Wild Women Of The West: Baby Doe Tabor


Baby Doe Tabor Cowgirl Magazine

Baby Doe Tabor.

A shabby-looking prospector emerged from the dark, weathered entrance of the Matchless Mine in Leadville, Colorado, and straightened his stooped shoulders. He dropped his pickax beside a rusty ore cart and rolled and lit a cigarette. His weary face was set in a scowl as he surveyed the mountains rising precipitously around the well-worked diggings. The smoke from the chimney of a nearby shack rose into the air and drifted toward him.

As he watched the smoke swirl and evaporate into a vibrant blue sky, an elderly woman charged out the building into the cold. Seventy-five-year-old Baby Doe Tabor was dressed in layers of torn, threadbare garments that dragged along the ground as she walked. The woolen hat on her head sat just above her azure eyes, and she wore a ragged leather boot on one foot and a cluster of rags bound by a strip of material on the other. As she made her way toward the miner, a slight smile stretched across her hollowed cheeks. “What did you find?” she asked him hopefully. The man shook his head.

A flash of irritation erupted in her eyes but quickly dissipated as she scanned the colorful horizon.

Baby Doe’s late husband was Horace Tabor, the Silver King. He made and lost a fortune in mining. At one time the country around her was swarming with workers who pulled millions out of the diggings where she lived. It had been more than thirty years since the mine had yielded anything but dust and rock. Baby Doe stayed on the property because of a deathbed promise she had made to Horace. “Never let the Matchless go if I die, Baby. It will make millions again when silver comes back.”

She had implicit faith in her husband’s judgment and in the Matchless, but she was alone in her belief. The only men who would agree to venture into the mine in 1929 were drifters or one-time hopeful prospectors. Baby Doe persuaded them to dig in exchange for shares in the potential find.

The disheveled miner looked around, gathered up his few belongings, and tramped through the snow out of camp. Baby Doe’s eyes followed the prospector until he disappeared into a grove of pine trees. “Hang on to the Matchless,” she whispered to herself. “Horace told me it would make millions again.”

The poverty and degradation that Baby Doe experienced in her last few years on earth were in direct contrast to the time she spent as the wife of a mining mogul. Born Elizabeth Bonduel McCourt in 1854 to a family of moderate means in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, she maneuvered her way around Colorado’s high society until she met a man who would liberate her from her lackluster background. Her parents were Irish immigrants from County Armagh who had escaped the turmoil in their own country and initially settled in Utica, New York. They had fourteen children, many of whom died in infancy.

Elizabeth’s angelic face, golden locks, and striking blue eyes set her apart from the other children. Her father, a tailor and the owner of a clothing store, doted on his daughter. Often, he brought the child to work with him, and customers raved about the little girl’s beauty. On more than one occasion, businessmen would ask if her father wasn’t afraid “someone would steal her away.” Baby Doe thrived on the attention of the male clientele and learned at a young age how to manipulate them into giving her whatever she asked for.

Elizabeth’s stunning looks continued to improve as she got older. At fifteen she was five-foot-two, with long, blonde hair, a robust figure, and sun-kissed porcelain skin. Men of all ages hovered around her like frantic bees at a hive. She received several marriage proposals but refused the sincere suitors in favor of pursuing a career on the stage. She was also determined to wed a man of great wealth.

The bold teenager dismissed the admonitions of her brothers and sisters to behave sensibly, abandon the notion of acting, and settle down. Although there were a few respected actresses in the late 1870s, for the most part women thespians were considered to be a slight step above soiled doves. Elizabeth didn’t care what “polite society” thought of her. She was driven by an independent spirit her father had nurtured and her dreams of fame and money.

In December 1876, Elizabeth participated in a skating contest hosted by the Congregational church. Boldly sporting a skirt that revealed her calves, she gracefully twirled through a routine, exciting the male onlookers and enraging female audience members. At the end of the competition, Elizabeth had captured a first-place ribbon and the heart of handsome socialite Harvey Doe.

Elizabeth was attracted to Harvey for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that he was heir to a mining dynasty. William Harvey Doe Sr. owned a substantial number of mining claims in Colorado.

Doe also owned a lumber business in Oshkosh and had returned with his son to check on his investment at the same time the skating event was being held. Harvey was quite smitten with Elizabeth, and her parents found the young man charming and personable. Mrs. Doe, however, objected to her son spending time with a girl she considered to be a “daring exhibitionist.” Harvey disregarded his mother’s complaints about Elizabeth’s parents’ financial standing and her view of the girl as a “social climber.” He proclaimed his love for Elizabeth and proposed marriage.

Elizabeth’s recollection of Harvey’s proposal was that it was the first such invitation that had “moved her deeply.” According to what she shared with a friend in the 1930s, Harvey was different from the other men in town who sought her affections. “He would come over to play the piano for all my family in the evening, seeming to love us all. He would join in the general fun without trying to monopolize me, like other men.”

On June 27, 1877, Harvey and Elizabeth were married at her parents’ home. Immediately after the ceremony the couple boarded a train bound for Denver, Colorado. Harvey Doe Sr. planned for his son to take over the mining property in nearby Central City.

Once the newlyweds had finished honeymooning they would embark on a life in the gold fields of Pike’s Peak. Elizabeth’s father-in-law made arrangements for her and her new husband to reside at a posh hotel called the Teller House. The inn was elegant and decorated with the finest European furniture and rugs.

Elizabeth was enthusiastic about her new home, and the luxurious living conditions were precisely what she had envisioned for herself. She was also enchanted with the activity at the Fourth of July Mine where Harvey worked. The sights and sounds of the miners descending into the diggings and reappearing with chunks of earth that might be gold stirred her desire for outrageous wealth.

At the time Elizabeth believed the opportunity to amass a fortune could only be realized through Harvey’s efforts. Doe Sr. wanted his son to earn his profits and reputation the same way he had, by working in every area of the mining development, from collecting ore to operating the stamp mill. Harvey, however, wasn’t interested in manual labor and preferred anyone else to do the work. Elizabeth was far too ambitious to leave the future of her financial status to a lazy husband and quickly took command of their property and limited income.

After moving their belongings out of the expensive hotel where they had been living and into a small cottage, she organized a crew of Cornish miners to work at the Fourth of July Mine.

Some of the prominent town leaders with whom Elizabeth was acquainted advised her to have a shaft dug into the mine before winter fully set in. Joseph Thatcher, president of the First National Bank, and Bill Bush, owner of the Teller House, were two men whose opinion she respected the most. They urged her to do the digging herself if necessary.

Motivated by his wife’s drive, Harvey finally bent to her will and joined in the work. The first shaft the pair sank proved to be unsuccessful as there was no high-grade ore in that section of the mine. Elizabeth was not going to give up. She convinced her husband and their employees to drive a second shaft. Dressed in one of Harvey’s old shirts, a pair of dungarees, and a cap, Elizabeth toiled alongside the men.

In early October 1878, the editor of a mining newspaper in Central City was traveling through the busy area when he noticed the petite young woman lifting timbers and hauling tailings to a nearby pile. An article in the next edition of the paper included news about the woman prospector:

“I next reached the Fourth of July lode, a mine which has not been worked for several years but started up some months ago under the personal supervision of the owner, Mr. W.H. Doe and his wife. The young lady manages on half of the property while her liege lord manages the other. I found both of their separate shafts managing a number of workmen, Mr. Doe at his which is seventy feet, and his wife, who is full of ambition, in her new enterprise, at hers which is sunk sixty feet. This is the first instance where a lady, and such she is, has managed a mining property. The mine is doing very well and produces some rich ore.”

For a moment it seemed that Elizabeth and Harvey were striving together for a common goal. The pair diligently worked their claim, leaving the mine only to collect supplies in town. Historians speculate that it was during one of those trips when Elizabeth acquired the name by which she would be more commonly known. Rough, outspoken miners congregated outside saloons and mercantile, talking with one another and swapping stories about their prospecting adventures. As Elizabeth passed by the men on her way to purchase food and various odds and ends, one man called out, “There goes a beautiful baby.” The handle suited her diminutive frame and delicate features, and from that time on she was referred to by most as “Baby Doe.”

Despite their valiant efforts, the Fourth of July Mine never yielded the gold necessary to fund continued diggings. Harvey borrowed money to keep the operation going, but it was ultimately shut down. He went to work for another miner and abandoned his dream of striking it rich. Baby Doe held onto her aspiration of becoming a “woman of great means.” She was determined to realize that dream with or without Harvey.

Baby voiced her disappointment to Harvey about his lack of business sense and drive and he drank a lot as a way to cope with her criticism. They spent a great deal of time apart, he at the saloons and she at a fabric and clothing store called Sandelowsky-Pelton. Baby’s father-in-law returned to the area to try to help the pair get beyond their financial difficulties. He sold the Fourth of July Mine and settled their outstanding debts, but it couldn’t save Baby and Harvey’s relationship. By the summer of 1878, the two were leading virtually separate lives.

Baby spent a great deal of time with Jake Sandelowsky, the distinguished and handsome co-owner of the store she frequented. Her actions scandalized the town and infuriated Harvey. She defended Jake to her husband, making mention of the financial support the businessman had given her.

She wasn’t shy about reminding Harvey that what she wanted most in life was financial independence. Desperate to save his marriage, Harvey worked extra shifts to provide his wife with a quality of life that would make her happy. Jake seized the time during his absence to shower Baby with attention. He was her frequent escort to a local theater and saloon called the Shoo-Fly. Jake tried to persuade her to leave Harvey and marry him, but he didn’t possess the riches Baby hoped to make her own. She decided to remain married to Harvey until a truly better offer came along.

News that gold had been played out in Central City rapidly filtered through the Shoo-Fly clientele in November 1878. Silver veins had been located around the area, however, generating a surge of eager mine investors. Among the men with the capital to sink numerous shafts and extract the mineral was Horace Tabor. He had become rich with similar mines in Leadville and hoped to duplicate his success in Central City. Baby knew of Horace and had caught sight of the entrepreneur at the Shoo-Fly but had not been formally introduced. Before the possibility of a meeting was realized, Baby learned she was pregnant.

For several months Harvey was nowhere to be found and could not be told that he had a child on the way. There was some speculation that he had sneaked away to a nearby mining camp to avoid the humiliation of his wife’s questionable behavior with another man. Harvey Doe Sr. located his son and brought him home to Baby.

On July 13, 1879, Baby gave birth to a boy. The child was stillborn, and both parents were crushed. Harvey was further devastated by the rumors circulating that the child might not have been his. Baby was discouraged by Harvey’s inability to pay any of the medical bills or make arrangements for the infant’s burial. Jake Sandelowsky came to Baby’s rescue and took care of matters. The Does divorced in early 1880, and Baby left Central City for Leadville with Jake.

Jake and Baby lived at separate hotels. Although he had planned for their relationship to blossom, Baby had other ideas for her life. Everywhere she went in Leadville she heard stories about Horace Tabor. Tales of his wealth and how he achieved it, his benevolence to average citizens, his term as first mayor and postmaster of the city, his time as governor of Colorado, and his reputation as owner-operator of the Leadville Bank excited the industrious beauty from Wisconsin. She set her sights on meeting and befriending Horace. Jake would be a means to an end.

“He must be close to fifty,” a friendly Leadville resident shared with Baby when she asked to know more about Horace. “They say he’s worth $8 million and likes to play poker in the saloons around town after the theater lets out,” the man continued. “He was one of the early prospectors out here, came in an ox-wagon across the plains in ’59. An awful easygoing sort of fellow.”

Baby listened intently to every detail of Tabor’s life that the talkative local shared. She learned that the mine owner panned out his first millions in the gold stampede on Colorado’s Gregory Gulch, that he grubstaked two miners who discovered a wealth of silver at the Little Pittsburgh Mine, and that he used the money from his investments to buy a claim called the Matchless Mine. She ignored the details about his longstanding marriage to a refined woman who possessed a considerable strength of character and focused instead on the name of the restaurant Horace frequented. It was not a coincidence that she ended up at the same establishment the “Silver King” visited during intermission at the Opera House.

“He was over six feet tall with large, regular features and a drooping mustache,” Baby recounted years later to a young woman who spent time with her at her famous mine.

“Dark in coloring, at this time his hair had begun to recede a bit on his forehead and was turning gray at the temples. Always very well dressed, his personality seemed to fill any room he stepped into.”

Horace noticed Baby almost from the moment he entered the eatery. They exchanged polite glances, and eventually one of his business associates invited Baby to join them at their table. Horace ordered Champagne and regaled the captivated Baby with tales of his ventures west. “It was the merriest night of my life,” Baby later confessed. By the end of the evening, she was convinced she was in love with Horace and he was equally as infatuated with her. He promised to support Baby monetarily, and, as his first order of business, he wrote out a check for $5,000 to help ease Jake Sandelowsky’s soon-to-be broken heart. Funds were also provided for Baby to purchase herself a new wardrobe.

Within twenty-four hours of meeting the businessman and appointed governor, Baby had become Mr. Horace Tabor’s mistress. They tried to keep their relationship a secret. Tabor would sneak away from various civic events to spend time with Baby at her hotel room, and when she appeared in public with him, she hid her face under large hats and long veils.

When Horace moved his mining offices from Leadville to Denver, Baby followed him. Friends and business associates aware of the scandalous romance tried to persuade him to end the affair for his family’s sake and for the sake of his political future. Horace refused. The longer their relationship lasted, the bolder their behavior became. They traveled back and forth to Leadville together in private railcars and openly attended parties at various stops along the way.

Horace had a special box for Baby at the Opera House he had built. According to Baby Doe, at the opening of the Tabor Theatre on September 5, 1881, she and Horace eyed one another fondly during the performance. Horace’s wife, Augusta, was eventually made aware of the affair, but refused to divorce her husband; she considered divorce a social and moral disgrace. After close to two years of pleading and negotiating with Augusta, Horace decided he and Baby Doe would exchange vows regardless of what Augusta did or didn’t do.

On September 30, 1882, Baby Doe and Horace rendezvoused in St. Louis, Missouri where they were secretly married by a justice of the peace. Although Baby was grateful that Horace had taken her to the altar, she was disappointed they weren’t married in a church. “To me, a marriage was only binding when it had been sanctioned by the church and performed by a priest,” Baby Doe recounted to a friend.

In January 1883, a few weeks prior to the senatorial election, in which Horace Tabor was a candidate, Augusta agreed to a legal divorce. The specifics of the settlement and circumstances leading up to Augusta’s decision were front-page headlines. The highly publicized affair detracted from the real issues of the election and ultimately cost Horace a seat in the Senate. He was, however, asked to stand in for the winning candidate for a month until the newly elected official could take over his duties. It was with a heavy heart that Horace accepted the responsibility. Although he was disappointed in the vote, he found solace in the fact that he would soon be married in a church in Washington, D.C.

On March 1, 1883, Baby Doe was escorted down the aisle of St. Matthew’s Catholic Church, wearing a $7,500 wedding dress and beaming at the attendees, including President Chester A. Arthur and the secretary of the interior, Henry Teller. Most of the wives of the political figures who were guests at Horace and Baby’s wedding refused to be a part of the ceremony in any way. They spoke out against what they called an “unholy union” and considered it poor taste that the “shameless mistress” sent invitations at all.

Elated by the fact that they were now legally and finally married and optimistic that Horace’s political career would be rejuvenated, the newlyweds returned to Denver. They moved into the Windsor Hotel and entertained celebrities and Civil War heroes in their suites. They traveled about the state, making stops at various mining camps in what the two secretly discussed as a precursor to a much larger tour coming their way once Horace became president of the United States. “First Lady of Colorado. Hell!” Horace told his wife. “You’ll be first lady of the land.”

In between making their elaborate plans for the future, the Tabors purchased the first of two grand, brick homes. The house featured fine furnishings, ornate verandas, driveways to the stables, and hundreds of live peacocks. An army of servants attended to the couple’s every need. On July 13, 1884, Horace and Baby Doe brought their first child into the luxurious setting. The little girl’s nursery was complete with an expensive layette and a sterling silver rattle. Employees at the Matchless Mine sent the child a gold-lined cup, saucer, and spoon. Horace sent small gold medallions to many of Denver’s most prominent citizens to announce the birth of his daughter.

Regardless of the opulent living conditions and numerous attempts to obtain good standing in the social community, Baby and Horace were for the most part ostracized. Unable to find grace and acceptance within Denver’s elite, Baby decided to focus solely on Horace and his mining claims. The Matchless Mine earned the Tabors more than $1 million annually and his other investments made more than $4 million. Horace used a substantial portion of the family’s income to support the Republican Party in Colorado. He had hoped the hefty contribution would help him win a nomination for governor. Baby was frustrated with the treatment he received from the party, which in her opinion had no intentions of placing his name on the ticket. “They took his money and denied him any recognition,” Baby lamented.

In his quest to become a man of unlimited power, Horace invested in mines in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and Latin America. He purchased forestland in Honduras and he and Baby spent $2 million developing the property. Many of his risky ventures, including the Honduras project, lost millions.

Ten years after Horace and Baby were wed, the bottom fell out of the silver market, and overnight the Tabors lost all the wealth they had accumulated. “It seems incredible that it should have all happened so quickly,” Baby later recalled, “but with one stroke of President Cleveland’s pen, establishing the demonetization of silver, all of our mines, and particularly the Matchless, were worthless.”

The Tabors were stripped of their possessions a little at a time over a six-month period. By December 1893, all that remained of their vast fortune was the Matchless Mine, and even that had to be shut down because the market would not support its yield. At sixty-three years old, Horace went to work as a regular laborer at a mine he had once owned. Baby tried to manage the minimal funds her husband brought in and cared for their two daughters. (In 1888 the Tabors had a son who lived only a few hours after his birth. Their second daughter was born in December 1889.)

When the Tabors were unable to pay their electric and water bill, workmen came to the house to shut off their utilities. Baby was livid and let her feelings be known.

“Just wait until Congress repeals the ridiculous law about the regulation of silver and the Matchless is running again,” she told the workmen. “Then you’ll be sorry you acted like this.”

The Tabors moved into a small home on the west side of town. Denver’s socialites gossiped about Horace and Baby’s relationship, speculating on its longevity now that Horace was broke. Baby heard the rumors and insisted to all who would listen that she and Horace would stay together through the difficulties and rebuild their lives on the renewed success of the Matchless Mine.

According to Baby Doe, in late February 1898, she met with Colorado senator Ed Wolcott and pleaded with him to help her and her family. Wolcott knew Baby from her days in Central City and Leadville, and he and Horace had squared off politically on several occasions. It was because of Senator Wolcott’s efforts that Horace was appointed as Denver’s postmaster. The job paid $3,500 a year and helped restore a modicum of dignity to Horace’s life. Baby was overjoyed. She believed it was an indication that their luck had changed and that their old life would soon be restored, but harder times were yet to come.

On April 3, 1899, Horace died from an acute appendicitis attack. Baby was at his side when he passed away. With his last breath he encouraged his wife to hold onto the Matchless Mine. Cards and letters of condolence poured in from national and state political leaders. Flags across Colorado were ordered to be flown at half-mast. Out of respect for the years Horace had spent as a political servant in the state of Colorado thousands of mourners lined Denver’s streets to see Horace’s funeral procession. Seems odd that the couple descended into poverty, and he ended his career as a minor civil servant, then his death resulted in an outpouring of public grief, as if he were a major celebrity.  After a graveside service, Horace was laid to rest at the Calvary Cemetery. He was later moved to the Mount Olive Cemetery when the Calvary Cemetery was dissolved.

With Horace gone, the grief-stricken Baby decided to focus her efforts on finding investors to back the reopening of the Matchless Mine. Having been unworked for many years, the mine was filled with water and initial funds were needed to pump the liquid out, stabilize the tunnels, and purchase new machinery. After an exhaustive search, Baby located a businessman who fronted her the capital to begin operations. Baby moved her fifteen- and nine-year-old daughters, Elizabeth Lillie and Rose, to Leadville where the Matchless Mine was located, and she went to work hiring help to support the dig. She encouraged her children to learn all the aspects of running the mine, from swinging a pick to hauling ore to the surface, but her eldest daughter refused to ever have any part of it.

When the Matchless Mine failed to produce any significant gold, the investor withdrew his support, forcing Baby to search for other backers. This scenario was repeated time and time again. She refused to give up or sell the property outright, and for three decades she steadfastly maintained that riches were buried deep within the walls of the mine. Her children grew up and moved on, but Baby remained in Colorado in a dilapidated cabin located at the site. “I shall never let the Matchless go,” she told a banker she was asking to back the mine operations. “Not while there is a breath in my body to find a way to fight for it.”

When the money ran out, Baby worked the mine alone. Occasionally she sold off a few of Horace’s valuables (such as watch fobs, and cufflinks) to buy food and clothing. Both of her daughters, tired of their mother’s obsession with the Matchless, distanced themselves from her. Elizabeth Lillie married and moved to Wisconsin; Rose (“Silver Dollar,” as her mother called her) drifted to Chicago where she was murdered at the age of thirty-five. With the exception of a neighbor and benevolent mine engineer and his daughter, Baby Doe lived the life of a recluse, visited by no one. The journal she kept in her later days describes how lonely she was and how much she missed Horace and her children. An entry she made on April 19, 1925, reads “Holy Thursday. Dreamed of being with Tabor, Lillie, and Silver and seeing rich ore in No. 6 shaft.”

In 1932, a movie about the life and career of Horace Tabor, entitled Silver Dollar, premiered in Denver, Colorado. It generated new interest in the Tabor legacy and in his affair with Baby Doe. Press agents and historians sought out Baby to interview her and persuade her to tell her story in exchange for a fee, but she refused. She maintained that any money worth making, the Matchless Mine would ultimately supply.

On February 20, 1935, Baby Doe Tabor, the woman once known throughout the West as the “Silver Queen,” died. A severe blizzard blanketed Leadville with snow and ice, and Baby, who was suffering from pneumonia, was unable to keep a fire going in her cabin. Her neighbors became concerned about her when they didn’t see any smoke emanating from the chimney. Her frozen body was found lying on the floor of her rundown cabin, her arms outstretched at her side.

Funeral services for Baby Doe were held at a church in Leadville, and her remains were then taken to Denver to be buried next to Horace. The headline across the front of the Rocky Mountain newspaper read, “Baby Doe Dies at Her Post Guarding Matchless Mine.” The article that followed reported on the squalid conditions of her home and noted that only a “small cache of food and a few sticks of firewood” were found on the premises.

Among the personal belongings she left behind were seventeen trunks filled with a variety of memorabilia, including scrapbooks, old newspapers, and a silver Tiffany tea set. Sue Bonnie, the daughter of the mine engineer who called on Baby from 1927 until her death, used Baby Doe’s scrapbook and journal entries, along with their documented conversations, to write a series of articles. From January to May of 1938, the articles about Baby Doe and her recollections of life as a miner and her marriage to Horace Tabor were published in True Story magazine.

Baby Doe Tabor was eighty-one years old when she passed away. The onetime heiress to a vast silver empire had remained faithful to her husband’s parting advice for thirty-six years. Baby Doe was buried next to her husband at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Jefferson County, Colorado.  

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