Katherine Slaughterback (1893–1969) was a dryland prairie homesteader on the Colorado plains. In 1925 she became known as Rattlesnake Kate after she killed 140 rattlesnakes, allegedly in self-defense, in Weld County. Her story, which is likely an embellished combination of myth and fact, made her famous across the country, and she remains a local folk hero, with her rattlesnake-skin dress and other artifacts displayed at the Greeley History Museum.
Katherine McHale, called Kate, was born on July 25, 1893, in a log cabin in Longmont. After her mother died in childbirth when Kate was two years old, she and her two brothers were raised by their father and grandparents. The family was poor and barely supported themselves on their dryland prairie homestead.
Kate graduated from high school and attended the St. Joseph School of Nursing in Denver. During World War I, she nursed wounded soldiers at Fitzsimons General Hospital in Aurora.
Back to the Plains
After the war, Kate moved back to the northern Colorado plains. She married six different times in her life. In the early 1920s, she moved with her second husband, Henry (Jack) Slaughterback, to a homestead near the town of Hudson in Weld County. They became dryland farmers, struggling to work 640 acres of land in a dry climate with no irrigation. Soon Jack left, leaving Kate to work the homestead by herself.
It was a hard life, and Kate struggled to make ends meet. She raised crops and animals, hunted, and even made and sold bootleg liquor during prohibition to support herself. Both of her brothers lived nearby and helped her when they could, while her beloved horses provided her with companionship. When her neighbors could not afford to raise their child, she adopted their son, Ernie, and raised him as her own.
Earning Her Nickname
On October 28, 1925, Kate and three-year-old Ernie were riding their horse near their homestead. Some duck hunters had been shooting at a pond, and she hoped they had left behind some wounded ducks that she could take for supper. Leaving Ernie behind on the horse, Kate dismounted and walked toward the pond.
She saw a rattlesnake, a common sight on the Colorado plains, and shot it with her rifle. Three more rattlesnakes reared up, ready to strike, and she shot them too. Then she was suddenly surrounded by angry rattlesnakes. Unknown to her, she had happened to walk into the middle of a fall rattlesnake migration. The snakes were migrating back to their dens to hibernate for the winter. The sound of Kate’s gunfire had startled them into attacking.
Out of bullets, she allegedly grabbed a “No Hunting” sign and used it as a club. According to legend, she battled the snakes for two hours. Then, exhausted but unharmed, she returned to her homestead. The next day, she and a neighbor went to collect the snakes. Counting the bodies, she found that she had killed 140 of them.
Whether real or embellished, Kate’s incredible story was reported in Colorado newspapers, and soon the story spread all over the United States. A picture of her with the rattlesnakes hanging from a wire outside her house circulated with the story. She had earned a nickname: Rattlesnake Kate.
Becoming “Rattlesnake Kate”
Slaughterback recognized an opportunity and called herself Rattlesnake Kate for the rest of her life. She created a one-of-a-kind, flapper-style dress from about fifty of the rattlesnake skins and thirty of the rattles, and wore it to special events in town. She told the story of her encounter whenever she could.
Kate added to her income by hunting and raising rattlesnakes, selling skins for $2 and rattles for $1. After learning taxidermy, she crafted dead rattlesnakes into lifelike sculptures. She learned to “milk” rattlesnake venom by having snakes bite into a sponge, and she sold the venom to a California company that made an antivenom for rattlesnake bites. Her rattlesnake business was a small but notable part of her homesteading life.
Kate lived and worked on her homestead until she died on October 6, 1969, at the age of seventy-six. She was buried near her homestead, beneath a tombstone that reads “Rattlesnake Kate.”
Rattlesnake Kate’s story is well known on the Colorado plains and is treasured by the Weld County community. Before Kate died, she donated her rattlesnake-skin dress to the Greeley History Museum, where it is hung in a special, light-filtering display to help preserve it. The museum has a permanent exhibit on Rattlesnake Kate with additional artifacts from her life. Her small cabin was purchased by the city of Greeley and moved to Centennial Village, a living-history site near town.
Kate’s story has been told in folk songs, and a highly fictionalized version of her life has been made into a musical, Rattlesnake Kate, by Neyla Pekarek, to be performed at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.