Big Nose Kate was Old West gambler and gunslinger Doc Holliday’s common-law wife. But this Wild West woman was too wild for even the West’s baddest outlaws.
1. She Was A Mystery
In the late 19th century, Big Nose Kate rubbed shoulders with the baddest bandits and lewdest lawmen of the Old Wild West. But she wasn’t your average “sporting woman”. With a flaming hot temper, she could swing from best friend to backstabber in a heartbeat. But, with all of her lies, it’s hard to know who she really was.
And who she really loved.
2. She Was Hungarian
Mary Katherine Horony (aka “Big Nose Kate”) would become a famous outlaw in America’s Wild West. But she wasn’t even American—or that wild—to begin with. She was born in the Kingdom of Hungary in November 1850 into a respectable upper-middle class family. Her father was a prominent physician but his client list was shrinking. So he made a big, and disastrous, move.
3. Her Family Fled A Coup
When she was still just a girl, Kate’s father secured a position as the personal physician to Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico. However, the Austrian-born physician was wildly unpopular in Mexico. So, when the republican forces staged a bloody revolution, Kate and her family had to flee for their lives or risk the mercy of the merciless republicans.
They ultimately found safety in the most unexpected place of all.
4. She Became An Orphan
Of all the places, the Horony family landed in Davenport, Iowa. But, even in that restive midwestern town, tragedy followed Kate. Shortly after arriving in Iowa, her mother passed away. Then, less than a month later, her father also kicked the bucket. Just like that, Kate became an orphan. Her reaction, however, was surprising.
5. She Ran Away From Home
After losing her parents, Kate and her siblings landed in the foster care of one Otto Smith. But Kate didn’t seem interested in even the appearance of normalcy. At 16, she ran away from her new foster home, hiding on a steamship bound for St. Louis, Missouri. There was just a small mishap in her otherwise perfect getaway plan.
6. She Was Not Good At Hiding
Throughout her life, Kate uncovered many of her own “hidden” talents. But hiding was not one of them. The captain of the steamship—a man (rather ironically) named Fisher—found the young runaway hiding amongst the ship’s cargo. Instead of throwing her overboard, however, he decided to let her stay on. She might have convinced him that she had a hot date in St. Louis.
7. She Started A Family
Kate arrived in St. Louis, safe and sound, and just in time for her “date”. Later on in her life, Kate claimed that she had married a dentist named Silas Melvin when she arrived in St. Louis. She further claimed that she had a child by this man but that both passed of yellow fever. The historical records, however, tell a more tragic story.
8. She Lied About Her Family
In her later years, Kate developed a habit of romanticizing her life—and rewriting the bad parts. The historical records indicate that the only Silas Melvin working as a dentist in St. Louis at the time was already married to a steamship captain’s daughter; one Mary Bust. But there is another possible explanation for her claims.
9. She Maybe Married A Madman
By the time Kate began speaking with historians in her older years, her mind had started to fade. She likely confused Melvin’s profession with that of her longtime lover, Doc Holliday. If she had, in fact, married a man named Silas Melvin in St. Louis, it was likely the only other man going by that name who happened to work at an insane asylum.
Given her subsequent behavior, she might as well have been one of his patients.
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10. She Joined The Nunnery
Whether or not she ever actually married Melvin, shortly after arriving in St. Louis, Kate was all on her own. Researcher and historian Jan Collins claims that Kate then did the unlikeliest thing: she joined the nunnery. Kate enrolled at the Ursuline Convent but she didn’t stay long enough for the nuns to set her on the straight and narrow.
Actually, she became the furthest thing from a nun.
11. She Was A “Sporting Woman”
After leaving the convent, Kate disappeared from the historical record. But then she made a dramatic reappearance. In 1874, the authorities slapped her with a fine for working as a “sporting woman” (aka courtesan) under Nellie "Bessie" Earp, the sister-in-law of the famed Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp. For this good girl gone bad, there was no turning back.
12. Her Reputation Preceded Her
A short time later, in 1875, Kate moved to Fort Griffin, Texas. She was likely trying to evade more trouble with the authorities for her chosen career path in the pleasure houses of the Wild West. But she had a knack for creating trouble anywhere she went. Suffice to say, her reputation preceded her. Or, at least, one infamous part of her body did.
13. She Could Sniff Out Trouble
By the time that Kate arrived in Fort Griffin, she had already earned the moniker that would follow her for the rest of her life: Big Nose Kate. There are two different (but equally likely and hilarious) versions of the story as to how she got that peculiar nickname. Either way, it’s fair to say that she had a talent for sniffing out trouble.
14. She Had A Big Nose
The first theory as to how Kate became “Big Nose Kate” is a little, how should we say, on the nose. Some historians believe that she earned the name simply because she had a big schnoz. But, while photographs of her clearly reveal that she had a prominent nose, it was hardly big enough to warrant its own title.
The second theory states that Kate earned her nickname thanks to one of her worst habits.
15. She Was Nosey
Allegedly, Kate was simply a nosey busybody who enjoyed sticking her snout into other people’s business, where it certainly didn’t belong, and that’s how she got the name. This theory makes a whole lot of sense. As a working girl, she was privy to everyone’s secrets. The gossip wasn’t the only reason she enjoyed her job.
16. She Was A Proud Girl
Despite her sensible upbringing, Kate was not ashamed of her chosen profession. She was tough as nails and stubborn as a mule and she felt that the life of a courtesan was the one for her. She often proudly declared that she belonged to no bawdy house and no miserable man. Or, perhaps, she simply hadn’t met the right man yet.
Until he came riding in like a knight in shining armor—or an outlaw in a black hat.
17. She Met Her “Match”
Shortly after arriving in Fort Griffin, Kate met John Henry “Doc” Holliday. By day, he was an upstanding dentist that probably reminded Kate of her father as a man of medicine and science. But by night, he was a rapacious gambler and ruthless gunslinger. In other words, he and Kate were a perfect match. A “match” that lit an explosive relationship.
18. She Had A Combustible Relationship
Kate and Doc Holliday hit it off instantaneously. They both came from upper-middle class families but had, for reasons unknown, chosen a life of lawlessness in the Wild West. Most importantly, they shared a love of drink and tempers so hot that they could scorch an entire town. In fact, they almost did burn down a town.
19. Her Boyfriend Hated Cheaters
Not long after their initial meeting, Kate and Holliday found themselves in a sticky situation. During a poker game with a locally popular bully, Ed Bailey, Holliday’s infamous temper flared up. Against the gentlemanly rules of poker, Bailey kept peeking at the cards in the discard pile. It was all Holliday could do not to cut Bailey down a peg.
Until he did.
20. Her Boyfriend Took What Was His
At first, Holliday managed to keep his temper under control. He warned Bailey to “play poker” and not to look at the discard pile. Bailey, however, disregarded the friendly warning. The next time Bailey peeked at the discards, Holliday exercised his right within the game to take the pot of winnings without showing his cards.
Bailey was just as quick on the draw.
21. Her Boyfriend Gutted A Man
Insulted at Holliday’s brazenness, Bailey began to draw his shooting iron. But he didn’t know that Holliday was just as fast on the draw as he was fastidious in the rules. Before Bailey could even get his finger on the trigger, Holliday brandished a blade and performed the equivalent of a root canal on Bailey’s gut, leaving his entrails to spill out over the cards.
Holliday was in for some Wild West justice.
22. She Intervened To Save Her Boyfriend
The authorities detained Holliday inside his hotel room until they could sort out the matter. However, even though Holliday had acted in self-defense, Bailey was a popular character around Fort Griffin and a mob soon rallied to avenge him. Holliday would have met his end that day if Kate and her big nose hadn’t intervened.
23. She Set Fire To The Town
Famously, Kate had a hot temper. Hot enough to burn down the town. When she learned what happened to Holliday and that a mob was forming to lynch her lover, she devised a plan. She set fire to a shed that quickly broke out into an inferno that threatened to level all of Fort Griffin. To finish her plan, she would have to be just as quick on the draw as her boyfriend.
24. She Held Up A Guard
Just as Kate had hoped, the blaze distracted the angry mob and they quickly turned their attention to putting out the inferno before it could devour their homes. In the meantime, Kate went to Holliday’s hotel and confronted the only remaining guard at the door with her charms. And by charms, we mean a shooting iron in each arm.
Unlike Bailey at the poker table, Kate wasn’t bluffing. But they were in for a long night.
25. She Escaped A Lynch Mob
Kate and Holliday spent the night in Fort Griffin, hiding out as the mob tamed the fire. Then, in the morning, they wrangled a couple of horses and made off for Dodge City, Kansas. Once there, they registered at a boarding house under the names Dr. and Mrs. J.H. Holliday. Having narrowly escaped their fate, they promised to start over.
It was easier said than done.
26. She Walked The Straight And Narrow—Briefly
As a sign of gratitude for her heroic actions, Holliday promised to give up gambling and turn to dentistry full-time. Moved by his devotion to her, Kate likewise agreed to give up her boudoir business. However, neither could deny their nature. Their grand pronouncements didn’t last and, pretty soon, they were back to their old, wild ways.
The Old Wild West just couldn’t handle these two—but soon they couldn’t handle each other.
27. She Fought The Doc
Kate and Holliday spent a few years traveling around together. They went everywhere from Georgia to Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico. Kate even claimed that they got married in those years. But they didn’t exactly enjoy an extended honeymoon. As they fell back into their old ways, they began fighting…and these were no mere lovers’ quarrels..
28. She Had A Black Eye And Busted Lip
For all of their similarities, Kate and Holliday fought like cats and dogs. Oftentimes, they would both get blindingly blotted on drinks, then break out into knock-down-drag-out brawls. At one point, Holliday even reportedly left Kate with a black eye and a busted lip. One thing was clear: if they didn’t split up, one of them would end up in an early grave.
They made the only decision they could.
29. She Left Her Lover
The historical records vary, but, at some point between 1877 and 1881, Kate and Holliday made the decision to go their separate ways. It seemed like their Wild West romance, and all of the drama that came along with it, was over. But there was one more blood and betrayal soaked chapter left in their story. First, fate had to bring them back together.
30. She Was Reunited With Her Lover
Once again, the accounts of the exact sequence of events vary from source to source. But the gist is the same. As chance would have it, after some time apart, both Kate and Holliday found themselves on the road to Tombstone, Arizona in 1881. For someone—or someones—Tombstone would be only too apt a name. As usual, wherever Kate and Holliday went, trouble followed.
31. She Ran Her Own Boarding House
According to some accounts, Kate and Holliday picked up right where they had left off. While Holliday settled into Tombstone, gambling his days away, Kate ran a boarding house in nearby Globe, Arizona. She often visited him in Tombstone—particularly when the cards and cash were running his way—but their classic all-out brawls cast a shadow over their reunion.
Then Holliday crossed a line.
32. Her Boyfriend Threw Her Out
One night in Tombstone, Kate and Holliday had a terrible fight. While she managed to escape without any physical injuries, the emotional ones were deeper than ever before. Holliday threw Kate out of their house and she went to the saloon to drink her troubles away. Just then, an opportunity to get back at Holliday sat down at her table.
33. She Threw Her Boyfriend Under The Hangman’s Noose
Some weeks prior to Kate’s and Holliday’s big spat, a terrible heist had taken place. On March 15, 1881, masked bandits had held up a stagecoach carrying a small fortune in silver bullion. The heist had gone sideways and resulted in the gruesome demise of the stagecoach driver and a passenger. The law wanted justice. Or just a neck for the noose.
Kate was only too happy to provide that neck.
34. She Was Drinking Her Troubles Away
County Sheriff Johnny Behan had only managed to nab one bandit in connection with the stagecoach heist: Bill Leonard. He was a good friend and possible associate of Holliday’s but that was all Behan had to go on. That is, until he saw Big Nose Kate at the Oriental Saloon, drinking her troubles away and plotting revenge on her lover. Then he got an idea.
35. She Was Blackout
Behan, along with Milt Joyce, county supervisor and owner of the Oriental Saloon, saw an opportunity to dole out Wild West justice. Pretending to play nice, they plied Kate with drinks all night until she could barely remember her own name. Then they whispered in her ear the perfect way to get back at Holliday for their lovers’ quarrel.
36. She Betrayed Her Lover
Under the influence of Behan and Joyce—and gallons of hooch—Kate signed a statement claiming that Holliday was one of the masked bandits from the March 15 heist. With Kate’s testimony, Judge Wells Spicer immediately sent Behan to detain Holliday. If Kate didn’t sober up and come to her senses—and soon—then the love of her life would be swinging from his neck. She had to act fast.
37. She Took It All Back
Just before Holliday could face the hangman’s noose, Kate sobered up and recanted her statement. Moreover, her old associates and friends of Holliday’s, the Earp brothers, found witnesses to provide Holliday with an alibi for March 15. But, by then, the trust between Kate and Holliday was broken. Holliday’s response was tragic.
38. Her Lover Banished Her From His Sight
Kate had gone from being Holliday’s savior to the reason that he was almost six feet under. For Holliday, the wild rollercoaster of their love was simply too much to bear. After his release, Holliday gave Kate a fat wad of cash, loaded her up on a coach and told her, with a heavy heart, that never wanted to see her again. But Kate told a different story.
39. She Reconciled With Holliday
Later in her life, Kate claimed that she and Holliday reconciled shortly after their dramatic—and purportedly, final—split. In fact, she claimed to have saved his life once again after the events in Tombstone. According to Kate, Holliday might not have survived one of the most dramatic incidents in the Wild West had it not been for her comfort.
40. She Witnessed The OK Corral Incident
Kate claimed that she witnessed the most infamous incident in the Wild West: the Gunfight at the OK Corral. While the shots rang out on the streets below, Kate allegedly watched it all unfold from the window of a boarding house in a room that she was, presumably, sharing with Holliday. What she said happened next, however, strains the imagination.
41. Her Boyfriend Ran To Her Side
The Ok Corral incident was bloody, brutal, beastly and, shockingly, brief. According to Kate, after the final shots rang out and the victims lay lifeless, Holliday, miraculously unscathed, ran to their boarding house room. He then threw himself on the bed and, in a particularly uncharacteristic way, broke down. Even Kate was stunned at his reaction.
42. She Listened To Holliday’s Sob Story
According to Kate, as soon as Holliday burst through the door, he threw himself on the edge of the bed and began sobbing. “That was awful,” Kate remembered him saying between his wrenched cries. “Just awful”. She later added that, despite his reputation, Holliday had never actually been in a gunfight before that terrible afternoon.
It was almost like Kate was talking about a different man. But she may have had a reason.
43. She Just Repeated Hearsay
Various historians have cast doubt on Kate’s version of the story. While she did get many details about the day right, it’s dubious that she actually reconciled with Holliday in time for the OK Corral incident. Furthermore, she could have learned the details about the dreadful events of that day from any of her many friends in Tombstone, including the surviving Earp brothers.
It was, probably, how she would have preferred her final moments with Holliday had been.
44. She Lost The Love Of Her Life
In 1887, Kate suffered a terrible loss. The man who had been both her lustiest lover and her fiercest foe passed away. The good doctor succumbed to a bout of tuberculosis at the age of just 36 while trying to recover at Glenwood Springs in Colorado. Varying sources will give varying accounts of his final days. One of those accounts, however, tells another story of heartbreak for Kate.
45. She Rushed To Her Lover’s Bedside
Origen Charles, one of Kate’s and Holliday’s fellow Wild West contemporaries, wrote in his memoirs that Kate did get to say her final goodbyes to Holliday. Charles claims that Holliday had wired Kate when he was in Glenwood Springs for her to join him, their old animosities cast aside. Kate, of course, could not refuse.
Even if their parting would be all bitter, and not sweet.
46. She Said Her Final Goodbyes
In his memoirs, Charles claims that Kate spent every waking and sleeping moment with Holliday as the end neared. Given her devotion to him, it was only fitting that she was with him when he drew his last breath. In a hoarse voice full of remorse and sadness, she was the first to remark, “The end of Holliday,” after her lover’s body fell limp and lifeless.
It was not, however, the end of her love life.
47. She Opened A Bakery
Whether Origen Charles’ memoirs are true or not, it took Kate a long time to move on from Holliday’s early passing. Eventually, however, she married George Cummings, an Irish blacksmith. They moved around Colorado and Arizona, working in mining camps. Kate even opened a bakery. But her happily ever after didn’t come yet.
48. She Walked Out On Her Husband
Kate certainly missed Holliday. But she didn’t need a reminder of his worst traits. Much like Holliday, however, Cummings had a habit of drinking too much and then getting physical with Kate. At this stage of her life, she did not need the drama. She walked out on Cummings around 1900 and went to work at the Cochise Hotel in Cochise, Arizona.
An honest day’s work, however, had never really been her style.
49. She Inherited A Pittance
After Holliday’s passing, records about Big Nose Kate are hard to come by. However, she popped up once again in the records as a “member of the house” of one John J. Howard. As a miner, he wasn’t a wealthy man. But, after his passing he left a small sum to Kate, suggesting that they were potentially lovers. But the paltry inheritance was not enough.
50. She Appealed To The Governor
The money that Howard had left Kate wasn’t enough for her to even buy firewood through the cold winter months. So, in 1931, at 80 years of age, she wrote a desperate letter to her old friend, George Hunt, who had become the Arizona Governor. She entreated him to admit her to the Arizona Pioneers' Home, where she would live out her last years in comfort.
There was just one small technical hurdle.
51. She Lied About Her Birth
The Pioneers’ Home that Kate wanted to move into was only for American citizens. Given that she had been born in the Kingdom of Hungary she was, technically, not eligible. Of course, the law had always been more of a suggestion to Kate anyway. She bent the truth about her birth and managed to get into the Pioneers’ Home.
Then pioneer, she did.
52. She Was A Pensioners’ Pioneer
Drawing on her years of experience in running a boarding house, Kate took up the cause of the inhabitants of the Pioneers’ Home as her own. Whenever she perceived a lack of comfort, she wrote to the state legislature, even raising matters of great concern to the governor, himself. It was a startling change of character for a woman whose temper had once nearly burnt down a Texas town.
You might say that she was a different woman.
53. She Was An “Unknown”
Five days before her 90th birthday, on November 2, 1940, Kate drew her last breath. But she continued lying even from beyond the grave. Her mortality certificate listed her birthplace as Davenport, Iowa and her parents as Marchal H. Michael and Catherine Baldwin with their birthplaces listed as “unknown”. In the end, the only real unknown was Big Nose Kate herself.