The Real Katie Elder
The name Katie Elder was romanticized in the 1965 western "The Sons of Katie Elder," starring John Wayne. However, the fictionalized account of the deceased saintly mother portrayed in the movie bore no resemblance to the historical Katie Elder. The real Katie Elder became a legendary figure mostly through her association with famed gunfighter Doc Holliday.
She was born Mary Katharine Haroney in Budapest, Hungary on November 7, 1850. She was the eldest daughter of a prominent physician, Michael Haroney. Her mother’s name is not known.
Katie grew up to be an educated woman who was fluent in several languages. Her family moved to America in 1862 and her parents both died a few years afterwards. Fourteen year old Katie was placed in a foster home.
She went by several different names such as Kate Fisher, Big Nose Kate, Kate Melvin, and Kate Cummings. Kate died in 1940 and was buried in Prescott Arizona. The name on her tombstone reads Mary K. Cummings.
At 17, Katie stowed away on a steamboat heading to St. Louis. Captain Fisher, after discovering his stowaway, took pity on her and placed her under his wing. She took his name and entered a convent school in St. Louis.
By 1874, Katie was in Dodge City, Kansas and was using the name Kate Elder. Apparently, her time at the St. Louis convent had little effect because she began working as a prostitute in a brothel run by Nellie Bessie Earp, wife of James Earp, an older brother of the legendary Wyatt.
But there are questions as to who she really was. Some believe she was married to “Doc Holliday.” It is possible, but no proof has ever been discovered. Kate first met Holliday in a Fort Griffin, Texas, saloon in 1878 and they quickly became an item. History records Kate helping Holliday escape from the law after he had killed a man by the name of Ed Bailey in a barroom brawl.
The morning following the incident the pair stole some horses and made tracks for Dodge City. They registered at Deacon Cox's Boarding House as Dr. and Mrs. J. H. Holliday. Kate and Doc spent the next few years together drifting around the west to places such as Deadwood, South Dakota, Las Vegas and the New Mexico and Arizona Territories. Their relationship was allegedly an on and off again rocky affair.
Kate, left, With Sister
In 1880, Kate rented a boarding house in Globe, Arizona Territory. She was also known to have operated a bordello in Tombstone, Arizona but later returned to Globe.
In 1887, as Holliday was on his deathbed, she reportedly went to Glenwood Springs, Colorado to see him before he died. Some historians argue she didn’t. However, at the time Holliday was known to be broke and if Kate did go to see him, it is likely she helped support him in his last days. Holliday died November 8, 1887 at the age of 36 from tuberculosis.
Kate later married George Cummings, a blacksmith, in Colorado, but the two split up about a year later. Kate eventually found work in Dos Cabezas, Arizona, working as a housekeeper for a man named John Howard. She worked there until his death in 1930. Kate also claimed to have married a dentist named Silas Melvin and had a child, however, no records of either the marriage or birth have ever been found. She said both died of fever.
Using the name Cummings, the aging Kate became a resident of the Arizona Pioneers Home, a continuing care retirement home operated and funded by the State in Prescott. The home celebrated its’ 100th anniversary June 17th, 2011.
While living at the home many reporters tried to interview her about her life with Holliday, but Kate wanted to be paid. The reporters refused, therefore much about her life may never be known. However, at the age of 89 she wrote an account telling she was staying with Holliday at Fly's Boarding house, adjacent to the O.K. Corral, and actually witnessed the shootout from the rooms’ window. Many details of her account support she was telling the truth.
Kate passed away at the Arizona Pioneers' Home on November 2, 1940, five days before her 90th birthday.