital of Prescott. The change of venue was just a convenience for the sake of the film, letting the audience know two important things in this opening scene of Doc Holliday: he was a cold-blooded killer and he passed through Prescott on his way to Tombstone. And as long as those two things are true, does it really matter where the knifing happened?
What matters is that the knifing of Ed Bailey likely didn’t happen anywhere, not in Fort Griffin, Texas, nor in Prescott, Arizona, or any of the other towns Holliday visited in his Western travels. In fact, the story of the Ed Bailey knifing was never even told during Holliday’s lifetime. The first appearance of that story comes nine years after Doc Holliday’s death, in an 1896 article in the San Francisco Enquirer.
The article claims to be an interview with Wyatt Earp, who was in San Francisco at the time, and tells a gory tale about Doc slicing up Ed Bailey and leaving him for dead. Problem is the story as told is so flowery and wildly descriptive that it’s hard to believe it came from the famously laconic and spare-on-words Earp. And it may have been this very article that Wyatt was referencing years later, when he said: “Of all the nonsensical guff which has been written around my life, there has been none more inaccurate or farfetched than that which has dealt with Doc Holliday. After Holliday died, I gave a San Francisco newspaper reporter a short sketch of his life. Apparently the reporter was not satisfied. The sketch appeared in print with a lot of things added that never existed outside the reporter’s imagination…”
Was the Ed Bailey knifing one of those imaginary incidents? As far as researchers can determine, poor Ed Bailey himself never existed, as his name appears nowhere in historical record. And how did Doc Holliday manage to kill a man who didn’t exist?
The problem with legends is that if we believe they’re true, we stop looking for the truth. And the truth of Doc Holliday’s life is even more intriguing than the legend-like his real connection to Prescott as housemate of the acting governor of the Territory and player in a covert plan to stop a threatened war with Mexico. The real Doc Holliday is waiting to be found, but to do that we have to look beyond the legends and the ghost of Ed Bailey.
This article is a preview of a presentation that Victoria Wilcox will make at the Twelfth Annual Western History Symposium to be held at the Prescott Centennial Center on Aug. 1. The Symposium is co-sponsored by the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International and is open to the public free of charge. For more details, call the museum at 928-445-3122 or visit the sponsors’ websites at www.sharlot.org and www.prescottcorral.org.
“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at email@example.com for information.