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LEGENDS OF LEADVILLE:
ADVENTURESOME SOULS FROM THE 1800s
 
 
FRIDAY, AUGUST 25
 
 
"Well-behaved women rarely make history."
 
- Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
 
 

 

That's gotta be one of my favorite quotes, and it's more than appropriate for this essay on three of Leadville's legendary female residents of yore. I'll also entertain you with histories of their famous and/or infamous husbands, and mention some of the other well-known folks who lived or visited there in the 1800s.

I wonder if any other small town in America has ever survived such a colorful cast of characters?

Many fortunes began in Leadville during its 19th century mining boom days (first gold in the 1860s, then silver in the 1870s, then gold and other ores again), famous names like Marshall Field, David May, the Guggenheims, and Horace Tabor and many less well-known entrepreneurs who became wealthy either directly or indirectly from the mines. Of course, there were thousands of others who did NOT find their personal "pot of gold" in Leadville, and barely made enough money to survive. In fact, one of the men above went from bust-to-boom -- and back to bust again.

Three Colorado governors and two Denver mayors got their starts in Leadville. Famous political figures, including several governors, senators and at least three presidents (Ulysses S. Grant, William Henry Harrison, and Teddy Roosevelt) visited the town. So did a veritable Who's Who of other well-known people of the time such as Susan B. Anthony, Buffalo Bill, Sarah Bernhardt, Oscar Wilde, and Doc Holliday, the infamous dentist-turned-gambler/gunslinger (below) who lived there shortly before he died.

Wouldn't it have been interesting to live there in those days?? (That is, if you didn't mind all the saloons, bordellos, gunfights, and frigid winters in dwellings that weren't as cozy as today's . . .)

In this essay I will focus on two families whose fortunes were tied to the mines in Leadville, the Tabors and the Browns. Considerable information about the five key characters can be found in books and on the internet. Not all the films about them are totally factual, but the information presented in that format is usually what most people remember.

THE TABORS

"Baby Doe."

Say that name in a group setting and you'll receive reactions about this controversial woman ranging from admiration to scorn. Nearly everyone has heard of this beautiful, energetic, independent young woman and the scandal in which she was a part. She lived a roller coaster rags-to-riches-to-rags story that echoes the boom and bust cycles of the town itself.

   

Baby Doe was born into a wealthy family in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1854. Hardly anyone remembers her by her given name, Elizabeth Bonduel McCourt. Although "Lizzie" looked like a cherub and was very popular with the young men in town, she was fiercely independent and would be considered a tomboy today.

Lizzie lived in Oshkosh until she and her first husband, Harvey Doe, Jr., boarded a train in 1877 for the isolated mining community of Central City, Colorado (near Leadville), where Harvey's father had mining property. They hoped to make a fortune in gold overnight, as they heard other people had done.

But like most other prospectors, Harvey had a hard time making a living at his  father's Fourth of July Mine, so the gutsy young Lizzie started working in one of the shafts right along with the men - unheard of at that time! Although "un-liberated," the men respected her frontier spirit and dubbed her "Baby Doe." She was the miners' sweetheart.

Baby Doe soon became disillusioned with her lazy husband, who drifted from job to job. After attempts at reconciliation failed, she divorced Harvey in 1878.

On a visit to nearby Leadville in the fall of 1879, Baby Doe met Horace Austin Warner (H.A.W.) Tabor, twenty-five years her senior, who by then had become the "Silver King" of Leadville and the surrounding mining district. The couple met by chance at the old Saddle Rock Cafe and it was apparently love at first sight. Thus began one of the most famous love triangles in American history, a scandal that reached to the East coast.

Tabor's earlier life was one of hard work, honor, and respect. He was a stonemason from New England who helped populate the Kansas territory by homesteading there with other settlers who were against the practice of slavery. During this period of time (1857) he married Augusta Pierce, whose father owned the quarry in Vermont where Horace was formerly employed.

Homesteading in "Tabor Valley" was tough, especially on Augusta, who had grown up in a middle-class home and suddenly had to learn to be much more self-sufficient. Adding to her burden was the birth of a son, Maxcy. After two years of marriage, the couple succumbed to the lure of tales of gold in the area that is now Leadville, Colorado, and WALKED with their young child through essentially uncharted territory for six weeks to reach Denver, then trekked on to the eastern slope of the Continental Divide.

The vivid story of their incredible journey is well-documented on the website www.babydoe.org, where I got some of the information for this journal entry (see also www.leadville.com/history/tabor.htm and www.babydoetabor.com). I also got information about the Tabors from The Leadville Magazine Collector's Edition, published in 2003 and distributed for free at the Leadville Visitor Center.

Augusta was a remarkable woman, industrious and courageous. A true pioneer, she was the first woman in California Gulch, the rich mining district near Oro City, later known as Leadville.

  

For the next twenty years, Horace and Augusta eked out a living in various mining areas near Leadville by panning and digging for gold, boarding and feeding miners, running a bank and general store/grocery, and serving as Leadville's second postmaster. Their civic-mindedness and generosity eventually "paid off," leading to their fantastic fortune and indeed, the good fortune of the entire town of Leadville. I've already shown photos of two of the beautiful buildings still standing there that are the result of Horace's largesse.

Tabor's lucky break came in 1878, when two immigrant German prospectors, August Rische and George Hook, asked him to "grubstake" them a few items for prospecting that they couldn't afford to buy outright. In return for this meager investment, Tabor would receive one-third of the value of any ore produced by the mine, the Little Pittsburgh, on Fryer Hill.

You guessed it: the former shoemakers "struck silver" and soon made huge profits. Tabor used his new-found wealth to buy up as many claims as possible in the district. Almost overnight, he became "The Silver King." His most prolific mine was the famous Matchless Mine, which yielded up to $100,000 a month at its peak (imagine how much that would be in today's dollars!).

Tabor basically went wild with his money, spending so freely that he totally alienated Augusta, with her frugal New England values. The couple had very different ideas about how they should live. Augusta continued to dress modestly, take in boarders, and behave as she always had behaved, while her husband became somewhat brash and arrogant as his wealth catapulted him to fame. He soon became the first mayor of Leadville.

When Baby Doe entered the picture in late 1879 or early 1880, the Tabors' marriage was already seriously strained. Although Horace was now serving as Lieutenant Governor of Colorado, he moved his mistress first into the Clarendon Hotel in Leadville, then the elegant Windsor Hotel in Denver, so he could meet her secretly. You can imagine what happened next.

It didn't take long for the affair to become public knowledge and all heck broke loose personally and politically for Horace.

In 1882 Horace and Baby Doe were married in a secret civil ceremony in St. Louis. Unfortunately, he hadn't legally divorced Augusta yet! (He apparently thought he had.) His engineered divorce from the reluctant Augusta was finalized officially in 1883, and he and Baby Doe had a lavish wedding in Washington, D.C., where they lived briefly while Horace served a 30-day U.S. Senate term  after Henry Teller was appointed to a Cabinet position. The wedding was considered a national scandal, and Tabor never regained his political standing.

Augusta, Leadville's "First Lady," fought the divorce but lost the battle. She received the couple's Leadville house, Denver mansion, and a good portion of Horace's fortune. She was well-respected and loved by the people of Leadville, where she continued to be active in community organizations until her health deteriorated. She eventually moved to Pasadena, California, where she died in 1895 a very wealthy woman.

This part of the story is particularly sad to me, probably because it reminds me of my own mother after her divorce from my father (except we weren't rich!). Augusta always hoped Horace would come back to her. She loved him and never remarried. She told reporters she was building up her own fortune and keeping the mansion in Denver so she could take care of Tabor in his old age.

It never happened. You see, Augusta had seriously underestimated Baby Doe's character and intentions. It turned out that the young lady wasn't just after Tabor's money. She stuck by him even when he was broke.

But meanwhile, after their marriage Baby Doe and Horace returned to Denver in 1883 and lived a lavish lifestyle for several years until his businesses began to play out. The couple was shunned by polite society despite their enormous wealth. They had two daughters, Elizabeth and Silver Dollar (poor kid, with a name like that!).

Tabor's wealth all but evaporated in 1893 with the "Silver Crash," when the Sherman Silver Purchase Act was repealed. His holdings became worthless and investments in other mines in Mexico and South America failed. His downfall was not diversifying his investments (there's an important lesson there, folks!). Tabor went from being one of the wealthiest men in the country to being deeply in debt. At age 65, he returned to hardrock mining. During the remainder of his life, Tabor always found work and kept dreaming of regaining his former wealth and fame.

Just when he was thinking of moving to Alaska to seek gold with his brother, he was appointed to the postmaster's job in Denver. He took it. It was 1897. However, he was still impoverished in 1899 when he died of appendicitis.

One story, apparently incorrect, says that Horace asked Baby Doe on his deathbed to continue working the Matchless Mine, believing it would again make millions of dollars. However, the silver was played out by then and the mine had been lost to foreclosure.

For some unexplained reason, instead of remarrying and/or living in Leadville or Denver, the young, still-beautiful Baby Doe chose to live out her remaining thirty-five years in a little shack on the mine property with the permission of the new owners. She lived in poverty, continually seeking funds to re-purchase and work the mine.

This is a photo of what is left of the Matchless Mine today:

Little is known of this part of her life. She was estranged from her daughters, lived as a recluse, and became increasingly paranoid and delirious. In 1935 her frozen body was found in the cabin after a blizzard when neighbors noticed there wasn't any smoke coming out of the chimney of her shack.

Once a millionaire, the "Silver Queen" died alone, a pauper. All that was left of the Tabor fortune was found in twenty-one iron trunks and some gunny sacks that Baby Doe had placed in storage. Her heirs found numerous bolts of exquisite cloth and some china, jewelry, and other memorabilia. Of course, there is also the legacy of the beautiful buildings Tabor financed: the Tabor Grand and the famous opera house in Leadville, and the Tabor Grand Opera House in Denver - but they weren't owned by Baby Doe.

Baby Doe's incredible story has become a legend around the world, spawning numerous books, articles, and websites; a "DoeHead" organization; a Hollywood movie; a German stage play; a screen play; two operas; a musical; and a one-woman show.

Incredible, indeed. It's too bad the remarkable Augusta Tabor has not received more status as a "legend" for her courageous and civic-minded life. It's a testament to her strong character that she was able to retain her solid values no matter the circumstances, from the difficult pioneering and early mining years to unimaginable wealth, subsequent heartbreak, and divorce. I'm glad she died a millionairess. Poetic justice?

My only disappointment in Augusta's decision-making was continuing to love Horace after he divorced her. Even with all her money and friends, she reportedly "died of a broken heart."

Two intriguing Tabor women, very different endings.

Now let's examine the lives of another interesting Leadville family . . .

THE BROWNS

OK, what comes to your mind first when you hear this name?

The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

Ten to one, you said, "The Titanic." You're right, but believe it or not, her true-life story is much bigger than this and just as interesting.

Like Augusta Tabor, Margaret Tobin Brown is a Leadville lady I can admire. Like Baby Doe, she is most remembered by a nickname. Molly's came from one remarkable incident in her life, documented in a wildly popular 1997 movie and earlier stage play. Apparently she never really went by the name "Molly," but "Maggie." Most references still call her "Molly," however, so I will do the same here.

Here is her story, and that of her husband. Most of my information comes from the Leadville magazine cited above and two websites: www.mollybrown.org and www.mollybrownmuseum.com.

Like most other folks who headed to Leadville in the second half of the 19th century, Molly Tobin had dreamed of being rich. Born to hard-working, rather poor parents in Hannibal, Missouri in 1867, she wanted to marry a wealthy man and care for her parents so their lives would be easier.

Her parents were Irish immigrants. John Tobin dug ditches for the Hannibal Gas Works company. He also found time to work as an abolitionist with John Brown before the Civil War. (He may have even run a station on the Underground Railroad.) Johanna Tobin was determined that her six children would receive a good education, and made sacrifices to see they got it.

The values Molly learned as a child - work hard, get a good education, treat others with equality - stayed with her the rest of her life, just like Augusta Tabor's did.

Molly was able to attend school only until age thirteen, when she had to start working to help support her family. She put in long, hard hours at a tobacco factory in the days before there were any child labor laws. That certainly affected  her later efforts regarding workers' rights.

In 1884, when she was only seventeen or eighteen, Molly went to Leadville to live in a boarding house with her brother, Daniel. An older married sister was already living there. Molly first worked in the boardinghouse as a waitress, then got a job as a clerk in a dry goods store. Before long, she met James J. ("JJ") Brown, a foreman at the Louisville Mine. She apparently decided to marry for love instead of money, because JJ wasn't rich. Molly was nineteen and JJ was thirty-two.

Their first home was a small two-room cabin on Iron Hill, near the mine. Molly had always wanted to further her education, so she hired a tutor and also studied piano, singing, and music.

JJ, a hard-working, intelligent man, became superintendent of another productive mine in 1887. The couple had a son (Larry) and daughter (Helen) and moved to a larger home on West 7th Street. Interestingly, Molly later described these as the happiest years of her life.

The photo below, courtesy of the Denver Historical Society, shows the young family in 1890. It was taken outdoors with a painted back-drop of a wealthy home - very interesting, considering they soon would be quite wealthy beyond their wildest dreams!

 

JJ began moving up through the ranks and became quite successful in the mining business. He was given one-eighth interest in the famous Little Johnny Mine as a reward for his successful management practices. When the price of silver plummeted in 1893 and Horace Tabor LOST his fortune, the value of gold rose and so did JJ's fortune. The high-grade copper and near-pure gold that was discovered at the Little Johnny Mine, the world's richest strike at the time, soon made JJ and Molly millionaires and revitalized the town of Leadville - again!

It was the custom for Leadville's nouveau rich to move to Denver for its increased social opportunities and milder weather (remember, Leadville sits at 10,152 feet elevation, still the highest incorporated town in America). The Browns did likewise, moving there in 1894 to the fashionable "Lion's House." It is a myth that the Molly and her husband were not accepted by high society in Denver. In fact, Molly was such a good fund-raiser that she was sought after by various organizations.

For the rest of her life, Molly was actively involved in a variety of philanthropic  and social reform causes. Her wealth and social status opened doors that wouldn't have been open to a woman of lesser means and helped give her the confidence to withstand the criticism she drew from those who adhered to traditional social convention. Not only was she friends with her servants and tutors (a no-no in her social strata), she was also a female activist by the late 1890s, believing that women from all stations in life should have the same rights and privileges as men.

Molly wasn't afraid to tackle the tough humanitarian issues of the day: women's and children's rights, juvenile justice, miner's rights, and social equality. She helped organize the nation's first juvenile court system in Denver (of special interest to me, since my career was advocating for abused and neglected children at a juvenile court). She was a suffragette and attended national rallies on women's rights in places like Newport, RI, where the Browns often went on vacation. This is where they became friends with the super-wealthy Vanderbilts and Astors.

Personally, Molly was passionate about travel and education. She traveled extensively around the world and considered France to be her "second home." She wrote travel articles for the Denver Times and was fluent in five other languages besides English. She learned classical guitar in Spain and yodeling in Switzerland. She was one of the first women to study at the Carnegie Institute in New York (languages and literature) and she studied acting in the style of Sarah Bernhardt in New York and Paris.

Like Augusta and Horace Tabor, the Browns' values and lifestyles didn't mesh very well after several years of marriage. The issue apparently wasn't how to spend their wealth. The main problem was that JJ was much more traditional and  didn't agree with Molly's very active role in social causes. He may also have been unfaithful to her, according to one website above.

        

The couple separated, legally and amicably, in 1909 after twenty-three years of marriage. They never got divorced and always spoke well of each other. They maintained contact  until JJ's death in 1922. Molly never did re-marry, although she reportedly had plenty of offers.

The incident for which Molly will be forever known occurred in 1912. She was on an extended trip to Europe with her daughter when she got word that her grandson was very ill. She booked passage back to the United States in a first-class stateroom on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic, the most luxurious ship at the time. She was excited about the trip, which she was sharing with friends Madeline and Jacob Astor. Fortunately, her daughter remained in Europe.

You probably know at least part of this story. The "unsinkable" ship struck an iceberg during the night and 1600 of the 2300 passengers and crew died before they could be rescued from the sea. Molly survived; the Astors didn't.

There's much more to the story and it says a lot about this remarkable lady who could have been interested only in saving her own skin and retiring to a quiet life as a rich woman.

Before the ship sank, Molly helped many women and children into lifeboats. She was headed to the other side of the ship to help the passengers there when a man grabbed her and literally dropped her into a lifeboat from which she couldn't get back out! There were only 24 on board the lifeboat, which could have held 65 people, when the quartermaster ordered the women to help row the boat away from the ship. Molly's objections were ignored, as were her pleas to return to the ship when it sank. She wanted to add more people to her own lifeboat after hundreds of people were suddenly dumped into the ocean. Most of them drowned.

About six hours later, Molly's lifeboat was rescued by the first ship that answered the distress call, the Carpathia. Molly immediately helped the other rescued passengers, most of whom were in a panic. Many of the women were foreign, and most had lost their husbands. Molly's fluency in six languages was a big help as she served as interpreter, obtained needed supplies, made lists of the survivors, and helped to notify their relatives. Before the Carpathia made it to New York, Molly had even rallied the first class passengers to donate $10,000 for the victims who had lost everything. Molly contributed $500 herself.

Her comment to a reporter when she got back to the U.S. was the sardonic, "Typical Brown luck. We're unsinkable."

And thus was borne her moniker, "The Unsinkable Molly Brown."

Molly's hard work as president of the Titanic Survivors' Committee made her a national hero. She stayed in New York for a while to handle those responsibilities before returning to Denver. (I don't know what happened to her sick grandson.)

Two years later, Molly was involved in three new causes: organizing nurses for the Red Cross during the Mexican American War, helping create laws to ensure miners' safety, health, and education after a nasty Colorado labor dispute called the Ludlow Massacre, and running for the U.S. Senate.

Molly had been very involved in politics for several years. Colorado was one of the first states to allow women to vote in the 1880s. Molly ran for the U.S. Senate in 1909 and 1911 - and lost - before women could vote nationally. She pulled out of the 1914 race when World War II broke out in Europe.

Molly spent three years (1917-1920) in France at an auxiliary military hospital where she was in charge of a volunteer group that rebuilt devastated areas behind the front lines. During the war she also tended to wounded soldiers and entertained them (among other things, she was an actress) and helped import ambulances for the hospital. She received the prestigious French Legion of Honor award in 1932 for her heroism regarding these relief efforts.

After the war Molly returned to the United States. Preservation and equality then became her areas of focus.

During the last three years of her life, Molly indulged more in her love of acting, dancing, and singing before dying of a brain tumor at the age of 65 in 1932. She was no longer super-rich, but had ample funds to enjoy her life. I hope she died a happy, fulfilled woman after all the good things she accomplished in her life..

Molly once stated to the Denver Post, "I am a daughter of adventure. This means I never experience a dull moment and must be prepared for any eventuality. I never know when I may go up in an airplane and come down with a crash, or go motoring and climb a pole, or go off for a walk in the twilight and return all mussed up in an ambulance. That's my arc, as the astrologers would say. It's a good one, too, for a person who had rather make a snap-out than a fade-out of life."

I would have loved knowing this adventuresome woman, and Augusta Tabor, too.

Next up: more about the mines that made these people famous (mostly an interesting collection of photos of mine ruins).

Cheers,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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