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Was Kate “Big Nose” Elder with Doc Holliday in Tombstone during the Earp-Cow-boy troubles that led up to the deadly shootout of October 26, 1881? Kate said she was, but after the gunfight she left town and never returned.
— Painting “The Last Days of Kate & Doc” by Bob Boze Bell, Photo of Kate Elder and All Other Art by Bob Boze Bell, Photos/Maps Courtesy True West Archives Unless Otherwise Noted —

Kate Elder was a working girl. Throughout most of her young life, she was employed as a soiled dove—a woman of ill fame, a sporting gal, a prostitute. It was Kate’s relationship with John Henry (Doc) Holliday that brought her notoriety and lifted her out of the role of a mere courtesan to that of common-law wife to the well-known gambler, gunfighter and dentist.

Kate’s story of her life on the frontier as a soiled dove, and her time with one of the West’s most recognizable characters, has value. She was in her eighties when she dared to recall all that had transpired since she’d left Hungary, where she was born, up to the events preceding the historic gunfight near the O.K. Corral. Kate claims to have witnessed the famous gun battle in October 1881. What she said happened between she and Doc leading up to the incident, and what transpired afterwards with outlaw John Ringo, adds another controversial layer to the historic event.

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Kate “Big Nose Elder.”

It was a chilly evening in mid-March 1881. Kate had traveled from Globe, Arizona, where she had a business, to Tombstone to see Doc. According to her, she made the trip at his request. Doc had taken up residence on Sixth Street in a small boardinghouse positioned between a funeral parlor and a winery.

Kate said that a holdup, in which driver Bud Philpot and a passenger were killed, occurred during her visit to Tombstone. One of the four suspects in the stage robbery and the double killing was William Leonard, one of Doc’s friends he had met in Las Vegas, New Mexico. When Leonard relocated to southern Arizona he fell in with a bad crowd and began robbing stages. It wasn’t long before Doc was implicated in the crime. His friendship with Leonard, and a visit he had made to his home near Tombstone, made him look suspicious.

A group of outlaw cow-boys, including well-known Cochise County, Arizona, residents Ike Clanton, Pete Spencer, Frank Stillwell and Curly Bill Brocius, encouraged the rumor of Doc Holliday’s involvement in the robbery. An article in the March 24, 1881, edition of the Arizona Weekly Citizen implicated Doc in the crime as well. Three of the robbers were headed to Mexico. “The fourth is at Tombstone and is well-known and has been shadowed ever since his return.” Doc was furious. Many suspected him of taking part in the robbery, and that included Kate.

“I thought that after the holdup things looked very suspicious about the Earps and Doc,” Kate recalled later. “Something tells me Doc was in with Wyatt, Virgil and Morgan in that affair. One night after we retired, Warren Earp came after Doc and said that Wyatt wanted to see him at his home. Doc was gone for almost two hours, and when he returned I could see that he was very much put out about something. He kept saying, ‘the damned fool! I didn’t think that of him.’ And later he said, ‘I have to get up early in the morning, but I will think about it.’ This was after the holdup.

“In the morning, after we had our breakfast, Doc said. ‘Well, I don’t know what I am going to stack up against today. I am getting tired of it all.’”

Kate knew he was referring to the fact that several people believed he was one of the men who robbed the stage. She tried to convince Doc to leave town with her, but he refused. “Wyatt Earp had a powerful influence over Doc,” Kate noted years later, “which I came to realize when I could not overcome that influence and induce Doc to return to Globe with me.”

By the beginning of April 1881, Kate had left Tombstone and traveled back to her business in Globe. According to Kate, Doc sent for her a second time in June 1881. Doc invited Kate to spend Independence Day with him, and she happily accepted. Kate and Doc were reunited just before the holiday, but their time together was less than civil. His tuberculosis, which had been somewhat in remission when they lived in New Mexico, was now causing coughing fits that brought up blood. To deal with the aggravation, Doc drank to excess. Kate drank right along with him. The pair was not shy about arguing in public. The fight the couple had on July 4 ended in name-calling and cursing. Angry and crying, Kate staggered to the room she shared with Doc. The plan she had to sleep until she was no longer intoxicated was interrupted when John Behan stopped her before she reached the hotel.

big nose kate doc holliday true west magazine
Burning the Midnight Oil
When Doc arrives in Tombstone, there is no record of him practicing dentistry at all. Instead, he gambles full-time, often with Kate standing over his shoulder. The two of them are inseparable for periods of time. Other times they need to be separated.

According to Kate, “Sheriff Johnny Behan took me to Judge Spicer’s Justice of the Peace office, and the judge put me through the third degree. He asked me about the Earps and Doc Holliday. How did Doc act the evening of the holdup? He was referring to the stage holdup where Bud Philpot and a passenger were killed. Did the youngest or which one of the Earps came to me for Doc’s rifle? Did Doc change his clothes that afternoon and what did Warren Earp say, if anything? How long had I known the Earps?

“Then suddenly he asked me, ‘Are you sure that Doc Holliday was with the Earps at the holdup?’

“Then I told the judge I was positive of nothing and would not swear to anything Spicer said. He felt sure that the Earps and Holliday were in that holdup. I asked him why he did not question Mattie [Blaylock] and Alice Earp, that he knew Morgan Earp was the Wells Fargo messenger on that stage. The judge then got out of patients [sic] with me and threatened me. I said, ‘I can’t tell you any more.’”

Once Kate sobered up she wasted no time walking back any statements she might have made about Doc that implicated him in the stage robbery and death of two people. She insisted she was coerced into reporting anything negative about Doc. All murder charges against Doc were dismissed on July 9. The judge reviewing the case determined there was no evidence to show Doc had a part in the crime.

Kate planned to leave town as soon as she knew Doc was out of harm’s way. She was aware she wasn’t wanted in Tombstone. “It was after that,” Kate noted later, referring to her arrest by Virgil Earp, “Wyatt Earp became anxious to get rid of me. Several days later [once she was released] a gambler named J. M. Nichols, also known as Napa Nick, invited me to go for a buggy ride with him, but I declined. Mattie Earp, Wyatt’s wife, later told me in Globe that I was lucky in refusing the buggy ride, as Napa Nick had instructions to get rid of me in some lonely canyon.”

Sometime between late August and September 9, 1881, Kate and Doc reunited and traveled to Tucson to enjoy some time together. It wasn’t until late October that one of the Earps tracked down the couple at a popular saloon on Meyer Avenue in Tucson. According to Kate, on October 25, 1881, she was standing behind Doc watching him deal cards when Morgan Earp arrived on the scene. “The day before the fight took place in Tombstone, Wyatt sent Morgan to Tucson to tell Doc that he was wanted in Tombstone the following day,” Kate said later. “Morgan found us at Congress Hall where Doc was trying his luck at [the] faro bank. He took Doc aside and delivered the message from Wyatt.

“Then Doc came to me and told me that he would take me to our hotel, as he had to go back to Tombstone, but that he would come for me later on. I would not have it that way, though, and told him that if he was going to Tombstone I was going with him. We left on a freight for Benson and from there drove to Tombstone in a buckboard. Doc and I had a room in the building owned by Mr. and Mrs. Fly, who also had a photograph gallery there. It was on Fremont Street next to the back entrance of the O.K. Corral. We got to the room after midnight. Doc left me there, he and Morgan going away together.”

Doc and Morgan set off for the Alhambra Saloon, where Wyatt was waiting for them. Wyatt informed Doc of the difficulties he had with Ike Clanton. He told Doc about those difficulties and warned him to be on his guard.

Doc turned his attention to playing cards and drinking whiskey. He didn’t give the matter much thought until he ran into Ike at the restaurant adjacent to the saloon. It was after one in the morning, and Doc was less than sober. He cursed at Ike, which started a verbal sparring between the two. According to Ike Clanton, Doc called him a “damn son-of-a-bitch” and told him to “get his gun out.” Ike indicated in his eyewitness account of the matters leading up to the street fight that he left the eatery after his encounter with Doc. He noted that Morgan was watching the pair verbally abuse one another and that Morgan had his hand on his pistol. Seeing he was outnumbered, he left the building knowing that war between the Earps, Holliday and the cow-boys was on the horizon.

“Doc and Ike Clanton had some words in a restaurant,” Kate recalled about the events of the first night she returned to Tombstone in late October 1881. “In the morning Ike Clanton came to Fly’s photograph gallery with a Winchester rifle. Mrs. Fly told him that Doc was not there. Doc was not up yet. I went to our room and told Doc that Ike Clanton was outside looking for him and that he was armed. Doc said, ‘If God lets me live long enough to get my clothes on, he shall see me.’

big nose kate doc holliday true west magazine
“After the fight was over, Doc came in, and sat on the side of the bed and cried and said, ‘Oh, this is just awful—awful.’” — Big Nose Kate

“With that he got up and dressed. Going out he said, ‘I won’t be here to take you to breakfast, so you had better go alone.’ I didn’t go to breakfast. I don’t remember whether I ate anything or not that day.

“In a little more than a half an hour the shooting began. This lady-friend and I went to the side window, which faced the vacant lot. There was Ike Clanton, young Bill Clanton, Frank McLowry [sic], and his brother Tom on one side, Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan Earp and Doc Holliday on the other. Before the first shot was fired, Ike Clanton ran and lost his hat and left his young brother and the McLowry boys to fight it out.

“I was at the side window looking on and saw the fight. Doc had a sawed-
off shotgun. He fired one barrel, but after the first shot something went wrong. He threw the gun on the ground and finished the fight with his revolver. I saw him fall once. His hip had been grazed by a bullet. But he was on his feet again in an instant and continued to fire.

“Bill Clanton and the McLowry boys were killed. Morgan and Wyatt [She meant Virgil Earp.] were wounded. It’s foolish to think a cow ‘rustler’ gunman can come up to a city gunman in a gunfight. After the fight was over, Doc came to our room and sat on the side of the bed and cried and said, ‘Oh, this is
just awful—awful.’ I asked, ‘Are you hurt?’ He said, ‘No, I am not.’ He pulled up his shirt. There was just a pale red streak about two inches long across his hip where the bullet had grazed him. After attending to the wound, he went out to see how Virgil and Wyatt [She meant Morgan this time.] were getting along.”

On October 29, 1881, a coroner’s inquest was held, and a summary of the evidence was compiled. Doc Holliday and the Earp brothers were charged with killing the McLaurys and Billy Clanton. Doc and Wyatt were confined to the county jail.

While the inquest was being conducted, Kate befriended Johnny Ringo. Ringo was a hard drinker who had been indicted for one murder and had been involved in several others. Kate remained in the room she and Doc had shared at Fly’s boardinghouse, and it was there that Ringo found her. Doc was residing at the Cosmopolitan Hotel while out on bail. Morgan and Virgil were staying at the Cosmopolitan recuperating, and their families were with them. Doc and Wyatt had decided to stay to protect them from any cow-boys who might sneak in and try to kill the brothers.

“I kept close to my room at Mrs. Fly’s during the Earp-Holliday trial hearing before [the] justice of the peace,” Kate recalled years later. “John Ringo visited me there twice. I gave him a tumble both times. The second time he visited me he advised me to leave the camp, but I told him I did not have enough money to go back to Globe, as Doc had lost all my money playing against faro while we were in Tucson.” Kate also noted in 1935 that she had $100 at the time of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral and gave $75 of it to help with Doc’s bail.

“Ringo said that some of the Clanton gang were watching for Doc to come to our room and intended to get him there,” Kate added in her memoirs. “Ringo told me ‘if I haven’t enough money, here is fifty dollars.’ So I left that evening.

“After the O.K. Corral fight, the Clanton and McLowry gang gave notice that they would get revenge on the Earps and Holliday. John P. Clum, who was mayor of Tombstone, was notified that he was on the list, and he left the camp. Virgil was the first they got. He was shot from
ambush; the bullet failed to reach a vital spot, but he was laid up for a while with a shattered arm.

“Morgan was the next victim. At the time he was playing pool in the Palace Saloon. The back door of the place was half-glass, painted white. Someone scratched off enough of the pain [sic] to see through and fired through the door, killing Morgan. I understand that the killer was one of the Clanton gang by [the] name of Stilwell.”

Kate left town in November 1881 before Doc’s fate had been determined. She tended to her business in Globe and never again returned to Tombstone.

“The Last Days of Kate & Doc” is excerpted from Chris Enss’s soon-to-be-released book, According to Kate: The Legendary Life of Big Nose Kate, Love of Doc Holliday (TwoDot, 2019).

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