c 2017 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article first appeared in “Days Past”, Prescott Daily Courier.
Of all of the wild women serenaded by the famous Earp brothers and Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate was the first to woo the men who would later find fame in Tombstone. Born in Hungary in 1850 as Mary Katharine Haroney, Kate immigrated with her family in 1860. They were living in Iowa when Kate’s parents died in 1866. She and her siblings were sent to a farm, where grueling work conditions enticed Kate to run away. She stowed away on a steamship for New Orleans, where she entered the Ursuline Convent.
The idea of any young lady entering a convent on her own was quite novel in the day. The Ursuline Convents of American also offered academies, private girls’ schools for an elite set of socialites. Although New Orleans offered such an acadmey, it is unclear whether Kate paid tuition to attend classes, or whether she simply sought shelter. Either way, life in the convent failed to suit Kate, whose wanderlust soon sent her traveling West.
During her journeys, Kate adopted various aliases: the surnames of Fisher and Elder, and her infamous nickname, Big Nose Kate. She also dabbled in prostitution. By 1869, she was working for madam Blanch Tribolet in St. Louis but in 1874 she moved to Kansas and began working for madam Bessie Earp, wife of James Earp — Wyatt Earp’s older brother. The following year, she was in Dodge City working at Tom Sherman’s Dance Hall.
In late 1877, at Fort Griffin, Texas, Kate met John Henry “Doc” Holliday, the dentist-turned-gambler who was trying to alleviate his tuberculosis. Also, it was here that Kate introduced Holliday to Wyatt Earp. Later, when Wyatt moved to Dodge City, Holliday and Kate followed. The couple registered at the Deacon Cox’s Boarding House as Mr. and Mrs. J.H. Holliday. Doc set up a dental practice but he spent much of his time playing cards and drinking.
Kate would stay by Holliday’s side during his coughing fits, but the two quarreled regularly and sometimes violently. According to Kate, the couple later married in Valdosta, Georgia. They began traveling frequently, but lived in Las Vegas, New Mexico for about two years. Holliday worked as a dentist by day and ran a saloon by night. Kate also occasionally worked at a dance hall in Santa Fe.
In 1879, Wyatt came for a visit and talked Holliday and Kate into moving to Prescott. Wyatt’s brother, Virgil, was already in Prescott when Wyatt, his girlfriend Mattie Blaylock, Kate, Holliday, and James and Bessie Earp arrived. Wyatt and James traveled on to Tombstone, but Holliday hit a winning streak and stayed in Prescott. As of June 1880, he was living in a boarding house on Montezuma Street, aka “Whiskey Row”, working as a dentist and gambling. In the meantime, Kate traveled to Globe as she learned there was good money to be made there. When Holliday‘s lucky streak ended, he left for Tombstone and wrote to Kate asking her to visit him.
In March 1881, Kate arrived in Tombstone only to find Holliday very sickly. She decided to stay with him, but their reunion was hardly blissful. One night an angry Kate told Sheriff John Behan that Holliday was responsible for a local stage robbery involving two murders. Holliday was arrested, but Kate later recanted and the charges were dropped. Furious, Holliday sent her back to Globe, but by October he was writing for her to return. Kate did indeed return and moved with Holliday into Fly’s Boarding House.
By this time, Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan Earp had become noted lawmen in Tombstone. However, the Earps’ disagreements with the McLaury and Clanton brothers, as well as Billy Claiborne, were leading up to the notorious shootout at the O.K. Corral. On the morning of October 26, Kate remembered Holliday leaving, telling her, “I may not be back to take you to breakfast, so you better go alone.” Instead, Kate remained in room only to witness the gunfight that afternoon. In the aftermath of the shootout, Kate returned to Globe and Holliday hit the road traveling. Each rarely saw one another.
Kate continued working as a prostitute in Cochise, Courtland and Bisbee, but by 1887 she was back in Globe when she heard Holliday was ill in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Kate traveled to Colorado to care for Holliday while staying at her brother Alexander Haroney‘s ranch. On November 8 Holliday died. It is unsubstantiated whether or not Kate was present at his death.
Following Holliday’s death, Kate married blacksmith George Cummings in about 1888. By 1900, she was working as John Howard’s housekeeper in Dos Cabezas, Arizona where she remained until Howard’s death in 1930. In 1931, Kate moved to the Arizona Pioneer’s Home in Prescott, claiming American citizenship to gain admittance and living there quietly until her death on November 2, 1940.
Although she had not worked in the prostitution industry for decades, a small stink arose regarding whether Kate deserved burial in Prescott’s Pioneer Cemetery. Whispers around Prescott brought up her notorious past, her notorious paramour and whether she really was just the housekeeper for Howard. Those who squawked were reminded, however, how much Kate did for advocating the rights of her fellow residents at the Pioneer’s Home. In the end, Big Nose Kate won and was buried under the name of Mary K. Cummings at Prescott’s Pioneer Cemetery. Today, she would likely be surprised at how many visitors she receives each year.
You can read more about Big Nose Kate in Jan’s books, Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains and Wild Women of Prescott.