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Wild Women Of The West: Baby Doe Tabor – Part 1

Seventy-five-year-old Baby Doe Tabor was dressed in layers of torn, thread-bare garments that dragged along the ground as she walked...

December 20, 2017

Baby Doe Tabor. Photo courtesy of Colorado Encyclopedia.

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 pickaxe 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 precipitately around the well-worked diggings. The smoke from the chimney of a nearby shack rose into the air and drifted towards him. As he watched the smoke swirl and evaporate into a vibrant blue sky, an elderly woman charged out of the building into the cold. Seventy-five-year-old Baby Doe Tabor was dressed in layers of torn, threadbarebare 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 towards 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 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 took a look 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 times 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 5’2 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, 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 parent’s 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 parent’s 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 Pikes 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 Baby 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 the 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, 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 brief 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 mercantiles, 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.”

In spite of 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 areas, 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 formerly introduced. Before the possibility of a meeting was realized, Baby learned she was pregnant.

For several months Harvey was no where to be found and could not be told that he had a child on the way. There was some speculation that he had snuck 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 still born 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.

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