The back pages of Colorado history are filled with hardy souls who conquered the rugged territory, who defied the odds with gusto. One of Colorado's toughest early settlers was Augusta Pierce Tabor, a frail New England society girl whose transformation from debutante to pioneer is the most impressive makeover the state has ever seen. After marrying Horace Tabor in 1855 and settling in the Kansas flatlands, Augusta headed west to camp in the wilderness that would become Denver. In the process she broke bread with native "savages," bivouacked by herself for weeks while Horace sought gold, and supported herself and her husband by boarding early settlers, feeding them bacon and soda biscuits.
Despite suggestions that no woman belonged in this region, Augusta stuck it out, eventually heading into the Rockies in 1859 with Horace to carve out a fortune in the burgeoning mining trade. Back then, life was so rough that it took Tabor three weeks to make a wagon journey from what is now Golden to the location of what would become Idaho Springs. Augusta and Horace were so successful at mining that they went on to become two of the richest people in Colorado. Today, however, Augusta Tabor may be better known for something else: When her husband left her for young Leadville divorcée Elizabeth "Baby" Doe, Augusta became the most wronged woman in Colorado history.
Three Denverites are doing their part to change that sordid memory. In 1995, Tom King and his sons Chris and Dave founded the Augusta Pierce Tabor Remembrance Society, a loose-knit group whose principal goal is to improve Augusta's image. Each year, the Kings, who own and operate the Queen Anne Bed and Breakfast Inn, host a meeting to honor Augusta and raise funds to maintain her grave at Denver's Riverside Cemetery.
Augusta Pierce Tabor Remembrance Society fifth annual meeting, 7 p.m. Sunday, November 14, Queen Anne Bed and Breakfast Inn, 2147 Tremont Place, $5, 303-296-6666
The Kings and their home have a significant connection to Mrs. Tabor. After her 1895 death in Pasadena, California (Tabor relocated there on doctor's orders, but the move didn't work), her body lay in state in the Queen Anne Inn's living room; at the time, Augusta's brother lived there. Her post-mortem appearance may explain why figures from the past occasionally make appearances in the home. "The kids that lived here before us have seen apparitions and faces and flashing lights," Chris King reveals. "We had a guest once on the third floor who heard a child's voice calling out for her dad and then heard the dad come and get her. [The guest] didn't come out of her room until breakfast the next morning." A few years ago, the Kings invited local psychics to check for Augusta's spectral presence. They didn't discover her ghost, King says, "but they said they felt there were some friendly, watchful spirits living in this house."
The Augusta Pierce Tabor Remembrance Society's initial meeting coincided with the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution's gift of a new headstone for Tabor. It replaced a modest original stone that listed the wrong birth date. "People would come out and ask, 'Is that all she's got?'" says Cliff Dougal, a manager at Riverside. "I mean, for who she was, it did seem like she'd have something bigger than that. But I don't think she wanted anything fancy -- that's the kind of person she was."
Dougal says Augusta's gravesite is popular with visitors who tour Riverside to see the wealth of famous Colorado settlers' graves. "I'd say she's one of the number-one features here," he says. Sometimes visitors quietly slip to her grave and leave flowers. "Every once in a while," he adds, "I get mail for Augusta. It's a hoot. I got one the other day from someone thanking her for attending a meeting at the Mile High Club on September 21st, 1999." Do people pay their respects out of sympathy for her scorned-woman status? "She should feel jilted all right, for Horace doing what he did," he says, "but people come here to remember her for the great person she was."
Melva Touchette, a Leadville actress, agrees. "She was a frail woman, but she had that pioneer-woman mindset," Touchette says, "and I admire women like her tremendously. You've heard of someone stretching a dollar? Augusta could stretch a quarter, and she was the only one of the three who ended up with money." Horace died penniless after losing his money in the Silver Crash. Doe also died broke, frozen on the floor of her cabin outside the Matchless Mine, which became her futile life's work after Horace's death.
Touchette's appreciation for Augusta is impressive, since she's spent the past fourteen years playing Baby Doe at Leadville's Healy House and other historic places. It's a role she compares to one from Shakespeare, and it may have tainted her feelings for Augusta: "She was a very generous woman, but the truth of the matter is, Augusta was highly vindictive. Oh, my goodness! She was interviewed frequently after her marriage ended, and she never missed an opportunity to put down Tabor and Baby Doe. At one point she said, 'Society has no room for that kind of a woman.'"
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Touchette says bad blood still flows. She cites Leadville's Mining Hall of Fame, which honors Augusta but not Doe -- despite the fact that Doe developed several mines in the area while, Touchette says, "Augusta never set foot in a mine. I think she should be there. But that's a battle I'm not going to take on, because the people that make those decisions are in Denver, and the majority of people there favor [Augusta]. That's why I don't perform in Denver all that much."
She'll be portraying Baby Doe at this year's meeting of the Augusta Pierce Tabor Remembrance Society, and she's aware that the performance could be a source of conflict for the folks in attendance. "I feel like I'm walking into the lion's den. They might throw apples at me or something." Worse, her arrival at Tabor's second-to-last resting place might be the catalyst for conflict between two otherworldly former enemies: the spirits of Doe and Tabor. "Yes, I'm wondering about that, too," Touchette giggles.
Adds King: "There is that grand possibility."