Big Nose Kate: A Fiercely Independent Life on the Frontier
By Miles Reding
Down to even the size of her nose, it seems there’s no detail about Big Nose Kate and her colorful life that isn’t up for dispute.
Some of the inaccuracies and uncertainties surrounding Kate’s life can be chalked up to the very nature of recording history. That is, when historians attempt to do research, they’re often confronted with sources that tell conflicting stories.
This is certainly the case for Kate, whose life may have been better recorded than most women on the American frontier, but who nevertheless remains a difficult figure to which cold hard facts can easily be attached.
Beyond the difficulties of historical research, there’s another major reason why Big Nose Kate’s biography is often falsely told, or at least heavily embellished: personal agendas.
Mary Katherine Horony was an iconic figure who has touched different people’s lives in different ways. As such, Kate’s contemporaries, her descendants, and historians have all had various motives for filling Kate’s story with myths and legends. These oftentimes-outlandish narratives about Kate make it quite challenging to deliver a straight story about the woman’s life and the kind of person she truly was.
There’s also a further layer of frustration: the tendency many writers have had to discuss Big Nose Kate in the shadow of the famous men who populated her life. Kate often enters retellings of the Old West as a footnote in larger histories of outlaw gunmen she encountered, including Wyatt Earp, and especially Doc Holliday — the man with whom she had a volatile marriage.
There are also occasional attempts to masculinize Big Nose Kate’s biography, presumably to try to make her “interesting” by passing her off as a gunslinger like the men with whom she associated. Apparently, it’s not interesting enough that Kate, when still a recent immigrant to the States, ran away from her foster family at 17 and struck out on her own in the wild and dangerous frontier.
In this particular telling of Big Nose Kate, I want to keep her front and center, considering her connections to famous outlaws where appropriate, but also not allowing these men to take over the story.
I want to be as truthful as possible, but also have some fun with the inaccuracies, exaggerations, myths, and legends that run through her long life — and consider the reasons or motives behind these embellishments.
Most of all, though, I want it to be clear that, whatever the actual facts might be, there can be no question that Big Nose Kate’s adventurous life on the American frontier indicates a woman who pursued freedom and independence with greater zeal was typical for most women of her time.
The Early Life of Big Nose Kate
Long before she became Big Nose Kate and found freedom on the frontier, Mary Katherine Horony was born to a “middle-class” family in Hungary on November 7, 1850. Her father was a doctor, and her family wasn’t big, so her childhood years in Europe were probably relatively comfortable.
Even so, the Horony family eventually decided to do what many peasants and workers of Central Europe, who never seemed to have enough money or enough to eat, were doing at the time: emigrating to the United States, already considered a “land of plenty.”
In 1860, Mary and her family arrived in New York — the primary port of entry for European immigrants. It’s not clear how or why, but eventually the Horony family made their way to Davenport, Iowa, as there are records of Doctor Horony buying a plot of land there in 1862.
Some accounts have it that, upon docking in New York, the Horony family made a great detour — all the way to Mexico, where Dr. Horony apparently served as personal physician to Emperor Maximilian. This tale hinges on the Horony family supposedly having been aristocrats, near-celebrities in the Budapest upper crust.
Sprinkled in this wild narrative is also the suggestion that Mary Horony received an elite education — which included instruction in several European languages.
She was a polyglot daughter of a celebrity doctor attending to Emperor Maximilian— that’s what some stories want us to believe. The notion that Kate was already an outsized character at such a young age is certainly an appealing one, but it’s dead wrong.
For the story to be true, the Horony family would have had to have left Europe in 1862. Immigration and census records, however, clearly show the Horony family in the States as early as 1860 — and in Iowa by 1862.
Furthermore, Maximilian of France didn’t even proclaim himself Emperor of Mexico until 1864. Despite claims that Doctor Horony was busily working in the imperial court in 1862, the emperor wasn’t even in Mexico prior to 1864.
Alas, the “boring” reality is that Kate was born to a modest family, whose father eventually bought a plot of land in Davenport in the early 1860s. Kate was indeed educated, at least enough to read and write (which wasn’t a foregone conclusion in those days), but she was certainly not a member of the nobility.
We can’t know for sure, but we might also be able to speculate that travelling such a vast distance at such a young age might have imbued in young Kate a high degree of comfort with frequently moving around. Later in life, Kate had trouble staying put, and the long journey her family made from Hungary to Iowa might’ve prepared Kate well for a semi-nomadic lifestyle later on.
After only a few years in Iowa, Kate’s parents died, and she and her siblings were sent to a foster home in 1866. There, Kate and the other Horony kids were subjected to harsh farm labor. Though still only 17 years old, Kate felt determined to get away from her foster parents.
One fine day, perhaps while on an errand run, Kate stowed away on a steamboat headed for New Orleans. Once in New Orleans, she entered the Ursuline Convent and Boarding School. According to Old West historian Jan Collins, it was fairly unheard of in those days for a young woman to enter a convent on her own, which — coupled with Kate’s decision to run away from home — tells us a lot about Kate’s independent and iconoclastic nature.
The free room and board satisfied Kate for a time, but it didn’t take long before Kate got the urge to pack up and move again. Not surprisingly, life in the cloister didn’t suit her free-wheeling personality, and so she struck west, landing in St. Louis.
Related read: Why Did People Move West in the 1800s?
Kate’s First Foray into Prostitution
Once in St. Louis, Kate probably swore to herself that she wasn’t going to set foot in another convent. But how was the young woman, still hardly an adult, to make it on her own?
She had no connections, no family wealth to draw upon, and so had little options beyond the sorts of low-paying jobs reserved for lower-class, unmarried girls and young women. Or, she could meet a well-off man and get married.
Besides these avenues, the only viable alternative was prostitution.
We don’t know exactly how Kate landed on prostitution as an occupation, but we can imagine that the independence and relatively good pay that came with it appealed to her. After all, in those days, prostitution was practically the only way a woman could escape the shackles of marriage while also not subjecting herself to a life of penury.
Surely, Kate was aware of this grim reality, and it was what led her, around 1869, to start working for madam Blanch Tribolet in St. Louis. Tribolet’s house represented her introduction to a trade she would stick with until she was no longer able to.
It may have also been around this time that she abandoned her somewhat stuffy birthname, preferring instead to simply be known as Kate.
Related read: Soiled Doves: 5 Famous Prostitutes of the Old West
On to the Frontier
In 1874, Kate, now in her mid-twenties, took the relatively short journey to Kansas, making the bold decision to leave behind safer city life for the dangers of the frontier.
Once in Kansas, she gained employment with a new madam: Bessie Earp, wife of Wyatt Earp’s brother. All sources appear to agree that this marked Kate’s first encounter with the Earps.
For whatever reason, Kate quickly moved on from Bessie Earp’s house. Within a year, she was a dance hall girl in Dodge City. Given the frontier town’s notoriety, it’s easy to imagine that Kate developed some thick skin there. We know that at some point she grew fond of gambling and gained comfort with guns, and Tom Sherman’s Dance Hall could very well have been the place where that began.
According to Ronald Lackmann, this was also the period in which the moniker “Big Nose Kate” was born. While some contemporaries and future researchers have assumed this nickname had to do with the size of her nose, Lackmann and others insist that the handle was figurative: it meant Kate had a knack for sticking her nose in others’ business.
Related read: 10 Famous Guns of the Old West, from Revolvers to Rifles
Kate Meets Doc Holliday
In the latter half of the 1870s, perhaps because of her wanderlust, Kate headed south to Fort Griffin, Texas. Here, U.S. infantrymen, outlaws, and prostitutes all cohabitated. Just beyond the confines of the military enclave, Comanches and other indigenous groups still posed a deadly threat to American settlers. There was also plenty of drinking and gambling to be had, which, for Kate, meant there’d be plenty of work.
John Henry Holliday, a dentist by day and an avid gambler by night, also set his sights on Fort Griffin at this time. Born in Griffin, Georgia, Holliday suffered from chronic tuberculosis, and, upon reaching maturity, decided that the dry, hot air of the West would be better for his health. It probably didn’t hurt, either, that the frontier had laxer laws around gambling.
Some sources allege that Kate and John Henry “Doc” Holliday met as early as 1874, but Kate’s own recollection has the two meeting in 1876. Meanwhile, another primary source from the time indicates that the two met sometime around the fall of 1877.
It’s easy to see how these two outsized personalities found each other in the relatively small, close-quarters community of Fort Griffin. Big Nose Kate was a well-known figure in the gambling halls, apparently especially popular on account of being one of the few prostitutes willing to commit particularly scandalous sexual acts.
Doc Holliday, for his part, had built up notoriety of his own as a heavy gambler, drinker, and one who was deadly with a six-gun — provided he was sober enough to aim.
After meeting, Doc and Big Nose Kate formed a relationship quickly, and it was an overtly passionate and volatile one. According to a later account by their contemporary, John Jacobs, Kate got into a heated exchange with another Fort Griffin notable, Lottie Deno, in which Kate claimed Lottie was having relations with Doc.
Once accused, Deno apparently retorted with: “why, you low-down slinkin’ slut! If I should step in soft cow manure, I would not even clean my foot on that bastard! I’ll show you a thing or two!”
Then Lottie drew a gun, which prompted Kate to pull out her own six shooter. The situation did not turn to violence though, thanks to Holliday stepping in to cool things off.
This kind of violence and volatility would recur throughout the course of Kate and Holliday’s relationship — whether directed at others or at one another. There’s no question, though, that the love they shared was fierce.
Perhaps it was his tall stature and blond hair, or perhaps it was his expert gun-handling, but whatever his appeal, Kate chose to make Doc Holliday just about the only constant during those turbulent years of her life.
Related read: The Real Story of Doc Holliday and Big Nose Kate
Life After Fort Griffin
Not long after Kate became involved with Doc, she had occasion to spring him from jail and get the two of them out of Fort Griffin. Some Wild West yarns claim that Holliday was arrested for killing a man in a knife fight, and that following the bloodshed, a lynch mob marched to the jailhouse to have him hanged.
Kate, seeing that her man was in trouble, set a fire in the middle of town as a diversion. After that, she drew her six-shooter on the men watching over Holliday, uttered a heroic line, and she and Doc rode out of town.
It’s a fun story, but the more likely scenario is that Holliday was jailed for drinking while gambling (yes, this was apparently against the law even in parts of the free-wheeling Old West).
It’s also possible that an enemy gang planned to kill Doc while he was stuck in jail, and that Kate needed to set a fire in town as a diversion to get him out of danger.
We can’t be sure if this more likely event did in fact happen — or if Kate simply bailed her lover out — but we do know that after she freed Doc from jail, the two got out of Fort Griffin and into Dodge City: a town that, as we all know, most people wanted to leave.
Kate had lived in Dodge before, and Kate and Doc’s pal Wyatt Earp was living there at the time. However brazen the move might seem to us, it made enough sense to the wily Big Nose Kate.
Somewhere between 1878 and 1880, they lived in Dodge City, though they would travel frequently in this period. According to Jan Collins’ research, the two even went to Georgia to get married. Upon registering at a boarding house in Dodge City, they were indeed registered as Mr. and Mrs. J.H. Holliday.
While in Dodge, Doc drank, gambled, and maintained a dental practice. Meanwhile, Kate continued her work as a prostitute. Legend has it that she also developed a habit of warding off unwelcome men with a meat cleaver.
Presumably, Doc was fine with her keeping up her trade, otherwise he probably wouldn’t have stayed with her. Anyways, prostitution helped finance their life together, and the couple clearly had no interest in conforming to stale Victorian social mores.
On to Tombstone
Violent instability remained a feature in Kate and Doc’s relationship, even after getting hitched. Contemporaries who knew them well knew the two fought frequently and quite viciously. When they eventually settled in Tombstone, their marriage careened further out of control.
Prior to arriving in Tombstone, the two moved from place to place in the untamed New Mexico territory — sometimes together, sometimes apart. Their most favored destination in this time period appeared to be Las Vegas, where they stayed for two years. Not surprisingly, gambling featured prominently in their lives.
Sometime during this stint in Vegas, around 1879, Wyatt Earp came up for a visit and talked the two into following him to Prescott, Arizona. Not long after reaching Prescott, Wyatt and his brother Virgil Earp journeyed on to Tombstone.
Kate heard there was good money to be made in Globe, so there she went. Doc, meanwhile, high off a winning streak in the gambling halls, stayed in Prescott.
Once Doc’s lucky streak ended, though, he met up with the Earps in Tombstone. He wrote to Kate asking her to come with him, and she agreed. Not long after being reunited, their constant fighting resumed in earnest. The main culprit appeared to be Doc’s heavy drinking — which was even worse in the Earps’ company.
Allie Earp, a key witness to the abuse Doc inflicted on Kate, related how she “came upon Kate on a Tombstone street one day and she looked as if an ore wagon had run over her. She had a black eye, one lip was swelled up, and her clothes looked like the wind had blown ’em on her ever’ which way.”
In retaliation for Doc’s behavior, Kate turned Doc in to the Sheriff, accusing Doc of taking part in a stage coach robbery that resulted in two deaths. Before Doc could be officially convicted and sentenced, though, she recanted her accusation. Doc was furious nevertheless, and said she ought to go back to Globe.
Kate obliged Doc’s wishes, but then he soon wrote to her in Globe saying that he wanted her back in Tombstone. And so back to Tombstone she went, moving with Doc into Fly’s Boarding House.
Even though Wyatt Earp and his brothers often found themselves on the wrong side of the law, they somehow ended up as lawmen in Tombstone. The Earps developed a feud with a gang of outlaws centered on the McLaury and Clanton brothers, along with Billy Claiborne. Doc Holliday, being a good friend of the Earps, also got himself involved in the dispute.
On October 26, 1881, Wyatt Earp’s problems with the so-called “Cowboys” had already reached a nadir. Wyatt heard the Cowboys were armed and gathering at a vacant lot outside the O.K. Corral, so he seized upon the opportunity to finally end the conflict.
Holliday joined the Earps at this showdown. According to Kate, as he was leaving their room that morning, he told her, “I may not be back to take you to breakfast, so you better go alone.” Kate, probably too anxious to go anywhere, stayed in their room. She claimed to be able to see the action outside the O.K. Corral from their bedroom window at Fly’s.
During the chaotic 30-second flurry of gunfire, Kate surely feared for Doc’s life. Lucky for her, though, no one on the Earp side was gravely wounded (two Cowboys did die).
Doc, for his part, made it out virtually unscathed.
Related read: 7 Facts about Johnny Ringo You Won’t Learn from Movies
After the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral
In the wake of the shootout, Kate, perhaps desperately needing a break from the unending drama that being with Doc inhered, decided to go back to Globe — alone. Doc went wandering the Southwest, and over the next several years, the two would rarely see one another.
Kate skipped around various frontier towns in Arizona, working the gambling halls, and maybe occasionally trying to reach Doc through letters.
An amusing but entirely false story from Wild West Adventures in 1941 claims that at this point, Kate was already dead. Apparently, while still in Tombstone, Big Nose Kate caught a bullet up her backside when trying to vault over a bar for cover during a saloon shootout.
Given the supposedly well-placed shot in the rectum, whoever came up with this tale probably wanted to poke some fun at Kate’s reputation for being sexually adventurous.
In fact, Kate would go on to live a very long life — alas, not so for her lover, Doc. Around 1887, Kate received a letter from Doc stating that his tuberculosis had grown severe. Sensing his time running short, he asked if she would come see him in Glenwood Springs, Colorado.
Kate came to Doc’s bedside, and tended to him as best as she could. At this point, though, little could be done besides easing Doc’s passing. On November 8, 1887, Doc succumbed to his nearly lifelong disease.
Related read: The Reality of Dying of Consumption in the Old West
Big Nose Kate’s Later Years
After Doc Holliday died, Kate became a widow, and was free to remarry. In her younger years, Kate might have enjoyed the single life and stuck to her lucrative trade. However, she was now into her late thirties, and prostitution was quickly becoming no longer financially or physically viable.
With her career coming to an end, Kate did indeed marry again in 1888. Her new husband, George Cummings, was a blacksmith. We don’t know much about how the two met, or how they got along, but we do know that Cummings was a drinker — and abusive. We also know that, once married again, Kate shed her gambling hall moniker and reclaimed her birthname, Mary Katherine.
Sometime in the 1890s, Mary Katherine’s second husband died. On her own again, she decided to work as a live-in housekeeper for the well-to-do John Howard in Dos Cabezas, Arizona.
If it wasn’t immediately clear through her marriage with George Cummings, it was abundantly clear now: Mary Horony had retired from the outlaw way of life and had settled into quiet domesticity.
Even so, she managed to keep up her independent streak. Under a limited set of options, she carved out an agreeable life for herself. She lived in a rich man’s household, rent free, while also getting paid, and in the process avoided the heavier shackles of marriage.
John Howard died in 1930, which, inconveniently for Mary, was about the height of the Great Depression. Now a very old woman without any hope of finding new employment, Mary faced destitution. She saved herself from penury, however, by gaining admittance into the Arizona Pioneer’s Home in Prescott.
Over the next decade, Mary lived a mostly quiet life in the Pioneer’s Home. Her old bombastic ways, however, did occasionally resurface when she had occasion to advocate for the rights of herself and fellow senior residents living in the home.
Owing to the reputation she’d built up in the Pioneer’s Home, residents of Prescott eventually agreed to have her buried in the Pioneer’s Cemetery upon her passing on November 2, 1940. There were grumblings about her past as a prostitution, as well as allegations that she had inappropriate relations with her longtime employer, John Howard.
These dissenting voices were drowned out, however, by the larger chorus of people who agreed that Mary Katherine Horony led an incredible life as a largely free woman in the dangerous American frontier. As such, she deserved to be buried among other significant historical figures.
To this day, Big Nose Kate still receives countless visitors to her final resting place.
Explore the West
After reading about Big Nose Kate, discover the fascinating stories of some of Tombstone’s other notable characters and history.
- The Short, Tragic Life of Mattie Blaylock, Wyatt Earp’s Second Wife
- The Wives of Wyatt Earp, from Aurilla Sutherland to Sadie Marcus
- 29 Most Iconic Quotes from Tombstone
- Was Ike Clanton Really the Loudmouth Coward of Tombstone?
- I’m Your Huckleberry: The Real Meaning of Doc Holliday’s Iconic Line
References & Further Reading
OldWest.org strives to use accurate sources and references in its research, and to include materials from multiple viewpoints and angles when possible.
- Collins, J. M., & Noel, T. J. (2009). Red Light Women of the Rocky Mountains. University of New Mexico Press.
- Enss, C. (2006). Pistol Packin’ Madams: True Stories of Notorious Women of the Old West. TwoDot.
- Enss, C. (2015). Wicked Women: Notorious, Mischievous, and Wayward Ladies from the Old West. TwoDot.
- Enss, C. (2019). According to Kate: The Legendary Life of Big Nose Kate, Love of Doc Holliday. TwoDot.
- Lackmann, R. W. (1997). Women of the Western Frontier in Fact, Fiction and Film. McFarland.
- Rutter, M. (2014). Boudoirs to Brothels: The Intimate World of Wild West Women. Farcountry Press.
- Young, R. B., Tefertiller, C., & Roberts, G. L. (2019). A Wyatt Earp Anthology: Long May His Story Be Told. University of North Texas Press.
by Miles Reding
Miles Reding is a freelance writer from Austin who writes about history and politics, and enjoys writing fiction as well. He received his BA in history from the University of Texas at Austin and a MA in history from Northwestern. More of his work can be found at his website, milesjreding.com.