They Came Here to Die

Their names are used as shorthand for the iconic archetypes of the American frontier: Kit Carson, the dauntless mountain man; Doc Holliday, the stylish gambler and gunslinger; Buffalo Bill Cody, the embodiment of cowboys-and-Indians mythology. Mention one of these names and most people think: “Old West.” They probably don’t immediately think: “Colorado.” But perhaps they should.

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If he hadn’t contracted tuberculosis at 21, John Henry Holliday might have lived and died in obscurity as a well-educated southern dentist. Born to a respected Georgia family in 1851, Holliday came west in hope that the dry climate would do his lungs good.

His fame is forever tied to the 1881 shootout near the O.K. corral in Tombstone, Ariz., fighting alongside the Earp brothers, but Holliday spent relatively little time there. When he came west, he first settled in Texas, where he most likely met Wyatt Earp, then roamed all over, including Denver, Deadwood, S.D., and Dodge City, Kan. He was both a dentist and a full-time gambler.

Holliday joined Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp in the mining town of Tombstone. Virgil, a U.S. deputy marshal, and his brothers, city marshals, had a longrunning feud with a band of outlaw cowboys. On the afternoon of Oct. 26, 1881, the three Earps and Holliday set out to disarm the five cowboys, who were carrying guns in violation of a town ordinance. Holliday entered the fight with a doublebarreled shotgun concealed beneath his overcoat, as well as his nickel-plated revolver. No one’s sure who fired the first shot, but when the 30-second gun battle was over, three of the cowboys were dead or mortally wounded. Only Wyatt escaped without any injuries.

The Earps and Holliday won the battle, but lost the war. They had trouble with the law as a result of the dubious legality of the shootout, and the cowboy faction soon injured Virgil in an ambush and killed Morgan. Wyatt and Holliday fled to Colorado, arriving in April 1882 and splitting up in Trinidad. The next month, Holliday was arrested in Denver at the corner of 14th and Larimer streets, facing extradition to Arizona. Holliday knew the cowboys would kill him if he returned to Arizona.

Luckily, holliday’s friends helped him out. It’s thought that Wyatt, Trinidad Sheriff Bat Masterson and their allies at Wells Fargo persuaded the governor not to sign the extradition papers. A trumped-up indictment was brought against Holliday in Pueblo, superseding Arizona’s claims. Holliday spent most of his last five years bouncing between Denver and Leadville. In Leadville, he worked by night at saloons as a dealer for the card game faro, then spent the wee hours playing poker. He boarded in a room above Hyman’s Saloon, which is still standing on Harrison Street. The saloon was the scene of his last gunfight in 1884.

Holliday’s tuberculosis worsened, so he spent his final five or so months in Glenwood Springs for the curative mineral waters. He died in the hotel Glenwood on Nov. 8, 1887, at age 36. No one imagined he would die in bed with his boots off. As he lay on his deathbed looking at his bootless feet, his last words were said to be, “I’ll be damned, this is funny!”

He was buried in Glenwood Springs, then moved at some point to an unmarked grave in Linwood Cemetery, overlooking town. Tourists make the pilgrimage to the gravestone there, in the general vicinity of his actual gravesite.

(This story originally appeared in the September/October 2012 issue of Colorado Life Magazine)

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