McCourt, Elizabeth Bonduel

Elizabeth Bonduel McCourt”Baby” Doe Tabor

born: October 7th, 1854 Oshkosh, Wisconsin
died: March 7th, 1935 Leadville, Colorado

Miner, wife, mother.

By far the prettiest of six siblings born to Peter McCourt, Sr. and Elizabeth Nellis, “Lizzie” early on displayed a lively and independent spirit that combined a tomboy disposition with the skin and looks of a cherub. This interesting, for the mid-1800s, combination was best exemplified by her winning the Oshkosh Congregational Church figure skating contest, a distinction that was unheard of for a girl, much less a Catholic one, in the winter of 1876/77. That event brought her to the attention of Harvey Doe, Jr., whom she married shortly thereafter, and with whom she moved to Colorado.

Lizzie’s Irish verve, and uncommon beauty brought her considerable attention wherever she traveled, but especially so among the rough and tumble elements of an isolated mining community such as Central City, where Harvey’s father had a half interest in a mine he hoped Harvey would make profitable. Harvey’s inability to make a living, however, forced his new wife to don miner’s clothes and personally work a shaft of their Fourth of July Mine, which caused great distress around the, as yet, unliberated town. (Interestingly, feminist rhetoric, in the form of Lucy Stone, founder of the suffragist Woman’s Journal came to Central City at about the same time.)

Despite raised eyebrows and clacking tongues, the miners of Central City recognized what a unique thing they had in the combination of Lizzie’s gumption and her pulchritude. And just as their hard-edge frontier spirit often found its opposite in the playful, romantic names they gave their mines, the hard-rock denizens of Central City showed their deep appreciation by giving her the nickname that was to follow her down through the ages: “Baby” Doe–the miners’ sweetheart.

Somewhere in the fall of 1879 Baby Doe attracted the attention of the newly wealthy Horace Tabor of Leadville, who caused her to leave Central City and her wayward husband behind. Over the next few years Horace grew increasingly estranged from his first wife Augusta, while his liaison with Baby Doe was becoming a matter of public knowledge. In 1882 they were married in a private civil ceremony in St. Louis, and married again in an opulent (and scandalous) public ceremony in Washington, D.C. the following March, at the conclusion of Horace’s short term as U.S. Senator from Colorado.

The two lived lavishly, albeit shunned by “polite” society, for about fifteen years. They had two daughters and a stillborn son before Tabor’s seemingly inexhaustible fortune evaporated in the “free silver” devaluations of the 1890s. Though Horace was employed as Denver’s postmaster when he died in the Spring of 1899, Baby Doe spent the remaining thirty-five years of her life little better than impoverished in a cabin outside the Matchless Mine in Leadville. Still beautiful and relatively young, she could easily have remarried. She chose, instead, to “hold on to the Matchless,” continuously seeking funds to “work” it, while scribbling page after page of her increasingly paranoiac and, ultimately delirious thoughts.

Baby Doe Tabor spent countless hours and shed copious tears while agonizing about daughters Lily and Silver Dollar, over the lives they were leading and over the fate of their immortal souls.

A devout Catholic in spite of her habit of ignoring or skirting the moral teachings of her Church during her younger years, she found, in her widowhood, a particularly vexing challenge to the renewed vigor of her lifelong faith.

She was a single mom (as they say today) with two young daughters to bring up and to guide through their difficult teenage years.

She was especially handicapped in dealing with Silver Dollar as her darling “Honeymaid” began exhibiting the same kind of robust zest for life that Baby had experienced in her own teen years. She understood from personal exposure to the perils of such adventures that it could be laden with dangers. Not that she regretted her youth, but she understood that the role she had played could be hazardous to anyone as inexperienced, as naive as she perceived Honeymaid to be.

Baby Doe’s struggles to guide Silver Dollar through the danger zones and to capitalize on the talents that Silver did exhibit occupied a great amount of Baby’s energies for many years. She was her much-loved Honeymaid, even as the young woman piled disappointments and heartaches upon her mother. The stories of Silver’s struggles for fame and her manifest failures have been retold frequently because they have an element of universality to them. In sum they amounted to a terrible, crushing burden – a mother’s hellish nightmare – in the end.

It is one of the peculiar hallmarks of Baby Doe Tabor that she refused to accept – outwardly, at least – the reality of the tragic end of her Honeymaid. Rosemary Echo Silver Dollar Tabor suffered a horrible death, scalded terribly in her cheap, rundown apartment in Chicago in 1925 where she lived under an assumed name amid the down-and-outers of the Windy City .

Baby ever after insisted to the world that the dead woman in Chicago was not her child; that Silver had entered a convent and was doing the Lord’s Work exactly as Baby had been praying that she would. Her persistence in believing that story (did she really believe it?) has always been cited, at best, as one of her most peculiar traits, and at worst, as evidence of her losing touch with reality.

If fans of The Ballad of Baby Doe find tiny Silver memorable because in the climactic scene she is caricaturized by a honky-tonk riff, few of them recall that just a few phrases earlier Horace Tabor is taunted that his other child, Lily, will deny her heritage.

The Doe coterie has spent less time wondering whatever happened to that other Tabor girl. They do know, though, that Lily left the residual Tabor estate, i.e., the Matchless, relatively soon after her mother and sister settled into Leadville in the hope of restoring the Tabor fortune. Lily, then seventeen years old, harbored no such hope.

Enlisting the aid of Uncle Peter McCourt, Elizabeth Bonduel Lily Tabor fled back to the Midwest, going initially to be with Aunt Claudia McCabe and Mama McCourt in Chicago , and then moving in with other relatives there, the John Last family, the widower and children of Baby’s sister, Cornelia.

There, to all intents, Lily is usually considered removed from the saga of Baby Doe and her years of spiritual agony at the Matchless.

‘Tain’t so.

A good deal of the distress that Baby suffered in her Rockies loneliness was caused by her separation from Lily. At first, of course, Silver remained with her in Leadville. It was the separation from her firstborn – the child who had captivated a nation when her picture, drawn by famous artist Thomas Nast, was on the cover of Harper’s Weekly in 1887, who had been Papa Tabor’s beloved “Cupid” – that tore Baby’s heart.

Contrary to some perceptions, there was correspondence between Lily and Baby in the early years of Lily’s separate life. It was not a complete break. When Lily was married in 1907 to one of her cousins, John Last, “this terrible thing would not have happened” had her sister Cornelia (John’s mother) lived, Baby lamented. Nonetheless mother and daughter exchanged occasional letters, and in early 1911 Baby Doe (and daughter Silver) visited Lily and John in Milwaukee where they now lived.

Thus Baby Doe did get to see two of her grandchildren, Caroline Last, born in 1908, and John B. Last, born in 1910. (The third and last of the Lasts, daughter Jane, was born a few months after Baby and Silver’s visit.)

This was the final meeting of Baby and Lily, but it was not the last contact. Still the relationship was strained and became more so as the years passed. What, if anything specific, exacerbated the situation is now quite indiscernible. Eventually there was no more correspondence.

In early March of 1935, her frozen body was discovered on the floor of her cabin, her arms peacefully crossed on her chest. After a particularly cold spell, she had apparently run out of wood for her stove. By then, having been deserted by both of her daughters, she had nevertheless become a legend; the subject of a two books and a Hollywood movie. Eventually her story would find its way into two operas, a stage play (in German), a musical, a screenplay, a one-woman show and countless other books and articles.

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