Big Nosed Kate – An Outlaw’s Nightmare?

Doc Holliday – 1875 An American Outlaw and Gunslinger, most famous for his part in the shootout at the O.K corral in 1881 then later died in 1887 due to Tuberculosis.| Courtesy of the Britannica encyclopedia

“I am trying to keep you alive!” said Kate Elder to Doc Holliday after he yelled at her during an argument saying “You’re an insatiable bitch!- You’ll kill me before the rot does!”1 Katie (Big Nosed) Elder was the wife of the infamous outlaw gunslinger Doc Holliday from the mid 1800’s who died after contracting Tuberculosis at a very young age.2 Katie Elder was money hungry, and she played Doc for his money. She used his amazing skills at card games to her advantage. Even Doc himself once described her as “a leech for money.” It seems Doc knew who she was, but in his own way he still loved her. However, most people, including Doc himself, saw her as someone who used Doc. If this was so, then why did Doc keep her around until he died, instead of leaving her right off the bat?

Kate (Big Nosed) Elder | 1874 | Wife to Doc Holliday, known to be a selfish whore who took advantage and used Doc for his money and intelligence | Courtesy of Wikipedia

Kate Elder met Doc after she ran into him after escaping from Jonas Stonebreak, a gunslinger that killed her friend. He took her in and over the years she ended up learning about his early life and how he used to be a dentist before becoming a gunslinger. She also learned that he had tuberculosis, a deadly lung disease that leads to a slow death, which he contracted from his mother at the age of fifteen while treating her for the same disease.3

In her time with Doc she learned about the symptoms of tuberculosis, so she could have a better understanding of his condition in order to be able to help him during the time he had left. She admitted to him many times (and even after his death) how much she loved him, and although he treated her harshly at times, Doc had a way with himself and with words, so that she felt loved and understood by him like no other man before. “He was unlike any other man before, so full of himself and knew how to play the part well.”4 Kate told stories of how she and Doc traveled to many places from Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota, and New Mexico, where they would enter a saloon and challenge any man to try and beat Doc at a game of cards. At first she didn’t like Doc going out and wasting away his life just for money while she was left stranded in the room alone for many hours of the night until Doc returned home drunk and covered in the smell of cigarette smoke. Despite knowing the symptoms of tuberculosis, and after many arguments, she began encouraging his gambling addiction and stood by him while “He ate his life away in drinking and gambling.”5 Everyday she encouraged his other addictions too, to alcohol and to cigarettes. Sometimes while he was gambling she would stick a cigarette in his mouth or order him another drink until he would eventually blackout.6

Doc Holliday – played by Val Kilmer in the movie Tombstone (1993) | Courtesy of IMDb titles

This went on for many years, until Doc eventually became numb to all the arguments, and decided to leave. Kate, explaining the fight, said “I often let my temper get the better of my common sense, but I misunderstood his bouts of anger when his body betrayed him. He turned to me as a scapegoat.”7 It was not in her interest to ever highlight the fact that he was dying in any of their arguments, but during that last argument, she said “It is not my fault you are dying! I have done my best but you don’t care about what happens to me when you go!”8 In an interview, Kate admitted that, “I failed to see that his fury at himself was taken out on me, as my good health was a constant reminder of his illness.”9 They fought and yelled at each other while Doc flung around clothes to take with him and pushed her onto the bed, where she then tried to seduce him in an attempt to calm him down. Kate explained, “If words didn’t work, maybe seduction will. He put his hands around my throat calling me a whore while I told him I just loved him. Then he kissed me and we made love in that bed.”10 However, the next morning Doc was gone. He left her so he could go die alone in peace and solitude.

Kate hated Doc for leaving, and it wasn’t until years later that she found him again in Tombstone (a small town in Cochise County, Arizona) where he was being wrongly accused of something he didn’t do. This is where it’s believed she “betrayed” him. Doc was being accused of robbing a stagecoach and murdering the driver. Doc’s enemies in Tombstone actually found Kate, got her drunk and forced her to testify against Doc saying he did it. It wasn’t until the next morning, when sober, that Kate told the truth and admitted that she was forced to testify against Doc. When Doc found out what she had done, he never forgave her, although he knew that she didn’t do it intentionally. He just couldn’t come to forgive her for even daring to say it in the first place. Kate said “That was the last time I ever saw Doc before he left Tombstone and died years later.”11

Doc Holidays tombstone – His final resting place located in Glenwood Springs, Colorado | Courtesy of Elena Sandidge Westerns
  1. Doc Holliday, quoted in Jane Candia Coleman, Doc Holliday: Doc Holliday’s Woman (New York: Warner Books, 1995), 77, 79.
  2. Forest Tennant, “Doc Holliday: A Story of Tuberculosis, Pain, and Self Medication in the Wild West,” New York: Practical Pain Management 12, No.11 (2015): 1-5.
  3. New Georgia Encyclopedia, 2009, s.v. “Doc Holliday 1881,” by John Dalton Macdonald.
  4. Katie Elder, quoted in Jane Candia Coleman, Doc Holliday: Doc Holliday’s Woman (New York: Warner Books, 1995), 88.
  5. New World Encyclopedia, 2016, s.v. “Doc Holliday,” by John Joshua Webb.
  6. George P. Cosmatos, Tombstone (1881; Tucson, AZ: Kevin Jarre, 1993), DVD.
  7. Katie Elder, quoted in Jane Candia Coleman, Doc Holliday: Doc Holliday’s Woman (New York: Warner Books, 1995), 87.
  8. Katie Elder, quoted in Jane Candia Coleman, Doc Holliday: Doc Holliday’s Woman (New York: Warner Books, 1995), 87.
  9. Katie Elder, quoted in Jane Candia Coleman, Doc Holliday: Doc Holliday’s Woman (New York: Warner Books, 1995), 87.
  10. Katie Elder, quoted in Jane Candia Coleman, Doc Holliday: Doc Holliday’s Woman (New York: Warner Books, 1995), 88.
  11. Maggie Van Ostrand, Doc Holliday and Katie Elder,” Texas: History Studies International Journal of History 10, No. 7 (2018): 1-3.

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56 Responses

  1. From their first encounter to their last moments together, the relationship between Kate and Doc seems to be a hectic period for both individuals, if it can even be considered a ‘relationship’ at all. Kate seems to be quite parasitic and enabling to Doc, while Doc himself was an individual who went through life, waiting for his inevitable end to due to his condition. Yet, through all of Kate’s actions towards Doc, the one act that truly caused him to disappear and cut all ties until his death was one that could be considered ‘accidental’ and ‘due to circumstances.’ Being forced to testify, the one act that may have garnered Kate some sympathy from Doc had done the exact opposite. Had she not testified, the timeline of Doc’s end may have drastically changed and Kate may have reinserted herself into his life somehow, but time has made its move and history has this story to remember.

  2. This article was an interesting read, as it focused on an illness and personal relationship of a person known in American history as an outlaw. I had never heard of Kate, and she showed a different dimension of Doc. Kate and Doc’s relationship was a partnership in a different way, it seems Kate was in it for money, and Doc was in it for health care. They loved each other in their own ways it seems, as the article says, and although that love was not healthy, it did benefit both for a while. It’s sad that Kate was forced to testify against Doc and further ruin any chance of reconciliation, although they seem to have been past the point of reconciliation either way.

  3. Wow! This is a very good example of a toxic relationship, and we often see couples like them that just use each other for mutual gain. I think this is a great article, and I enjoyed reading it and learning that there where toxic relationships back at that time. I believe that Doc and Kate were in love but I will say that love is not enough sometimes in order to keep two people together.

  4. It’s sad to see a man like Doc have to endure the metal abuse of his beloved and when I read that she encouraged him to drink until he passed out and his gambling addiction it really wasn’t the way for him to live his final days. Apart from everything else he also had tuberculosis and he left Kate because he was fed up. Kate did wrong to him and in the end she did feel sorry for testifying against him in court, but i’m more surprised that no one did anything when she was testifying drunk.

  5. I really enjoyed this article. It was definitely an interesting read, and it was sad how Doc died alone in the end. I really learned a lot about older toxic relationships and what they went through. This article proved how love can affect anyone, even if they are living a life of crime. Before reading this, I had never heard of Doc and Kate or their toxic love story.

  6. This was clearly a toxic relationship but perhaps both used the other for mutual gain. Doc Holiday knew he was dying. There was no cure for TB and it was indeed a slow, painful death to endure. There was little chance of finding a stable and lasting relationship and Kate proved a convenient companion. Living on borrowed time, Doc Holiday fully embraced his vices and the company of a woman who encouraged it. Kate lived in a time where single women, especially of ill repute, had very few options. She latched on to a source of income, becoming the de facto wife of a dying man who made fast cash.

  7. This article was a rollercoaster, it explained how toxic Kate and Doc’s relationship was. They were always fighting and in order to calm Doc down, Kate seduced him. Their relationship wasn’t love, yet, they both always decided to stay in the relationship. It wasn’t until Doc had enough of Kate being a reminder of how healthy she was (unlike him) that he decided to leave. The relationship was toxic but I don’t think that Doc should’ve died with no one by his side.

  8. It’s insane to see how people living lives of crime are still affected by the common things like love and affection. It shows that no matter what, love and heartbreak will affect anyone and no one will ever master what it means. Which kinda blows, considering all the emotions one feels when meeting a new person or seeing the one you care about the most.

  9. This was an interesting article. For example, it showed and explained the toxic romance many people in modern day suffer or go through. Before reading the article I didn’t know what I was getting myself into, but honestly glad I read the article, because I learned a lot about a old toxic romance, I think they were in love but sometimes love isn’t enough to keep people together.

  10. It’s sad how Doc ended up dying alone but their relationship was toxic. It makes me wonder if there was actual love somewhere in there because the article stated that Kate hated Doc for leaving. She didn’t testify against him either I wonder how Kate was able to carry on with that. Even though she did not do it, she was about to unintentionally testify against Doc.

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