The Tragic Final Days Of Doc Holliday

John Henry "Doc" Holliday. Even people who don't like westerns seem to like Tombstone, and even people who don't like Val Kilmer (which is hard to believe) seem to like the former Batman's portrayal of Doc Holliday.

Mention Wyatt Earp and you're going to run into Doc, and vice versa. They really were friends, though an odd match. Holliday came from Georgia money, was well-educated -– he earned exceptional grades on his way to graduating from dental school, so yes, he really was a dentist, and apparently quite a good one –- and Earp was a farm boy who had knocked around the 19th century American West far more interested in trying to make a buck than reading a book. Wyatt claimed they bonded when Doc saved his life in Kansas. By nearly everyone's account, the alcoholic, surly, and dying Doc was not much fun to be around. But he counted Wyatt as one of his few friends, and Wyatt counted on Doc.

Biography tells us that John Henry was born in 1851 in Georgia. He had something of a charmed life; as an infant he underwent a cutting-edge, albeit harrowing, procedure to correct his cleft palate. The baby survived, at least in part because of his mother's constant attention. That attention no doubt included bouts of tuberculosis, which killed Holliday's mother when he was just 15. It also took his adopted brother.

Tuberculosis was also known as consumption, and for good reason. If by some quirk of fate you get a chance to pick your own fatal disease, don't pick TB in the 19th century. You would suffer unintentional weight loss, coughing ... coughing up blood. The lung tissue would slowly tear apart; much worse than a bad cold, and in those days, always fatal.

It's a slow and exceedingly painful way to go. Doc was diagnosed right around the time he graduated from dental school. The common wisdom in those days was that a warmer, drier climate would forestall the inevitable. Doc went west.

It's a good bet Doc didn't examine patients while wearing gloves

A blood-coughing dentist isn't likely to attract a lot of patients, even in the days when dentists were consulted because of excessive pain, and not just for a cleaning and a free toothbrush. Doc quickly found that he could earn more money gambling than he could extracting or even drilling teeth.

Some people refer to him as the "deadly dentist," but the facts indicate that as a gunslinger Doc killed one, maybe three, people in the course of his life, and one of those with Wyatt in the infamous Tombstone gunfight. There was also the poker game when he carved up one of his opponents with a knife (the opponent survived) and other acts of violence, in self-defense or not.

But nothing — not climate or clean living was going to stop John Henry Holliday's very slow and painful slide into the grave. After wandering the American West in search of relief and better poker games, Doc checked into a hotel in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The nearby sulfur springs were thought to be curative, but actually probably hastened the damage to Doc's already compromised lungs.

He rose occasionally from his sick bed to tend bar, when he could summon the energy, which wasn't often. Gambling was out of the question; he was too sick to concentrate, and alcohol dependency, in part to combat his considerable pain, kept him in a mental fog. He spent his last two weeks impoverished and confined to bed in varying states of consciousness -– meningitis being one of the side effects of untreated tuberculosis. Wyatt did not bring him flowers, or anything else, for that matter.

Doc died the morning of November 8, 1887, at the ripe old age of 36, six years after the Tombstone shootout. If you'd like to visit the grave, good luck; no one is quite sure where he's buried.