Doc Holliday finished out his life in Glenwood Springs
Glenwood Springs Historical Society
Peace is not the absence of conflict, but the ability to cope with it.
He was a gentleman, raised in the courteous ways of the South, who subscribed to the lawlessness of a post-Civil War West. He was a skilled dentist and a savvy gambler. He was a gunfighter, living life on his own terms, but, at the same time, controlled by a disease that had no cure.
He was John Henry “Doc” Holliday.
Glenwood Springs was in a state of transition when Doc Holliday arrived in May 1887. The town was becoming a place of civilization, striving to earn a reputation as a world class health resort. Newspapers described Glenwood Springs, the town itself, as “the sanitarium.” Holliday’s fight with the disease of tuberculosis was a common fight, and his arrival to use the hot springs to control the disease was welcomed. It was Holliday’s history of gun fighting, gambling, drifting and living outside the moral code of Victorian America that probably gave Glenwood Springs residents some trepidation.
Holliday checked into the recently completed Hotel Glenwood, where, from the window of his room, he watched progress taming isolation. He viewed churches, a school and successful businesses from his hotel window. The town was lighted by electricity. Ambitious plans to construct a water system were underway. The hot springs — the treatment for his tuberculosis — was a short walk away.
The darker side of humanity, the side familiar and comfortable to Holliday, lived and breathed within the confines of progress. Faro, other games of chance, and saloons beckoned just outside the hotel’s back door. Houses of ill repute were tucked away three blocks to the east. In Glenwood Springs, he found an untamed West that still fit his view. Glenwood Springs had no railroad — yet — so inconvenient travel sorted enemies from friends, separated his legend from reality, and gave him peace surrounded by enough bustle and grit to make Glenwood Springs interesting.
Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacteria that creates the disease known as tuberculosis, was identified by German bacteriologist Robert Koch in 1882. Koch’s discovery erased the myth that tuberculosis was a disease of artists and those of gentle spiritual natures. Tuberculosis was contagious and undoubtedly fatal, and the best physicians could offer in the 1880s was change of diet and exercise. Alcohol and opiates dulled pain. A dry climate helped the lungs.
Tuberculosis was possibly not the only reason Holliday left his Georgia home. There was conflict within his family, maybe a scrape with the law, and love that could not be attained, which made heading westward attractive. Additionally, the South had changed dramatically after the Civil War, and those changes stirred anger deep within Holliday. The War of the Rebellion may have officially ended, but that rebellion burned on in Holliday.
Holliday was a complex man. Physically he was slight, his complexion pale, and he possessed a cough, all due to tuberculosis. He dressed well. On sight, one thought him to be a gentle figure. His inner core breathed boldness, coolness under pressure, and conviction. He had a dry wit, which, with succinctness, condensed a topic down to its intelligent essence. As John Henry Holliday became Doc Holliday, he became known as a man who did not look for a fight but never backed down from one when presented.
As Holliday’s stay in Glenwood Springs lengthened, his life was quiet. He needed to make a living, so it is assumed he worked the saloons dealing faro. He had no conflicts, and quietly marked his 36th birthday on Aug. 14, 1887. Shortly thereafter, his tuberculosis progressed to ravaging consumption. It was written that in the final two months of his life he had only been out of bed twice. His hair grayed, and physically he was bent. As he progressed into a weakened state, he called upon a young Hotel Glenwood bellhop, Art Kendrick, to bring him what he needed. In the final two weeks of his life, he was delirious. On his final day on earth he did not speak.
At 10 o’clock the morning of Nov. 8, 1887, Holliday died in his bed at the Hotel Glenwood. At 4 o’clock that afternoon, he was laid to rest in Linwood Cemetery with the Reverend W.S. Rudolph of the Presbyterian Church presiding. No old friends or family were present. It is possible the monetary support of acquaintances he made in Glenwood Springs paid for his burial. His obituary noted “kind and sympathetic hands” cared for Holliday in his last hours. His obituary questioned, “That ‘Doc’ Holliday had his faults none will attempt to deny; but who among us has not, and who shall be the judge of such things?”
The site of Holliday’s exact final resting place is undetermined in Linwood Cemetery. That mystery keeps the legend of Doc Holliday alive, while giving John Henry Holliday the peace he desired.
Willa Kane is former archivist of and a current volunteer with the Glenwood Springs Historical Society and Frontier Historical Museum. “Frontier Diary,” which appears the first Tuesday of every month, is provided to the Post Independent by the museum, 1001 Colorado Ave., Glenwood Springs. Summer hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 945-4448.
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