c 2021 by Jan MacKell Collins
Portions of this article originally appeared in Colorado Central magazine.
The story of H.A.W. and Baby Doe Tabor is an integral part of Colorado history: The demure and cherubic Baby Doe managed to spirit Tabor away from his wife in Leadville, leading to a scandalous affair, a subsequent marriage and riches beyond anyone’s wildest dreams—until the couple lost everything following the Silver Panic of 1893. How does it feel to go from unimaginable wealth to equally unimaginable poverty? In the Tabor family, youngest daughter “Silver Dollar” clearly knew, and was most affected. Had she not succumbed to her inner demons and suffered a tragic death in a Chicago apartment, Silver might be remembered on an entirely different level.
Born in 1889 in Denver, Silver was already named Rose Mary Echo when politician Williams Jenning Bryan visited the Tabor home. After commenting that the child’s voice had “the ring of a silver dollar,” the Tabors added “Silver Dollar” to the baby’s name. The unusual news escaped Denver’s Herald Democrat, which simply reported in December, “Baby Tabor’s nose is out of joint. A wee sister put in an appearance on Tuesday, and the ex-Senator is the proudest man in Denver.” The paper was referring to the Tabor’s oldest child, Lily, who was born in 1884 and would forever remain in the shadow of her infamous sister. But while newspapers shunned the Tabors, the family home on Sherman Street was both lively and loving. One of Tabor’s servants, Jennie Roadstrom, would remember that it “was not hard to work for” the lady of the house, who “was not extravagant in her dress” and loved Jennie’s tomato soup.
The year after Silver Dollar was born, the government enacted the Sherman Silver Purchase Act which made the already-wealthy Tabors even wealthier. For three glorious years, the couple spent their money on diamond-studded diaper pins and gold-leaf baby albums for their daughters. They hosted fancy parties and took equally fancy vacations. But that all came to an end in 1893, when Congress repealed the Silver Purchase Act, making silver virtually worthless. Tabor got the memo and but outright ignored it and literally went broke overnight. Lily, who remembered well her beautiful wardrobe and expensive toys, would come to resent her parents’ foolish decisions and eventually extricated herself from the family. Silver Dollar, however, would spend the rest of her life trying to recapture the proverbial golden ring.
The now-impoverished Tabors eventually relocated to a “modest home” on Tenth Street, where the wistful Silver wrote to Santa Claus and “her fairies,” apologizing for misbehaving while asking for presents which never arrived. By the time H.A.W. died in 1899, the family had moved several more times and even lived in Denver’s grand Tabor Opera House for a time. They say the only thing left in Tabor’s pocket when he died was a single silver dollar, bearing an engraving of his whimsical daughter. Afterwards, Baby Doe and her daughters struggled even more, balancing their time in Denver with trying to work Tabor’s Matchless Mine in Leadville. But Baby Doe couldn’t afford to hire anyone to help her, and the grueling work at the mine proved fruitless.
Lily finally successfully appealed to her uncle, Peter McCourt, to send her back east. Silver, meanwhile, continued moving around Denver with Baby Doe. The girl endeavored to become a writer, penning a song in 1908. The tune, “Our President Roosevelt’s Colorado Hunt” was written in honor of Theodore Roosevelt but was dedicated to Silver’s father. In 1910, Silver personally presented the song to the former president himself. She also had written a novel the year before, Star of Blood, which failed to do well. On the side, Silver also appealed to the courts in a vain effort to regain some of her father’s property which had gone into receivership, including her father’s Matchless Mine in Leadville. She even appealed to railroad tycoon David Moffat to return the money her father had paid to him against a loan, but to no avail.
Although Silver’s pleas for money were for naught, she did continue trying earn a living by writing poems for the Denver Republican. In 1911, she and Baby Doe managed to visit Lily, who had married and now lived in Chicago. Silver reported back to local newspapers that she found the city “big and ugly,” and that she had no intention of going back. For the next three years the girl continued bouncing between Denver and Leadville with Baby Doe. Then, in 1914, Silver turned to a new vocation: acting. That fall she moved to Colorado Springs and secured a part in The Greater Barrier, a silent film produced by the Pikes Peak Film Company and starring veteran actress Josephine West.
Much of The Greater Barrier was shot at Colorado College and Garden of the Gods. While the uncredited Silver only appeared in about three scenes, her beauty might have been enough to propel her career further. But it didn’t. Instead, Silver found herself back with her mother in Denver during 1915 and 1916. Baby Doe dotingly called her “Honeymaid,” but soon realized that Silver Dollar, as the girl loved calling herself, had grown into a bit of a wild child. As mother and daughter struggled to find some sort of common ground, Silver finally took off—for Chicago, the city she had once criticized as artificial and full of hypocrites. But Chicago had theaters where the starlet might yet find fame and fortune, so off she went.
Without her Colorado friends about her, Silver’s life soon began spiraling downward. Shedding her birth name altogether, she said she was actress Ruth LaVode in the 1920 census, and that her mother had been born in France (Baby Doe was actually born in Wisconsin). Rumors floated back to Baby Doe that her daughter was supplementing her so-called acting career by occasionally working as a prostitute, also that her lifestyle now included a lot of drinking and drugging. By the time Silver tried out for a “motion picture play” at a Chicago theater in 1922, she was calling herself Ruth Norman. When that didn’t pan out, she tried marriage to one W.J. Ryan in 1923. It too, failed.
Sadly, the bevy of other men Silver dated were less than respectable. At some point she wrote on the back of a photograph of one of her suitors, saloon man Jack Reid, “In case I am killed arrest this man for he will be directly or indirectly responsible for my death.” Of course Baby Doe denied knowing any of this, although she did receive no less than five letters from her daughter during 1925—the last year of Silver Dollar’s life. The final letter read, “My Dear Mama, Please write to me as I worry so about you. I have dreamed about you and Papa so often lately. Please let me know how you are. Your loving child, Silver.” The return address was that of Rose Tabor, giving no clue that Silver was masquerading under different names and had moved five times during the year, just one step ahead of the landlord.
At her last apartment, 3802 Ellis Avenue, Silver became known as an eccentric alcoholic who sometimes answered her door in the nude. Was anybody surprised when, on a Saturday evening in September a tipsy Silver accidentally spilled a pot of boiling water on herself and subsequently died? Perhaps not, and few actually even cared—including Lily. As for Baby Doe, she refused to believe Silver Dollar was dead at all, but insisted her daughter was living in a convent. In the end, kindly neighbors paid for Silver’s funeral expenses and she was buried at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in the Chicago village of Alsip. Not until 1957 did historians Caroline Bancroft, Tom Peavey and Bert Baker locate Silver’s grave and donate a proper headstone. It is about all that is left of her, for even the low-end apartments houses where she lived during her time in Chicago are gone.