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 Austin Warner Tabor, between 1870 and 1880.

Augusta Pierce Tabor, 1870.

Farming in Kansas Territory—near Manhattan, KS, on the eastern side of the state—proved difficult and unsatisfactory, but Horace, standing against slavery, was elected to the “Free Soil,” an alternative legislature in Topeka. In 1857 he returned to Maine, married Augusta and brought her to Kansas. Both Horace and Augusta were industrious and hardworking, but farming was not paying off, and when gold was discovered further west, they joined the wave of settlers moving to the area in 1859.  

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.

Horace Tabor’s general store, moved to the now defunct theme park Buckskin Joe, in Canon City, CO.

They chased the silver rush to an unincorporated township deep in the Rockies in 1877. Now middle-aged, Horace was one of four commissioners who set up the incorporation of the new town. He was elected mayor and is credited with naming the town Leadville. On or about April 20, 1878, Horace’s fortunes changed. He had grubstaked two miners—meaning he would provide them supplies in exchange for one third of anything they discovered—and they happened to hit one of the biggest silver strikes in the area, digging in exactly the place where the silver vein came closest to the surface. Horace was suddenly rich, and soon he bought additional mines. The Matchless Mine was his most monumental producer with more than $11 million of silver being discovered during the years he owned it. He became a legend nearly overnight—the 59er that stuck it out and finally struck it rich. 

The Tabor home in Leadville, Colorado.

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.

Tabor Grand Opera House in the 1920s (Denver Public Library).

Elizabeth "Baby" Doe Tabor, circa 1883.

Augusta hated the limelight and had never enjoyed the Tabor wealth. Needless to say, Horace and Augusta’s marriage had been in trouble for some time before Baby Doe came into the picture. But, of course, this proper New England woman had no thought for divorce—she, and she alone was Mrs. Horace Tabor. When Baby Doe arrived on the scene, Augusta’s life was changed forever. While she had endured Horace’s dalliances for years, he fell head over heels for the pretty little blond from Central City. Horace’s heart was set on marrying Baby Doe, and with his connections, was able to arrange a divorce from Augusta through a judge in Durango. Augusta eventually moved to California and invested her money wisely, dying a millionaire in 1895.

Augusta Tabor’s mansion on Broadway in Denver (Denver Public Library).

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.

Baby Doe around the time she met Horace Tabor.

Baby Doe’s wedding dress was made from real silver and cost $7,500, equivalent to about $178,000 today.

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.

Baby Doe at her cabin in October 1933 (Denver Public Library).

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.

Silver Dollar Tabor meeting Theodore Roosevelt, 1910.

Silver Dollar Tabor.

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.

Baby Doe visiting Denver in 1930 (Denver Public Library).

Matchless Mine in Leadville.

Baby Doe's cabin after her death in 1935 (Denver Public Library).

Now the stuff of legends, the story of Baby Doe Tabor continues to provoke intrigue, with an opera and Hollywood movie based on her life; even serving as the inspiration for a chain of restaurants called Baby Doe’s Matchless Mine, now defunct. In 1985, she was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. She is buried with her husband in Mount Olivet Cemetery in Wheat Ridge, Colorado.

Silver Dollar, 1932 movie based on the life of the Tabors.

Baby Doe's Matchless Mine Restaurant in Denver, 2004.