Doc Holliday and the Swimming Hole Incident
By Allen Folsom
Around 1872, John Henry "Doc" Holiday's uncles, Thomas S. McKey and William Harrison McKey, bought a piece of land on the Withlacoochee River. Soon after the land was purchased, Doc and some of his friends decided to create a swimming hole out of a section of the property where the river crossed. The young men toiled tirelessly, clearing land and preparing the riverbank. They ended up putting a lot of time into the project and were very proud of the final result (Pendleton 191-192).
As Doc and Thomas, rode out to the hole one day, they caught a group of African Americans playing in the hole. Doc was infuriated. McKey's daughter, Susan McKey Thomas, remembers the story as her father, the only witness, told it to her: "'They rode in on the Negroes in swimming in a part of the Withlacoochee River that "Doc" and his friends had cleared to be used as their swimming hole. The presence of the Negroes in their swimming hole enraged "Doc," and he drew his pistol-shooting over their heads to scare them off. Papa said, "He shot over their heads!"'" (Pendleton 192).
The swimming hole incident has been passed on and told by many in Valdosta. It has even been exaggerated into a big massacre, where numbers of black people were slaughtered (Pendleton 192). However, the only man present to witness the event did not remember it this way. While it is possible Thomas S. McKey could have lied to his own daughter, he had no motive to do this. Then again, Thomas would have been complicit, if a crime did occur, and he did not report it to the authorities. On the other hand, much of the history people have attained has been from eyewitness accounts and what can be remembered. People have no choice but to take the information as fact until some piece of evidence disproves the past information. On May 30, 1882, Virgil Earp told The Arizona Daily Star in Tucson of Doc's ability to gain a reputation for things he may not have done: "'Tales were told that he had murdered men in different parts of the country, that he had robbed and committed all manner of crimes, and yet when persons were asked how they knew it, they could only admit it was here say, and that nothing of the kind could be traced up to Doc's account'" (Tanner xxv). The swimming hole incident, just like many of the stories lingering in Doc Holiday's path, may be nothing more than a rumor surrounding legendary character.
Pendleton, Jr., Albert S., and Susan McKey Thomas. "Doc Holiday's Georgia Background." The Journal of Arizona History. Arizona Historical Society, 1973.
Tanner, Karen Holiday. Doc Holiday: A Family Portrait. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1998.
The Odum Library is a Federal Depository Library.