GLENWOOD SPRINGS - Of all the gamblers and outlaws who rode the Old West, only one was a dentist. He died of
tuberculosis in Glenwood Springs, one of the fastest, meanest card sharks of his day.
R.W. Boyle, 68, has brought the infamous Doc Holliday back to life. A portrayalist or living-history actor, Boyle
re-creates Doc Holliday in costume and conversation. When I met Boyle in Glenwood's Linwood Cemetery, standing behind
the granite Holliday memorial, pistol in hand, rifle against the tombstone, I thought I was seeing a ghost. In many
ways, I was.
Yes, murderer and gambler John Henry Holliday had some winning attributes, too. He was loyal, especially to his
friend Wyatt Earp and his prostitute paramour, Big Nose Kate. Born in 1851 in Georgia, unlike other cowboys turned
gamblers, Holliday received a classical education in math, history, English, Latin, French and Greek. In addition to
pistols, shotguns and knives, he also carried canes. With a flash temper, he used a cane as a vicious weapon, because
caning" an adversary was a perverse Southern tradition.
When he was 14, Holliday's mother died of TB. After dental school in Philadelphia, he opened an office in Atlanta, and then discovered that he, too, had the curse of consumption, a nickname for tuberculosis. Forced to seek a drier
climate, Holliday drifted west, playing cards as he went. Doc liked popular saloon games such as faro, blackjack and
Spanish monte; and though usually honest, he did know how to stack a deck.
Friend and fellow gunslinger Wyatt Earp claimed, Doc was a dentist whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman
whom disease had made a frontier vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit." They met in Dodge City, Kan., and Earp said Doc was the most skillful gambler and the nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a six-gun I
R.W., or Bob, Boyle - in suitable gambler's attire - plays a serious and convincing Doc, coughing into his
handkerchief now and then for authenticity. It's hard to play a skinny, rasping dead man, but Boyle's learned almost
everything there is to know about Old Doc, the most famous dead guy Glenwood Springs has.
There's no question Doc had class, but he also liked a glass, or three, or four, by mid-morning. Given to both
drinking and quarreling, he was so emaciated from his disease that if he turned sideways he thought he couldn't be a
suitable target. Known as a walking cadaver, in a high-stakes poker game Holliday bluffed all he wanted, because he
never had much to lose. Most cowboys wore big .44-caliber pistols in holsters at their hip, but that's a disadvantage
if you've got to get your iron out from under the gambling table before you can blast away. That's why Doc preferred
a shoulder holster and a lighter, faster Colt .38-caliber revolver named, appropriately, a Colt Lightning.
Boyle explains, Doc was a realist. He knew he was dying. When he was in his cups (drunk) he was extremely
pugnacious. He'd back up, back up, then he'd come at you."
Boyle insists that, like all gunmen, Doc lived on his reputation. Saloons employed Holliday because working for the
house running a faro table with lots of cash required keeping order, which Doc did. His quick temper was an asset. No
one wanted to draw a gun against a dying man. If you shot him, you'd be doing him a favor; and if he shot you, you'd
If there was booze and women, cards and brawls, it's likely Doc was there. By 1874, he hit Dallas, then Fort Griffin, Texas, on to the St. James Hotel in Cimarron, N.M., then horseback to Pueblo and 357 Blake St., Denver, near the
Buckhorn Saloon. Doc drifted into Cheyenne, Wyo., Deadwood, Ariz., Las Vegas, N.M., and Montezuma Street in Prescott, Ariz., with its 106 saloons. Doc had a run of luck in Prescott, but Earp wanted him in Tombstone, Ariz., so Doc went.
He was with the Earp brothers for the Oct. 26, 1881, shootout at the O.K. Corral, though locals considered it just
another street fight when 32 rounds were squeezed off in under a minute. Doc made good use of a double-barreled
shotgun hidden under his coat. When it got too hot in Arizona - and I don't mean summer temperatures - he returned to
Pueblo, then Denver. On July 14, 1882, police arrested Holliday and attempted to extradite him back to Tombstone, but
his friends pulled a fast one and had him charged in Pueblo for running a bunko, or confidence game. How could he
return to Arizona on a murder charge if he was under arrest in Colorado? Gov. Pitkin refused to let him go.
But Doc slipped out of jail anyway, drifted around the Southwest and made it to Manny Hyman's Saloon in Leadville, where his 7-foot-by-11-foot second-story corner room can be seen today. By May 1887, he was guarding a coal mine in
Glenwood Springs and even practiced dentistry. He had a visit from a young customer, but after taking one look at the
hacking, dying doctor, his 6-year-old client never returned. Doc's consumption had become miliary tuberculosis, breaking through his skin, and he looked like death warmed over.
Supposedly, Doc Holliday had a bet that worms would take him before bugs did, meaning he'd get shot before TB killed
him, but such was not the case. On Nov. 8, 1887, lying in a hotel bed, the 36-year-old dentist, gambler and
French-speaking faro dealer died at 10:30 a.m. Realizing he was dying in bed and not in some saloon surrounded by the
stench of bad whiskey, Doc sat up and said, I'll be dammed. This is funny," then coughed his last breath.
In winter, the hearse couldn't make it up the hill, so Doc was buried in downtown Glenwood Springs at Ninth and
Palmer. In the early 1900s, he was reburied in Potter's Field in Linwood Cemetery above the city. His monument
erected by the Frontier Historical Society has become a popular tourist draw even though the exact location of Doc's
bones remains unknown.
A decade ago, Boyle helped create Ghost Walks," featuring living-history performers representing the deceased in
Linwood Cemetery. Tours portray crushed coal miners and stalwart widows who ran boardinghouses, and Boyle's version
of Doc - soft Southern accent, piercing gaze, finger on a nickel-plated trigger - is the best.
R.W. Boyle has brought Doc back to life because the deadly dentist was, and is, a Western legend. After a thousand
performances, Boyle says, I'm comfortable with the Doc I offer the world. I don't think Doc would shoot me." Boyle
performs across Colorado, and he says, People have questions, and they want to know. Kids are particularly good at
questions." From card shark to tourist attraction - I'll bet Doc would find that funny, too.
To learn more about the Frontier Historical Society's Ghost Walks" for 2010, call (970) 945-4448. For Doc Holliday
performances, contact Boyle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest studies and history at
Fort Lewis College.