Growing up in Denver, I knew Leadville as a destination for our family to take out-of-town relatives who came to visit Colorado. I still have fond memories of eating ice cream cones on summer days while walking with my cousin through the streets of the Old West. The rocky mountains of Colorado instilled a deep sense of wildness, strength and independence in my 12-year-old mind in the early 1970s. My cousin Mark, from Illinois, was exactly the same age as me, and if I’d looked him in the eye while we ate our ice cream in the middle of Leadville, I’d have considered us equal in every way. How little did I know how hard-fought my attitude came from a history of so many women before me. And in the West were a number of women whose stories tell us the truth about privilege, hardship and endurance.
Baby Doe Tabor is one of them.
When I was asked to write a small piece about the conservation of Baby Doe Tabor’s wedding dress, I knew it was so embroiled in history and myth that it would be difficult to simply talk about the friability of silk and lace over time without it becoming a metaphor for what the dress represents to so many Coloradans. The dress, like Baby Doe, had a splendid life for a while, was abandoned, and then was left alone to survive. During my childhood Baby Doe became so familiar and ingrained in Colorado culture that I feel comfortable calling her by her nickname even though she was born in 1854.
Up until recently, Baby Doe’s demise in my mind was vaguely equated with the story of The Little Match Girl, and I was surprised to consider that as a child, I must have somehow gotten the wrong idea from the name of the Leadville mine, the Matchless. To thousands of Denver schoolchildren who visited the old Colorado State Museum on 13th Avenue, the display of her wedding dress may have unintentionally perpetuated the story of her wealthy, scandalous life and why she deserved to die penniless. It was quite an epic and sad lesson for a child to learn during the 1960s of a beautiful woman who broke up a marriage to marry a man twice her age for money, but such was the interpretation of her life at that time. Meanwhile, unlike Baby Doe, the beautiful dress was miraculously brought back to life over time through repeated repairs and a major conservation treatment that it sorely needed.
After more than 40 years on display, the silk had deteriorated significantly. In 1981, under the trained hand of a textile conservator from Colorado State University, every seam was snipped open, stitch by stitch. Each section of the dress was traced on paper and carefully wet-cleaned. Then the original silk fabric was encased within an “invisible” crepeline fabric mesh to hold it together as if in a very thin, clear sandwich. All of the sections were then sewn back together along the same needle holes where the original stitching had been. After the conservation treatment and because of Baby Doe’s continued public notoriety, the dress went back on display at the Colorado History Museum at 13th and Broadway. With several makeovers behind it, the dress had been on almost continuous display for nearly 75 years by the time Colorado’s third state history museum—today’s History Colorado Center at 1200 Broadway—had begun construction.
With the demonetization of silver in 1893, the Tabors lost their fortune and, soon after her husband’s death in 1899, Baby Doe at the age of 45 moved into the abandoned caretaker’s cabin next to her dead husband’s defunct Matchless mine in Leadville. The wedding dress was part of a large group of personal items including clothing, hats, books, journals, dinnerware, silver tea sets and even her children’s toys that had been kept in the cabin at Leadville. While the records are unclear, these items may have been stored in a warehouse in Denver, which seems an unlikely scenario considering her destitution. We do know, however, that all of Baby Doe’s possessions were immediately put on public sale soon after her death in 1935 and were sold out of a warehouse at 14th and Arapahoe in Denver. Thankfully, these objects made their way to the Colorado Historical Society (today’s History Colorado) by 1936 through a newly formed Tabor Association.
I like to think that Baby Doe with all her fortitude kept these items of her opulent past because she loved them. Though some of the items were valuable, she never sold them. They represented her past, and herself. She lived over 30 years at 10,000 feet at the turn of the century, chopped wood, hauled water and grew old. She was far from a fallen star. Over time, she’d become a weathered, strong and independent mountain woman of the West—who didn’t need a man or anyone else in order to survive. I realize now that she was not forsaken.
In a photograph taken not long before her death, Elizabeth McCourt Tabor is shown standing in front of her cabin in Leadville. She has a rosary in her hand. She is somewhat toothless but her Baby Doe eyes are shining with light. I believe she did find a resurrected life of a sort and one that is the story of so many people in the West. She died alone in her cabin in a blizzard. They say she froze to death, but I don’t think so. She probably knew it was her time to die, and after she did, the fire in the potbellied stove that she no longer stoked went out, and her body quietly froze.
Baby Doe Tabor died with dignity at 81 years of age in 1935. And in 2010 it was time to reluctantly take down the wedding dress from exhibition as recommended by a conservator before it turned entirely into silk fragments and dust held together by a 40-year-old fabric encasement. The dress is now resting at peace in storage along with many of the other possessions* that she saved and will always serve as a testimony to the women of the West and Baby Doe Tabor.