Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Romance That Scandalized the Nation

The romance between Elizabeth “Baby” Doe and Horace Tabor was one of the most famous and scandalous affairs in 1880s Colorado. Originally from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Elizabeth Bonduel McCourt was born in 1854. Twenty-four years her senior, Horace Tabor was a silver mining tycoon in Leadville, Colorado, where they met.

One of fourteen children, Elizabeth was the daughter of Irish parents. Her father owned a clothing and custom tailoring store in Oshkosh. The family lived well until fire destroyed the town in July 1874 and again the following April. The McCourts lost their business and home as a result.

Young Elizabeth was a beauty. Five-foot-four, with reddish golden hair, bright blue eyes and a flashing smile, she gained the nickname “Belle of Oshkosh.” Far from shy, she enjoyed male attention and dreamed of becoming a famous actress.

Elizabeth married a handsome young man named Harvey Doe on June 27, 1877. That same day, they boarded a train for Central City, Colorado, where Harvey was to operate the Fourth of July gold mine for his father. In the rowdy mining town, Elizabeth soon earned the name “Baby Doe” because of her sweet, innocent looks.

Unfortunately, Harvey was not a capable mine manager, and he soon took to drinking. Elizabeth realized he would never fulfill her dreams of riches. Their finances grew precarious and they often quarreled. After she became pregnant, Harvey accused her of having an affair and abandoned her. Left to her own devices, Baby Doe frequented a variety hall called the Shoo-Fly, where she heard about the fabulous silver strikes around Leadville and silver king, Horace Tabor.

Elizabeth’s baby son was still-born on July 13, 1879. She briefly tried to make a go of her marriage when Harvey returned, but it was no use. She visited Leadville and liking the “Cloud City’s” air of prosperity, she divorced Harvey and moved to Leadville in the spring of 1880.

By then, Horace A. W. (“Haw”) Tabor had lived in the Leadville area for a number of years. Originally from New England, he and his wife Augusta came west in 1859, hoping to strike it rich in Colorado’s first gold rush. Failing at that, they opened a store Ora. Discoveries of silver in nearby Leadville prompted the Tabors to move there in 1878. Tabor was soon elected mayor.

Horace’s generosity led him to grubstake many prospectors. In spring, 1878, he backed partners August Rische and George Hook, with an agreement that he would be a one-third partner in any strike they made. The two Germans staked a claim on Fryer Hill, naming it the Little Pittsburgh. They sank a shaft and soon struck soft, black silver-lead ore. Tabor went to work with his partners, leaving Augusta to run the family store. By July the three partners were raking in $50,000 a month. Before long, Hook and Rische sold out. Tabor and two new partners consolidated claims and incorporated for twenty million dollars.

Haw Tabor’s wealth and fame grew. Elected Lieutenant Governor of Colorado in 1878, he served in that post until January, 1884. In Leadville, he organized the town’s first bank, funded the Tabor Hose Company (a fire house, equipment and crew,) built the Tabor Opera House and other properties. He also invested heavily in Denver, where Augusta preferred to live. The two did not get along well. She was straight-laced, while he enjoyed the high life. He loved to gamble and had an eye for the ladies.

The first time Baby Doe met Horace Tabor, she was sitting by herself eating oysters in the Saddle Rock Café. A performance at the nearby Tabor Opera House ended and shortly thereafter Horace Tabor walked into the café with his theater manager, Bill Bush. Both men immediately noticed Baby, and she recognized Tabor. In a little book titled Silver Queen The Fabulous Story of Baby Doe Tabor by Caroline Bancroft, Tabor is described: “He was over six feet tall with large regular features and a drooping mustache. Dark in coloring, at this time his hair had begun to recede a bit on his forehead and was turning grey at the temples. Always very well and conspicuously dressed, his personality seemed to fill any room he stepped into.”

Baby is quoted as thinking, “That’s the kind of man I could love. A man who loves life and lives to the full!” Moments later she was invited to join him and Bush at their table. Tabor soon set Baby Doe up in plush hotel suites in Leadville and Denver. Augusta refused to grant Horace a divorce, so he tried to obtain one on his own in Durango, Colorado, but it wasn’t legal. Despite this, he secretly married Baby in St. Louis, Missouri, in September 1882.

Horace managed to obtain a legal divorce in January 1883. Within weeks he was appointed by the Colorado Legislature to serve thirty days as a United States senator, filling a temporary vacancy. On March 1, 1883, he legally married Baby Doe at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC. The room was lavishly decorated and the bride wore a dress and accessories costing $7,000, a huge sum in those days. President Chester A. Arthur, senators and congressmen attended the wedding. However, their wives refused to attend due to the couple’s illicit affair.

After the ceremony, the Catholic priest learned both the bride and groom were divorced and he refused to sign the marriage license. The marriage caused a national scandal. The Tabors were banned from society in Washington and in Colorado. No matter how much money Horace spent and how grand the house he bought for Baby, no women ever called on her or invited her to their homes.

Despite this shunning, Baby and Horace were happy, and they ecstatically greeted their first daughter on July 13, 1884. They named her Elizabeth Bonduel Lily. Later, they had a second daughter, Rosemary Silver Dollar Echo. Meanwhile, Horace’s political hopes waned. He ran for Colorado governor and was defeated three times. Then, in 1893, the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed, destroying his fortune, forcing him to sell off most of his holdings.

Thanks to friends, Horace was named Denver Postmaster in January 1898, a post he held until his death the following year. Legend says that on his deathbed he told Baby to hang on to the Matchless Mine. Unfortunately, the once fabulous mine was now worthless. Baby spent her last thirty years in poverty, living in a one room cabin, the former tool shed of the Matchless, growing old and “mad” according to some who knew her.

Baby Doe Tabor was found dead in her cabin on March 7, 1935. She lay stretched out on the floor, looking as if she'd awaited death. Her rise to riches and tragic end inspired the opera The Ballad of Baby Doe. The libretto was written by John Latouche, who closely followed the scenario set out in Caroline Bancroft’s book.

In 1995, an Associated Press article in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune ran this headline:Old wedding gown remains museum’s most popular exhibit. Click on the headline to see Baby Doe's gown.

I will give away a Kindle copy of Dashing Druid, book II in my Texas Druids trilogy to one commenter. Please include your email address if you want to be entered in the drawing.

Colorado silver mining plays an important role in Dashing Druid. In the following excerpt, Tye Devlin is remembering a scary scene.

“Lord save us!” he muttered as a mighty swing of Tom’s pick sent chunks of ore flying. The rocks struck the stone floor and clattered down the inclined stope they were working.

“Timbering takes time,” the burly Cornishman argued, swinging again. “I want to see if we’ve struck anything first. Come on, put more muscle into it. Our lease runs out in two weeks. Do you want to uncover a rich vein just in time for the company to collect all the profits? The greedy devils rake in enough off our broken backs as it is.”

“I’ll grant ye that, but I’d rather walk away empty-handed than not a’tall.”

“Not I! I mean to walk away with my pockets lined with silver. And what’s happened to ye, bucko? Have ye forgotten the dreams that brought ye west? Where’s the daring lad I once saved from breaking his neck?” Tom chided as more rocks flew.

“He’s right here, ye big ox. And he’s seen too many men die in these infernal pits to be taking fool chances.”

Perched on a ladder, Tye gouged out a patch of loose rock, using a more cautious approach than his friend. Ten or twelve feet across, the ore face was nearly equal that in height. While he worked the upper right half, Tom worked the left, standing on a second ladder.

Tom laughed. “Quit fretting. I’ve crawled around mine tunnels since I was a boy of ten. I know what I’m doing. Besides, we have your famous luck o’ the Irish to protect us, don’t we?”

“Lucky, am I? After gophering the hills for two years without finding a thing, I hardly think –” A loud cracking sound cut him off.

“Tom!” he bellowed, seeing the ceiling start to give way above the other man’s head.

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  1. Lyn, what a great story! I have never heard this before, and I think, although it had a tragic end, it was a fascinating life. Thanks for sharing Baby's story. That is really interesting!

  2. Lyn, I've heard of Baby Doe for decades, but never knew the story. What a sad end to her life. Great post. Thanks.

  3. I love this name, Rosemary Silver Dollar Echo! Definitely belongs in a book.

    This was a fun story full of drama and melodrama both I always get creeped out when men are so much older, though. Too father-figure for me. Yuck.

    Enjoyed the post, lots of good research here.

  4. Thanks, Cheryl, I'm glad you enjoyed reading about Baby Doe. I heard of her years ago but didn't know much of her story until I started researching this post. In the "old days" she was regarded as a home wrecker and a floosy, but in recent times she's looked upon more sympathetically, as a courageous pioneer woman who braved the rough mining camps and withstood the ugly things that were said about her. I admire her gutsiness.

  5. Caroline, yes, it was a sad ending, but she lived and loved well while with Horace. I hope they are reunited in the next life.

  6. Tanya, I love Silver Dollar's name too (That's what she went by.) But her life was also tragic. She tried her hand at writing without much success and degenerated into an alcoholic and likely a prostitute. She died horribly, scalded to death in a seedy part of Chicago. She was only in her mid thirties. Baby Doe oulived her and grieved for her until her own death.

    I'm not too crazy about the age difference, either, but they evidently really loved each other, so that's all that counts.

  7. Baby Doe's gown is truly gorgeous, and the photo of her shows her to really be a beauty. Thanks for the historical tidbit. I really love stories of the Old West--true or fiction.

  8. I think one of the worst things that can happen to a person is have wealth and lose it. Those of us who stay poor, know how to deal with it. LOL
    I wonder what happened to their 2 daughters. They certainly had unique names.
    A very interesting article, Lyn.
    I enjoyed your excerpt, too.

  9. Lyn--what a tragic story! It gave me goosebumps. She was truly a beauty. You can never predict love, but 24 years is way off.
    It's shameful he did not see that she would be taken care of when he died--he could have done better.
    To think moving from opulent surroundings to a one-room cabin behind something else is unthinkable. I'd go crazy, too.
    Thanks, Lyn, for this fascinating true love story.

  10. I have heard of this before. Love the cover of this book, awesome.

  11. I guess they could say easy come, easy go in this situation. I've read about so many women that this has happened to. Very sad, but while life was good they had a great time.

    Loved the post.

  12. I love the story of Baby Doe! The rags to riches part reminded me of "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" but without the happy ending.

    Please enter me in your drawing. My email address is

  13. Hi Janice,I love her gown too. She enjoyed beautiful clothes and was quite vain about her looks.

    Sarah, Silver dollar died young as I mentioned above. Her older sister, Lily, changed her name and lived out her life away from the notoriety of her parents.

    Celia, I agree, Horace should have provided for Baby's future. He did leave her some valuable items, which she packed away in trunks. She never sold them.

    Quilt Lady, I'm so glad you like my book cover! Thanks for visiting.

    Paisley, they did indeed have a great life while it lasted. Maybe if they'd been a little more careful with their wealth, it would have lasted longer.

    Sandy, it reminded me of Molly Brown too. Both women were strong, smart and daring. Of such as these are heroines made! You are entered in the drawing. :)

  14. Wow,how did I miss this great story when I was researching Colorado in the 1880s for my novel Colorado Silver, Colorado Gold.

    I toured the Molly Brown house in Denver when I was there, and you think they might have mentioned Baby Doe.

    Thanks for giving us a great story!

  15. Wow! What a great post. I had never heard this story, very interesting. I'd love to be entered to win your book, it sounds good.

    mlawson17 at hotmail dot com

  16. Terry, it's a shame Baby Doe's story isn't more widely remembered these days. I suppose the sad ending and her notorious image may have something to do with that. Glad you enjoyed the story!

    Thanks, Martha! So pleased you enjoyed the post. You are entered in my drawing.


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