An Article by Maggie Van Ostrand. Re-published with permission of Goose Flats Graphics & Publishing; Tombstone, Arizona. Goose Flats also publishes www.tombstoneweb.net and Tombstone Times. These are among the best resources for Tombstone and Old West history. This is from an article first published here in 2017.
Katie 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.
Kate’s Early Years
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 (age 19).
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 (now 24) 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.
Kate Meets Dr. John Holliday
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.
Kate Saves Doc From A Mob
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 keptpicking 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.)
The Never Lasting Pledge
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 lasted.
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.
A Successful Business Woman
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 enjoyed.
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.
Death Of Doc Holliday
Kate went back to live in Globe, and in 1887 (now 37), 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 a while, 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 States.
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.
Witness To The Gunfight
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).
Doc Uninjured, But Badly Shaken
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 birthday.
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.”