We all come across challenges in our lives, certain rivers we have to cross and obstacles to be overcome, and history is filled with the tales of the brave rising to the occasion to overcome insurmountable odds. Some of these tales have gone on to become almost legendary in their locales, and one of these is surely the true story of the time a woman was out with her young son and came across something like a scene out of a horror movie, and yet she managed to emerge triumphant and launch herself into nearly mythical status.
Kate McHale was born in July of 1893 in a rustic log cabin in the rugged wilds near Longmont, Colorado, and grew up very much a tomboy and a consummate outdoorsman. As a child she was known to wear boy’s clothing, and unlike the other girls she was more interested in hunting and other outdoor activities that during the era were thought of as within the realm of manly pursuits, which was all very unusual for a girl in that day and age, and for the time she is seen as having been very progressive. In her later years she would learn taxidermy and become a nurse, according to some accounts doing a little moonshine bootlegging on the side as well, but her personal life was full of trouble, seeing her marry and remarry six times during her life. One of these men was Jack Slaughterback, who had a son, Ernie, from a previous marriage. It was during this time that Kate would go on to earn her place among great Colorado legends, as well as her popular nickname, “Rattlesnake Kate.”
By all accounts Kate and Ernie got along very well, and she would teach him all about hunting and the outdoors, the two of them frequently going out to explore the wilderness or go on hunting excursions. On October 28, 1925, Kate and Ernie, who was only 3 years old at the time, went out on one of these trips, going out on horseback to a pond near her farm in Hudson, Colorado. The trip started out peacefully enough, and it was mostly a fine day of horseback riding until they heard a sound out in the wilderness that Kate at first took to be illegal duck hunters on their land. Kate was armed with a .22 caliber Remington rifle, and the ever tough and courageous woman went off to investigate. What she didn’t expect to see was that these were no hunters, but rather a writhing mass of well over a hundred migrating rattlesnakes.
The snakes quickly surrounded them, and Kate sprang into action, having the horse bring Ernie to safety while picking off as many as possible with her rifle, and although she had always been a very good shot, she simply did not have enough ammo to kill them all. When her bullets were gone, she then dislodged a nearby sign that allegedly said “No Hunting,” and went about ferociously clubbing the approaching deadly snakes with it. She was by all accounts in berserker mode, blisters forming on her hands as she desperately hacked and beat away at the rattlesnakes with the sign, through it all worried that the horse would become frightened and throw her stepson off into the squirming carpet of snakes. She would later say:
I fought them with a club not more than 3 feet long, whirling constantly for over two hours before I could kill my way out of them and get back to my faithful horse and Ernie, who were staring at me during my terrible battle not more than 60 feet away.
When all was said and done, the panting, exhausted Kate was surrounded by the carcasses of over 140 rattlesnakes strewn about. When she got back home and told a neighbor about what had happened, they went back to the pond and collected all of the dead snakes into wash tubs, skinned them, and hung them out on a line to dry. Word got out about what had happened and a local reporter came by to interview her and take a now iconic photo of Kate with the line full of rattler corpses. And what did Kate McHale do with all of those snake skins? Why, she made a dress of them, of course. Kate knew all about how to skin animals and cure the hides, so she used over 50 of the skins to make a flapper style dress, plus matching shoes and accessories. She would wear this dress to parties and events, where it was a constant source of amazement and a conversation starter. In the meantime, her very unusual story had reached national and even worldwide news, and she became a sort of celebrity, now known as Rattlesnake Kate.
In later years, Kate would serve as a nurse during World War II in the Pacific Theater, and later in life she would continue her strange relationship with rattlesnakes by raising the reptiles on her farm and using their skins to make souvenirs to sell or for their venom, making a tidy profit from it all. As for that dress, she later claimed that she had received an offer from the Smithsonian Institution to buy it for $2,000, but ultimately she would go on to donate it to the Greeley History Museum, in Greeley, Colorado, shortly before her death in 1969 at the age of 75. Her son Ernie would go on to donate other objects from her life, including the notorious rifle she had used to shoot the snakes on that fateful day, and her homestead was also carefully reconstructed brick by brick at the nearby Centennial Village Museum. Kate’s headstone, which can be seen at the Mizpah Cemetery in Platteville, Colorado, simply reads “Rattlesnake Kate.” She has gone on to become an almost legendary figure in Colorado, her story etched into the weird history of the state, and she remains an odd and inspiring historical oddity.