"Doc's" Woman: Doc Holliday's Wife

“Doc” Holliday and Kate Elder’s relationship proves there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to pain and marital relationships.

This article is a sidebar to Doc Holliday: A Story of Tuberculosis, Pain, and Self-medication In the Wild West. Click on the link to read the full article first.

Clinicians who practice pain medicine and see tragically afflicted pain patients know that the difference between misery and finding some comfort, relief, and happiness may be keenly tied to a relationship with a significant other. “Doc” Holliday and Kate Elder’s relationship was one of great affection and support that allowed these two vagabonds on the Western Frontier to find some happiness, thrills, love, and longevity they would not otherwise have experienced. The ups and downs of their relationship is something I’ve come to frequently observe in many of my current patients with intractable pain.

Kate Elder was born Mary Katherine Haroney, on November 7, 1850.10,11 She was born, like Holliday, into an aristocratic family in Budapest, Hungary. She was highly educated, literate, and spoke several languages, including Hungarian, French, Spanish, and English. Her father was a renowned physician who accepted a post as Maximilian of Mexico’s personal surgeon. When Maximilian’s government began to crumble, Haroney moved his family to Davenport, Iowa. For unknown reasons Kate’s mother and father died shortly after reaching Iowa. Afterword, at age 14, she was shipped from one guardian to another.

The next historical record of Kate is in Wichita, Kansas, where she worked in a “sporting house” run by James and Bessie Earp.1,3,5 She also worked as a prostitute for the Earps in Dodge City. She moved to Fort Griffin, Texas, in 1871 and met “Doc” in 1875. They immediately hit it off and began living together as husband and wife. In 1878, they moved to Dodge City and registered at the famous Dodge House Hotel on Front Street as Dr. and Mrs. John H. Holliday. Little is written or recorded about their life in Dodge City, but Holliday is believed to have done well at Faro and poker, as well as kept a part-time dental practice. One source believes Kate would find him poker games that he could exploit.24 There also is a report that says Kate would sit behind him when he played poker and give him only tea to drink unless he began a severe coughing spell that demanded a bit of alcohol. Bibliographies all state the couple had occasional and ferocious fights.1-8 One observer said they were inseparable until they had to be separated. I can find no credible details of the cause or nature of these quarrels. At one point in Tombstone, Kate was so furious with Doc that she became grossly inebriated and to “get even” she falsely signed an affidavit stating that Doc took part in a stagecoach robbery. Just what she was trying to get even about is unknown. It may have been over another woman who pursued Holliday.5

Even though their relationship may have been rocky at times, they stayed together for about a decade and traveled to Kansas, Colorado, South Dakota, Arizona, and New Mexico. Holliday was a very intelligent, educated man, was able to find his intellectual equal, and happiness, with Kate Elder.

Kate reportedly made some comments about Doc that paint a revealing portrait of him that is not generally appreciated. “Doc was close to 6 feet tall, weighed 160 pounds, fair complexion, very pretty mustache, blue-grey eyes, and fine set of teeth. He never boasted of his fighting qualities. He was a neat dresser, and saw to it his wife was dressed as nicely as himself.”5

After Doc’s death, Kate remarried and ran a boarding house in Globe, Arizona. In 1940, she died at age 90 with the name of Kate Cummings. She was living at the Arizona Pioneer Rest Home, in Prescott, Arizona. She apparently tried to sell her story, but there were no takers in the 1920s and 1930s. The Western Frontier craze had not yet hit.

The Kate and Doc “lesson” for pain practitioners is to be tolerant of the marital relationships of pain patients. One sees the good, bad, and the ugly. Some couples can’t stay together when one of them has intractable pain. Others can only tolerate each other in small dosages. In other cases, love and affection grows longer and stronger. There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to pain and marital relationships.

First published on: December 1, 2012