Gunslinger's Best Gal
Mary Katherine Horony Cummings
The women of the Old West certainly made their mark. Calamity Jane, Belle Starr, Lola Montez, and Kate Bender were some of the more colorful ones.
Occasionally, however, an iconic woman passed through those violent corridors of American history in a quiet way, and yet she is just as memorable as any of her flashier, larger-than-life frontier sisters. Such a woman was Caroline Ingalls, mother of author and personality Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Another quietly remembered woman, however, was not a model pioneer wife and mother. Big Nose Kate was a loose woman who, for whatever reasons, loved and cared for one of the Old West’s most notorious sociopaths and cold-blooded killers, the tubercular John Henry “Doc” Holliday.
Old World Meets the New
The future Big Nose Kate was born into wealth and status as Mary Katherine (“Katte”) Horony in Buda-Pest, Hungary, on November 7, 1850. [The family surname is variously spelled Credit: public domain“Haroney” and sometimes “Harony”]. Unlike many of her American contemporaries (such as Calamity Jane), Mary grew up in privilege. Her father was a prominent and wealthy physician, Dr. Michael (or “Marchal”) Horony. Mary was the second oldest child, and she and her siblings were denied nothing. Mary’s European education was thorough, and she learned to speak several languages.
In the New World, the country of Mexico in the mid 19th century was ruled oddly enough by an Austro-Hungarian, Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph on behalf of France. He assumed the title Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico in 1864. He was not appointed emperor for any other reason than to weaken the existing Mexican government. Mexico’s conservatives wanted rid of President Juárez; Napoleon III, occupying portions of Mexico with French troops, wanted to collect on a debt owed by Mexico and to exercise his dreams of renewed French imperialism in the New World. Thus, the puppet Emperor Maximilian was given the throne. He adopted almost all Juárez’ hated moderate policies, however, and the plan backfired for both Mexico and Napoleon III. The United States refused to recognize the new imperial Mexico but as they were embroiled in a Civil War, no action was taken at the time.
The Horony family migrated to the United States in 1860. Dr. Horony was on his second wife, a woman named Katherine, who was not Mary’s mother. Historically, the accepted record claims Dr. Horony was then summoned by Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico to become his private physician in 1862. This cannot be: Maximilian was not the Emperor of Mexico at that time. He assumed the title in 1864.
Regardless, the Horony family did end up in Mexico during the tumultuous times of Maximilian’s reign. In 1863, they left as revolution was in the air and it would have been safer to leave the country. [When the US had relieved itself of the Civil War in 1865 it turned its attentions to Mexico. US troops intervened against the French on behalf of the Juárez nationalists. The French left Mexico upon US request. Juárez captured Mexico City; Maximilian refused to abdicate. His regime was toppled, and he was executed in 1867.]
Although Dr. Horony may have become the Emperor’s personal physician, his family left the country and returned to the US in 1863 or 1865 (before Maximilian’s regime fell). They settled in the mostly Germanic town of Davenport, Iowa.
In 1865, and within a month of each other, both Dr. Horony and his second wife Katherine died, leaving the Horony children orphaned. A brother-in-law took in the Horony children initially, and then they were turned over to an attorney for placement elsewhere. [Kate’s younger sister, Wilhelmina, was recorded as a domestic in the 1870 Census in Davenport at the age of 15 in a foster home.]
As for the future consort of Doc Holliday, she ran away from her foster home at age 16. The teenage girl stowed away on a steamboat and made it to the river town of St. Louis.
However she survived, Mary Katherine Horony remained in St. Louis for several years. Kate, with only the skill sets learned as a genteel child of a man of wealth, would have faced a harsh reality on the streets of the bustling river town. Though not documented, given her cultured background and education she perhaps would have had little or no trouble finding immediate work as a domestic for any one of the more prominent German families of St. Louis. She claimed later to have married a man in St. Louis who was a dentist. She said they had a child, but both father and son died of yellow fever. No records for a marriage for Kate in St. Louis or of her giving birth there have ever been discovered. In all likelihood the man she claimed was her “husband” (who turned out to be a married worker in a local asylum and not a dentist) may have been no more than a prostitution client by whom she was impregnated. Kate either then had the baby and gave it up for adoption or had an abortion. No child of record could be found, and the “husband” was someone else’s. [Some believe that, since she recalled this stage of her life in her twilight years, she may have confused this client with Doc Holliday in her fragmented memories.]
In 1874, she left St. Louis and headed west to Dodge City, Kansas. She assumed the name “Kate Elder” and although it is popular to believe she was prostituting in Dodge City there seems no firm evidence of it. A rumor alleges she and another woman were picked up on prostitution charges, but again this is not supported. Kate left Dodge City in 1876, and went to Fort Griffin, Texas. It was there she met a real dentist.
When John Henry was 19, he left home to attend dental school in Philadelphia. He received his DDS (Doctor of Dental Surgery) on March 1, 1872. Although now educated for the task, John Henry had to wait out a few months as another dentist’s apprentice – he graduated several months shy of his 21st birthday, the legal age required for licensure.
Later in 1872, however, he set up shop in Atlanta with another man. John Henry lived with an aunt and an uncle to save on expenses until he built up a reputation and a patient base. [One of Holliday’s cousins through marriage was a woman named Margaret Mitchell. She later wrote the epic novel, Gone With the Wind.]
Very soon after starting his dental practice, John Henry developed a lung problem, and a hacking cough. He was diagnosed in the early stages of tuberculosis. Although not certain how he got it (his mother had it, but had been dead for several years by this time), John Henry continued practicing dentistry with his contagion. [The disease was called “consumption” then, and it was believed to be a disorder solely restricted to the person who had it. No one generally took any precautions around a tuberculosis carrier, and it was not until 1885 the contagious nature of the disease was described.] His prognosis was grim – he was assured by his physician he only had a few months to live. As was common, however, John Henry headed off to the West where the drier climate and warmer weather might at least slow the progress of his disease.
He developed a fatalist’s outlook on life since he knew he would die of tuberculosis soon enough. He readily engaged in fights, whether with a gun or a knife simply because he did not care what might happen to him. His nihilism led to many run-ins with legal authorities. He was a heavy drinker as the alcohol helped control his hacking. However, he became dependent upon it, and he also developed a laudanum habit (a liquid opiate suspension in alcohol used for various “nervous” conditions and as a sedative). He roamed the Western Plains states – Colorado, Wyoming, and he even visited the notorious Deadwood gold mining camp in Dakota Territory in 1876 [the same year Calamity Jane took up residence in the town, although there is no record of the two having met].
By 1877, Doc Holliday was back in Texas, and settled in for a stint to gamble in Fort Griffith. Kate Elder had already met a man named Wyatt Earp since coming to town. Doc Holliday would meet Earp for the first time in 1877, and through him he was introduced to Kate Elder, also known as “Big Nose Kate”.
Kate Horony Elder was of sturdy Eastern European stock. She was not a beautiful woman – the term in those days was “handsome” for women like Kate. She was pleasant and maternal. But she was stuck with a moniker that was both unfair and perhaps inaccurate as well.
In the English language there are many slang terms and phrases that while once common and popular have long since gone out of use or fashion. Such a phrase of British origin compared the size of a man’s nose to the size of his penis : “Big conk [nose], big c*** [penis]”. The implication is that if one met a man with an extraordinarily large proboscis it was a clear indicator he was likewise generously endowed in another appendage.
Such a phrase, alternately, existed for women, as well: “Big conk, big c*** [vagina].” At this late date it cannot be said with any certainty if this was a compliment or a slander, but it was probably a slur; most men, perhaps, would be pleased to be thought of as “large”. In glaring contrast, no woman would.
Thus, this slander associated with Kate’s nose plagued her till her death. In contemporary photographs, her nose is longish and somewhat wide at the nasal base, but it does not seem unduly enormous (in fact, Holliday’s nose appears about the same proportion as hers). It is almost certain, then, that the double-entendre Victorian slang is what was intended when referring to her as “Big Nose Kate”, thus letting everyone within hearing range know she was perceived as having a large vagina. Such a moniker would not be applied to a shy and retiring courtesan; one can reasonably infer, then, that she was involved in baser prostitution at some time in her life before meeting Doc Holliday – her “big” nose alone would not have netted such a nickname permanently.
Holliday and Earp became fast friends, and Kate Elder developed an attachment for the consumptive Doc Holliday. He was two years younger than she and somewhat fragile in his physical being, but not in spirit. Kate, while not his constant companion, was a steady companion. Holliday, although he claimed she was his intellectual equal (as she most certainly was), often left her to her own devices for days and weeks as he gallivanted across the countryside. Mostly, though, he took her with him, and she doted on him.
Doc’s and Wyatt’s friendship cemented when Holliday backed Earp in a gunfight in Dodge City where a group of cowboys were bent on killing Earp in a saloon. The two men traveled to Texas from there and gambled and drove cattle for money. Doc still maintained a dental practice as late as 1878 in Dodge City – a local news advertisement he’d taken out advised he offered a money back guarantee to any patient who was not completely satisfied with his work. This stint in Dodge City, though, was the last he practiced his profession. From that time forward he would generally operate outside the law as a gunslinger, a gambler, and a killer.
However, Doc Holliday’s rashness could not remain in check. He had been taken on as a hired gun for a local railroad concern during a labor dispute. On July 19, 1879, he and another gunman, John Joshua Webb, were passing the time in a Las Vegas saloon. A former US Army scout harassed one of the saloon girls – Holliday’s Southern sensibilities were offended by this man’s rough handling of this girl, but he initially did nothing. Rebuffed, the former soldier went outside and began shooting up the saloon’s false front. Doc went outside and shot the man down. He stood trial for this murder but he was acquitted, mostly because of the circumstances and on the testimony of his fellow gunman, John Webb.
Then history wrote a new page for Kate and Doc. Wyatt Earp and his brothers, en route to Arizona Territory (where silver strikes spurred a mining rush) met up with Doc and Kate whom they had not seen in a long time. The Earps planned originally to open up a stagecoach line, but they were willing to try anything to make money. Doc, who had no real goals, and Kate, who simply followed Doc, decided to give Arizona Territory a try.
Virgil Earp was in Prescott, Arizona, when they arrived, and Doc and Kate stayed behind with him as Wyatt and the rest of his party continued to Tombstone. Doc wanted to increase his cash holdings by gambling in Prescott for awhile. Wyatt finally convinced his whole family (including Doc) to come ahead to Tombstone. This was the fall of 1880. Kate did not go immediately to Tombstone as Doc did – instead, she went off to Globe, Arizona, perhaps to simply get away from Doc Holliday for a bit.
The relationship between Doc Holliday and Big Nose Kate was always combative and strained, yet she was devoted to him. Upon her return to his side in Tombstone, the indifferent Holliday spent his time gambling and arguing with her. After a major row, Kate stormed off and fell under the influence of Johnny Behan, Cochise County’s conniving sheriff. Although the Earps were disliked by Behan and his cronies, the volatile Doc Holliday was loathed. In March 1881 a stagecoach had been robbed and its driver killed. Behan, although Doc had no hand in the crime, wanted desperately to pin the murder on him. In the wake of their most recent lovers’ fight, Behan got Kate to himself, plied her with booze in sympathy over her “man troubles”, and then got her to sign an affidavit stating Doc had done the stagecoach robbery and murder. For spite, the befuddled Kate probably had given no thought to signing it – she was angry and feeling vindictive.
Doc was arrested on this new “evidence” but once Kate sobered up she recanted. Wyatt Earp found other witnesses who could alibi Holliday for the day of the crime. He was released, and the first thing he did was put Kate on a coach back to the relative safety of Globe, Arizona. She came back to Tombstone in October 1881 to be an unwilling witness to one of the Old West’s most controversial events.
Regardless of the reasons or politics behind the Earp’s vendetta on the Cowboys, Doc was shaken by this experience. He had been a willing participant – Wyatt Earp was perhaps the Credit: public domainonly close friend he had other than Big Nose Kate, and her loyalties seemed whimsical some days. She reported later in life that after the battle, Doc had returned quietly to their room. She said he sat on the bed and in remorse bemoaned the gunfight: “That was awful. Just awful!”
Doc and Kate drifted apart afterward. She went off to Globe, Arizona, where she opened a boarding house for miners. Mattie “Earp” (the laudanum addicted prostitute with whom Wyatt lived, but then abandoned) showed up in Globe after the Gunfight at the OK Corral [Earp had already begun a relationship with an actress he would go on to marry and live with for the rest of his life]. Mattie worked with Kate for a short time before moving on to Pinal, Arizona, where she died.
Doc went to Colorado for his tuberculosis in April 1882. He started out in Leadville, but the altitude proved too taxing for his tortured lungs, so he retired to a hot springs spa in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. He was prematurely grey and balding, and the sulfurous vapors from the so-called “healthful” springs may have hastened his death.
Credit: public domain
Kate, meanwhile, trekked up to Colorado in 1887 where she had family (presumably one of her grown siblings) near Glenwood Springs. She stopped in to see the ailing Doc Holliday for the last time. He died November 8, 1887, age 36. She remained in Colorado for the immediate future, perhaps having nothing better in mind to do.
By 1910, Kate had moved to Dos Cabezas, Arizona. The US Census from that year cites her as a member of the household of a miner named John J. Howard. She was working as a domestic for him. Her first husband, George Cummings, committed suicide in 1915. In 1930 her employer John Howard died. He left instructions for Kate to be the executrix of his estate.
Kate was 80 years old by then, a record achievement for a Western frontier woman who lived on the edge as she did. Her hell-raising counterparts had all died young: Lola Montez (died at age 39, two months shy of her 40th birthday) , Belle Starr (murdered at age 40, two days before her 41st birthday), Calamity Jane (died age 51). Big Nose Kate was exceptional among these hellions.
Kate needed help. Although she had settled John Howard’s estate as required, she was still owed some funds from it for her role as executrix. This was slow in coming, and she was broke. She got in touch with a friend of hers who had been Arizona’s governor. In 1931, she appealed to him to be allowed to enter the Arizona Pioneer Home in Prescott, Arizona. This retirement community had been established in 1910 by Arizona as a final place of institutional care for destitute and ailing miners and male pioneers of the Arizona Territory.
Kate spent six months negotiating her admittance to this home. One of its requirements was each resident had to be a United States citizen. Although Kate Horony Cummings had lived all Credit: AZ State Board of Health & findagravebut about ten years of her life in the US she had never bothered with naturalization. Technically, she was still a citizen of Hungary. She was finally admitted to the home, and became an activist on behalf of the residents, writing letters to her friend the governor as needed if improvements were wanted or grievances needed airing. Although she was not the first, she was one of the first women allowed admittance to this facility.
On November 1, 1940, Kate complained of chest discomfort. She died the next day, November 2, an amazing 89 years old, less than a week away from her 90th birthday. [Considering her intimate relationship with, and nursing of, Doc Holliday it is surprising she did not contract tuberculosis and die soon after he did]. Her cause of death was a heart condition, and her death certificate records that as well as a couple of other cardiopulmonary issues common in the elderly. This document erroneously records her place of birth as Davenport, Iowa, though. It also gives the wrong name for her biological mother, and her father’s name is inverted as well.
Kate Horony, like other relics of her era, had been feted by many writers hoping to capture her story. She seemed uninterested in capitalizing upon her adventures with Doc Holliday, and she only interviewed with two authors late in her life. She summed up her life wryly: “Part is funny and part is sad, but such is life any way you take it.”
Mary Kate Horony Cummings was buried in the cemetery of the Arizona Pioneer Home. Her simple slab reads “Mary K. Cummings 1850-1940”. Although perhaps not as flamboyant as Lola Montez, as rough-and-tumble as Calamity Jane, or as criminal as Belle Starr or Kate Bender, Big Nose Kate made her mark. She was also the last of the truly wild Western women.