Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Grave Site of Big Nose Kate

Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller
The Grave Site of Big Nose Kate

On the 4th of July, we headed north a bit to Prescott for the big annual rodeo -- the world's oldest, and a great way to spend Independence Day -- only to be turned away, surprised and dismayed.  Although arriving at the grounds an hour before the Friday afternoon performance, I hadn't pre-purchased tickets for what was to be a sold-out show.  Prescott has always been one of my favorite areas; rich in history, it has fostered its western heritage and still pays proper homage to the western lifestyle I favor. There are plenty of destinations -- so we merely diverted from the rodeo to the nearby Pioneer Home Cemetery, within earshot of the rodeo loudspeakers.  As I wistfully listened to the applause, my other half, Russ, tried to console me with, "They're booing.  See, we aren't missing anything."  (They most certainly weren't booing.  This ain't my first rodeo, Russ …)

Of course, we could have gone to the tattoo fest we'd passed on our way into town -- but the dead appealed to me more than the heavily tattooed.  I enjoy visiting grave sites and cemeteries and locations where notorious characters expired.  It isn't some strange morbidity or a sense of spiritualism; it's a fascinating starting point. So often when doing historical research, we start at the end and work backwards; much more accurate information is usually known about people's final years than those of their birth.  Long had I heard of the Pioneer cemetery but hadn't yet toured it.  When I proposed it Russ immediately said, "Maybe we'll see Big Nose Kate's grave!"

If you're new to visiting cemeteries in hopes of finding historical figures buried within, here's a tip:  once you've found the older section, look for newer, larger groupings of flowers (fake and real) and trinkets.  If old graves have new mementoes, it's generally because the individuals interred within have current relevance to visitors.  Sure enough, I could see a large grouping of silk flowers on an otherwise fairly nondescript grave towards one edge of the cemetery.  There it was:  the grave of Mary Katherine Harony Cummings -- the famous working girl known to western enthusiasts by many names, perhaps most prominently, Big Nose Kate.

Big Nose Kate had a life much longer and arguably as intriguing as that of her beau and self-professed husband, Doc Holliday.  (No records actually confirm they were ever married, but Kate claimed they were.)  Much of Kate's story, like those of her male contemporaries, has been grossly mis-told.  One author even claims that, while Doc Holliday died with his boots off, Kate died as Doc would have preferred -- shot to death in a saloon.  Big Nose Kate most certainly did not die with her boots on.  Just five days shy of her 90th birthday, on November 2, 1940, she passed away at the Pioneer Home in Prescott.

Even the plaque at Kate's grave is inaccurate; it cites her name as "Mary Katherine Horony Cummings, AKA 'Big Nose Kate' or 'Rowdy Kate.'"  The plaque is beneath Kate's tombstone, pictured at the top of this page.


Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller
The Plaque at Big Nose Kate's Grave

Kate was one of several soiled doves named Kate who frequented the western boom towns.  Although many writers refer to her as "Rowdy Kate," just as cited on her plaque, Rowdy Kate was a fellow sporting woman and often cited as Big Nose Kate's good friend.  However, our Kate did not lack for a surplus of names to her credit.  Born in 1850 as "Mary Katherine Harony" in Pest, Hungary (now Budapest), and often incorrectly called Mary Katherine Horony, she first adopted a pseudonym upon the death of her parents in 1865 in Davenport, Iowa.  Kate called herself Kate Fisher at that point as she traveled illicitly to the west, making her way as a prostitute.  She accrued names about as easily as she accrued addresses:  Kate Fisher in Wichita was soon Katie Elder in Dodge City. Picking up with Doc Holliday, she traveled to the Arizona territory with him; she was known as Kate Holliday to some, and referred to herself as Mrs. Mary Holliday even after Doc's death.   A couple of years after Doc's death (he and Kate had been on-again and off-again throughout his life, and she loved him to the end of her own life), Kate -- 40 at the time -- married George Cummings in Colorado.  She then reverted to her given name of Mary as would befit a woman of respectable married status.

Mary-Kate and George moved to Bisbee, Arizona, in 1895, where she still served the miners -- food and not carnal pleasures, this time, while George worked as a blacksmith.  She divorced him in 1899, perhaps due to his alcoholism, and ended up as a housekeeper for a fellow in Dos Cabezas.  That man, John J. Howard, made Kate the executor of his will, but left her not enough money to pay for the winter's firewood.  Mary Katherine wrote to Governor George W. Hunt asking if she could move to the Arizona Pioneer's Home.  After an issue relating to her citizenship was resolved (since the bylaws required United States citizenship, and Kate was a Hungarian emigrant), she was granted permission.  She spent the rest of her life -- about eight years -- at the Pioneer Home.

Now, Kate's life is certainly book-worthy, but earlier chapters must wait:  it is her grave we were concerned with.  From Europe to Iowa and across the country to Wichita, Dodge City, Tombstone, Trinidad, Bisbee, Globe and Prescott, Kate resided in some of the wildest of western towns.  Ultimately, she found a final address on a still peaceful hillside in Prescott with Mingus Mountain looking on as a sentinel of sorts.  Kate's grave is towards the corner of the "old" section of the cemetery.  It is, as graves of famous or infamous people often are, festooned with mementos left by admirers -- or not.  Visitors have left trinkets and faux flowers on her grave.

Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller
Remembrances on Kate's Grave
Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller
An Appropriately Victorian-Style Memento
Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller
One thoughtful visitor left a large mason jar, its lid long rusted, with a guest book inside.  Its pages are filled with lots of "RIP's" and some conflicted sentiments.  Tucked neatly in back is a photograph of Kate's true love, Doc, looking every bit as dapper now as he did then -- Kate herself described him as a handsome man with a gentleman's manners.
Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller
Other visitors stopped by not so much to pay their respects, though, as to express their unfavorable opinion of Kate.  As you can see in the photo below, one woman wrote, "You were a bitch then + you still are -- but a little nicer … P.S. Buckskin Frank still hates you."


Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller

"Buckskin Frank" refers to Buckskin Frank Leslie, a name immediately recognizable to even casual enthusiasts of the gunfighters of the time.  Leslie, whose real name was Nashville Franklin Leslie, served as a scout in the Indian territories before his much-storied career as peace officer, customs inspector,  jailer, ranch foreman, hotelier and murderer.  Frank's grave is not to be found; having survived many shoot-outs, the multi-faceted frontiersman served several years in the famed territorial prison in Yuma before making his way up to Alaska and back down to Oakland, California, where he worked in a pool hall.  Frank vanished, taking the owner's pistol with him, and was never heard from again.  Some suspect he killed himself.  Whatever hatred he may have had for Big Nose Kate, it died with him long ago.

Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller
Above is a photo taken from the top of the cemetery hill, looking downward toward Kate's grave -- you can see the flowers marking it just to the left of the tall juniper in the center.  Sitting before her grave you can still have a sense of the loneliness of the place.  Here, on a holiday weekend that attracts people from hundreds of miles away to visit Prescott -- the center of town abuzz with a craft fair, while the rodeo grounds were filled to the gills -- the cemetery is still a quiet place, with only one or two other cars making their way up the narrow drive.  One carload of women on a mission stopped parallel to Kate's grave and made their way promptly to it, clearly there just for her.

To put the cemetery in perspective, though, here's the view from the other side of Kate's grave.  Just a stone's throw from it is the Walmart parking lot.  There's no escaping death or Walmart, Kate, no matter how big the life you lead.

Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller

Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller
Russ Pays His Respects to Big Nose Kate.

Copyright © 2014 MJ Miller * All rights reserved * No part of this content, including photographs, may be reproduced without the express permission of the author * Links to this page, however, are encouraged and may be freely shared * Thank you for liking, linking, pinning, +1'ing, tweeting, sharing and otherwise helping grow my readership * Most of all, thank you for visiting and sharing my love of the American west and the people who made it great.  Keep America free!





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