Doc Holliday, a dentist and prominent Wild West figure met Big Nose Kate, so nicknamed because of a prominent nose met at a saloon in Texas in 1877. They then embarked on a decade-long love affair involving them in violent fights, gunfights, and prison sentences. In most accounts of the Old Wild West, Mary Katherine Horony, a.k.a. Big Nose Kate existed as a footnote.
But she was more than just being Doc Holliday’s temperamental love interest. She was a legend of the Wild West on her own. Like male Wild West figures who were mostly popular in the tales of the American frontier, Big Nose Kate reinvented herself constantly. Kate was independent, fearless, and was comfortable holding and using a gun. She had had many adventures as a dance-hall girl, a prostitute, and the owner of a hotel. When Kate died at 89 in 1940, she had seen the Wild West come and go and unlike many of her male peers, had lived to tell the tale.
The early life of Big Nose Kate
there was nothing in the early life of Big Nose Kate which would suggest that she would one day find fame as a Wild West figure. She was born Maria Izabella Magdolna Horony on November 9, 1850, in present-day Slovakia, which was then a part of the Kingdom of Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1860, the Horony family including Kate, her parents, and seven siblings, left Europe to migrate to the US. They settled in Davenport, Iowa, where Horony’s father planned to practice medicine.
However, both of Horony’s parents died, one after another. Horony and her siblings were sent to foster care. Kate was under the supervision of a man named Otto Schmidt. When he tried to rape her, she reportedly hit him with an ax handle and fled. Kate was determined to get as far away from Schmidt as possible and she hid on a steamship bound for St. Louis, Missouri, renaming herself ‘Kate Fisher’ after the name of the ship’s captain.
She spent many of the next years trying to assume new identities, including as a would-be nun at the Ursuline Convent and then as a wife and a mother. When her husband and child died of yellow fever, Kate turned to prostitution. However, the existence of her husband and child has never been confirmed other than by Kate herself. She worked for a madame in St. Louis and then moved on to Dodge City where she found work with the sister-in-law of Wyatt Earp, the now-famous lawman of Tombstone, Arizona. She then went with the two to Fort Griffin, Texas, where she made the most important relationship of her life, a dentist with tuberculosis and a bad temper named John Henry ‘Doc’ Holliday.
Big Nose Kate and Doc Holliday’s love story
Big Nose Kate and Doc Holliday met at John Shanssey’s saloon in Fort Griffin, Texas in around 1877. Kate liked Holliday’s sophistication while Holliday was attracted to Kate’s voluptuous beauty, intellect, and independence. Also, both had fierce tempers. They fought, split, reunited, perhaps married, and fought more in the years that followed. Holliday had complained to Wyatt Earp on one occasion when he had fought with Kate that he had to quiet Kate and therefore had just hit her gently on the head with the butt end of his gun.
However, both of them made a good couple in the days of the Wild West. When Holliday was arrested in Fort Griffin during a poker game, probably for stabbing a cheat in the stomach and for drinking liquor which was prohibited while gambling, it was Kate who spirited him to freedom. She stealthily lit a fire in the town and then watched as people rushed to contain it. Then, she went to the hotel where Holliday was being held, threatened his guards with two pistols, freed him, and took him away. They rode on stolen horses and went to Dodge City and promised each other to give up prostitution and gambling. Neither of them kept the promises for long.
It was Kate who introduced Holliday to Wyatt Earp and his brothers, which was a move that she later regretted as the Earps had such power on Doc Holliday that she couldn’t get him away from
them. In 1880, Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp went to the volatile frontier town of Tombstone, Arizona. Kate lived in the nearby town of Globe, where she ran a hotel.
Though Kate and Doc Holliday maintained a stormy relationship, she was waiting in his room after the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral. Kate claimed that Holliday after the incident wept and told her that it was awful. But they split again when Kate, in a fit of rage when drunk helped to implicate Holliday for murder. But by the time Holliday died of tuberculosis at the age of 36 in 1887 in Colorado, Kate was again by his side. However, her story didn’t end there.
Big Nose Kate’s final years
The Wild West was ending by the time Doc Holliday died in the 1880s. It had been tamed by the hand of civilization. But Big Nose Kate had reinvented herself all her life and as times changed, she changed with them. Kate married a blacksmith named George Cummings in 1888. Though it was a brief and unhappy marriage and Kate had implied that Cummings was an alcoholic, it gave Kate the name which would be inscribed on her tombstone: Mary Katherine Horony Cummings.
After her marriage ended, Kate shifted to Cochise, Arizona, where she worked as a housekeeper at the Cochise Hotel. She then found steady employment at the house of a miner named John J. Howard, who kept her employed for 30 years and left her everything when he died.
However, as Kate was old by then, it wasn’t much and therefore applied to Arizona’s Pioneers Home in Prescott which was a caring facility. she hid her past to get admission and as the home only accepted American citizens, Kate claimed that she was born in Iowa and included Doc Holiday in her marriages although they had a common-law marriage. She was accepted and spent the rest of her life at the Pioneers Home before her death on November 2, 1940, five days before her 90th birthday.
In her last years, Kate didn’t discuss much about Tombstone, Dodge City, Doc Holliday, or about her other Wild West adventures. She dictated her autobiography to Dr. Albert W. Bork, a local historian, in 1935. But otherwise, she stayed tight-lipped about her past. Today Big Nose Kate is considered a sidekick to Doc Holliday and that also if she is mentioned.
However, her life was worthy of the annals of the frontier. She could drink, ride, shoot a gun and fend for herself. Like her male counterparts of the Wild West, she was flawed, passionate, and eager to live life on her own terms. About her own legend as a Wild West figure, Big Nose Kate had very little to say. However, considering her past as a teenage runaway, a dance-hall girl, a prostitute, and the lover of Doc Holliday, she noted that her life was part funny and part sad. But life was like that in any way it was perceived according to her.