She Was More Than a Big Nose

Kate and sister Wilma
Big Nose Kate (seated) and younger sister, Wilma

She’s remembered in history as Big Nose Kate and as Doc Holliday’s on-again-off-again girlfriend. And sure, she had a large nose, but she also had the grit and spirit that let her survive on her own most of her almost-90 years. She was born Mary Katherine Haroney in Hungary on Nov. 7, 1850 to a prominent family. Her father moved them to Mexico when he became personal surgeon to Emperor Maximillian in 1862, but when that empire fell, Dr. Haroney took his family to Davenport, Iowa. Sadly, Kate lost both her parents when she was a young teenager and went into foster care.

Whatever happened in that foster home is unknown, but Kate ran away and headed for St. Louis, getting help from a ship’s captain who befriended her. She went to a convent school and married a dentist named Slias Melvin, having a child. Again, tragedy struck and both her husband and child died. By 1874, she was working at a “sporting house” in Kansas, and would spend decades as one of the “soiled doves” who traveled throughout the west.

Along the way, she met another dentist, Doc Holliday, and they became lovers and often lived together. It can’t be forgotten that she saved his life in 1877 in Fort Griffin, Texas, when Doc was arrested for killing a bully named Ed Bailey during a card game. Although Doc claimed it was self-defense, he was thrown in jail and the town seemed primed to grab him for a necktie party. But Kate interceded. She set a fire that got everyone’s attention as she and a gun convinced a jailer to set Doc free. They ended up in Dodge City, but that didn’t last. They split up, only to be reunited in Tombstone in 1880 and stayed together a while until Kate, in a drunken state, signed an affidavit saying Doc had been involved in a stage coach robbery and murder. When she sobered up, she recanted and Doc went free, but he’d had enough and moved on without her.

Kate moved to Colorado, where Doc spent his last years, but it’s unknown how much contact they had. In 1888 she married a blacksmith named George M. Cummings and the two moved to Bisbee, Arizona. She left her husband after a year and lived in various towns in Arizona Territory. She eventually moved in with a man named Howard and stayed with him until his death in 1930. In 1931, she wrote to Arizona Gov. George W.P. Hunt, asking that she be admitted to the Arizona Pioneer Home—fudging that she wasn’t foreign-born at all, but had been born in Iowa. She was granted admission to the home in Prescott and that’s where she died on Nov. 2, 1940—just five days shy of her 90th birthday.

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