Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Baby Doe and Horace Tabor: Rags to Riches to Rags

Baby Doe Tabor is a legend in the State of Colorado. She was the trophy wife in the love triangle of the century between Augusta Tabor, Horace Tabor, and Baby Doe. Her story is also a rags to riches to rags story--the lovely young woman who married a wealthy politician, then froze to death in her old age watching over her deceased husband's Matchless Mine. 

And like all good stories, we will begin in medias res--in the middle of things.

The year was 1878. After twenty years traveling from one mining camp to another providing miners with groceries, postal services, and Augusta's homemade pies, the marriage between Augusta and Horace Tabor was on the proverbial rocks. Horace achieved his dreams of wealth by grubstaking prospectors while his wife achieved her dreams of providing a good home for her husband and son by scrubbing dirty laundry and baking in a hot kitchen every morning and late into the night.

The year 1878 was an important one for the Tabors for many reasons. It was the year that Horace Tabor's grubstaking investments would finally pay off. Horace Tabor wanted to flaunt his success. He also sincerely believed he had a responsibility to the people who he helped through the years to play the role of benefactor and continue to invest in the town the Tabor's helped establish through their generosity and Augusta's hard work--Leadville, Colorado. 

Augusta, the more conservative half of this marriage, was particularly concerned about the large diamond ring her husband wore on his finger and his need to flaunt his wealth in public. She had reason to be concerned, but it wasn't the diamond on his finger that he was flaunting in public, it was another woman, the lovely Baby Doe. Augusta had a strong reputation in Leadville and Denver. She was highly respected for her work and family ethics, but Baby Doe was also respected. Horace Tabor was torn between two women who had both earned their reputations through hard work and determination in what was primarily a man's world of mining towns in the Old West. 

Elizabeth McCourt Becomes Baby Doe

According to The Miners by Robert Wallace, Elizabeth McCourt was born on September 25th, 1854, one of fourteen children in the Irish McCourt family of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. She was feisty and bold, a bit of a tomboy. She entered an ice skating contest as a teen, a sport that rarely attracted women during this time, and won the contest. It was at this contest that she first met Harvey Doe, Jr, who found the bold, young woman intriguing. Unfortunately, Elizabeth would soon learn that Harvey Doe was intrigued by many bold, young women.

Baby Doe Tabor. This photo was taken in 1883 in Wisconsin.

Harvey's father was part-owner of a mine in Cripple Creek and as soon as they were married, Harvey and Elizabeth packed their belongings and set out for Colorado. When Elizabeth realized that Harvey was as free with his affections as he was with their money she decided to tackle their financial burdens alone, dressing as a miner and working in their Fourth of July Mine. She quickly gained the respect of the townspeople for both her determination and her unparalleled beauty and the miners gave her the nickname "Baby Doe."

The Tabors Struggle to Succeed

As you may recall from yesterday's post, Horace Austin Warner Tabor was born November 26, 1830 in Holland, Vermont. He left his family home to work the stone quarries in Massachusetts and Maine. It was in Maine that he met his first wife, Augusta Pierce. Tabor started a farm in Kansas, then returned to Maine to marry Augusta in 1857. Their son, Nathaniel Maxcy Tabor, was born the same year.

When Horace Tabor first learned that gold was discovered near the South Platte River, the family started out on a six week walked, settling near what is now Denver, Colorado in 1859. When gold was discovered in the Colorado Rocky Mountains the family moved to yet another mining camp. Horace and Augusta opened numerous grocery stores and while Augusta supervised the renting of cabins to miners and provided banking and postal services Horace grubstaked miners and panned for gold.

Building an Empire in Leadville, Colorado

Augusta and Horace were nearly exact opposites of each other. Augusta was thrifty. Horace spent money freely, wore fancy clothes, and hobnobbed with the wealthy, and yet, with Augusta's careful guidance through twenty years of marriage they saved thousands of dollars, owned a nice home and store in Leadville as well as farmland in Kansas. Horace spent his time investing.

Leadville, Colorado Tabor Opera House. Photo by Daniel Schwen.

In 1878, Horace grubstaked two miners for a share of The Little Pittsburg Mine. The miners struck a vertical vein of silver and The Little Pittsburg was soon producing $20,000 a week. Horace spent freely on numerous investments, much to his wife's dismay. He also focused on furthering his political career. He was elected Mayor of Leadville in 1878, Lieutenant Governor of the State of Colorado in 1879, and made a United States Senator that same year.

Tabor Meets Baby Doe and Purchases The Matchless Mine

In the fall of 1879, Horace Tabor purchased the legendary Matchless Mine in Leadville, which provided him with $1000 a day in pocket change. It was also 1879 when he met the equally legendary Baby Doe of Leadville. If there is such a thing as love at first sight, such was the case with Horace and his Baby Doe.

Baby Doe was tall, with a voluptuous build, light brown hair, and big, blue, tantalizing eyes. According to Walker's The Miners, one Colorado newspaper described Baby Doe as "the handsomest woman in Colorado" and a woman "no Colorado Venus can compare with," and one can only imagine how these news reports affected Augusta.

Baby Doe was also 25 years younger than Horace Tabor. Nevertheless, in 1880, Horace moved out of the home he shared with his wife to start a new life with Baby Doe. His actions created scandal on many levels. Horace was still married to Augusta when he was elected to the United States Senate, but the local news revealed that he was living in sin with Baby Doe. To make matters worse, Horace lied to the press and claimed he was divorced from Augusta. There was also some confusion regarding the divorce of Baby Doe. Needless to say, Horace Tabor was not re-elected to the Senate.

Augusta finally filed a complaint in the Denver courts asking for financial support. When Horace left he took the money with him and refused to pay a dime of support to Augusta and Maxcy, but Horace and Baby Doe were living on more than $100,000 a year. Augusta supported herself and her son by renting rooms in their home.

Augusta was divorced--against her will--and given $300,000 in settlement, but Augusta remained true to herself to the very end. She was dedicated to her son, lived frugally and charitably, invested well, and died a millionaire.

A Life of Luxury

In 1882, Horace and Baby Doe Tabor married quietly in a civil ceremony in St. Louis. They married a second time in Washington, D.C. in March of 1883 with a ceremony that was both public and extravagant. Baby Doe wore a $7000 wedding dress and $90,000 diamond necklace, a gift from her new husband.

In spite of his scandalous divorce and the fall of his political career, the Tabors continued to live a public life of great luxury. According to Walker's The Miners, Tabor was often mocked in the local newspapers, but accepted into the Denver and Leadville social circles because he was a generous and charitable man, investing in the improvement of both cities.

Baby Doe Tabor. Photo courtesy of Legends of America.

However, his huge diamond ring continued to attract a great deal of attention, though the attention was no longer favorable as his former family friends knew what had happened to Augusta and Maxcy. Nevertheless, Horace continued to spend. He purchased a lavish, Italian-style villa for Baby Doe, numerous ornate carriages, copious amounts of expensive jewelry, and commissioned five oil paintings of his young wife. In their first two years of marriage, Horace and Baby Doe had two daughters: Elizabeth Bonduel Lillie Tabor and Rosemary Echo Silver Dollar Tabor.

The Silver Crash of 1893 and the Death of Horace Tabor

In the mid-1890s, the Tabor fortunes slowly collapsed as one by one, the investments Horace made during his marriage to Augusta--and against Augusta's advice--fell into ruin. In 1893, the United States experienced a financial panic and twelve Denver banks closed in three days, including one owned by Horace Tabor. The Matchless Mine's silver vein was tapped out and the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893 made Tabor's remaining silver investments useless.

In desperation, Horace invested the rest of his fortune in gold, and lost. The Tabor's villa was sold, along with all of Baby Doe's precious jewels. The Tabor family moved into a single hotel room and at 66 years old, Horace Tabor returned to the rivers of the Colorado Rocky Mountains to pan for gold. In 1898, Horace Tabor was appointed Postmaster of Denver and the family's situation seemed to take a turn for the better, but Horace died a year later from appendicitis.

The Death of Baby Doe Tabor

Years passed, and the Tabor's daughters moved away to start families of their own. Baby Doe continued to live in Denver, supported by friends and family, but there were rumors that she suffered from mental instability and occasional reports that she was seen wandering the streets of Denver in rags. Eventually, the new owners of the Matchless Mine allowed Baby Doe to move into the shack near the entrance of the mine.

The Matchless Mine in Leadville, Colorado 
and the entrance shack where Baby Doe lived her last days 
is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

On March 9, 1935, one of Baby Doe's neighbors noticed her fire had gone out. Concerned for her safety, he stopped by the supply shack to check on Baby Doe and discovered she had died two days earlier, on March 7th, of a heart attack. Rumors spread that she was found with a smile on her face, lying on the floor with her arms crossed in front of her chest as if she knew death was coming and was fully prepared to rejoin her husband. There are also rumors that the ghost of Baby Doe still guards the entrance to the Matchless Mine, sitting in her chair by the door, waiting for the day when the mine will once again becomes prosperous and fulfills the dreams of her loving husband, Horace.

The Legend of Baby Doe

As if her story was not legendary enough, in 1932, Warner Brothers released Silver Dollar, a movie about Baby Doe Tabor starring Bebe Daniels and Edward G. Robinson In 1956, Douglas Moore's opera The Ballad of Baby Doe starring Beverly Sills opened in New York. There was also a large restaurant chain called Baby Doe's Matchless Mine Restaurants in the 1970s. When I was in high school, the Matchless Mine Restaurant was the place where everyone went for Homecoming and Prom dates, but only a few of these establishments still remain open, including one in Denver, Colorado.


  • "Leadville, Colorado History." Denver-Colorado Tourist Guide.Com. Retrieved February 9, 2011.
  • "Leadville's Famous Love Triangle: Horace, Augusta & Baby Doe Tabor." Leadville.com. Retrieved February 9, 2011.
  • "The Rush for Gold." The Real West. History Channel Documentary. Originally aired Nov. 19, 1992.
  • Wallace, Robert. "The Halls of the Mining Kings." The Miners: The Old West. Time Life Books. New York: 1976.


Anonymous said...

This is positively fascinating. Having grown up on Texas history, I am captivated by the rest of the Southwest. And bravo to you for citing your sources--so many people fail to do that. I look forward to learning more!

Kathleen Jennette said...

This is so interesting. A time when I am discovering my own family treasures of that time here in California. Great reading!

Darla Sue Dollman said...

Ahh, tracing your ancestry! So much fun. My sister and cousin started that project and I picked it up in Texas when I lived there to trace our Texas ancestors--it was fun, then suddenly absolutely horrible when we discovered one of our Ohio relatives married a Texan then was hung by a lynch mob because he was from the North. Sometimes you find information that explains more than names and dates and helps you understand why you are from a certain part of the country, why people have certain names, why one part of the family doesn't speak to another--it's always fascinating.

JoJo said...

Fascinating!!! Are these people your ancestors? Very cool. I can't imagine what that necklace would cost in today's dollars if it was $90,000 in the 1880s.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

No, they're not my ancestors, but I lived in Colorado most of my life (and am moving back to Colorado soon) and in Colorado, this is a well-known couple. I don't think many people know all of the details surrounding the scandal, and somehow, Baby Doe was presented as a heroine in the story as time moved on, perhaps because she stayed by the mine until she died. In my opinion, though, the true heroine of the story is Augusta, who never gave up on her marriage, protested the divorce, never stopped trying to be the good wife she was raised to be by 1980s standards. I can relate to her, somehow. I would be embarrassed if my husband was seen around town flashing a huge diamond on his hand while other people were sleeping in alleys and boxes. If he gave me a $90,000 necklace I would have thanked him, then explained why I had to sell it--to feed the poor miners who were begging for food, which is what Horace's first wife, Augusta, would have done. I'm sure they all had some positive personality traits. I like to think there is good in everyone, but somewhere along the line, Horace and Baby Doe forgot what was right and moral and that was the beginning of the end for them.

Darla Sue Dollman said...

And thank you so much for reading my blog! I love researching these stories!

Anonymous said...

thank you for writing these stories, I need it for my school work

Anonymous said...

thank you for writing this, I need this for my school work

Darla Sue Dollman said...

You are welcome!

Christmas dinner for a family, from a series of photos documenting Gen. John J. Pershing's 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico. ...