December 25, 2021 by Pamela Nowak
Big Nose Kate, most known for her relationship with Doc Holliday, was among the many now-legendary names associated with Wyatt Earp and his women. In NECESSARY DECEPTIONS, she takes a role as a working girl with Celia/Mattie Blaylock and later as an unlikely friend. Websites featuring Kate are numerous, as are the “facts” on them. For a well-researched history of Kate, see ACCORDING TO KATE by Chris Enss. I’ve pulled much of this week’s information from the book.
Kate Elder was born Maria Katalin (some sources cite Izabella) Magdolna Horony in Hungary. She was a daughter of a German physician and a homemaker. Her father had ties to Prince Ferdinand Maximillian and appeared destined for a role in government. However, political unrest forced the Horony family to flee Hungary for America. They settled in Davenport, Iowa in 1862, when Maria (Mary) was twelve. Three years later, Mary’s mother died, followed by her father the following year leaving five minor children (an older daughter was married). The administrator of the estate sent Mary and her sister Wilhelmina to the Ursuline Convent and Boarding School in St. Louis in 1866.
Mary Horony adapted to life in St. Louis but hated her summer months in Davenport, Iowa. At some point, she ran away from Davenport and stowed away on a steamboat headed to St. Louis. She forged a (fatherly) relationship with the Captain Fisher/Fischer and she began using the name Kate Fisher upon her arrival in the city. She legally severed her ties to the administer of the estate when she was nineteen. In St. Louis, Kate turned to prostitution.
According to Kate’s later biography, she married one Silas Melvin. There is no record of the marriage nor of Kate using that name. She later claimed she and Silas traveled to Atlanta and started a family and that both Silas and the baby boy died of Yellow Fever. She returned to St. Louis. Around 1872, she met John Henry (Doc) Holliday and claimed they married and she returned to Georgia with him when his grandmother became ill. When Holliday went west to Texas, Kate went to Wichita and began work in a brothel owned by Bessie Earp (wife of James Earp). Celie and Wyatt were also in Wichita at the time, Celie involved with Bessie in the business. It was during this time that Celie took the name Mattie. When city officials began to crack down on prostitution, Kate left Wichita.
Kate Fisher moved on to Great Bend and worked for a saloon keeper named J.S. Elder, taking his name. A newspaper article report Kate as being involved in painting a prominent attorney’s face while he was passed out. She was also arrested for assault and battery while there. By 1875, the pair left Great Bend with Kate moving on to Dodge City (at age 24). She was employed at Sherman’s saloon as a dance hall girl and prostitute and was among the girls that Sherman would take to nearby Fort Dodge to entertain the soldiers. When Dodge City reformers became active, Kate left the city with Sherman and his wagon of girls.
Tom Sherman and his troupe of Seven Jolly Sisters toured cattle towns along the major cattle drive routes. The women were officially entertainers in a canvas tent with a stage, thus avoiding the brothel-targeting of reformers. Though they took on private customers, they were able to pull up stakes and move on easily as needed. During Kate’s time with dance troupe, her fellow prostitute Mollie Brennan would meet Bat Masterson during a stop-over in Sweetwater, Texas. Thereafter, Mollie was frequently found at the Lady Gay Saloon, where Bat dealt faro. Mollie was shot and killed there during a gunfight when Melvin King accused Masterson of cheating. Shortly thereafter, Sherman and his girls related to Fort Griffin, Texas.
In Fort Griffin, Kate again crossed paths with Doc Holliday, who was a dealer at John Shanssey’s Cattle Exchange Saloon. In 1877, Wyatt and Mattie Earp arrived in town. Earp later told his biographer that Doc got in a fight with Ed Bailey there and killed him with a knife and that Kate helped him escape town; Kate denied the story.
During the next few years, Doc and Kate traveled together to Dodge City, Laredo, Eagle Pass and San Antonio, Texas (among other towns). At most places, Doc gambled and Kate plied her trade, the two moving on as profits thinned, fights ensued, or the law cracked down on prostitutes. Kate was arrested multiple times and usually preferred working saloons rather than brothels. During one of their stints in Dodge City, the two registered at the Dodge House as Mr. and Mrs. Holliday and Doc opened a dental practice. At the time, Mattie and Wyatt also lived in Dodge City and the couples spent time together socially, along with the Mastersons and their women. It was during this time that Doc was said to have saved Wyatt’s life.
Doc and Kate were known to argue frequently and love passionately. It was said that the two were unable to live together but enjoyed being with one another. Both Doc and Kate were angry drunks, Doc often violent when intoxicated. It’s also said that Kate and Wyatt Earp despised each other with Kate jealous of the time Doc and Wyatt spent together. Wyatt was said to view Kate as continually questioning what they were doing and that he began calling her Big-Nose Kate. The source of the nickname is unconfirmed and many claim it was associated with the size of Kate’s nose. In any case, she hated the name.
Kate would care for Doc Holliday through many of the worst periods of his declining health, nursing him through rough spells and encouraging him to move to drier climates. They moved together to Trinidad, Colorado and later Las Vegas, New Mexico. In Las Vegas, Doc worked as a dentist for a while, gambled, then opened a saloon. Kate was a high-dollar prostitute, earning more than $200 per week. In October 1879, they reencountered the Earps who were traveling to Prescott, Arizona bound for Tombstone. The following day, they joined the Earps.
Doc and Kate did not immediately join the Earps in Tombstone. Kate would later say she distrusted Wyatt and suspected he was planning illegal activities. It’s most likely that Kate and Doc saw opportunity in Prescott, a mining town with lots of money to reap in gambling and the flesh trade. As the city began to demand more money for gambling g licenses, Doc decided to move on and left for Tombstone; Kate went to Globe but made frequent visits to see Doc.
During one of Kate’s visits, rumors flowed about an attempted stage robbery and murder near Tombstone. The Earps and Doc Holliday were at the center of the rumor, one most likely fueled by the political climate and the fight between Johnny Behan and Wyatt Earp for the lucrative position of sheriff. While drunk, Kate claimed Doc and the Earps had done the deed but later revoked the statement claiming she was so intoxicated she didn’t know what she was signing.
Kate left Tombstone in November 1881, shortly after the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and never returned to Tombstone. She returned to Globe and her business there. After Wyatt Earp left Mattie, Mattie joined Kate there, the two forging an unlikely friendship after their years of baiting one another. In 1887, Doc sent word from Colorado, asking Kate to join him in Glenwood Springs. She sold the business and moved to care for him. He died about six months later.
Kate settled in Carbondale, Colorado, another mining town but focused on changing her life. She was 37. She stopped using the name Kate Elder and called herself Mary Horony. There is no record of what she did to support herself. In 1888, she met George Cummings, town marshal and married him in March 1890. Kate was referred to by a local newspaper of one of Carbondale’s nest girls.” Five years later, they relocated to Bisbee, Arizona where George prospected. He worked as a blacksmith, Kate (Mary) as a cook. George and Kate had mixed ideas about living in town or in the mining camp and George began to drink heavily. They divorce in 1899.
Kate moved on to Cochise Station about that same time and took a job at the Rath Hotel. She later learned the owner of the business was associated with the Cowboys (of Tombstone). She left the following year and worked as housekeeper for miner John Howard. She lived a quiet life, suffered from arthritis, and never discussed her prior life. She was 80 years old when John Howard died in 1930 leaving her without a job or a place to live. In 1931, she applied for public assistance and moved into the Arizona Pioneers Home in 1931. She died there in 1940.