“Big Nose” Kate Horony, and her final resting place

Kate Horony pulled a crystal stopper out of a glass container filled with brandy and poured herself a drink.  The svelte, well-dressed nineteen year-old took a big gulp then poured herself another.  She slammed the brandy back then trained the derringer in her right hand on a man’s body stretched out before her.  Jonas Stonebreak was lying in a pool of blood with a bullet in his upper torso.  He stirred a bit, struggling to lift his head off the floor.  He glanced around the bedroom at the Tribolet parlor house until his blurry eyes came to rest on Kate.

She stared down at him, her eyes filled with contempt.  The lifeless frame of Madam Blance Tribolet was slumped over in a chair next to Jonas.  Kate motioned to the dead woman with her empty glass.  “You had no cause to kill Blance,” she told him.  “You’re a miserable cur,” she added, blinking away a tear.  Kate poured another drink and Jonas tried to sit up.  “She was asking for it,” he offered, spitting blood.

“No she wasn’t,” Kate responded pointing the gun at his head.  “But you sure as hell have,” she squeezed the trigger, firing off a shot that lodged a bullet in Jonas’s forehead.  He collapsed in a heap.  Kate drank down another drink before pocketing her gun and leaving the room.

Blance Tribolet was the first madam Kate Horony, better known as Big Nose Kate, ever worked for.  She was more than an employer to the young woman; she was a friend and surrogate mother as well.  The revenge she sought for the murder of her benefactors was one of many defining moments in the life of the West’s most notorious prostitutes.

She was born on November 7, 1850 in Budapest Hungary, and named Mary Katherine Horony.  Orphaned at the age of 15, Kate and her four siblings went to live with their guardian, Otto Schmidt in Davenport, Ohio.  Schmidt was a farmer who instantly put the Horony children to work on his property.  He was a strict task master who physically abused the Horonys and attempted to rape Kate.  She managed to escape his attack, hitting him in the head with an ax handle and rendering him unconscious.  Fearing for her life, Kate ran away.  She ended up at the bank of the Mississippi with no money and, with the exception of her curvaceous figure and sharp mind, no prospects.

The river docks were crowded with boat crews, fur trappers and gamblers all of whom would take advantage of Kate if given the chance.  She managed to avoid their pervasive come-ons and snuck aboard the steamship, Ulysses.  “Burlington” Fisher, the vessels captain, found the teenager and questioned her about why she was there.

The trapped orphan made up numerous stories about her situation before confessing the death of her parents.  She told the captain that she was trying to get to a nun’s convent in St. Louis where she hoped to live.  Fisher agreed to transport Kate to her destination and keep her safe during the trip.  He was her brave protector and she was his appealing ward.  The voyage barely begun before the pair became lovers.  Once the ship arrived in St. Louis, Captain Fisher helped place Kate in the Ursuline Convent.

Living in a convent was not the ideal setting for the strong willed Kate and in a matter of days she ran away.  While on the run this time, she met and fell in love with Silas Melvin.  The two married, settled in Missouri and eventually had a son.  A cholera epidemic claimed the lives of her husband and child less than a year after his birth.  

Devastated and alone, on the streets and penniless, Kate found a home at Blance Tribolet’s parlor house.  Madam Tribolet introduced the disenfranchised youth to the lucrative prostitution trade.  With Blance’s instruction Kate became one of the house’s busiest ladies.

The lifestyle suited Kate.  She kept herself adorned in the finest fashions and carried herself with a modicum of class other women didn’t have.  Historians suggest her inviting Hungarian accent enticed a fair number of men to seek out her company.  Madam Tribolet doted over her protégé and helped guide her career.

After avenging the death of her mentor at the hand of her lover, Kate wandered about the cow towns of Missouri and Kansas.  In 1874, she settled in Wichita and went to work at a parlor house owned and operated by Wyatt Earp’s sister-in-law, Bessie.  Kate claims to have had an affair with the famed lawman, but there is no historical proof to support that assertion.  Letters written between Kate and her niece alleged that Wyatt made frequent calls on the “soiled dove” while working at Bessie’s house.  Wyatt eventually ceased calling on Kate and reunited with his common-law wife, Mattie Blaylock.

Kate Horony left Wichita in 1875 and headed to Dodge City.  News of the money to be made by public women in Fort Griffin, Texas drove her south.  Fort Griffin was a popular settlement filled with cowboys, buffalo hunters and outlaws.  Doc Holliday was one of the outlaws who frequented the boomtown outside of the Army post.  Kate was smitten the moment she met the legendary figure.

John Henry Holliday had blonde hair, a neatly trimmed mustache and pale, blue eyes seething with anguish.  He had an air of sophistication about him and a devil-may-care attitude that drew Kate to him.  He despised “sporting girls” with light colored hair, painted faces and exposed legs.  Kate’s dark features, voluptuous form and determined nose, which prompted colleagues and client to refer to her as “Big Nose Kate”, better suited the outlaw.  Doc was also attracted to Kate’s fiery temper, fiercely independent nature and marvelous vocabulary of curse words.  Doc and Kate shared many of the same qualities and their combination made for a rocky relationship.

By the time Big Nose Kate and Doc Holliday’s paths had crossed, Doc had made a name for himself as “the gambler dentist with the fast gun.”  Kate was star struck and made herself available to the gambler dentist anytime night or day.

When he wasn’t with her she would search the gambling halls and watering holes in the area looking for him.  Kate was not satisfied with the occasional rendezvous.  Doc was suffering from advanced tuberculosis and Kate was determined to make him see that she was good medicine for him.  She eventually wore him down and became a permanent fixture in his tumultuous life.

No matter whom her full time lover was Big Nose Kate never relied on any of them for financial support.  She was a self-sufficient woman who worked in parlor houses or ran her own brothel to earn a living.  Doc Holliday was indeed the one man she truly loved, but he did not pay her way.

Any questions Doc might have had about Kate’s devotion to him were answered one evening after a poker game involving the gambler turned deadly.  Doc had shoved a knife into the chest of a fellow card player he had caught cheating.  The Griffin Sheriff arrested Holliday and took him away to a make shift jail at a local hotel.  Kate helped Doc escape by setting fire to the building.  While the authorities were preoccupied with the blaze, Kate rescued her paramour from the hangman’s noose.    

After Doc and Kate fled from the burning Texas hotel, they headed for Dodge City, Kansas.  Once there, Doc set up a dental practice, and the two moved into Deacon Cox’s Boarding House, registered as “Mr. and Mrs. J.H. Holliday.”  Despite their registration as man and wife, Kate and Doc were never legally married.

Doc played nightly card games with his new friends, Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson.  He began to spend less and less time with his dentistry practice, and late-night drinking brought on long bouts of sickness.  Kate would stay by his side and help him get well.  He loved her for it, but he also resented her good health.  They fought constantly, and even though they lived as common-law husband and wife, Kate continued to work as a prostitute.  Her job influenced Doc’s view of her, and he oftentimes treated her as inferior, but Kate didn’t care enough to quit.  She liked her occupation because it provided her with her own income and she didn’t have to answer to anybody.

Kate managed to make herself indispensable to Doc.  He needed her.  She knew how to ease him through his coughing attacks, and he actually enjoyed the volatile relationship they shared.  He liked her coarseness and vulgarity.  Wyatt Earp was witness to many of their fights and on several occasions suggested to Doc that he should “belt her one.”  Doc would reply, “Man cannot do what he wants to in this world, but only that which will benefit him.”

From Dodge City, the couple moved to Colorado, then on to Las Vegas, New Mexico.  Doc continued to work as a dentist during the day and ran a saloon at night.  Kate plied her trade at a dance hall in nearby Santé Fe.  In 1879, Wyatt Earp rode into town on his way to Arizona and convinced Doc to go along with him.  Kate was furious with Wyatt’s interference in their relationship.  She tried to talk Doc out of going, but his dedication to the Earps proved to be stronger than any hold Kate had on him.

Doc joined the Earps in Tombstone in 1880, without Kate.  She moved to Globe and bought herself a hotel with the money she made running a parlor house in Santé Fe.  By March of 1881, Kate decided she couldn’t live without Doc and headed off to Tombstone.  During their time apart, Doc had grown more pale and thin.  His bright eyes had faded to a cold, hard gray, and his head was topped by enough white hairs to make his hair appear ash blond.  It wasn’t long after they were reunited that their romance showed signs of the usual strain.  Kate was jealous of the time he spent with the Earps and never failed to make her feelings known.

On the night of March 15, 1881, armed robbers attempted to hold up a stage near the town of Contention, Arizona.  In the holdup attempt, the robbers killed the driver and a passenger.  An angry, drunken Kate later told Cochise County Sheriff Behan and his deputy, Frank Stillwell, that Doc was responsible for the robbery and murders, and she signed an affidavit to the fact.

When Kate was sober and realized what she had done, she repudiated the statement, and the judge dropped the charges.  An angry Doc gave Kate some money and a stagecoach ticket and sent her back to Globe.  But she wasn’t gone for good.  She would return to Tombstone one more time to see her beloved Doc.  She was on hand to witness the gunfight at the O.K. Corral from their room at Fly’s Boarding House.  Once the smoke cleared, she again went back to Globe and the thriving bordello she owned.    

In 1887, Kate received word of Doc being near death, and she traveled to Colorado where he was convalescing to be with him.  Historical records indicate that she took him to her brother Alexander’s ranch near Glenwood Springs.

Doc died in a Glenwood Springs hotel on November 8, 1887.  The following year Kate married George Cummings, a blacksmith.  Kate left her husband shortly after they exchanged vows.

It seems Cummings lacked the passion and ability to spar with her that Doc had.  He later committed suicide.

Kate moved into the Arizona Pioneer’s Home in 1935.  She passed away five years later on November 2nd.  The inscription on her tombstone does not list the many names she used at various times in her career as a madam and prostitute.  Nor does it contain a verse or statement about her adventurous life.  It simply reads, Mary K. Cummings.                     

Chris Enss is the COWGIRL Book Editor, and a New York Times Bestselling author who writes about women of the Old West. For more stories about these wild women, visit www.chrisenss.com for more information on her books.