‘To Doc from Kate’ — but who was Kate?
Doc Holliday is a known entity, a man of the Wild West. But if you’ve followed news of the Glenwood Springs Historical Society’s purchase of Holliday’s derringer, you may have wondered about its inscription: “To Doc from Kate.”
So, then, who was Kate?
Mary Katherine Horony-Cummings, casually known as Big Nose Kate, lived a life as lively as her male companion’s.
Kate was born in Hungary and moved to the United States at age 10 in 1860. The family settled in Davenport, Iowa, several years later, and it wasn’t long until trouble befell Kate and her siblings. Her parents died when Kate was 15, and the children were bounced from one home to another.
It wasn’t long before Kate had enough. She ran away to St. Louis a year later, and for a time lived in Ursuline Covenant. That, too, was a short-lived decision. By 1869, records showed Kate working as a prostitute.
Life kept Kate, sometimes known as Kate Elder, on the move, and in 1877 she met John Henry “Doc” Holliday in Texas. The pair traveled west together, and his employment, too, was colorful. Doc worked as a dentist during the day, but gambled, drank and ran a saloon at night. As they moved to New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, Kate found work as a dance-hall girl and prostitute.
In the 1955 book “Doc Holliday,” John Myers Myers wrote that Kate was “one of the frontier prostitutes who operated on her own, without paying tribute to any madams or macs.”
Some histories suggest her continued prostitution was a source of trouble between Kate and Doc. They spent time apart, but reconvened in Tombstone, Arizona. Letters Kate sent a niece suggest she was with Doc, Wyatt Earp and others during the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
Glenwood Springs Historical Society members think Kate may have purchased the derringer the society now owns while in Tombstone. Despite the sometimes volatile nature of their relationship, Doc had the gun with him when he died in the Hotel Glenwood.
Several years after Doc’s death, Kate married George Cummings, a blacksmith. They were together 11 years, after which she worked as a cleaning lady. During the Great Depression, Kate became a resident of the Arizona Pioneers Home and lived there until she died in 1940.
“Kate was a survivor,” Patrick A. Bowmaster wrote in the article “A Fresh Look at ‘Big Nose Kate.’” The article appeared in the Quarterly of the National Association for Outlaw and Lawmen History. “But more than that she was a woman who survived on her own terms at a time when few of her gender did likewise.”
The article “The O.K. Corral Fight at Tombstone: A Footnote by Kate Elder” from the Spring 1977 issue of Journal of the Southwest also informed this history.
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