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“The Breath of a Dragon”

Come let me tell you the story of an Irish innkeeper with the breath of a dragon, a woman who inspires me to speak up, speak out, and take a stand, even when that stand might be unpopular, or put me at risk.

Catherine (Kate) McGill Dorman lived in the 1800s, but she marched into my life a few months ago and so fascinated me that I featured her in my modern day mystery novel, Deadly Sins Deadly Secrets.

Kate stood a mere 4 feet 10 inches, but according to legend, what she lacked in stature, she made up in guts, determination, and a delightfully acidic tongue. (I find myself drawn to women with one!)

Kate and her husband moved from Georgia to Sabine Pass where they built the Catfish Hotel on the banks of the Sabine River. The inn had a wharf off the back where steamboats often docked, and captains and passengers partook of Kate’s hospitality.

While Kate ran the hotel, her husband served as engineer on a mail packet that carried mail up and down the Texas coast. In late 1859 a boiler exploded, killing her husband, leaving Kate a young widow with two small daughters to care for, and an inn to run. Kate later remarried a captain of a cotton steamer that plied the Neches River.

Texans tried to stay out of a civil war that raged elsewhere in the country, but folks along the coast found themselves caught in the middle of a battle for control over the prized waterway, easy access for blockade runners smuggling cotton to Europe—fundraising for the Confederate army.

Things got worse in 1862 when the deadly yellow fever hit. The epidemic soon raged out of control. Hundreds of town folk and Confederate soldiers died, hundreds more fled the area. But not Kate, instead, she turned the Catfish Hotel into a hospital where she and two friends tended to soldiers and civilians, alike.

While the pestilence raged, and the Confederate soldiers lay sick and dying, the Union took advantage of the situation and captured Sabine Pass. One day, fifty Union soldiers brought a 6-pound howitzer ashore, with a plan to burn down the Confederate barracks west of town. Needing something on which to mount and transport the heavy gun, they made a big mistake—they absconded with Kate’s horse and cart.

Angry as all get-out, Kate sprang into action. The November 5, 1862 issue of the Houston Tri-Weekly Telegraph described the event:

“…Mrs. Kate Dorman, who witnessed the act, became perfectly enraged, and being one of the bravest women in the Confederacy, gave them such a tongue-lashing as only a brave woman would dare do. She shook her fist at them, and told them she hoped our boys would kill the last one of them, and if she had 25 men, she would take them and their cannon with them.

“After the enemy retired to their gunboat, they gave Capt. Dorman his horse and cart back, and told him if he didn’t keep his damned wife’s mouth shut, they would hang him. Mr. and Mrs. Dorman have a large hotel in the place, and the Yanks declare that if she does not apologize to them, they will burn it down. She declares that she will see them in the lower regions first, and they may burn it if they choose.”

A week later, a second Union Navy patrol landed and set fire to most of the town, but they did not touch Kate’s Catfish Hotel. As W. T. Block says in his Beaumont Enterprise article dated August 18, 1974, “Perhaps they did not fancy another encounter with the Irish innkeeper with a dragon’s hot breath.”

Historians well-document Dick Dowling and his men’s famous Battle of Sabine Pass, but few tell how, as the battle raged, thirty-four-year old Kate and her friend spent hours laboring over a hot wood stove cooking food for Dowling and his men. Then, despite the intense battle going on around her, Kate hitched her now-famous horse to her cart, loaded the food, and, with the bombardment overhead, she and her friend delivered a huge pot of stew, doughnuts and coffee, and even a gallon of whiskey to the 47 Irishmen defending nearby Fort Griffin. Certainly the action of Kate and her friend sustained Dowling’s men, strengthening their ability to hold off the enemy. And hold off they did.

Kate died at the age of 69, on Christmas Eve, 1897. Of the many eulogies written about her, perhaps that of Margaret Watson, who shared a room with Kate during much of the Civil War, gives us the best glimpse of this phenomenal woman:

“During the days of trials and privations of the Civil War, Mrs. Dorman stood strong and brave under every difficulty. She was the friend of the private soldiers as well as the officers; she nursed them when sick, gave the best she had to feed them. She was always on hand in the hour of peril to express faith in their success, to give an enthusiastic welcome in their hour of victory. Though Kate now sleeps in the cemetery at the Pass, she lives forever in the hearts of these survivors.”

Kate inspires me to bravery, to new strength and determination to make a positive difference in my world. I hope she does you as well.

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