Neely Young: Doc Holliday From Valdosta
When I started my journey in journalism as a 17 year old, working summers at the Valdosta Daily Times, my boss and mentor, Joe Bradwell, regaled me with stories of Doc Holliday, who was involved in the most famous gunfight in the history of the American West.
Georgia native Doc Holliday was a drinking buddy and gambling partner of Wyatt Earp, both heroes of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, which took place in Tombstone in the Arizona Territory on Oct. 26, 1881. The story was told in a 1957 movie, with Holliday’s part played by Kirk Doug-las and Earp’s by Burt Lancaster.
Bradwell’s stories about young John Henry “Doc” Holliday’s life in Valdosta are almost as big as the Tombstone event. Holliday was born in Griffin, but spent his early life from 12 years on in Valdosta. His father, Major Henry Holliday, was a wealthy planter and druggist in Griffin who came to Valdosta in early 1864, seeking a safe haven from the looming Federal siege of Atlanta.
After the war, Doc’s father and family became prosperous citizens in the Valdosta community and purchased a home that is still standing. Major Henry served two terms as mayor of the city. Doc was educated in Valdosta and went to dental school, thus earning the nickname. He had a wild, unpredictable temper and hated Yankees.
As Bradwell related to me, at this time in history, during the period called Reconstruction, Union troops placed a sort of martial law on the town and established their headquarters at the Lowndes County courthouse. A group of Union officers, along with the help of some outside Yankees, called “carpetbaggers,” were running the city of Valdosta.
Some of the locals, including young Doc, decided to blow up the courthouse. There was a Yankee politician scheduled to speak at the courthouse one morning, and the evening before, the locals broke into the courthouse and planted dynamite in the basement. The plan was to light a long fuse so that just as the speaker was to begin, the explosion would rain down and kill the hated Union carpetbaggers.
The plot was foiled when the young men discovered that many of their parents would be attending the event. The kegs of powder were removed before any damage was done. Several of the young men who headed the movement left town, but Doc stayed. No punishment was ever meted out.
Joe Bradwell told me another story, “The Swimming Hole Incident.” According to Bradwell, it seems a group of federal officers were using a swimming hole normally used by whites near the fork of the Withlacoochee and Little Rivers at the settlement of Troupville, near Valdosta. This version of the story has Doc coming upon the scene and ordering the soldiers, some African Americans, out of the water. When they refused, Holliday reached for his gun, and one of the men in the water ran to the bank and retrieved his gun for protection against Holliday. Doc shot and killed one of the black federal officers.
At the Valdosta/Lowndes County Museum, there is a section devoted to Holliday that documents his days in the area. The shooting incident has given rise to two theories about why he left Valdosta and moved west in 1873.
One is that he had contracted tuberculosis and moved to a drier climate, and the second relates to the shooting at the swimming hole. Some versions say Doc shot and killed three people; others say he only shot over their heads. So he may have left town to avoid arrest. No matter the reason, he was on his way to becoming a famous gambler, fighter and movie hero.
For his book, Georgia’s Doc Holliday, author Olin Jackson investigated stories about Holliday’s early days; the two stories related by Bradwell cannot be confirmed by historical evidence and must go into the “myth” category of history.
But there is no doubt that after Holliday left “under a cloud,” he became a tough gun-fighting and gambling character, who with his girlfriend “Big Nose Kate” and friend Wyatt Earp, walked into history during the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Many of Major Holliday’s descendants are fine citizens of Valdosta to this day, and they are proud of their association with Doc, as evidenced by the prominent place he has in the local history museum.
Note: This is the fourth in a series of columns on Georgia history during Reconstruction.