Elder was more, much more, than the title character in John Wayne's
1965 western, "The Sons of Katie Elder," She was more than the portrayal
by Faye Dunaway in the 1971 film "Doc." Katie Elder was a real person,
whose background was perhaps more plaid than checkered. For one thing,
there were all those names.
Besides being called Katie Elder, she was also known as Kate Fisher,
Big Nose Kate, Nosey Kate, Mrs. John H. "Doc" Holliday, Kate Melvin,
and Kate Cummings. Actually, she was born Mary Katharine Haroney in
Hungary on November 7, 1850. She died in 1940, and was buried under
the name Mary K. Cummings in Prescott Arizona.
historians of the Old West believe she was Mrs. Doc Holliday, and
some don't. Either way, she was quite a bit more than the "plainswoman"
that revisionist history books call her. Katie herself never denied
that she was a rip-roarin', hard-drinkin,' gun-slingin' prostitute.
|A young Kate
Haroney (seated) with her sister.
Photo courtesy legendsofamerica.com
recorded background appears to have begun in a Fort
Griffin, Texas saloon in the fall of 1877, where she met gunslinger
Doc Holliday. An affair between them ensued, and she helped Doc escape
from the law after he knifed a man in a barroom brawl, killing him
on the spot. There's more to this than meets the eye, as you will
discover very soon.
| In Dodge City
Kansas the following year, the pair registered in a rooming house
as Dr. and Mrs. John H. Holliday. It is possible they were really
married, but no one knows for certain. Though Katie could be uncovered
since she was a prostitute, proof of their marriage has not, to date,
Doc and Katie later moved on to Tombstone, Arizona, where in July
1881, Katie got extremely drunk and, in that lamentable condition,
was talked into signing a deposition saying Holliday was one of the
outlaws who had held up a stagecoach. Holliday, understandably put
out by this betrayal, dumped Katie the minute he was freed of the
charge. More about this event later.
Although she lived to be nearly 90, legend has her being slain with
a stray bullet fired by a drunk in the Brewery Gulch saloon in Bisbee
Arizona. This story is doubtless apocryphal, which is, after all,
how myths are made. She must have had an excellent public relations
representative to have spun such a saga. Again, the truth will be
revealed later on in this article.
Relentless research has brought to light additional facts and details
about Katie's life.
was born November 7, 1850 in Budapest, Hungary, the eldest daughter
of a wealthy physician named Dr. Michael Haroney. She received an
education befitting an aristocrat's daughter. She was literate, and
spoke several languages, including Hungarian, French, Spanish and
In 1862, Dr. Haroney left Hungary for Mexico to accept a position
as personal surgeon to Maximilian of Mexico. When Maximilian's government
crumbled in 1865, Dr. Haroney took his family to Davenport, Iowa.
Mama Horoney died in March, followed by Dr. Horoney in May of that
same year, both of unknown causes, and 14-year-old Kate was placed
in the foster home of Otto Smith.
At the age of 17, Kate left Smith and stowed away on a steamboat to
St. Louis, Missouri. Upon discovering his stowaway, Captain Fisher
took pity on her, and placed her under his protection. She took the
Captain's name and, under the name of Kate Fisher, entered a convent
school in St. Louis, graduating in 1869.
At one point, Kate claimed to have married a dentist named Silas Melvin
and to have borne him a child, although no record survives of either
the marriage or birth. She said that both husband and baby died of
fever. This may be the truth, or simply a young girl's fanciful imagination.
By 1874, Kate had made her way to Dodge City, Kansas, calling herself
Kate Elder. She worked as a prostitute in a brothel run by Nellie
Bessie Earp, wife of James Earp, an older brother of the better-known
Virgil, Wyatt, and Morgan, the Earp brothers. Some historians speculate
that she had a relationship with Wyatt, but Kate wrote that she did
not meet him until several years later...
Doc Holliday, O.K. Corral ... continued next page
"A Balloon In Cactus" May
26, 2006 column
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by Maggie Van Ostrand