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Columns | "A Balloon In Cactus"

Katie Elder: Her True Story
Page 2

Katie Elder and Doc Holliday

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand
Page 1
By 1878 Kate had moved to Fort Griffin, Texas. There she met and hung out with Wyatt Earp and it was through him that she began her long-time involvement with Doc Holliday. Considering the probable low IQs of cowboys and outlaws on those days, it's possible that the educated Doc reminded Kate of her father.
Big Nose Kate and Doc Holliday  Wedding Photos
Texas Treasures Come to Light in Tasmania
Wedding Photos of Doc Holiday and “Big Nose Kate”

Photo courtesy John Bullock
Wyatt Earp told a colorful tale of how Kate got Doc out of trouble in Fort Griffin: Doc was dealing cards to a local bully by the name of Ed Bailey, who was accustomed to having his own way without question. Bailey was unimpressed with Doc’s reputation and in an attempt to irritate him, he kept picking up the discards and looking at them. Looking at the discards was strictly prohibited by the rules of Western Poker, a violation that could force the player to forfeit the pot. Though Holliday warned Bailey twice, Bailey ignored him and picked up the discards again. This time, Doc raked in the pot without showing his hand, or saying a word. Bailey immediately brought out his pistol from under the table, but before the man could pull the trigger, Doc’s lethal knife slashed the man across the stomach. Bailey lay sprawled across the table, his blood and guts spilling over the floor.

Knowing that his actions were in self-defense, Doc did not run. However, he was still arrested and imprisoned in a local hotel room, there being no jail in the town. Bully or no, a vigilante group formed to seek revenge. Knowing that the mob would quickly overtake the local lawmen, “Big Nose” Kate devised a plan to free Holliday from his confines. Setting a fire to an old shed, it began to burn rapidly, threatening to engulf the entire town. As everyone else was involved in fighting the fire, Kate, a pistol in each hand, confronted the officer guarding Holliday, disarmed him, and she and Doc escaped. (Much later, in 1940, Kate herself explicitly denied that it had ever happened. Then again, by that time, she was nearly 90 years old and her memory might have been somewhat faulty.)

Hiding out during the night, they headed to Dodge City, Kansas on stolen horses the next morning, registering at Deacon Cox’s Boarding House as Dr. and Mrs. J. H. Holliday. Doc so appreciated what Kate did for him, that he was determined to make her happy and gave up gambling, hanging up his dentist’s shingle once again. In return, Kate promised to give up the life of prostitution and stop hanging around the saloons. Neither resolution lasted.

Kate and Doc spent the next few years together on the road. They went to Dodge City, Kansas, Deadwood, South Dakota, Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory, and Prescott, Arizona Territory. Their relationship was allegedly turbulent and sporadic.

It is known that Kate rented a boarding house in Globe, Arizona Territory. In 1880, she also stayed for a time in the booming silver town of Tombstone, Arizona Territory, where she prospered by running a bordello. An inveterate gambler, Doc Holliday, had a great run playing faro and poker in Tucson, joining Kate in Tombstone later that year. The two renewed their relationship, and things returned to the erratic romance they had previously had.

Here's the real skinny about how Kate came to betray Doc, thereby losing him forever. Holliday, who had been friendly with one of the actual robbers, was suspected of participating in a stagecoach robbery and murder that occurred near Tombstone, on March 15, 1881. Holliday's enemies discovered that he and Kate had just had a fight. They got her drunk and persuaded her to swear that he had been involved. Holliday was arrested based on her testimony. The next day, a sober Kate recanted her story, and Holliday was released from jail. Their relationship never fully recovered despite her recantation.

Kate went back to live in Globe, and in 1887, she traveled to Glenwood Springs, Colorado to see Holliday before he died. He actually spent some sick time in a cabin owned by one of Kate's brothers near Glenwood Springs, but he ultimately went into town to die, and Kate went with him. Since Holliday is known to have been destitute by this time, it is probable that Kate helped support in his final months.

After Holliday's death, Kate married George Cummings, a blacksmith by trade, in Colorado. The marriage lasted about a year and the couple split up. Kate found work in Cochise, Arizona for awhile, before taking a job with John Howard as a house keeper in Dos Cabezas, Arizona, where she worked until his death in 1930.

Using the name Cummings, Kate, increasingly frail, applied to the Arizona Pioneers Home, a state establishment in Prescott for elderly and destitute Arizona residents from frontier days. She was finally accepted after a six month wait. Kate had never become a citizen of the United States.

While there, the paparazzi of the day swooped down to find out about her life with Doc and their time in Tombstone. Kate wanted money to tell them, but they refused to pay, so most of her story will never be known.

When she was 89, however, she wrote a letter revealing that she was with Doc in his room in Fly's Boarding house, next to the O.K. Corral, and that she actually witnessed the shootout. Many details were included in her writings that strongly suggest she was telling the truth.
next page - O.K. Corral...
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© Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus" May 26, 2006 column
Related Topic
The Phillips Collection - A series:
Vintage photos of Doc Holliday, Big Nose Kate, Wyatt Earp, Josephine Earp, Mattie Earp, the Clanton's, Johnny Behan, John Clum, Jesse James, the Younger Brothers, the Masterson family, and many more.
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Outlaws | People | Columns | Texas Towns | Texas |
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