The True Story of Katie Elder
Updated: Mar 31, 2020
She was portrayed by some of Hollywood’s leading ladies: Faye Dunaway in “Doc,” the 1971 movie about Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp; Isabella Rossellini in 1994’s “Wyatt Earp;” Jo Van Fleet in the 1957 film ”Gunfight at the O.K. Corral;” and Joanna Pacula in 1993’s “Tombstone.” Her only appearance in the 1965 movie with her name “The Sons of Katie Elder” was in a coffin at the beginning of the film—being buried by her sons, played by John Wayne and Dean Martin. But that was just as well since the movie had nothing whatsoever to do with the real Katie Elder story—except her name!
The truth about the real Katie Elder is far more spectacular than any Hollywood fiction. Katie Elder lived nine lives that bridged continents and nations, worlds of woe and wonder, love and loss. She lived in the presence of kings (of both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Mexico!), the West’s most famous icons—Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp and was both a European aristocrat and a wild west whore. But she was more than her sometime profession just as Doc Holliday was more than his profession as a dentist.
Her name became famous in the annals of the Wild West and she frequented the West’s most iconic frontier towns: Deadwood, Tombstone, Dodge City, Tuscan. She was tough, resilient, smart, well-educated and fluent in four languages. And, yes, she was beautiful.
The frontier was tough on horses and humans, especially women, and she was given the less-than-flattering moniker, Big Nose Kate, by none other than Wyatt Earp who clashed with her. She could not shake the name and it made it into history books. Perhaps that’s why she changed her name so many times: Kate Horony, Katie Elder, Kate Fisher, Kate Melvin, Kate Cummings (the name on her gravestone), and Mrs. John “Doc” Holliday. Kate later wrote: “I’ve been called many things. Some not so kind. I only ever cared what those I loved called me.”
Her history is shrouded in mystery, fallacies, and conjecture. The truth was buried with Kate and Doc Holliday but here is some of what we DO know. Kate was born Maria Izabella Magdolna Horony in Hungary in 1850, the oldest of an aristocratic physician. Her name was later Anglicized to Mary Katherine, and then “Kate.” She was raised with the best European education and became fluent in four languages: Hungarian, French, Spanish and English. In 1862, her physician father, who had ties with the Austro-Hungarian king Franz Joseph I, accepted a post in Mexico as the personal physician of the king’s younger brother, the monarch of Mexico, Maximillian I. There the family lived in the palace of the king for three years. But misfortune was soon to strike the Horony family.
In 1865, the monarchy crumbled and the family fled to the United States and moved to Davenport, Iowa. There, Kate’s mother died in March of typhoid fever and her father in May, leaving Kate and her siblings orphans. Kate was shunted to a foster home in Davenport. Such a horrific fall from grace, from a wealthy aristocratic upbringing in Europe to living in a royal palace in Mexico City to a foster home in an Iowa river town must have been traumatic for 14-year-old Kate. But she was not one to let misfortune dictate her fate. A year later, she escaped the foster home, taking her younger sister Wilhelmina with her and stowing away on a steamboat on the Mississippi River in Davenport. When Captain Fisher found the sisters on his steamboat, he took pity on them and took them to St. Louis. There, Kate assumed the captain’s last name and he enrolled the girls in the Ursuline Convent. Some accounts have Kate graduating from the convent in 1869 at the age of 18, other sources claim she escaped its confines earlier.
Kate then married a dentist named Silas Melvin and bore a child in St. Louis, but both died of fever. She made her way to Dodge City, Kansas, now using the name of Kate Elder, where she found employment as a dance hall girl, then a “sporting woman” in a brothel. The whorehouse was run by Nellie “Bessie” Earp, the wife of James Earp, who was the brother of Wyatt Earp. What happened to Kate between her parents dying in Iowa, her stint at the foster home, then in the convent and finally to a whorehouse is not well-documented. We can only read between the lines of history. But her transition from dance hall girl to sporting woman in a brothel was not unlikely. Whatever happened, her association with the Earp family in Dodge City eventually lead to her fateful liaison with Doc Holliday.
In 1876, at age 25, Kate moved to Fort Griffin, Texas, where she met Doc Holliday. John Henry Holliday was a dentist by day and gambler by night. Also well-educated, he considered Kate his intellectual equal and immediately was taken with her intelligence and strong-willed personality. It was while they were in Fort Griffin that Kate came to Doc Holliday’s rescue when he was thrown in jail over a card game fight in which he killed a man in a knife fight.
According to Wyatt Earp, Kate devised a plan to free Doc by starting an old shed in the town on fire. The townspeople flocked to the fire with water buckets, while Kate entered the jail, brandishing a pistol in each hand and ordered the guard to disarm, then unlock Doc’s cell door. They escaped on horseback, the town still fighting the fire, and rode to Dodge City. There, they registered in Deacon Cox’s boarding house as Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Holliday. According to Kate, they later married in Valdosta, Georgia.
Doc was so grateful to Kate that he vowed to make her happy and settle down. He put out his dentist shingle and she gave up prostitution and became a boarding house manager. But neither promise lasted. They traveled together for several years to Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota, and New Mexico. In Santa Fe, Doc ran a saloon and Kate worked at a dance hall. By most accounts, they had a fiery relationship. One source of tension was Kate’s desire to settle down and Doc’s propensity to follow the Earp brothers, especially Wyatt. Since Wyatt and Kate didn’t get along, this was a sore point.
When Wyatt went to Tombstone, Arizona, for a silver strike, Doc Holliday followed, hoping to make his fortune at the gaming tables. Trouble followed Doc Holliday wherever he went and he left a path of carnage and dead men behind him. Kate had tried to make her living alone running a boarding house in Globe, Arizona. But she and Holliday were attracted to each other like a moth to flame. They fought and made up. Fought and made up.
On March 15, 1881, three cowboys attempted to rob a Kinnear & Company stagecoach carrying $26,000 work of silver bullion (about $700,000 worth in today’s currency) and the two drivers were killed. Doc Holliday was suspected of the robbery, however, and the sheriff sought a way to implicate him. Kate and Doc had just had another fight and the sheriff plied her with alcohol, then deceived her into signing an affidavit implicating Doc. The Earp brothers, however, testified that Doc was with them during the robbery. The next morning when Kate was sober, she recanted her testimony and claimed the sheriff had coerced her to sign a document she didn’t understand.
Kate’s drunken perfidy was forgiven and they made up yet again. They were in Tucson together at the San Augustin Fair in October 1881 when Morgan Earp rode to Tucson to ask Holliday’s help in dealing with a group of hooligans who were threatening the Earp brothers. Doc urged Kate to stay in Tucson where she would be safe but—true to form—refused and rode with Doc and Morgan Earp back to Tombstone. They stayed at the C.S. Fly Boarding House, which bordered the alley where the infamous Gunfight at the O.K Corral would occur. Kate and Doc’s room had a window that overlooked the alley. (The gunfight itself did not occur at the O.K. Corral but six blocks away in the alley.)
A feud had long simmered between the gang of outlaws and the Earp brothers, Marshall Virgil and his appointed brother deputies, Morgan and Wyatt. The feud blew up into a full-blown war when brothers Billy and Ike Clanton vowed to kill the Earp and brothers Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Claiborne sided with the Clantons. The resulting showdown in the alley of Tombstone was a 30-second shootout at close range in which 30 shots were fired. Afterward, three men lay dead—Tom and Frank McLaury and Billy Clanton. Virgil and Morgan were wounded and Doc grazed. Kate saw the gunfight from the window.
Kate later wrote that Doc Holliday, bleeding from being grazed in the chest pocket, returned to their hotel room and sat on the bed weeping from the ordeal, realizing how close he, Virgil and Morgan had flirted with death. “That was awful,” said Kate.
It was around 1882 that Doc was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He’d developed a hacking cough and Kate had noticed the tell-tale flecks of blood in his handkerchief. At the time, tuberculosis was a leading killer and a death sentence. “Lungers” as TB victims were called, flocked to Colorado, nicknamed the “World’s Sanitorium” for its therapeutic mountain air. In the late 1800s, nearly a third of Colorado’s population were TB victims. Doc Holliday headed for Sulfur Springs, Colorado, and Kate followed him.
One of Kate’s brothers owned a cabin near Glenwood Springs and she offered the cabin to Doc as a mountain respite. By 1887, he was gaunt and sickly with a wracking cough and destitute. Kate supported him in his final days.
Many years later, a memoir by a friend of Holliday and the Earps named Origen C. “Harelip Charlie” Smith was discovered that recounted Doc Holliday’s last days at the Hotel Glenwood. Charlie wrote that Holliday “told me once that he did not fear death. It was the living that he feared most. And the fear of not going out game.” Charlie helped Kate care for Doc in his final hours.
“Kate was already taking care of him when I arrived...Kate’s devotion to Doc was not surprising for she remained by his side till the end. She slept in Doc’s chair sitting by the window. Kate felt helpless not being able to ease his pain.... She was their sole means for support, for Doc could not work...Kate never wanted to be far from Doc. I consoled her and saw to it no harm came to Doc. Doc had made many enemies in his life and perhaps the troubles Doc faced in Arizona and Colorado, she still sensed danger to him.
“In the final hour I knew one thing. Doc was about to cash in his chips... During the final moments, when the end was near, Doc turned his head toward Kate and smiled. As the light faded from his eyes, he took his last breath. Kate said in a choked voice, ‘the end of Holliday.’“
In 2017, the Glenwood Springs Historical Society of Colorado purchased an 1866 Remington .41 caliber double-barrel, pearl-handled derringer for $84,000. On the handle was carved in a decorative script: “To Doc from Kate.” The gun was given to Doc Holliday by Kate and was in his room at the Hotel Glenwood in Glenwood Springs when he died. She offered the derringer as partial payment for his funeral and made his funeral arrangements. He was 36 years old but had lived a multitude of lives.
Kate would live another 53 years. Several years later she married a blacksmith by the name of Cummings but she soon left the marriage. She wandered, worked managing a boarding house, then a housekeeper for a wealthy hotelier until his death in Cochise, Arizona. Ten years before her death, she wrote to her friend, Arizona Governor George Hunt and applied for admittance to the Arizona Pioneers’ Home in Prescott. The home required residents be American citizens, but she had never applied for citizenship. So she wrote on her application that she’d been born in Davenport, Iowa. She spent her last halcyon years in the Pioneer Home and died a peaceful death in bed seven days before her 91th birthday. And she lived to read the larger-than-life stories of her young life with Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers. She was not just a survivor. She had become a legend herself.
PHOTOS: Many movies were made featuring Katie Elder (aka, Kate Horony, Kate Fisher, Kate Melvin, Kate Cummings, and Mrs. John “Doc” Holliday. (1 & 1a) In the 1957 film, “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, featuring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, Jo Van Fleet played Kate. (2 & 2a) In the 1971 movie, “Doc” about Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, Faye Dunaway depicted Kate. (3 & 3a) Joanna Pacula in 1993’s “Tombstone.” (4 & 4a) Isabella Rossellini in 1994’s “Wyatt Earp.” (5) An 1865 tintype of Katherine Horony at age 15 and her younger sister, Wilhelmina. From the Sharlot Hall Museum archives. (6, 7 & 8 ) Portraits of Kate later in life. (9) Portrait circa about 1880 possibly taken in Prescott. Arizona, of Doc Holliday and Kate with Wyatt Earp. Shown back row from left: Kate, Doc Holliday, Wilhelmina Horony (Kate’s younger sister), Crawley P. Dake, a lawman and U.S. Marshal who deputized Virgil Earp. Front row: Wyatt Earp and his sister-in-law, Alvira Earp, wife of Virgil, Wyatt’s brother. Photograph from the collection of P.W. Butler. (10) Tintypes of Doc Holliday and Kate in their 30s. (11) The 1866 Remington .41 caliber double-barrel, pearl-handled derringer of Doc Holliday with the inscription: “To Doc from Kate.” In 2017, the Glenwood Springs Historical Society of Colorado purchased the gun for $84,000 for their historical museum. (12) Kate Horony died as Kate Cummings in 1940. Her gravesite is in Prescott, Arizona.
© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER
Posted September 17, 2019 on Facebook
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