A Tailing Tale
Baby Doe – Woman Miner
We’ve all heard tales of Baby Doe Tabor, the beautiful woman who left her husband, Harvey Doe, to run off with Horace Tabor.
However, there was much more to Baby Doe than a pretty face and fancy clothes. She never feared hard work and was one of only a handful of women miners.
Born in 1854, Elizabeth Bonduel McCourt was one of fourteen children born to an Irish immigrant family of moderate means in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. By the time she was fifteen, the five foot two girl with long, blonde hair, a robust figure and porcelain skin drew men of all ages like bees to a hive. However, Elizabeth was determined to marry a man of great wealth and position.
In 1876, she competed in a skating contest wearing a skirt that revealed her claves, impressing the male onlookers and enraging the female audience members. At the end of the competition, Elizabeth took home the first place ribbon and won the heart of the handsome socialite, Harvey Doe.
William Harvey Doe, Sr., Harvey’s father, owned a substantial number of mining claims in Colorado and a lumber business in Oshkosh. Father and son were in town to check on their investment where they attended the skating event and Harvey was quite taken with Elizabeth.
In 1877 Harvey and Elizabeth Doe were married and immediately after the ceremony they boarded a train bound for Denver, Colorado. Harvey, Sr. planned for his son to take over the mining property near Central City and once the newlyweds finished honeymooning Harvey Jr. was to embark on a life in the gold fields. Elizabeth’s father-in-law arranged for the young couple to reside at the posh Teller House with its elegant décor and the finest of everything money could buy.
Elizabeth was enthusiastic about her new home and the luxurious living arrangements were exactly what she envisioned for herself. She was also enchanted with the Doe’s Fourth of July Mine. The sights and sounds of the miners descending into the diggings and reappearing with chunks of earth that might be gold stirred her desire for outrageous wealth.
At the time, she believed the opportunity to amass a fortune could only be realized through her husband’s efforts but Harvey, Jr. was not interested in manual labor and preferred anyone else do the work.
Elizabeth was far too ambitious to leave her financial future to a lazy husband and took command of the property and limited income. After moving their belongings out of the expensive Teller House and into a small cottage, she organized a crew of Cornish miners to work at the mine.
Some of the prominent town leaders with whom Elizabeth was acquainted advised her to have a shaft dug into the mine before winter fully set in and urged her to do the digging herself if necessary.
Motivated by his wife’s drive, Harvey finally bent to her will and joined in the work. The first shaft the pair sank proved to be unsuccessful but Elizabeth would not give up. She convinced her husband and their employees to drive a second shaft. Dressed in one of Harvey’s old shirts, a pair of dungarees, and a cap, Elizabeth worked alongside the men.
For a time, Elizabeth and Harvey strove for a common goal, working diligently, only leaving the mine to collect supplies in town. Historians speculate it was during one of those trips when Elizabeth acquired the name of “Baby Doe.” As she passed the men in town on her way to purchase supplies one man is said to have called out, “There goes a beautiful baby.” The name fit her small frame and delicate features and from that time on, people referred to her as “Baby Doe.”
Despite the Doe’s valiant efforts, the Fourth of July Mine never yielded the gold necessary to fund continued diggings. The mine eventually shut down and Harvey went to work for another miner, abandoning the dream of striking it rich. Baby Doe held on to her aspiration of becoming a “woman of great means,” with or without Harvey.
The Does divorced in 1880 and Baby moved to Leadville with Central City businessman, Jake Sandelowsky. But Jake was only a means to an end. Everywhere Baby Doe went in Leadville she heard stories about Horace Tabor. She set her cap for the infamous mine owner and politician and on March 1, 1883, she married him in St. Matthew’s Catholic Church in Denver wearing a $7,500 wedding dress.
For ten years, the Tabors lived a life of opulent comfort. The Matchless Mine earned more than $1 million and Horace’s other investments more than $4 million but when the bottom fell out of the silver market they lost all their wealth and were stripped of their possessions with the exception of the gold mine.
Horace died in 1899 from an appendicitis attack. With his last breath, he encouraged Baby to hold on to the Matchless and the grief-stricken widow focused her efforts on finding investors to back the reopening of the mine. After an exhaustive search, she located a businessman who fronted her the capital to begin operations. Baby moved her fifteen- and nine-year-old daughters to Leadville and went to work hiring help to support and dig. She encouraged her children to learn all the aspects of running the mine, from swinging a pick to hauling ore to the surface.
When the Matchless Mine failed to produce any significant gold, the investor withdrew his support, forcing Baby to search for other backers. This scenario was repeated time and time again. She refused to give up or sell the property outright, and for three decades, she steadfastly maintained that riches were buried deep within the walls of the mine. Her daughters grew up and moved on, but Baby remained in Leadville in a dilapidated cabin at the site. “I shall never let the Matchless go,” she told a banker she was asking to back the mine operations. “Not while there is a breath in my body to find a way to fight for it.”
When the money ran out, Baby worked the mine alone. She lived the life of a recluse, visited only by a neighbor and his daughter.
On February 20, 1935, Baby Doe Tabor, the woman once known throughout the West as the “Silver Queen,” died alone in her cabin.
For more about Baby Doe and other women prospectors of the old west, see Chris Enss’s book A Beautiful Mine.
Published October 9, 2014 in the Weekly Registered-Call
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