Big Nose Kate

Written by on August 27, 2017 in Southwest Characters - No comments

Rising to fame through her association with Doc Holliday, the notorious “soiled dove”, Big Nose Kate, didn’t start life as a prostitute. In fact, she was born Mary Catherine Haroney to a prominent family from Hungary. Her father was appointed personal physician to Mexico’s Emperor, Maximillian, in 1862. The family left Hungary and settled in Mexico, however, when Maximillian’s rule crumbled, the family fled Mexico and settled in Iowa.

Kate experienced a great deal of loss early in life, which perhaps shaped her character in later years. Her parents died within months of each other when she was just 14 years old. She and her siblings were placed in foster homes. It’s hard to say what might have happened to Kate during her stay with her foster father Otto Smith, but whatever it was, Kate fled aboard a steamship headed for St. Louis, Missouri. Once there, she entered convent school. A few years later she married, but lost both her husband and young child in the same year.

By the year 1874, Kate was working for Nellie Bessie Earp, wife to James Earp, who ran a sporting house in Wichita, Kansas. Women alone rarely had a choice about becoming red light ladies. While some of the women in these entertainment halls, dance halls and saloons were part-time entertainers, hoping to strike it rich; most did it just for money enough to survive. There were few options open to women in those days to keep body and soul together. The more acceptable trades for women, such as seamstress, cook or laundress, paid only the lowest of wages. Without a man to take care of her, a woman’s choice were limited — often the choice was between scandal or suicide. Though considered by most to be sinful, these women chose survival and were proud, rugged, and independent. In fact, Kate had a reputation for being tough, stubborn and short-tempered. She always stated that she worked the business because she liked it, belonging to no man, nor to any house. Her favorite line was that she was a “rip-roarin’, hard-drinkin,’ gun-slingin’ prostitute.”

In 1875, Kate was in Fort Griffin, Texas, and had acquired her working name — Big Nose Kate. Although relatively attractive, she did have a prominent beak! Here she met none other than Doc Holliday. In 1877, a man drew a gun on Holliday during a card game. Holliday, acting with his usual quickness, slashed open the man’s belly. Although he acted in self-defense, he was arrested and held in jail. Things might have been fine, but a vigilante group formed to seek revenge. Big Nose Kate formulated and executed a plan that got Holliday out of jail and out of town before the mob got to him. She set fire to a shed, and while the town was attempting to prevent the spread of the fire to the rest of town, Kate confronted Holliday’s remaining guard, holding a gun on him until they both made their escape.

She would spend the next several years traveling with Holliday to Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota and New Mexico. With two very strong willed people, their relationship was always rocky. They frequently split up to go their separate ways and Kate continued to ply her trade from time to time.

After a few years of drifting, Doc was headed to Tombstone, Arizona, to help his friend Wyatt Earp, when he again crossed paths with Big Nose Kate in Prescott, Arizona. Together, they traveled to Tombstone, Arizona, although several months later, Kate was running a boarding house in Globe, Arizona. History says she visited Doc frequently. Kate was in town the day of the infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral, and later admitted she had witnessed the gunfight from her window of the boarding house. She knew enough details to make her claim extremely credible.

The last straw of their relationship happened in 1881, when four masked men held up a stagecoach near Contention, Arizona. The Cowboy Faction in Tombstone accused Doc of being one of the holdup men. When the sheriff arrived to investigate, he found Kate in one of her drunken binges, berating Holliday. Plying her with more drink, the sheriff persuaded her to sign an affidavit stating that Doc had been one of the highwaymen. Despite the fact that when she sobered up she repudiated the statement, Doc was so angry he gave her money and sent her on her way. Though they were never together again as lovers, Kate was at Holliday’s death bed … and it is probable that she paid for his care during his last days.

The Southwest seems to breed larger-than-life characters, and Big Nose Kate was such a one. She lived long enough to see her life and that of the Earps and Clantons immortalized in song and story. While legend says that she died in a gunfight in Bisbee, Arizona, in truth, she died in bed on November 2, 1940, in the Arizona Pioneers’ Home, having lived life on her own terms and survived a world that was hard on women.

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