Famous Faces in Northern Colorado History
Written by Kimberly Overholt, Museum Marketing
Several stories and people have found historic fame in northeastern Colorado, but none so much as the fame garnered by an early 20th century rattlesnake killing incident.
Kate McHale Slaughterback was born in 1894. In her early life, she was known to enjoy wearing pants instead of dresses, and loved shooting guns and working hard.
An independent lady, Kate was progressive for the time—she had married and divorced several times and had been a trained nurse and taxidermist. Rumor has it that she was also a bootlegger.
On October 28, 1925, Katherine McHale Slaughterback (1863-1969) was out with her 3-year old adopted son Ernie. They were on horseback and headed toward a lake near her farm in Hudson, Colorado after hearing what sounded like hunters. Slaughterback hoped they would find ducks left by the hunters, but what they found instead were over a hundred migrating rattlesnakes. Kate fired the bullets in her .22 Remington rifle until none remained. She had disturbed the snakes and soon Ernie, Kate and her horse were surrounded.
Worried about Ernie and her horse, and with nothing left in the gun, Kate grabbed a nearby sign—ironically it’s believed to have been a “No Hunting” sign—and began killing the rattlesnakes, one-by-one, until all were dead.
According to Kate, “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.
The story immediately spread like wildfire and according to Kate, “Soon a newspaper reporter came and had me string 140 dead rattlesnakes on a wire and have my photo taken.”
The story of her bravery earned Kate national notoriety. Reports of her snake-killing story and photos emerged, and the incident earned her the nickname “Rattlesnake Kate.”
Kate was a lady of many talents and someone who did not waste anything. Prior to the incident, Kate had taken a correspondence class from the Northwestern School of Taxidermy in Omaha, Nebraska. She was also proficient at sewing. Putting both skills to work, she used a fair amount of the snakeskins and rattles to create a one-of-a-kind flapper-style dress with matching shoes and accessories.
The snakeskins were attached to a simple-style underdress.
According to Ernie, Kate wore the dress to a few parties and supposedly wore the dress while she danced on top of a tavern bar in Juarez, Mexico.
Kate would ultimately go on to raise rattlesnakes on her property, extracting their venom for profit. She would also make and sell snakeskin souvenirs.
Three weeks before her death, Kate donated the dress to what was then called the Greeley Municipal Museum. She claimed the dress was patented and that she once had an offer from the Smithsonian Institute to purchase the dress.
She died in 1969 at the age of seventy-five. At her request, her headstone in the Platteville cemetery where she is buried reads, “Rattlesnake Kate.”
In 1987 and 1988, Ernie donated additional items of Kate’s to the museum including her .22 Remington.
Today, her original snakeskin dress is exhibited in a climate and light controlled area in the Greeley History Museum, 714 8th Street, along with her rattlesnake shoes and accessories. Documents, images and artifacts related to the story are kept by the museum’s Hazel E. Johnson Research Center.
Her homestead and story are also a part of nearby Centennial Village Museum, 1475 A Street.
Special thanks to Peggy Ford Waldo, development coordinator, for providing additional resources for this article.