On the bloody battlefields of the Mexican-American War, it is said a young sailor named John Garrison decided that he'd had enough of civilization. He retreated to become a feared and famous mountain man known as Liver-Eating Johnson. While his legacy has been disputed for generations, everyone can agree that the tale behind his nickname is anything but a pleasant one. Johnson never quite found the peace he craved.
As a hardy man with plenty of physical prowess, John Garrison likely could have enjoyed a successful career in the United States Navy. However, the young man grew tired of violence and taking orders.
He vented his frustrations in a way that made his bright future go up in smoke.
John, standing over six feet and weighing about 260 pounds, grew tired of his superior officer barking orders all day. So he struck him across the face and knocked him to the ground.
The Navy issued him a dishonorable discharge, putting a permanent black mark on the name John Garrison.
With no place in respectable society, the disgraced sailor set out on his own in the untamed West. He got himself a rawhide jacket, a Hawken rifle, a bowe knife, and a new last name.
John Johnson rode into Montana with next to no idea of how to live off the land.
Fortunately, Johnson stumbled across someone who could teach him everything.
Famed mountain man Old John Hatcher took the novice under his wing and showed him how to hunt, trap, pan for gold, and endure the ruthless frontier climate.
Hatcher, getting up in years, retired soon after, leaving Johnson all by his lonesome. He was one of the few human inhabitants of the vast Bitterroot Valley.
Any time he saw another man, Johnson knew it could be a great windfall — or great danger.
With rich timber all around him, the frontiersman supported himself by chopping and selling wood to passing steamboats, which came from the East.
Johnson also became familiar with the Native American tribes who had lived in the valley for centuries.
And he was friendly with the indigenous peoples — at first. He even married the daughter of a local Flathead chief, and the two happily built a new home together.
By the nature of Johnson's trade, he had to leave his bride alone in the wilderness for long stretches of time.
Late in 1847, Johnson departed their cabin so that he could tend to his traps and stock up on goods for the winter. He wouldn't return until the spring, but he was sure it would be an uneventful trip.
He was dead wrong.
Even the hardened mountain man sobbed when he got back to his cabin. His wife was killed and mutilated by Crow raiders, who left her remains scattered across the doorway.
From that moment on, Johnson put his gun and knife to a far bloodier use.
While it was likely just a handful of Crow warriors who murdered Johnson's wife, he declared vendetta on the entire tribe.
Word spread to nearby towns that he was ruthlessly hunting down the native community and eating his victims' livers as a sign of total domination.
Looking back on his spree, Liver-Eating Johnson denied any ritual cannibalism. "I was all over blood and I had the liver on my knife, but I didn’t eat none of it,” he explained.
“The liver coming out was unintentional on my part." However, another incident casts some doubt on his version.
After years of skirmishing with the Crow, Johnson felt a pit in his stomach as he saw a large band of Native American warriors riding toward him. But they were Blackfoot, not Crow.
The warriors subdued the frontiersman and took him prisoner.
Liver-Eating Johnson seemed ready to meet his maker — perhaps a fate he deserved — when the Blackfoot got sloppy. They ignored their prisoner long enough for him to chew through his leather bindings and subdue a guard.
The braves watched his next act in horror.
According to folklore, he seized his bowie knife and sawed off the leg of the subdued Blackfoot. Wielding the severed limb as a club, he beat the remaining natives to death.
Johnson was free again, but miles away from his home.
The mountain man needed sustenance if he was going to make the long trek back to Bitterroot Valley. The anecdote about using a human leg as a club may be false, but his next use for it has more credence.
Johnson supposedly carried the leg with him and fed upon its flesh.
Once he made it to the home of his friend and fellow trapper Del Gue, Johnson became a figure of legend.
His exploits spread like wildfire across the West, though this folk hero was forever changed by his brush with death.
Having lost the will to fight, Johnson made peace with the Crow and from then on called them "his brothers."
That put a quarter century of bloodshed to an end, though the mountain man soon received offers to participate in other struggles.
The Liver-Eater joined the Union Army during the Civil War, though he never saw action.
He also helped General Oliver Otis Howard aggressively contain the Nez Perce tribe in Oregon before holding the post of deputy sheriff in Coulson, Montana.
With so many tall tales inflating the myth of Liver-Eating Johnson, it may be impossible for us to truly know the man.
But he reached the same status as Annie Oakley and Davy Crockett, and his decorated grave is a popular tourist site today.
The 1972 western film Jeremiah Johnson was loosely based on the mountain man's life, though it chose to leave out the cannibalism segments, for obvious reasons. Actually, it's hard to tell fact from fiction in the Wild West.
Hollywood has long taken liberties with historical figures, especially those of the West. Doc Holliday, like Johnson, was severely warped for the silver screen.
When Doc Holliday, born John Henry Holliday, came into the world in Griffin, Georgia, on August 14, 1851, he had a bad cleft palate, which required surgery and impacted his speech.
His doting mother worked with him for countless hours on proper pronunciation, and eventually, they vanquished the impediment.
Doc had a wonderful childhood. His father was a pharmacist and his mother was a dedicated caregiver and teacher, bestowing the importance of manners on him.
He was also an excellent student, especially in math and science. He was also a big reader.
Sadly, his mom died in 1866 from tuberculosis. Doc threw himself into his studies to cope with her death, and his good grades got him into dentistry school at the University of Pennsylvania.
Doc graduated in 1872 and began working as a dentist.
When Doc was 22, he moved his practice to Dallas, Texas. It was a rowdy place.
His business was steady, but Doc quickly grew distracted by another passion: gambling. He loved the nightlife and frequented the many saloons.
Doc was an excellent card player, which he often combined with drinking and fighting. This soon eclipsed his dental practice.
He was arrested for these activities, as well as for getting into a gunfight with the saloon keeper.
Texas was also where he met Mary Katherine Horony, or Big Nose Kate. She was an independent woman who danced, bartended, engaged in sex work, and was incredibly intelligent.
Kate and Doc got married at a dance hall, though their good times wouldn't last forever.
The newlyweds faced major trouble when Doc was accused of murder. Historians aren’t sure if he was guilty, but fearing for his safety, he and Kate fled to Dodge City, Kansas — another town filled with outlaws.
Though not all the company was bad.
In Dodge City, Doc met fellow gunslinger, Wyatt Earp. Wyatt was a temporary deputy who'd made enemies from rounding up lawbreakers.
A few of them rode into Dodge one night and attacked the Long Branch Saloon, where Doc was playing cards.
Wyatt barged in when he heard the commotion. The gunmen aimed at him, but Wyatt surprised the attackers by backing up Doc with his own gun.
After this incident, the two became great friends. Eventually, the pair moved to Tombstone, Arizona, together.
Wyatt’s brothers were the marshals in Tombstone, and Wyatt picked up a job as a bank security guard.
These enforcers couldn’t keep to themselves for too long and ran afoul of some cowboys who were also part-time outlaws. The Earps decided to arrest the Clanton and McLaury gang.
Their feud came to a head on October 26, 1881 at the O.K. Corral.
Nobody knows who fired first, but there was no doubt about the victims. Virgil Earp shot Billy Clanton, and then Doc shot Tom McLaury in the chest. Wyatt hit Frank McLaury.
Everything happened quickly. Billy and the McLaury's were dead within 30 seconds of shooting.
And soon after, Wyatt and Doc were arrested for murdering their rivals. Public favor was firmly divided about the crime.
Though the vigilantes were in hot water, Wyatt himself was glad to be arrested with his best friend.
He said Doc was the “most skillful gambler and nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun I ever knew.”
Some thought Doc and Wyatt were protecting themselves from a threat, and others heard the McLauries and Billy weren’t armed and were holding up their hands when they were shot.
During the trial, witnesses provided conflicting accounts, based on who the witness was supporting.
Even reliable third parties couldn’t agree on who started the attack.
Justice of the Peace Wells Spicer presided over the trial.
On November 30, 1881, the judge ruled that the accused couldn’t be convicted a crime because they were acting as lawmen and defending themselves.
Wells also expressed his opinion that the men shouldn’t have been deputized at all. A few weeks later, a jury agreed to not convict the lawmen.
Though they escaped formal punishment, socially their reputations took a major blow.
Nationally, Doc Holliday earned a legendary reputation for being a gambling, gunslinging, dentist with manners and a well-kept mustache.
People wanted to be like him — or maybe they had a crush.
After the public trial, Doc decided to flee from Arizona. He spent his remaining years drifting across the Western front, continuing to gamble.
At this point, he seemed to give up on the dentistry.
On November 8, 1887, Doc succumbed to tuberculosis in Glenwood Springs, Colorado, at 36. In his dying moments, he took a shot of whiskey and said, “This is funny.”
It can be difficult for historians to pinpoint the truth about Western heroes like Doc Holliday, but a recent find has brought their stories to life.