The Death of "Irish Kate"

Among the many famous and infamous residents of this section of the cemetery is Kate Barrett, better known to history as "Irish Kate."

Soon after August 4, 1889, countless sensationalized stories surfaced explaining the raging inferno that leveled Spokane Falls. One such story involved "Irish Kate" and her Wild West honor. That tale typically went something like this:

Twenty-three year old Kate Barrett, known as "Irish Kate," was a saloon girl working on Railroad Avenue. On that hot summer evening, Kate was alone at the saloon bar, enjoying her favorite drink, whiskey with a splash of water, and toying with her fiery red hair.

A man, rough in appearance and demeanor, approached Kate from beside her. Sliding up to Kate, he abrasively questioned, "Can I buy you a drink, doll?"

Put off, Kate rejected his rather crass and unoriginal offer. "Nope, I've had too many drinks from your kind already today." She turned away, and continued playing with her hair. The man stood silent, embarrassed from Kate's rejection. Realizing her hair had flattened from her busy day, Kate brushed past the stranger to go upstairs and fix her hair.

Kate closed her room door behind her. She carefully placed a curling iron on the glass chimney of her kerosene lamp, waiting for the rod to heat up. Just then, the door burst open and the spurned laborer strode into her room.

Kate confronted him, "And who said you could just come stomping into my room without knocking? Get out of here this instant!" The stranger staggered towards Kate, slurring his banter, "When a man offers a lady a drink, she accepts. But maybe you're no lady. You were rude to me down there, sister. Now I'm gonna' teach you a lesson." Without hesitation, Kate heaved a glass pitcher at her assailant, crying, "Get away from me, you maniac!"

The pitcher missed, and the man grabbed Kate by her arms, shaking her violently. Irish Kate kicked at the man and fell backwards against the table. The lamp and curling iron crashed to the floor next to Kate. The kerosene splattered on the wooden floor planks, bursting into flames. The drunk man ran from the room.

As flames filled the small room, Kate panicked. She grabbed the few belongings she owned. Frightened with being blamed for the fire, she hid in the building across the street.
As the strong winds began to pick up that warm evening, a breeze entered the flame-ridden room. The fueled flames consumed the rough-hewn lumber and white lace curtains quickly. It was not long before the building was engulfed in flames, with the flames eventually consuming thirty-two blocks.
Whatever the truth of the Irish Kate story, Kate Barrett was a real person, a prostitute in early Spokane who had a short and apparently unhappy life. Just a few years after the fire, in 1892, she committed suicide by drinking carbolic acid outside the Panhandle Block. Her body was never claimed. She is buried in Spokane's Greenwood Cemetery potter's field.

The story of Kate, though colorful, is thinly sourced, and rarely cited. The myth of Irish Kate is prevalent around Spokane even in 2014, with local brews named in her honor. Advocates of the Irish Kate story believe that it was whiskey and pride that brought Spokane Falls to its knees in 1889.