After a blizzard buried Leadville, Colorado, a neighbor noted there was no smoke coming from the storage shed at the abandoned Matchless Mine, home to one of the state's living legends. When rescuers finally reached the small shack March 7, 1935, they found "Baby" Doe Tabor dead of a heart attack, her frozen arms outstretched in the shape of a cross.
Born in Wisconsin in 1854 to a prosperous Catholic family, at sixteen the beautiful Elizabeth McCourt was the "Belle of Oshkosh." She married Harvey Doe in 1877 and the young couple set out to make their fortune in Central City, Colorado, where Harvey's father had mining property. Harvey turned out to be a lazy procrastinator who was unable to make a living. Undaunted, Lizzie Doe put on men's clothes and went to work at the Fourth of July Mine, which raised eyebrows but won the undying affection of her hard-boiled colleagues. The charmed men nicknamed her "Baby" Doe--the miners'sweetheart.
The Pike's Peak gold rush had brought Horace Tabor and his wife, Augusta, to Colorado from a Kansas farm. By 1878, Horace was running a grocery store in Leadville, where he also served as mayor and postmaster. Famous for his generosity, Horace grubstaked two German immigrants one spring. Within a month, the men had hit a bonanza and by summer's end, Horace was a rich man.
After divorcing her worthless husband, Baby Doe moved to Leadville. She met Horace at the Saddle Rock Cafe and it was love at first sight. Horace was still married, but he was unable to resist Lizzie's charms. "You're always so gay and laughing, and yet you're so brave," he said. "Augusta is a damned brave woman, too, but she's powerful disagreeable about it." Despite being lieutenant governor of Colorado, Horace secretly married Baby before his first marriage was legally over. Augusta fought the divorce but eventually settled for a large part of the family fortune and moved to Pasadena, California, where legend says she died of a broken heart.
The notorious lovers officially married in Washington, D.C., while Horace served briefly as a senator. Their affair was front-page news across the country and "good" society banished the couple. Ignoring the scandal, they moved to Denver and raised two daughters nicknamed Lillie and Silver.
Money beats out snobbery every time, and Baby was famous as the Silver Queen of Colorado. (Utah had its own Silver Queen, Princess Susanna Holmes Engalitcheff, but that's another story.) Baby's reign ended in 1893 when the bottom fell out of the silver market. Boom and bust has always been the story of the hardrock West, and the Tabors were busted. Horace went to work shoveling slag for $3 a day. He landed a postmaster job shortly before he died in 1899.
Legend has it that Horace told Baby with his last words: "Hold on to the Matchless, for it will pay millions again." In truth, the Tabors had long since lost the mine and only the generosity of the new owners let Baby spend most of her last thirty-five years living in the maintenance shack. At her death, Baby owned seventeen iron trunks filled with much trash and a few treasures, such as the watch Horace received at the opening of Denver's $700,000 Tabor Opera House. But the legendary lovers live on, celebrated in books, movies and even an opera, "The Ballad of Baby Doe"
Historian Will Bagley will describe the life of Baby Doe for the Utah Opera Guild at Westminster College on Wednesday.