LEADVILLE • When approaching Colorado’s most famed shack on a gloomy summer morning, it’s easy to imagine Baby Doe Tabor bolting out her door to order yet another inquisitive reporter to depart.
But Baby Doe has long departed the premises, which means I can ponder a complex, haunting story.
I grew up in Denver, not far from the former site of the mansion/palace on 13th and Sherman where Baby Doe lived in the 1880s and 1890s as one of the richest women in the world. “She relished with exceeding zest,” The Rocky Mountain News reported, “what only money can buy — fine foods, wines, expensive gowns, display,”
And yet ...
In March, 1935, Baby Doe died of heart failure in this one-room shack on an eastern rise above Leadville. A friend found her frozen body on the floor.
Her life seemed a tragedy, the ultimate rags-to-riches-to-rags saga. But after my visit to her shack on Fryer Hill, I got to know a bold pariah who defied the marital and sexual norms of Colorado’s Wild West era before transforming to a peaceful stoic who just wanted to be alone in a converted tool shed.
She lived as resilient survivor, not tragic victim.
From the turn of the century until her death, Baby Doe lived alone. She cut her firewood and lugged her water. Most nights, she enjoyed and endured extravagant Technicolor dreams, which she chronicled in detail when she awoke. In those dreams, she met Jesus and the Virgin Mary and demons and deceased relatives.
She wore tattered dresses and wrapped her feet in burlap, but savored views of Mount Elbert and Mount Massive and a clear look at the nightly star show. After a life of luxury and infamy, she cherished the bare-bones solitude of Fryer Hill.
In 1880, the 25-year-old Baby Doe arrived in Leadville, where she met Horace Tabor, Colorado’s silver king. He was 50, married and worth $8 million, a billionaire by today’s standards. They immediately embarked on a romance that horrified the era’s traditional types. Three years later, they married in Washington, D.C.
During her years of financial glory in Denver and Leadville, society shunned her. She had stolen another woman’s husband. Calling her a gold digger wasn’t quite accurate. She was a silver digger.
No way she married for love, right?
An abundance of letters remains from the Baby Doe/Silver King romance.
As his Colorado fortune evaporated in the 1890s, he spent months away from Baby Doe in Mexico seeking, and failing, to build a new fortune. At the time, separated lovers couldn’t communicate their ardor by phone or email.
“I cannot live one day without seeing you my own true love, because I want you with me I am not happy away from you not one hour and to please you I would gladly sacrifice anything,” Baby Doe wrote.
At the end of letters, Baby Doe wrote “Kiss” and kissed the paper, circling the word “Kiss” with red lipstick. (Her lipstick stains have not survived the decades.) Colorado historian Francisco Rios, who spent 800 hours examining the Tabor letters, believes Horace then kissed the crimson circle.
Maybe money was Baby Doe’s original motivation in pursuing Horace, but her letters shout, over the decades, that the couple found love despite chaos and ridicule. Her husband died in 1899. His fortune had disappeared. Her devotion had not.
Donna Baier Stein wrote a novel, “The Silver Baron’s Wife,” about Baby Doe’s life. She’s fascinated by a contradictory life.
“She and Horace lived in a culture of phenomenal wealth,” Stein says. “There’s such a mystique to them because we think, ‘If only I were incredibly wealthy,’ but she had all those things, and still there was something inside her that needed filling. She needed to fill a spiritual void, and that’s something else that we’re all looking for. We have all these things, but we’re searching, too.”
Baby Doe retreated from shame and rejection to the pristine stillness of a shack at the Matchless Mine that produced the silver that once made Horace so spectacularly wealthy.
Two years before her death, a movie based on her life premiered in downtown Denver. Promoters offered Baby Doe $1,000 (about $20,000 in today’s dollars) to attend the party.
“$1,000 was hers for the taking! ...,” wrote Lee Taylor Casey in the Rocky Mountain News in 1935. “No wonder people said she was eccentric; no wonder they feared her mind had gone. But she was not eccentric; her mind was still strong and hard. She had not changed.
“She was consistent. If she was proud when her husband’s fortune was piling up at the rate of thousands a day and presidents and Cabinet members were eager to do her honor, she was equally proud when rough denim had replaced her silks and laces. ... Such pride — unyielding to the end — was the key to her character.”
Leadville remains, as much as any Colorado destination, connected with its past. You can drink at bars where Horace and Baby Doe indulged in the 1880s or sit in the opera house Horace constructed.
And you can drive to the still-isolated eastern outskirts of town to examine the shack where a brave woman chose to retreat from a mad world.