The wildest love triangle in the West

When millionaire mining king Horace Tabor deserted his long-suffering wife for a young divorcee of questionable morals around 1880, he must have known people would talk. He probably did not suspect, however, that this would make him the anchor one of the most infamous love triangles of its time. And Horace certainly could not have imagined that the tourist potential in the scandal would help sustain his adopted hometown of Leadville, CO, more than a hundred years later. 

Baby Doe Tabor: Hot stuff.

Baby Doe Tabor: Hot stuff.

The story of Horace, Augusta, and Baby Doe Tabor is big in Leadville, the town near which I’ve been staying for the past several days. Leadville, whose molybdenum mining industry has suffered mightily over the last decades, has made a mini-industry out of sustaining the memory of the three Tabors. You can visit Horace Tabor’s Matchless Mine, where Baby Doe’s body was found frozen in the shape of a cross in 1935. At the local independent bookstore the Book Mine, the Tabors have almost a full shelf to themselves. On a visit to the Leadville Heritage Museum last year, I saw scraps of the “Dreams and Visions” Baby Doe Tabor wrote down obsessively late in her life. And today I paid for tours of both the ramshackle old Tabor Opera House, built by Horace in 1879, and the house Horace built for his first wife, Augusta, the year before.

The Tabor Opera House, downtown Leadville.

The Tabor Opera House, downtown Leadville.

Horace Tabor was born to poor Vermont farmers. After working in a quarry and marrying the boss’s daughter, Augusta Pierce, he moved west in search of riches. The young family headed first to Kansas, then to Colorado, with an infant son in tow. After 20 years of hard living, during which Augusta sold pies and ran the post office to make ends meet, Horace struck it rich with several mines.

The Tabors were now millionaires, and Horace was also a politician who aspired to a national profile. Hard-working Augusta was described as “vinegary, efficient, managerial” — you know, just like they always say about Angelina Jolie. Needless to say, Augusta wasn’t the trophy Horace felt he deserved. He soon met her in beautiful, flirtatious Elizabeth “Baby” Doe, who had arrived in Leadville around the time of her divorce from a hapless dilettante from Wisconsin. Things went just as you’d expect: Horace carried on with Baby Doe, Augusta sued for divorce, and he married Baby.

Horace and Baby Doe became nationally infamous. While many Washington VIPs, including President Chester Arthur, attended the lavish Washington wedding ceremony, not a single one of their wives accompanied them. Theater luminaries like Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry visited the couples’ Denver home, the respectable families of the “Denver 36” (akin to Mrs. Astor’s 400) shunned them. Their firstborn daughter, Lily, appeared in a Thomas Nast illustration on the cover of Harper’s Bazar, like some kind of 19th-century Suri Cruise. (The couple named their second daughter Silver Dollar.) Meanwhile, the value of silver was plummeting, but the Tabors continued spending as if nothing had changed. Worth $9 million in the mid-1880s, Horace was penniless a decade later.

Horace Tabor: a very desirable man.

Horace Tabor: a very desirable man.

And here comes the twist: Baby Doe, supposedly a flighty gold-digger, stuck with him in poverty. And even when Horace’s health deteriorated a few years later, Baby Doe stayed by the side of her broke, sick husband. On his deathbed in Denver in 1899, he supposedly told her, “Hang on to the Matchless. It will make millions again.”

It didn’t. The mine was unproductive and had flooded years before. It was worthless. But Baby Doe remained true to her word, and she never let go of the Matchless, even as she descended into deeper poverty and beyond-eccentric old age. Her daughter Lily deserted her for a life of respectability, and reckless Silver Dollar died young under suspicious circumstances — probably alcohol-related — in Chicago. Baby Doe took to wandered the streets of Leadville and Denver wearing a long black skirt, a cape, and a hat with a veil she drew down when she thought people were staring. Over the following decades, she wrote down her “dreams and visions” on thousands of scraps of paper, some fairly lucid and others totally impenetrable. After a three-day blizzard in 1935, Baby Doe was discovered frozen to death on the floor of a cabin near the Matchless mine, even though there was still firewood left to burn. 


The Tabor legend lived on beyond the principles’ lifetimes. There was the 1932 film “Silver Dollar,” the 1956 opera “The Ballad of Baby Doe” (Beverly Sills later sang the title role in New York), a posthumous cover of LIFE magazine for Baby Doe, and a slew of biographies and novels.

Baby Doe, scorned in her lifetime, is now commonly seen as a sort of proto-feminist heroine, a refreshingly uninhibited rebel, and, because of her journaling, a “resistive postmodern lifewriter.” Ok, sure. Anyway, it’s pointless to moralize about the improper end of a 100-something-year-old marriage, right? Well, I can’t help it. As Caitlin Flanagan writes of Helen Gurley Brown in the September issue of the Atlantic:

The attitude amounts to ‘she who keeps the man happy keeps the man.’ … When two women bid for a man, no advantage shall be given to the one who might have children with him, or an economic dependency built upon their marriage. There is only the marketplace of feminine wiles … in which young is better than old and new is more exciting than familiar.

Augusta Tabor: laughed last.

Augusta Tabor: laughed last.

That’s why my old-fashioned, pre-Cosmo sympathies lie squarely with Augusta — but sympathies are not the same as fascinations. Baby Doe was beautiful and impetuous and, eventually, mad. She was unavoidably interesting. And she certainly brings more tourist dollars to Leadville, which could use them: The movie theater and one of two newspapers have closed down in the last year; the desperately needed Climax Molybdenum mine reopening, set for this year, has been postponed, and  the Tabor house, which opened to the public just a few months ago, may not have the funds to stay open much longer. But for all the infamy and income that Baby Doe brings to Leadville these days, she died broke and alone. Boring old Augusta invested her divorce settlement wisely and died with $500,000 in the bank.

(I got a lot of information for this post from Judy Nolte Temple’s fantastic book “Baby Doe Tabor: The Madwoman in the Cabin.” Recommended.)


One response to “The wildest love triangle in the West

  1. Temple’s book is a classic in Baby Doe studies.

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