I’ll be at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Denver June 26-28. This is my second time attending the conference, and I’m looking forward to seeing familiar faces and new. I knew I had to go this year because Denver is a key setting in my upcoming novel The Silver Baron’s Wife.
I first learned about Colorado’s Baby Doe Tabor when I was seven years old, on a family vacation. I still have the postcards we bought then. In one, she’s regal in an ermine coat. In another she’s dowdy in an overcoat and cap, in front of a shack at the Matchless Mine in Leadville, where she lived the last 35 years of her life.
It sometimes surprises me that this woman’s life of extremes—of wealth and poverty, love and loneliness, materialism and spirituality—struck me so strongly when I was just a little girl.
But it did. Baby Doe Tabor’s story has obsessed me for years.
How does a woman go from the photo on the left to the photo on the right?
I read earlier books about her and saw the opera The Ballad of Baby Doe by Douglas Moore. But until Judy Nolte Temple wrote her amazing nonfiction book The Madwoman in the Cabin, the things that were published about Elizabeth Doe Tabor always felt incomplete.
Those earlier works focused on the scandal of the love triangle between Lizzie Doe, Horace Tabor, and Augusta Tabor. Even Moore’s opera ended before what I saw as a critical period in Lizzie’s life: those years at the Matchless Mine when she wrote down thousands of her dreams on scraps of paper and recorded visitations of spirits in the margins of her Bible and on her wall calendar.
Was she a madwoman or a mystic?
She was definitely ahead of her time in so many ways. She worked in the silver mines in an era when women when shunned there. Even as a Catholic, she divorced and remarried. And I’m guessing she was one of only a few pioneer women who paid close attention to her dreams in the years just after Freud’s seminal work.
In 1932, three years before Lizzie’s death, Edward G. Robinson starred in a movie called Silver Dollar, playing her beloved Horace Tabor. Lizzie was portrayed as a blond floozie by Bebe Daniels. The real Lizzie was invited to the premiere in Denver but refused to go.
Maybe because she didn’t want to see her story reduced to the story of her husband’s.
My hope is that The Silver Baron’s Wife gives Lizzie a voice… and reminds us all how fickle fortune is, how the line between the real and the unreal is so finely drawn.