Tony Vagneur: Seeing ‘Baby Doe’ in a new light from shadow’s of Matchless mine
We all know her, it seems, Elizabeth Nellis McCourt, from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, forever dubbed “Baby Doe” by those enamored of her stride through history (Sept. 25, 1854 to March 7, 1935). One of 14 siblings, her childhood nickname of Lizzie was superseded by that of Baby, an appellation placed on her by an older brother, James.
How convenient then, that at age 22 (an age she also would claim at her subsequent marriage to H.A.W. Tabor), she married Harvey Doe, a doltish lad who seemed to prefer bordellos to the home life. Harvey’s father tried to set the newly married couple up in the mining business in Central City, and whether it was incompetence or laziness, Harvey never quite found the mother lode.
His beautiful wife, Baby, donned miner’s clothes and jumped into the dark of various mine tunnels in an effort to help find pay dirt, but all it got her was derision from the female population, including prostitutes. “It just isn’t womanly,” they said. Baby Doe’s reply was something akin to “up yours,” an attitude that carried her through life.
In any case, Harvey’s lack of ambition in finding earthly riches soon drove Baby into a dalliance with town shopkeeper, Jake Sandelowski. This drove Harvey more than a little crazy and he took to heavy drinking and trying to sell his mining properties, particularly when a pregnant Baby disclosed she wasn’t quite sure who the father was.
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Baby Doe left Harvey and followed Jake (now Jake Sands) to Leadville where he was a partner in a clothing store. She may have thought Jake would marry her, but the most passion he could muster was to offer her a job as a clerk in his clothing store.
In 1880, Baby Doe and H.A.W. Tabor locked eyes across the room in the Saddle Rock Cafe in Leadville and soon one of those all-too human, all-too scandalous relationships blossomed. Horace Tabor, Colorado’s first millionaire, nicknamed the Silver King, was married to Augusta at the time, a calm, practical woman who was unimpressed with Horace’s all-too common and foolish nouveau riche syndrome, a man who spent lavishly and loved attention. Inevitably, Horace convinced Augusta to divorce him in a messy fashion that won public sympathy for Augusta.
He and Baby Doe loved money and attention, and a lot more, a match made almost overnight in a western mining town. Whether she was bothered by his affinity for keeping mistresses is unknown. They were married in 1882; Horace was 52, Baby Doe 28, although she said she was 22 on the marriage license. Scandalous then, but a common event today for many Aspen couples we know.
Between the divorce from Augusta, his marriage to a much younger Baby Doe and his boorish behavior, particularly in Washington D.C., where he served as an appointed senator from Colorado for 30 days, Horace was a famous but disliked man. Baby Doe fared no better; the disapproval of her behavior in Central City followed her to Leadville and Denver where her attitude of “live and let live” did not sit well in that Victorian era.
Horace and Baby Doe lived large and extravagantly, spending money like it would never run out. However, like many things backed by the government, it all came crashing down with repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act in 1893. Silver prices plummeted, the lavish lifestyle disappeared, their Denver mansion sold and Horace eventually lost everything. At the time of his death, he was the postmaster in Denver, living in the Windsor Hotel with Baby Doe and their two daughters.
On his deathbed, Horace supposedly told Baby to “Hold onto the Matchless,” his most lucrative Leadville silver mine. That is probably a historical fantasy, as by the time Horace died, the Matchless had most likely been through receivership and was owned by someone else. However, Baby did manage to hold onto the mine (deed or not) because no one else wanted it — everyone knew it had been dug out years before.
At the time of Tabor’s death, Baby was in her mid-40s, still looking good and could have married again. Why she took her daughters and moved to Leadville is unknown, but it was likely because of the Matchless. They lived in a tool shed, converted into a tragically bare cabin. Baby did housekeeping jobs, begging for money to reopen the mine, or whatever else she could do. One of her brothers kept her bill at the grocers up to date so she and the children could eat.
Over the 35 years she lived at the Matchless, clothed in hand-me-downs and rags, her daughters left, eventually moving to Chicago. Baby Doe became an apparition of the past, reminding people of how tough the silver crash had been, and many thought her to either be crazy or beyond hope. She was found one wintry day, frozen to death, on the floor of her little Matchless mine cabin.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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