“Fortunes thrown away,” the headline blared. “Widow of Tabor freezes in shack.” It was 1935, and Elizabeth “Baby Doe” Tabor, one of the Wild West’s most infamous women, dead. But why did she die in such poverty—and why did she do so trying to protect a worthless mine?
The answers can be found in her scandalous life.
At first there was little indication that Elizabeth McCourt, born in 1854 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, was destined for frontier fame. The daughter of a clothing store owner, Elizabeth was uncommonly beautiful. She married Harvey Doe in 1877 and moved to Central City, Colorado where she was an immediately recognizable figure in a town of mostly men.
Central City was known as “the richest square mile on Earth” thanks to the Gregory lode, a vein of gold that turned the settlement into a boom town. While most the 100,000 miners who rushed to Colorado returned home complaining of a hoax, Central City’s mines were different. They could be easily and cheaply mined.
Among the mines was the Fourth of July Mine, in which Doe’s father had a part interest. His son and new daughter-in-law were tasked with overseeing it, but Harvey failed to do so and the couple began to rack up debt. In a desperate attempt to make the mine produce, Elizabeth dressed in men’s clothing and worked the mine—raising eyebrows among other women in town. But if women did not like Elizabeth, men did, and at some point she earned the fond nickname “Baby Doe.”
But Elizabeth’s marriage was on the rocks. As Harvey descended into depression and alcoholism, she befriended another man, Jake Sandelowsky. When she became pregnant, Harvey accused her of adultery. The child was stillborn, and, unable to reconcile with her now homeless, jobless husband, she filed for divorce and moved to nearby Leadville.
There, she met a very different man: Horace Tabor. He was the richest man in Leadville and much of Colorado thanks to the Matchless Mine, a silver mine that earned him a reported $2,000 per day. “I sometimes believe the wealth of the Matchless is inexhaustible,” he wrote. “It is a gift for a man to cherish.”
He was married, but began a very public affair with Elizabeth, whom he put up in the Windsor Hotel, an opulent retreat in Denver. But Tabor’s wife, Augusta, refused to divorce him, and, proclaiming his unwillingness to support her, sued him. Tabor, then both lieutenant governor of Colorado and a U.S. Senator, attempted to hush up the issue by divorcing her against her will and secretly marrying Elizabeth, but Augusta was not served with the proper papers and responded by publicly suing him for divorce in Denver.
This was the nail in the coffin of the couple’s reputation. Augusta won $250,000 worth of property and the ability to keep the name Tabor. In the words of historian Judy Nolte Temple, the scandal “won enormous sympathy for Augusta, rendered Horace politically impotent, and doomed Baby Doe to social exile.”
Elizabeth was persona non grata in Denver society, barred from polite society and ridiculed as a mere mistress. She retaliated by holding a lavish wedding to Tabor, marked by the attendance of President Chester A. Arthur and his entire cabinet and featuring a $7,500 dress (the equivalent of over $178,000 in modern dollars) and the gift of the Isabella diamond, worth nearly $2 million in modern dollars.
Socially scorned, Elizabeth went on to live an extravagant—but loving—life with her new husband. They pampered their daughters, Lillie and Silver Dollar, and enjoyed Tabor’s new opera house and what social pleasures they could.
But Tabor’s star soon fell. In 1893, the price of silver plummeted, triggering a nationwide economic crisis and a depression in Denver. Tabor’s “inexhaustible” mine was now worthless. The couple was forced to sell nearly everything they owned, and Tabor eventually became a manual laborer. When he died, his last words to his beloved wife were reportedly “Hang on to the Matchless. It will make millions again.”
Elizabeth took him seriously—so seriously that she spent the rest of her life trying to make that promise pay. As she aged, she became more and more convinced that the mine, now producing less and less ore, would live up to her husband’s promise. She moved into a cabin next to the mine and staged a years-long battle to keep it, often working the mine herself despite its failure to produce.
But though friends and relatives intervened over and over again, she eventually lost ownership of the mine. The new owners let her continue to live in the shack and she became a notorious sight in town, her feet wrapped in gunnysacks to keep out the cold. “She didn’t want to accept charity from anybody,” recalls Bertha Roberts, who was a child in Leadville at the time. “It was such a disgrace to admit you knew her… She slept on the floor in that cold place, and I don’t know how she ever survived.”
Eventually, she didn’t. In February 1935, neighbors noticed there was no smoke coming from the shack. They found her frozen corpse inside.
Today, Baby Doe’s story is little known outside of the West, but it’s preserved in an opera, “The Ballad of Baby Doe” by Douglas Moore, which debuted in 1956 and is still regularly revived in Colorado. It’s “an American story about a woman who loved a man through good times of great wealth as well as bad times of abject poverty,” says artistic director Pelham Pearce of the Central City Opera—a love that earned the real Baby Doe both scorn and notoriety during her life.