The Education of a Notorious Gambler & Gunman!
Sophie Walton was born a slave on a Georgia plantation in 1856. Her master was a Mr. Walton. In 1864, Mr. Walton could no longer keep his slaves. The Union Army had freed them and he could not afford to pay for their labor.
To his credit, Mr. Walton did his best to find jobs for his former slaves. But at this time Sophie was only 9-years-old, too young to hire out on her own. So he placed her in the home of a friend in Fayetteville, Georgia.
Mr. Walton’s friend put her to work as a nanny for his children. In return, she received room & board, and a small stipend. However, now Sophie was separated from her family for the first time and she experienced considerable fear and loneliness. To her good fortune, Martha Fuller, the family cook took Sophie under her wing and served as the young girl’s role model and guardian angel.
Some how, some way, Sophie had learned to play cards and, from all accounts, she was quite a good gambler. She could count cards and knew how to cheat without being detected, even by the grownups in her adopted family.
As her wards grew into young teenagers, she showed them how to play cards. Sometimes, their cousin, John Henry, would visit and he too enjoyed learning card games like poker and faro. From all accounts, he was a very attentive student.
Gambling was not John Henry’s only education. His family sent him to Valdosta Institute where he received a classical secondary (high school) education in rhetoric, grammar, math, history and languages, mainly Latin, but also French.
In 1870, when John Henry was 19, he chose to attend a dental school in Pennsylvania. By March 1872, he had met the requirements for Doctor of Dental Surgery, but his degree was withheld for 5 months until he reached age 21, as required by law.
Soon after beginning his dental practice, John Henry contracted what they then called consumption. We know this devastating disease as tuberculosis or TB. His mother had died from this disease when he was 15-years-old, as had his stepbrother the following year.
The doctors told John Henry that he had only a few months to live. Yet they gave him some hope that the warmer, dryer climate of the West might slow the deterioration of his health.
But John Henry persisted in dentistry, at least for a while. In 1873, he and his dental partner, Dr. John Seegar, won first place in the Dallas County Fair for “Best Set of Teeth in Gold”; Best Vulcanized Rubber”; “Best Set of Artificial Teeth and Dental ware”. Clearly the young dentist had talent and would have succeeded brilliantly in his chosen profession had it not been for his sometimes uncontrollable coughing while working on patients.
Over the next 7 years, John Henry moved West: Ft. Griffin, TX; Denver, Cheyenne, Deadwood and then Dodge City, KS, where he met U.S. Deputy Marshall Bat Masterson.
During this period, John Henry tried to practice dentistry, but as his disease progressed, more and more he relied on gambling to earn a living, the skills that Sophie had taught him.
He had also taken up with a Hungarian dancehall girl and sometimes prostitute, Mary Katharine Harony. Over many years, their relationship would be tumultuous, but she was the only woman with whom John Henry ever had a relationship.
These were tough towns comprised largely of hard men, many of whom had what today we call “anger management issues”. Mostly they were armed young men overdosing on testosterone and alcohol. It was during this time that John Henry earned a reputation as a skilled gambler and a gunman to be feared.
In 1880, John Henry and Ms. Harony arrived at the next big thing; the silver-rich boomtown folks called Tombstone. It was here that John Henry reunited with a sometimes gambler, sometimes lawman named Wyatt Earp, whose brother Virgil was U. S. Deputy Marshall for Arizona Territory and the Tombstone Chief of Police.
As lawmen, the Earps took a stand against lawlessness in general and an informal outlaw organization known as The Cowboys in particular. They were mostly stock rustlers and stagecoach robbers, but they also caused a lot of trouble while blowing off steam in the saloons and brothels of Tombstone. The two factions seemed destined to confront each other, which is what happened at 3:00 PM September 26, 1881.
U.S. Deputy Marshall Virgil Earp handed John Henry a sawed-off 10 gauge double barrel shot gun and, along with Wyatt and Morgan Earp, the four walked the two blocks to the rear entrance to the OK Corral on Fremont Street, there to disarm 5 Cowboys who were carrying weapons in violation of city ordinance. No one knows who fired the first shot.
They say that in 30 seconds 30 rounds were fired. When the dust and smoke settled, Virgil and Morgan Earp were wounded, Billy Clanton, and brothers Tom & Frank McLaury were dead or dying. Those who witnessed the most famous gunfight in Old West history agreed. John Henry “Doc” Holliday had lived up to his deadly reputation.
In the months after Virgil was ambushed and maimed for life and Morgan was assassinated in Tombstone, Wyatt and Doc and several others loyal to the Earps went on a tear known as the Earp Vendetta Ride. They killed a lot of bad guys and then left Arizona Territory, never to return.
As a tubercular adult, Doc Holliday expected to die in a violent confrontation. He may have had a death wish, preferring instant death by gunshot to a languishing, pain-ridden and humiliating death by disease. In short, he expected to die with his boots on.
On November 8, 1887, at the age of 36, John Henry Holliday lay on his deathbed in a hotel near Glenwood Springs, Colorado. His nurse overheard his last words as he looked toward his bare feet and exclaimed, “Now that’s funny!” One might wonder if, in those last days, he ever thought about the young former slave women, Sophie Walton, who had taught him the gambling trade that had given him a decent living in his latter years.
Wyatt Earp did not hear about his friend’s death for two months. Mary Katharine Harony, aka Big Nose Kate, later claimed that she was with him to the end. She wasn’t.
Today, you can belly-up to the same bar that served the Earps, Clantons, McLaurys, Mary Katharine Harony, and Dr. John Henry Holliday at Big Nose Kate’s Saloon in Tombstone Arizona. We at Southern Arizona Guide consider it the best Cowboy Bar in America.
Learn more about the sights of Tombstone on our “Things to Do in Tombstone” page. More about Tombstone’s colorful history can be found here.