Doc Holliday as a dentist. (Photo courtesy of Gary Dunlap)
It’s only fitting that the winner of Golden West Casino’s Labor Day weekend poker tournament will win an expensive print of legendary gambler — not to mention notorious gunslinger — John Henry “Doc” Holliday.
The print is especially rare considering it shows Holliday as a dentist, his profession before tuberculosis made him turn to cards, gals and guns.
But what the cardslingers at Golden West may not know is the story behind the portrait.
In particular, they probably haven’t heard the tale of how the original tintype photograph, probably taken in the 1870s, was found among garbage in the back of a 1967 Chevrolet El Camino Super Sport roughly 15 years ago and how it went on to change the lives of the local family who found it.
“Doc is my huckleberry,” said Gary Dunlap, finder of the photo, referencing the famous line from the Western “Tombstone.”
Dunlap, of Bodfish, was first featured in The Californianfor his lucky find in 2004. Since then, the former blue-collar hot rod upholsterer has graced a governor’s home, chatted with celebs and broadened his career prospects into slot machine design and international business.
And all because of a 6-by-4 photo.
“Since Doc came into our lives it has definitely changed,” Dunlap, 45, said. “He has been good to us.”
THE MAN, THE MYTH
Dunlap and Holliday’s lives have been touched by extreme twists of fate.
For Dunlap, fortune smiled on him when he found the photo in the car he bought for $300.
The portrait sat in his home for more than 10 years until a friend recognized the young man with the bushy mustache, haggard eyes and bowler hat.
Instead of a gun in his hand, Holliday holds extraction forceps.
“He’s kind of dentistry’s bad boy,” said Dr. Scott Swank, curator of the Smithsonian-associated Dr. Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry at the University of Maryland. “He’s an infamous dentist due to his association with the names of the West.”
Holliday’s fate changed when he contracted tuberculosis, a contagious bacterial infection mainly of the lungs.
He knew what tuberculosis could do, having watched his mother die of the disease.
“I don’t think he really wanted to go out that way,” Swank said. “He probably picked more fights than he would have if he hadn’t gotten sick.”
Patients didn’t appreciate a dentist who continually coughed in their faces. The economy went bust in Texas, where Holliday practiced. He believed that dry, warm air would help his condition.
For all these reasons, Holliday headed West, making a living out of gambling. He would eventually become friends with the Western icon Wyatt Earp.
“They just kind of followed where the money went, where the railroads were, where the miners were,” Swank said.
Swank’s museum holds one of Dunlap’s prints.
Dentists come in looking for something on Holliday, and it’s the only thing we have,” he said. “As far as we know, it is the only picture of Holliday actually holding a dental instrument.”
That distinction has made prints of the photo tremendously popular.
Dunlap printed 1,000 copies of the photo shortly after learning of its significance.
The 100 larger master prints, which are printed on metallic Kodak paper, go for $75,000. The rest, which are smaller and printed on regular, high-quality paper, cost roughly $8,000.
The original tintype? Priceless, Dunlap said.
Most of the prints have been sold. Actor Kevin Costner, who played Wyatt Earp, has one, and former Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn donated a master print to the Nevada State Museum. President Bush has asked for print No. 43 — He’s the 43rd president — but has not paid for or collected it.
Dunlap developed a Doc Holliday “Wanted” Slot Machine, which features Holliday’s face from the photo. These can be seen in casinos in Colorado, the East Coast, Asia and Africa.
He has also created postcards, and next year, a new line of products will debut, which will include a new slot machine, hats, playing cards, commemorative coins and cards that dental offices can send to patients when it’s time for their next checkup.
“Don’t gamble with your teeth,” the brown cards read.
Through this success, Dunlap has been able to quit his upholstery business and focus on Holliday full time.
The family is building a new house, and Dunlap’s wife bought a new Cadillac.
Still, the family tries “to live a very down-to-earth, humble life.”
So much has gone on,” Dunlap said. “And it has gone by so fast.”