From her humble Midwestern origins to becoming the famous wife of a silver magnate to her demise as a madwoman living in a dilapidated cabin, Elizabeth McCourt “Baby Doe” Tabor (1854–1935) has become one of the most popular figures in Colorado history. Since her death, Baby Doe Tabor’s tumultuous life has been the subject of movies, operas, and even a chain of novelty restaurants. Tabor’s beauty and indulgent lifestyle, along with her rebellious nature and disregard of social customs, secured her place as one of the most legendary characters in the Old West. The many ups and downs of her life convey the chaotic social and financial landscape of the mining West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Elizabeth McCourt was born in 1854 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, to a middle-class Irish Catholic family. Her father, Peter McCourt, owned a clothing store that supplied local lumber workers and allowed the family to live rather comfortably. From a young age, Elizabeth’s beauty became her distinguishing feature—so much so that her mother forbade her from labor so she would preserve her beauty and gain a wealthy husband. Elizabeth married Harvey Doe on June 22, 1877. The couple then moved to Central City, Colorado, to supervise the Doe family’s mining investments, principally the Fourth of July Mine, which was still being developed when the newlyweds arrived.
Despite being the beautiful wife of a wealthy gentleman and an object of desire among the chiefly male populace of Central City, Elizabeth flourished in the masculine environment. She was known for working alongside the miners, and her sociability earned her the nickname “Baby Doe”—though it is unknown whether she approved of the diminutive moniker. Her disregard of the Victorian social standards for a married woman in Central City established her reputation as a rebel.
Courting the Silver King
After filing for a divorce from Harvey Doe in 1880, Baby Doe moved to Leadville, a prosperous silver mining hub that was then the second-largest city in Colorado. There she met wealthy mining mogul Horace Tabor. Still a married man, Horace courted Elizabeth in secret, but their relationship eventually became public. Their mutual infatuation caused a scandal, as Horace divorced his loyal wife of twenty years, Augusta Pierce Tabor, to marry the much younger, recently divorced Baby Doe. In September 1882, Horace and Baby Doe were married in secret before his divorce was finalized or her divorce was officially recorded; technically, they were both bigamists. Eventually, they held a public marriage in Washington, DC, while Horace served as Colorado’s interim US senator in March 1883. As one of the country’s wealthiest men, Horace Tabor’s quick divorce and marriage to a woman half his age made national headlines and permanently damaged both his and Baby Doe’s reputation.
The Tabors returned to Colorado, settling permanently in a mansion in Denver. The disreputable details of their relationship and marriage preceded them, and the Tabors found themselves ostracized by Denver’s social elite and living luxurious but isolated lives. Shunned by polite company, Baby Doe stayed busy by scrapbooking (portions of which still exist) and assisting the Colorado women’s suffrage movement.
Baby Doe gave birth to two girls, Elizabeth Bonduel Lily Tabor in 1884 and Rose Mary Echo Silver Dollar Tabor in 1889. The Tabor mining fortune allowed the family to live comfortably through the 1880s and into the 1890s, as the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 supplemented their seemingly inexhaustible fortune. Calamity struck in 1893 with the repeal of the Sherman Act, which triggered the Panic of 1893 and plummeted many mining moguls into debt, including Horace Tabor. Instantaneously, the Tabors fell from riches to rags. Baby Doe tried to help Horace stave off poverty and regain his wealth. She handled business affairs in Denver while Horace raked muck in a Cripple Creek mine until he was appointed Denver’s postmaster in 1898. By that time his health was failing. Horace died nearly penniless in 1899, leaving Baby Doe to raise their daughters alone and without support.
Return to Leadville
For unknown reasons, Baby Doe returned to Leadville with her girls after Horace’s death, claiming to work the Matchless Mine, a derelict property of her late husband. Two early Colorado historians—David Karsner and Caroline Bancroft—claimed that Horace told Baby Doe with his last breath to “hang on to the Matchless. It will make millions again.” However, more recent scholarship has disproved that claim, and even Bancroft admitted that it was false several years before her own death in 1985. At any rate, by the time Baby Doe returned to Leadville, the Matchless Mine was mostly spent and completely flooded. It is more likely that Baby Doe worked odd jobs for low wages and sold artifacts of her bygone prosperity to maintain a meager lifestyle. Eventually her eldest daughter Lily moved to Wisconsin, and Silver Dollar left to live in Denver, where she wrote for The Denver Post. Baby Doe, meanwhile, moved to a decrepit cabin, a former toolshed, at the once-prosperous Matchless Mine. Thus began perhaps the strangest chapter in her life.
For thirty-five years, Baby Doe lived alone in the cabin and became known by the people of Leadville as a madwoman. In the cabin, she returned to Catholicism and gave herself penances daily in response to her formerly opulent, decadently sinful lifestyle. Living off bread scraps during bitterly cold winters, Baby Doe wrote at length in her journals to record her dreams, memories, and visions, which were initially derided as crazed ramblings. However, Tabor was a decent writer, and the journals are imbued with a tone of urgency as they portray a lonely, elderly woman attempting to pull together disparate fragments of biography and fantasy. With her writing the only respite from the bitter cold of the high Rocky Mountains, Baby Doe Tabor lived in the cabin for three decades until she was found frozen to death there in 1935.
Baby Doe Tabor’s notoriety was well deserved in her day, as she conspicuously flouted the gendered social conventions of the Victorian West, even as she lived in the spotlight as the wife of one of the nation’s early industrial magnates. Tabor’s life is also emblematic of the typical boom-and-bust fortunes of many individuals in Colorado and the American West during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This, in combination with the dramatic details of her life, have secured Baby Doe Tabor a legendary place in Colorado and American folklore as a quintessentially freethinking and unrestrained Western woman.