We’ve all heard of urban legends, right? Although some may not consider Leadville to be all that urban, the concept still applies. An urban legend is a made-up story that is told so many times, most people believe it is true. It is generally an interesting story that could even be the kind that tugs at our heartstrings. We retell it, not because we know it is true, but because we hope it is true. One might even refer to it as fake news.
In Leadville, we have our share of urban legends.
Here is an example. When Horace Tabor lay dying, he told Baby Doe with almost his last breath, “Hold on to the Matchless.” Writer Caroline Bancroft included that fact in a book she wrote, and later confessed that she made it up because it made for a better story. And so it did. Many people tell that same story today, and we’ve even recently heard an argument that despite what Bancroft confessed, Horace did actually say it.
Obviously the story didn’t come from anyone who was standing there at his death bed. Horace died in Denver and the Herald Democrat wasn’t there to record his last words. We can’t look back to the issue of the paper describing his death and find those words.
But because Baby Doe did spend many of her remaining days at the Matchless, where she died in 1935, the story does resonate with some.
Another is the legend of Jane Kirkham, whose tombstone can be found on the old stage road south of Leadville.
The tombstone says “My wife - Jane Kirkham, died March 7, 1870, aged 38 years, 3 months and 7 days.”
Several legends have developed about how Kirkham came to be buried there. The most exciting one is that she was disguised as a highwayman who had been robbing stagecoaches at that location. She was in the act of robbing yet another stagecoach when she was shot by a deputy who was protecting the stagecoach in question. What makes the story even better is that the deputy who shot her turned out to be her husband who, needless to say, was surprised to find he had shot his wife. In any case, as the story goes, he buried her where she fell and at some point later installed the gravestone.
This was before Herald Democrat started publishing, but the Leadville Chronicle was around at the time and there’s no mention of Jane Kirkham in its pages.
Local historians have looked into the story, but there is no proof anywhere that there ever was a Jane Kirkham living in Leadville.
We heard another story some years back about a man who was hanged for being a horse thief and buried in Evergreen Cemetery. We wanted to retell the story and looked in the old newspaper for the story surrounding his hanging to gain more details. Since we had the date of death, it was easy to find his obituary where we learned he was a highly regarded citizen who died of illness.
Now we are not strangers to obituaries that portray the deceased as a paragon of virtue, true or not, but we assume the newspaper would not overlook a hanging. In any case, one of the stories about this man is an urban legend.
Even today we know of stories that are not true but that have been repeated so often that people tend to believe them. This is especially prevalent in Washington D.C., but is also known to happen in Leadville.
When the story concerns Leadville, it’s pretty easy to check back in an old issue of the paper to see where the truth may lie.
If, indeed, one wants the truth.