Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Story of 'Big Nose Kate,' AKA: Katie Elder

By Gary Miller

While there were plenty of tough guy outlaws and gunslingers in the old west, I like to pick on the gals sometimes. I posted an article here a while back about Calamity Jane (Martha Jane Canary / Cannary) that some of our readers apparently found interesting. This time, we will take a look at a woman who was known as Big Nose Kate.

With a handle like that, we know that we're not checking out a beauty queen here. But then, back in her day, she was considered as better looking than many women of the wild west.

Kate was born in Hungary on November 7, 1850 as Mary Katherine Haroney. She was the daughter of a doctor who, at one time, was the personal physician of Mexico's Emperor, Maximillion. But after Maximillion's regime crumbled, her family fled all the way to Davenport, Iowa, where they settled.

After the death of her mother, Kate became somewhat of a drifter at the young age of 14. Then a riverboat captain named Fisher took pity on her and helped her to find a place to stay in St. Louis where she assumed Fisher's last name before entering a convent school. Later, Kate married a dentist. The couple had a child, but tragically, the baby and her husband, Silas Melvin, died the same year.

After that, some of Kate's history starts to get a little bit sketchy. Some stories locate her in Wichita, Kansas in 1874, as a 'sporting house' girl where she met James Earp, who was supposed to be the husband of the owner of the establishment. Then in 1875, Kate took on the name of Kate (Katie) Elder while she worked as a dance hall girl in Dodge City, Kansas. Several years later, Kate moved to Griffin, Texas, where she happened to meet Doc Holiday, who at that time was a card dealer in a saloon. It is somewhere in that time period that Kate acquired the moniker of Big Nose Kate. It is said that Kate was actually considered an attractive girl in those days, but her noticeably large nose eventually got her stuck with that not-so-flattering nickname.

While Kate preferred to be mostly a loner and was stubbornly independent, she liked traveling from town to town with Doc Holiday. And when Holiday got himself arrested after shooting a cheater in a card game, Kate decided to rescue him from his temporary hotel room jail before an agitated group of vigilantes got hold of him. Her plan was successful. She set fire to an old shed as a distraction, and as the blaze spread to other buildings, Kate took advantage of the confusion and grabbed two pistols and used them to disarm the lone officer who was guarding Holiday.

After that incident, Doc and Kate promised each other that they would give up their questionable life styles and take up more civilized vocations. Doc began his dental practice again for a while. But when he learned that his friend, Wyatt Earp, was in Tombstone, Arizona, Doc decided to join his old friend and also take advantage of the miners and other folks who had made big profits from the rich silver deposits there. Doc figured that there was a whole lot of money to be won or swindled from them in card games. So Doc headed that way, and so did Kate. Those high stakes card games helped Doc line his pockets with as much as $40,000 in just one game.

Kate was then running a boarding house in Globe, Arizona, but liked to visit Doc from time to time back in Tombstone. But Kate's bad temper and drunken altercations with Doc finally forced them apart. Kate even gave false testimony against Doc when he was accused of killing a stage coach driver during a hold up. But after she sobered up and realized what she had done, she withdrew her false testimony and the charges against Doc were dropped. But that was enough for Doc. He gave Kate some money and put her on the next stage coach out of town.

After that, Kate spent some time in Colorado and later married a blacksmith named Cummings. The two of them then moved to the town of Bizbee, Arizona, near Tombstone. But Kate left her husband in 1889, and moved to the railroad junction town of Cochise, Arizona. In 1900, Kate worked in a hotel there for a year before moving in with a man named Howard from the Dos Cabezas mining town. Kate stayed with Howard until he died in 1930. Being advanced in years now, Kate applied to the governor of Arizona for admission into the Arizona Pioneer's Home. But being foreign born, she did not qualify. So she put together a convincing story about being born in Davenport, Iowa, and was then accepted.

Our story of Big Nose Kate could end here with her death on November 7, 1940, where Kate passed away in the Arizona Pioneer's Home just a few days shy of her 90th birthday under the name of Mary K. Cummings. 'Katie Elder' was portrayed as the title character in the hit John Wayne movie, “The Sons of Katie elder” (see below).

Yes, checkered past or not, Big Nose Kate managed to not only endure the hardships of the old west, but she will also be remembered for her unique ability to survive in those most difficult times. --Gary Miller

Additional Reading

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