Contributors, Deb Morrow and Erin Osovets
In 1953, Central City Opera commissioned a new opera based on the first famous love triangle in Colorado history, between Silver King Horace Tabor, his wife of 26 years Augusta and the beautiful Baby Doe from Oshkosh, Wisconsin. And the tale of the opera’s creation is almost as good as the true story of the Tabors themselves.
Horace Tabor was born in rural Vermont in 1830, where he grew up on the family farm. He left home at 19 and eventually became a stonecutter, working in a quarry in Augusta, Maine. He managed to get engaged to the quarry owner’s daughter, the refined young Augusta Pierce. In 1855 Horace joined the thousands of pioneers heading west to make a better life, promising to return for Augusta once he was established.
Horace settled Augusta and their baby son Maxcy in what later became Golden, while he tried his hand prospecting in the mountains. For the next few years, Augusta baked and took in laundry and boarders, keeping the family afloat while Horace looked for gold. He occasionally found a decent claim as he moved around the area but never a bonanza. After several years, Horace and Augusta decided to open a store and post office to supply miners. Horace continued to dabble in local politics, including joining a movement to create a Jefferson Territory (Colorado Territory won out). The Tabors became solidly prosperous and fairly well-known in their community.
With Leadville on the map, Horace entered state politics, bankrolling the Republican Party in many elections. He won the office of Lieutenant Governor of the new state of Colorado and moved to Denver. He and the other mining magnates of Colorado were the primary movers and shakers in building the city of Denver, investing millions in development. One of Tabor’s proud accomplishments was the legendary Tabor Grand Opera House in downtown Denver, opulently appointed, hosting the greatest performers of the era. Just before urban renewal and historic preservation in Denver began in the 1960s, the building was torn down to make way for the current Federal Reserve Bank, which still stands at 16th and Arapahoe.
But right before Horace left Leadville for Denver, he met the recently divorced Elizabeth (known as Baby) Doe.
Baby Doe, also known by her maiden name Lizzie McCourt, was the youngest daughter of a storekeeper. She had married prominently in her hometown of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and traveled west with her husband Harvey Doe to work the Fourth of July mine in Central City, Colorado, owned by Harvey’s father. The mines were playing out by the time they arrived in the late 1870s, and Harvey was discouraged. Lizzie worked in the mine herself, possibly the first woman in the district to do so, but her efforts were to no avail. Harvey took to drinking and womanizing and was possibly even abusive; Baby Doe eventually divorced him and moved to Leadville.
The rest is history. Baby Doe and Horace Tabor married shortly after the secret divorce from Augusta. It may well be that neither of the lovers’ divorces were final at the time. Horace had run for the US Senate and lost, but he was chosen to finish out Henry Teller’s senate term when he was appointed Secretary of the Interior. While in Washington, Horace and Baby threw a lavish wedding celebration, even attended by President Chester Arthur. They were a golden couple, living a life of fame and opulence. In spite of their notoriety though, they were never quite welcomed by Denver or Washington society. The beautiful, young trophy wife was blamed for stirring up conflict, a perceived challenge to moral norms. A century of gossip aside, Horace and Baby’s love for one another does appear to have been genuine, and they had two daughters, Lily (full name Elizabeth) and Silver Dollar.
What makes this story truly operatic, however, is what happened next. The western miners of the late 1870s and early 1880s had such influence in Washington that two acts had been passed by Congress requiring the government to buy certain amounts of silver to back US currency (along with gold—this was called bimetallism). This caused the price of silver to rise, driving more mining which, in turn, eventually caused a glut on the market. Prices began to fall, and a national panic occurred in 1893 when the Sherman Silver Act was repealed, causing silver to crash altogether.
Horace Tabor believed that silver would rise again and held on to his mines, divesting his other holdings to keep them afloat. His fortune soon disappeared, along with many others who were wiped out by the Silver Panic and resulting depression. Still having some political influence, he backed William Jennings Bryan, the “free silver” Democratic candidate for president in 1896. Although Bryan carried the western states, he lost the election to McKinley. Silver was done. It took a few years before the gold standard was adopted in 1900, but silver wouldn’t rise again.
Horace, now well into his sixties, had lost everything. He never declared bankruptcy, though, continuing to try to pay his debts. His political connections got him appointed Postmaster of Denver, a position he held until his death from peritonitis in 1899.
Lily and Silver Dollar were still children when Horace died. They lived with their mother in Denver’s Windsor Hotel for a time, but after the money ran out, they moved into a shack at the Matchless Mine site in Leadville. The mine had changed hands years earlier, and Baby Doe was essentially a squatter on land that used to be her personal domain. The owners permitted her to stay, nonetheless.
Lily Tabor left Colorado as a young teen to live with relatives in Wisconsin and never returned, later denying her Tabor connections. Silver Dollar stayed with Baby into adulthood, attempting to build a career as a writer and entertainer with no success. She never married and eventually moved to Chicago where she died in 1925, either a victim of suicide or a bizarre accident. Lily had children but none of them bore her any grandchildren, so the Horace/Baby Doe Tabor line died with them.
With no money left, Baby Doe ate very little, living on stale bread and suet, refusing to accept charity. She wandered the streets of Leadville, rags on her feet, wearing a cross, and she came to be known as a madwoman. In 1935, after three decades living in squalor, she was discovered frozen in her shack at the Matchless Mine at age 81, having died of a heart attack or exposure from a cold spell. People who knew her from her wealthy socialite days raised money and gave her a proper funeral and burial.