Elder was more, much more, than the title character in John Wayne's
1965 western, "The Sons of Katie Elder," She was more than the
portrayal by Faye Dunaway in the 1971 film "Doc." Katie Elder
was a real person, whose background was perhaps more plaid than
checkered. For one thing, there were all those names.
Besides being called Katie
Elder, she was also known as Kate Fisher, Big Nose Kate, Nosey
Kate, Mrs. John H. "Doc" Holliday, Kate Melvin, and Kate Cummings.
Actually, she was born Mary Katharine Haroney in Hungary on November
7, 1850. She died in 1940, and was buried under the name Mary
K. Cummings in Prescott Arizona.
Some historians of the Old
West believe she was Mrs. Doc Holliday, and some don't. Either
way, she was quite a bit more than the "plainswoman" that revisionist
history books call her. Katie herself never denied that she was
a rip-roarin', hard-drinkin,' gun-slingin' prostitute.
Katie's recorded background
appears to have begun in a Fort Griffin, Texas, saloon in the
fall of 1877, where she met gunslinger Doc Holliday. An affair
between them ensued, and she helped Doc escape from the law after
he knifed a man in a barroom brawl, killing him on the spot. There's
more to this than meets the eye, as you will discover very soon.
In Dodge City Kansas the
following year, the pair registered in a rooming house as Dr.
and Mrs. John H. Holliday. It is possible they were really married,
but no one knows for certain. Though Katie could most certainly
be "uncovered" since she was a prostitute, proof of their marriage
has not, to date, been uncovered.
Doc and Katie later moved
on to Tombstone, Arizona, where in July 1881, Katie got extremely
drunk and, in that lamentable condition, was talked into signing
a deposition saying Holliday was one of the outlaws who had held
up a stagecoach. Holliday, understandably put out by this betrayal,
dumped Katie the minute he was freed of the charge. More about
this event later.
Although she lived to be
nearly 90, legend has her being slain with a stray bullet fired
by a drunk in the Brewery Gulch saloon in Bisbee Arizona. This
story is doubtless apocryphal, which is, after all, how myths
are made. She must have had an excellent public relations representative
to have spun such a saga. Again, the truth will be revealed later
on in this article.
Relentless research has brought
to light additional facts and details about Katie's life.
She was born November 7,
1850 in Budapest, Hungary, the eldest daughter of a wealthy physician
named Dr. Michael Haroney. She received an education befitting
an aristocrat's daughter. She was literate, and spoke several
languages, including Hungarian, French, Spanish and English.
In 1862, Dr. Haroney left
Hungary for Mexico to accept a position as personal surgeon to
Maximilian of Mexico. When Maximilian's government crumbled in
1865, Dr. Haroney took his family to Davenport, Iowa. Mama Horoney
died in March, followed by Dr. Horoney in May of that same year,
both of unknown causes, and 14-year-old Kate was placed in the
foster home of Otto Smith.
At the age of 17, Kate left
Smith and stowed away on a steamboat to St. Louis, Missouri. Upon
discovering his stowaway, Captain Fisher took pity on her, and
placed her under his protection. She took the Captain's name and,
under the name of Kate Fisher, entered a convent school in St.
Louis, graduating in 1869.
At one point, Kate claimed
to have married a dentist named Silas Melvin and to have borne
him a child, although no record survives of either the marriage
or birth. She said that both husband and baby died of fever. This
may be the truth, or simply a young girl's fanciful imagination.
By 1874, Kate had made her
way to Dodge City, Kansas, calling herself Kate Elder. She worked
as a prostitute in a brothel run by Nellie Bessie Earp, wife of
James Earp, an older brother of the better-known Virgil, Wyatt,
and Morgan, the Earp brothers. Some historians speculate that
she had a relationship with Wyatt, but Kate wrote that she did
not meet him until several years later.
By 1878 Kate had moved to
Fort Griffin, Texas. There she met and hung out with Wyatt Earp
and it was through him that she began her long-time involvement
with Doc Holliday. Considering the probable low IQs of cowboys
and outlaws in those days, it's possible that the educated Doc
reminded Kate of her father.
Wyatt Earp told a colorful
tale of how Kate got Doc out of trouble in Fort Griffin: Doc was
dealing cards to a local bully by the name of Ed Bailey, who was
accustomed to having his own way without question. Bailey was
unimpressed with Doc's reputation and in an attempt to irritate
him, he kept picking up the discards and looking at them. Looking
at the discards was strictly prohibited by the rules of Western
Poker, a violation that could force the player to forfeit the
pot. Though Holliday warned Bailey twice, Bailey ignored him and
picked up the discards again. This time, Doc raked in the pot
without showing his hand, or saying a word. Bailey immediately
brought out his pistol from under the table, but before the man
could pull the trigger, Doc's lethal knife slashed the man across
the stomach. Bailey lay sprawled across the table, his blood and
guts spilling over the floor.
Knowing that his actions were in self-defense,
Doc did not run. However, he was still arrested and imprisoned
in a local hotel room, there being no jail in the town. Bully
or no, a vigilante group formed to seek revenge. Knowing that
the mob would quickly overtake the local lawmen, "Big Nose" Kate
devised a plan to free Holliday from his confines. Setting fire
to an old shed, it began to burn rapidly, threatening to engulf
the entire town. As everyone else was involved in fighting the
fire, Kate, a pistol in each hand, confronted the officer guarding
Holliday, disarmed him, and she and Doc escaped. (Much later,
in 1940, Kate herself explicitly denied that it had ever happened.
Then again, by that time, she was nearly 90 years old and her
memory might have been somewhat faulty.)
Hiding out during the night, they headed to
Dodge City, Kansas on stolen horses the next morning, registering
at Deacon Cox's Boarding House as Dr. and Mrs. J. H. Holliday.
Doc so appreciated what Kate did for him, that he was determined
to make her happy and gave up gambling, hanging up his dentist's
shingle once again. In return, Kate promised to give up the life
of prostitution and stop hanging around the saloons. Neither resolution
Kate and Doc spent the next few years together
on the road. They went to Dodge City Kansas, Deadwood South Dakota,
Las Vegas New Mexico Territory, and Prescott Arizona Territory.
Their relationship was allegedly turbulent and sporadic.
It is known that Kate rented a boarding house
in Globe Arizona Territory. In 1880, she also stayed for a time
in the booming silver town of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, where
she prospered by running a bordello. An inveterate gambler, Doc
Holliday, had a great run playing faro and poker in Tucson, joining
Kate in Tombstone later that year. The two renewed their relationship,
and things returned to the erratic romance they had previously
Here's the real skinny about how Kate came
to betray Doc, thereby losing him forever. Holliday, who had been
friendly with one of the actual robbers, was suspected of participating
in a stagecoach robbery and murder that occurred near Tombstone,
on March 15, 1881. Holliday's enemies discovered that he and Kate
had just had a fight. They got her drunk and persuaded her to
swear that he had been involved. Holliday was arrested based on
her testimony. The next day, a sober Kate recanted her story,
and Holliday was released from jail. Their relationship never
fully recovered despite her recantation.
Kate went back to live in Globe, and in 1887,
she traveled to Glenwood Springs Colorado to see Holliday before
he died. He actually spent some sick time in a cabin owned by
one of Kate's brothers near Glenwood Springs, but he ultimately
went into town to die, and Kate went with him. Since Holliday
is known to have been destitute by this time, it is probable that
Kate helped support him in his final months.
After Holliday's death, Kate married George
Cummings, a blacksmith by trade, in Colorado. The marriage lasted
about a year and the couple split up. Kate found work in Cochise,
Arizona for awhile, before taking a job with John Howard as a
housekeeper in Dos Cabezas, Arizona, where she worked until his
death in 1930.
Using the name Cummings, Kate, increasingly
frail, applied to the Arizona Pioneers Home, a state establishment
in Prescott for elderly and destitute Arizona residents from frontier
days. She was finally accepted after a six month wait, possibly
due to the fact that Kate had never become a citizen of the United
While there, the paparazzi of the day swooped
down to find out about her life with Doc and their time in Tombstone.
Kate wanted money to tell them, but they refused to pay, so most
of her story will never be known.
When she was 89, however, she wrote a letter
revealing that she was with Doc in his room in Fly's Boarding
house, next to the O.K. Corral, and that she actually witnessed
the shootout. Many details were included in her writings that
strongly suggest she was telling the truth.
Kate's story: On the day of the gunfight,
a man entered Fly's boarding house with a bandaged head and a
rifle. He was looking for Holliday, who was still in bed after
a night of gambling during which he'd had one argument with Ike
Clanton that had been stopped by onlookers. The man was turned
away by Mrs. Fly. He was probably Ike Clanton, although how Clanton's
head had come to be bandaged is unknown. Clanton was known to
have headaches, and perhaps he had been treated for that even
before Virgil Earp hit him over the head and removed his weapons
a short time later. In any case, Clanton's actually entering Holliday's
rooming-house with a rifle would have given Holliday and the Earps
all the reason they needed to believe that a gunfight between
Holliday and the cowboys was inevitable.
While Clanton was being disarmed, arrested,
and taken before a judge, Kate claims that Holliday put on his
clothes and went up to see the Earps. They had gathered at the
corner of 5th Street and Allen, where they could keep an eye on
the courtroom to the South, the O.K. Corral a block west, and
the various cowboys who were believed to be coming and going from
out of town. Eventually, the Earps and Holliday walked down Fremont
Street to confront the cowboys in the vacant lot West of Fly's
(and Holliday's) boarding house. Kate would have been able to
see the fight, just feet away, from her window overlooking the
vacant lot. In Kate's version of the gunfight, Holliday had a
problem with this "rifle" after the shooting started. He threw
it to the ground and drew his pistol. This report fits with what
is known of the events, although what Holliday actually threw
down would have been his double-barrelled short shotgun (the gun
he had emptied when killing Tom McLaury).
It is only from Kate that we know what happened
after the fight. Doc Holliday went back to his room and examined
a minor flesh wound on his hip, which he had gotten from a bullet
fired by Frank McLaury. He sat on the edge of the bed and wept
from the shock of what had just happened. "That was awful," Kate
claims he said. "Just awful."
Kate stayed at the Arizona Pioneers' Home
until her death on November 2, 1940, five days before her 90th
Kate was a larger-than-life character who
lived to see stories of her own life and death (in that alleged
gunfight in Bisbee) told as a legend of the Old West. In real
life, she died in bed, having survived a world that was hard on
both women and horses.
Kate said of life: "Part is funny and part
is sad, but such is life any way you take it."
Doc Holliday: A Family Portrait, Karen Holliday Tanner, University
of Omaha Press, 1998 (ISBN 0-8061-3036-9).
Wyatt Earp: Frontier Marshal, by Stuart Lake, Pocket Reprint,
July 1994 (ISBN 0671885375)
Wikipedia Encyclopedia: Katie "Big Nose" Elder
Maggie Van Ostrand is a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune
and has had articles published in the Boston Globe, Amarillo Globe-News,
Philadelphia Inquirer and Newsday and is a judge of the 2007 Arizona
Press Club's annual humor writing award and a judge for the Erma
Bombeck Writer's Group annual humor contest.