I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
How do you go from being raised in a good family, entering a convent, and then working in a brothel? In America's Wild West this and many other strange things were possible.
Dates and places don't always match in the various records of Big Nose Kate's life, what I have tried to present here is the best available version of the truth.
Respectable Hungarian Family
Mary Katherine Harony was born in Budapest, Hungary in November 1850. Her mother was a teacher and her father was a wealthy physician. Caught up in the endless European wars, the family decided to settle in America and headed for Davenport, Iowa.
But, tragedy struck the family when Dr. Harony and his wife died within months of each other, sending Mary Katherine, then 14, and her five siblings into foster care. The children seem to have been shuffled around a fair bit and Mary Katherine, now styled Kate, ended up the home of a lawyer named Otto Smith.
According to The Vintage News, Smith “reportedly tried to rape her. She decided that the best thing to do was run away, so she stowed away on a steamship headed for St. Louis, Missouri. Once there, under the name of Kate Fisher, she enrolled in a convent school and graduated in 1869.”
But, the convent life does not seem to have suited Kate's temperament, because in the same year as her graduation she was working for a madam known as Blanche Tribole in St. Louis.
Kate Meets Doc Holliday
The next we hear of Big Nose Kate is in 1874 when she turns up in Dodge City, Kansas, but not in the best of circumstances. She was fined for plying her trade as a “sporting woman” (prostitute) in a “sporting house” (brothel) operated by Nellie Earp, sister-in-law of frontier lawman Wyatt Earp.
The following year, Kate was working as a dance hall girl in Fort Griffin, Texas. Doc Holliday, variously described as a dentist, gunfighter, and gambler, was in the same saloon.
Holliday, new in town, was playing poker with a local man called Ed Bailey. The story related later by Wyatt Earp is that Bailey was cheating by checking cards in the discard pile. Holliday called him out but Bailey ignored him and continued to cheat. Holliday then scooped up all the money on the table without showing his hand. According to the rules of poker, Holliday was entitled to do this; but Bailey disagreed and produced a gun to back his claim.
Then, Doc Holliday pulled out a knife and opened up Bailey just below his ribs; it was a fatal attack. Being a stranger in town, Holliday was assumed to be the villain and was placed under guard at the hotel (the town did not have a jail at the time). Local sentiment brewed up against Doc Holliday and a lynch mob started to form.
Meanwhile, Kate, who had taken a shine to Holliday, organized his escape. According to Earp, she set fire to a shed, and “she hammered at the [hotel] door, yelling, 'Fire!' Everybody rushed out, except the marshal and the constables and their prisoner. Kate walked in as bold as a lion, threw one of her six-shooters on the marshal, and handed the other to Doc Holliday. 'Come on, Doc,' she said with a laugh. He didn’t need any second invitation, and the two of them backed out of the hotel, keeping the officers covered.” The pair then took off for Dodge City.
The story of the murder of Ed Bailey and the subsequent escape appears in many places, including a scene in The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral movie. They are all based on an article that appeared in The San Francisco Examiner. It seems a reporter did indeed interview Wyatt Earp but the quotes were too dull for his liking so he seems to have coloured up the narrative somewhat. It's a good yarn but it needs to be taken with a grain of salt.
Doc and Kate's Relationship
Doc Holliday and Kate Elder, as she now called herself, became a couple, but it was an off-and-on union. Apparently, they had a deep affection for one another, but they were both volatile. Stormy fights, made worse when Kate was drunk, led to break-ups followed by reconciliation, followed by more scraps.
During one of the more peaceful times, Kate and Doc were living together in Tombstone, Arizona. They were drawn to the town, along with scores of other chancers, by the discovery of silver and the boom that followed.
It was the early summer of 1880, but the tempestuous relationship overcame the love they shared. Early in 1881, Doc Holliday had had enough of Kate's abusive outbursts and he threw her out.
An attempted stagecoach robbery took place near Tombstone in March 1881 and two men were killed. The local sheriff saw this as an opportunity to get rid of Doc Holliday who had become something of a problem. He found an inebriated Kate, still smarting from the break-up with Holliday. He fed her some more whiskey, and got her to sign an affidavit to the effect that Holliday as one of the masked stagecoach bandits.
When the booze wore off, she was horrified by what she had done and recanted. But, that was the end of the romance; Doc Holliday gave her some money and put her on a stagecoach out of town.
Big Nose Kate Moves on
The most exciting part of Kate's life had come to an end. She turned up in Colorado for a while and may have reconnected with Doc Holliday. He was in the state in the 1880s, trying unsuccessfully to recover from tuberculosis. Doc died in 1887 and Kate moved back to Arizona. There were failed marriages and relationships.
In about 1900, she moved in with a man called John Howard. They stayed together until Howard died in 1930 and Kate, now 80 years old, moved into a seniors' home. She died in November 1940 a few days short of her 91st birthday.
- After Doc Holliday's escape from Fort Griffin with Big Nose Kate's help, he promised her he would give up gambling. Kate, in turn, pledged to stop going to saloons and working in the sex trade. Neither resolution lasted long.
- Once called the Grand Hotel, there's a building in Tombstone now known as Big Nose Kate's Saloon. Although Kate was never in the place, it's said that visitors claim to have experienced paranormal activity in the saloon and that Kate is the resident ghost.
- Pearl de Vere was one of many women who ran brothels in the Wild West. Her “sporting house” in Cripple Creek, Colorado catered to wealthy clients. The Old Homestead, built in 1896, was richly decorated and offered the services of the most beautiful girls. The asking price for a night's entertainment was $250; that's about $8,000 in today's money.
- “Big Nose Kate – Doc Holliday’s Sidekick.” Kathy Weiser, legendsofamerica.com, November 2019.
- “Big Nose Kate – Doc Holliday’s Rough and Tumble Lover Who Broke Him out of Jail.” Tijana Radeska, thevintagenews.com, November 9, 2018.
- “Doc Holliday and the Ghost of Ed Bailey.” Victoria Wilcox, victoriawilcoxbooks.com, undated.
- “Katie Elder, a.k.a. Big Nose Kate, Her True Story.” Maggie Van Ostrand, Southern Arizona Guide, undated.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2021 Rupert Taylor
Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on July 02, 2021:
I've never heard of Big Nose Kate, Rupert, but this is an interesting story. I love the intertwining of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, names with which I've very familiar.
I enjoyed this and will be back to watch the videos.
Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on July 02, 2021:
From good to better, and then to worst? Don't sinners fair better? I pity the old Kate, who died in her sins without making peace with her maker. What a tragedy.