‘Doc’ Holliday long dead, but legend much alive

Robert W. Boyle portrays gunslinger Doc Holliday in Glenwood Springs. Enlarge photo

Kelley Cox/Glenwood Springs Post Independent

Robert W. Boyle portrays gunslinger Doc Holliday in Glenwood Springs.

GLENWOOD SPRINGS (AP) – The 161-year-old corpse of John Henry “Doc” Holliday is, in the eyes of some, the third most popular tourist draw in Glenwood Springs.

First and second on the list, as even Doc Holliday portrayalist Robert W. Boyle admits, are the Hot Springs Pool and the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park.

But Doc Holliday, with the cultural fascination he generates among Americans and Europeans who visit here, is not far behind.

“Any way you cut it, we’ve been an asset to this community,” said Boyle, who has been portraying Holliday in civic functions and private events around this area and elsewhere in Colorado for more than 20 years.

Marianne Virgili, president of the Glenwood Springs Chamber Resort Association, agreed with Boyle’s assessment.

“All I know is, anecdotally, what I hear from our front desk,” said Virgili. “And they tell us he is a very popular character, and one of the big reasons that people come to Glenwood Springs, especially foreign people.”

Holliday, mythologized in books and movies as a notoriously doomed gambler and gunfighter who roamed the West in the late 1800s, died in Glenwood Springs on Nov. 8, 1887, and is buried in the city’s Linwood Cemetery.

Born Aug. 14, 1851, in Griffith, Ga., to a cultured and well-off family, Holliday graduated in 1872 from the Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery.

His plans to settle down as a dentist veered off course within a year, though, when he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a sometimes-fatal lung ailment then known as consumption.

On the advice of a doctor, Holliday moved west in 1873 in the hope that drier air would alleviate his symptoms and prolong his life.

His condition worsened over time and is said to have contributed to Holliday’s fearlessness as a gunfighter. He may well have felt he had nothing to lose.

Holliday’s famous friendship with Wyatt Earp began in 1877 in Fort Griffin, Texas, where Earp stayed briefly while heading to take the job of assistant city marshal in Dodge City, Kan. Their friendship was cemented the following year, when Holliday helped Earp fight off a band of murderous cowboys in a saloon.

In 1880, Holliday joined Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp in Tombstone, Ariz., where the Earps had already been for a year or so. A year later, in October, 1881, the four were embroiled in the notorious gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

After he continued wandering all over the West, Holliday arrived in Glenwood Springs in 1887, hoping to get some medicinal benefit from the famed hot springs.

He died later that year, at age 36.

He had been severely ill for months, time spent mostly in bed in his room at what then was the brand-new Hotel Glenwood at the corner of Eighth and Grand.

Legend holds that as Holliday took his last breaths, he stared down at his bootless feet sticking out from under the sheets and said, “Damn, this is funny.”

The hotel burned to the ground in 1945, and the site now is home to the Summit Canyon Mountaineering retail store.

Painted at the bottom of each of the store’s two plate-glass exterior doors are the words, “Doc Holliday died here.”

A separate plaque, on Summit Canyon’s wall facing Grand Avenue, tells the story of the hotel and of Holliday’s brief residency there.

The 700 block of Grand Avenue, the oldest block in the downtown, is in the bull’s eye for all things Doc Holliday.

The Doc Holliday Tavern has been entertaining locals and tourists for decades, offering a Western saloon atmosphere along with a classic neon sign outside that helps define the block.

On the western side of Grand Avenue, a sign outside the Dancing Bear Trading Post advertises Doc Holliday T-shirts and posters in big letters.

“We get questions about Doc Holliday daily,” said Trading Post co-owner Joanna Bismark-Pettit.

She pointed to several small wooden blocks with Doc Holliday’s likeness painted on them by local artist Amelia Kraft.

“We get some Doc Holliday fans in here. They want to buy everything about Doc,” said Bismark-Pettit. “They would spend $200!”

Two doors down the block at The Book Train, store manager Carole O’Brien pointed to a shelf containing about three linear feet of Holliday-related titles. They’re the focal point of a section about bandits (male and female) and the West in general.

“Doc brings a lot of tourists in here,” O’Brien said. The most common question is, “How do we get to his grave?”

Many of those asking questions inevitably make the short but steep hike up to Holliday’s gravesite, in the historic Linwood Cemetery, reached by a trail that starts at 12th and Bennett on the city’s east side.

In an effort to get a handle on how many visitors there are to the cemetery, Hines said the museum plans to install a laser-operated people counter along the trail.

Linwood is also the scene of the museum’s popular Ghost Walk, evening performances in October that feature Boyle’s portrayals and other characters of the Holliday era.

At Linwood, a marker stands as a monument to John H. Holliday. But as is well known locally, Holliday is not buried beneath the marker bearing his name.

Boyle, who has made a study of Holliday’s life, told the Post Independent that he believes Holliday’s body is, in fact, buried in the large, weed-infested Potters’ Field section at the back of the cemetery.

He said a couple of ancient cowboys from Rifle told him the location some 20 years ago.

“I’ve got a pretty good guess where Doc could be, and I intend to take that to my grave,” Boyle said.

The first stone marker with Holliday’s name on it was put in place in the late 1950s, following the 1957 publication the first modern book about Holliday’s life, Doc Holliday, by John Myers Myers.

That stone was replaced in the 1980s because it was so shot up by pistol-packing partiers, Hines said.

The present marker, erected in 2004, is a block of marble quarried and shaped back in the 1800s, which Hines and others felt was more fitting as a memorial.

The Frontier Historical Museum houses a small trove of Holliday memorabilia, including a growing number of artifacts placed by visitors at the base of Holliday’s grave marker.

“We do find some interesting things,” Hines said, showing toothbrushes, cigars, cigarettes, airline whiskey bottles, a fake mustache, and decks of cards that appear to have been stacked in some particular way.

There also is an 8-inch statuette of a dachshund, standing erect and wearing a matched pair of pistols in holsters and a long riding coat. On the bottom the label reads, “Dachs Holiday.”

“But the most interesting thing I ever found at Doc’s grave was somebody’s ashes,” Hines said. It was in 2003, and the pile of human ashes was dumped on the ground.

“That one was kind of freaky,” Hines said.

Boyle, something of a local celebrity for his Doc Holliday portrayals, said he thoroughly enjoys the life he has made in Holliday’s shadow.

With no formal theatrical training, he has had to come up with his own ways of doing things.

“My portrayal of Doc Holliday is solely my own creation,” he said.

Boyle has conducted considerable research into Holliday’s life, family and related areas of interest, and he uses that knowledge in his portrayal.

“That is a great deal of what I do,” he said. “I teach a great deal of history.”

His focus is Holliday and the times in which he lived.

Now 71 and “not too badly weathered,” as he described himself, Boyle is nearly twice the age that Holliday reached when he died in bed. But Boyle has no plans to stop.

“I always tell people, use me while you’ve got me, because next year I may not be doing this,” he said.