Is this Doc Holliday? Was he dead?
Is this an image of the fabled Old West gambler and gunman John Henry Holliday?
The picture of the emaciated man sitting with his hands limp and a wrap around his neck, likely to cover infected lymph nodes (commonly done with patients suffering from tuberculosis), was found by Don McKenna at an estate sale in Webster Groves, Missouri, a small suburb of St. Louis.
Holliday died Nov. 8, 1887, at the Hotel Glenwood. He had come to Glenwood Springs in futile hopes that the hot springs and vapor caves would help his tuberculosis. He was buried somewhere in Linwood Cemetery, one of Glenwood’s popular tourist destinations, where a marker has been erected to commemorate him.
McKenna purchased a large group of 19th century photographs at the sale but didn’t recognize the possible value hidden within them until later.
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“I was quickly going through a stack of photographs, and was stopped dead in my tracks when I came to this one. I remember immediately thinking the gentleman looked like Doc Holliday,” McKenna said.
The Post Independent reached out to the Glenwood Springs Frontier Historical Society for thoughts on the image.
“As soon as I saw the photo I instantly thought it was him,” said Cindy Hines, director of the museum.
She and Patricia Stark, also with the historical society, said they have had a lot of discussion on the image since seeing it for the first time a couple of months ago. “To me it’s just intriguing,” Stark said.
Hines and Stark both question where the photo might have been taken. The window in the background does not match the windows in the few images of the Hotel Glenwood, which burned down 70 years ago today, Dec. 14, 1945. Stark noted that the only images she has seen of the hotel are of the front of the building.
After spending some time doing his own research on the image, McKenna came across Mary Doria Russell, the author of the novel “Doc.”
Russell immediately recognized the possibilities and brought the photo to the attention of Bob Boze Bell, owner and editor of True West Magazine. She wrote an article about the image, which was published in the October 2015 issue of True West.
When looking at the image and comparing it to the only two authenticated images of Holliday, the main concern is in the shape of the ears. Some believe the earlobe of the older man is much larger than in an image of a younger Holliday. Others say the top curve of the ear is shaped differently.
“If you look in a mirror and watch your ears as you raise and lower your chin, you can assess for yourself how the ears appear to change position,” Russell said.
Some other concerns with the image of the older man is that the nose and eyes did not match. However, given the condition of the older man, the eyes could appear to be different because they were sunken into his face.
Others believe the image appears to be postmortem; the process of taking the portrait of a recently deceased loved one, popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most often in these images the body of the deceased would have either been laying on a bed or in a casket. Other times the body would be held up by a neck brace hidden behind the head.
Derek Johnston, professor and director of Colorado Mountain College’s photography program, doubts that the picture was taken after Holliday died.
“Look at the shoulders and the defined collarbones,” he said. “This to me is a person holding himself up,” he said.
McKenna, owner of the picture, also believes the poor soul in the image is alive.
“I’ve seen a fair number of postmortem photographs and do not believe my photograph is a postmortem,” he said.
If, in fact, the image is of Doc Holliday, the next thing many wonder was how the image ended up in Missouri. It was known that Holliday made friends with a man by the name of Auguste Jameson Fuches, a classmate of Doc’s in dental school. It was documented that Holliday made the trip to St. Louis to meet Fuches after graduating from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery.
We may never know if the man in the photograph is in fact Doc Holliday. But many who have seen the photo suspect that this is what he would have looked like 15 years after graduating dental school and just shortly before his death at the age of 36.
A copy of the photograph can be viewed at the Frontier Historical Society in Glenwood Springs at 1001 Colorado Ave.
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