As frequent readers of Ethics Alarms know, I fervently believe that history is important, and that we all have a duty to remember and honor the remarkable Americans who have gone before us, their exploits, triumphs, struggles and achievements, both for our sakes—for we can learn much from them—and theirs. I am constantly discouraged by the inspirational stories and fascinating historical figures who have nearly been forgotten. The schools don’t teach our children about them, and popular culture ignores them. This weakens the flavor and the power of our shared culture: it is wrong, that’s all.
Today, as I realized we were in the midst of National Hispanic Heritage Month ( September 15-October 15), I want to do my part to help keep alive the name and the story of a Mexican-American who may have faded from memory because the events of his life seem more fictional than real. Indeed, for most of my life, until a couple of years ago, I thought Elfago Baca was a creation of Walt Disney’s creative staff, who wrote a ten episode mini-series about him called “The Nine Lives of Elfago Baca” for the “Disneyland” show (“Now…from Frontierland!”) in 1958. I loved that series, but it never occurred to me that the series’ tales of a gunslinging, lawyer-sheriff in Old New Mexico could possibly have any connection to reality.
But they did. The real Elfago was, if anything, even more improbable than his fictionalized counterpart, portrayed by a very young and athletic Robert Loggia, who is best known as the toy magnate who plays “Chopsticks” on the giant keyboard with Tom Hanks in “Big.”
Elfago Baca was born in Socorro, New Mexico in 1865. Elfego’s father was a gunfighter, and he wanted to be one too, though on the side of the law, so he would be less likely to go to jail like his father did, for winning gunfights. The New Mexico territory was soon in the middle of a silver rush, bringing many outsiders into the region, a lot of them pretty wild. Baca acquired a sheriff’s badge through a mail-order house, and also bought two six-guns, which he taught himself to use with precision.
A cowboy named Charley McCarty got drunk in the town where Baca was working as store clerk, and did all the things you remember from old Western movies: whooping it up, shooting in the air, breaking windows, harassing townspeople, and bullying Mexicans by making them “dance” as he shot at their boots. Elfago Baca, 19 years old, deputized himself by pinning on his fake badge and by the authority invested in himself, by himself, arrested McCarty at gunpoint. The citizens of the town approved of his plan to take the rowdy to nearby Socorro to be tried for disturbing the peace, but that course was short-circuited when several of McCarty’s friends—they all worked for the richest rancher in the region—arrived and demanded that Baca let the drunken jerk go.
Baca, in the manner that characterized his reaction to challenges his entire life, refused and said if the cowboys did not leave by the time he counted to three, he would start shooting….and then he started counting, fast. He reached three and opened fire, wounding one cowboy and killing another when one of his shots struck the ranch foreman’s horse, causing it to fall over and crush its rider. Then the group retreated…but they weren’t done with Elfago. And they had a lot of friends.
A local justice of the peace took charge of Baca’s prisoner, and McCarty was fined $50 for disturbing the peace. When Baca, flush with his first law enforcement success, prepared to leave for Socorro the next day he was confronted by a legion of eighty armed and vengeance-minded cowboys under the command of the rich rancher, the ominously named Tom Slaughter. What happened next became New Mexico’s most famous gunfight, and also the origin of the legend that Elfago Baca had “nine lives like a cat.” Here is Glenn Clayborn’s colorful account, from his post in Cracked, titled “6 Real-Life Gunslingers Who Put Billy the Kid to Shame”:
“Cornering Baca in a tiny adobe shack, the veritable army of cowboys laid siege to the building overnight, firing somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 rounds through the shack’s flimsy walls. They even tried to burn the place down and almost blasted it from the face of the Earth with a stick of dynamite, collapsing most of the roof on top of Baca. Essentially, it was the scene from “Die Hard 2” when the bad guys trap Bruce Willis in a plane, riddle the fuselage with bullets, and toss in some grenades for good measure. But Baca never took a single hit, and during the 33-hour ordeal actually managed to kill four of the cowboys and wound 10 others.”
The photo above is the Elfago Baca memorial, on the site of the shootout.
The beaten and thoroughly impressed cowboys agreed to a truce if Baca would turn himself in to face murder charges, which he did. He then defended himself in the ensuing trial, perhaps planting the seeds of his future legal career, and came up with a stratagem worthy of Clarence Darrow. He entered as evidence of self-defense the wooden door of the shack where he huddled during the siege. There were over 400 bullet holes in it. He was acquitted immediately.
He also was instantly feared and respected from that day on. As a lawman, Baca seldom had to deliver warrants and usually could get suspects to surrender by sending them a form letter that read:
“I have a warrant here for your arrest. Please … give yourself up. If you don’t, I’ll know you intend to resist arrest, and I will feel justified in shooting you on sight when I come after you. Very truly yours, Elfego Baca, sheriff.”
Baca officially became the sheriff of Socorro County, and thus no longer needed his mail order badge. In 1888, he became a U.S. Marshal, and also began studying law.He was admitted to the bar in 1894 and joined a Socorro law firm. Thanks to his legal skills and his still current notoriety, Elfago Baca assumed many public offices over his long career, including county clerk, school superintendent and mayor of Socorro, as well as district attorney for Socorro and Sierra counties. (Also bouncer…and he ran a casino. too.) He ran for governor and Congress when New Mexico became a state, but was deemed a bit too colorful for those high positions: by that time he had already been in another gun fight, killed his adversary, and again been acquitted of murder.
One of Baca’s biographers writes that while “most reports say he was the best peace officer Socorro ever had,” Baca“drank too much; talked too much … he had a weakness for wild women; he was often arrogant and, of course, he showed no compunction about killing people.” He was involved in several controversies and scandals. One of his close associates was lawyer and later Senator Albert Fall, a key figure (he went to jail) in the Teapot Dome Scandal. Nor was Elfago a particularly ethical lawyer as he worked to save Mexican-Americans from jail or worse, passionately believing, correctly, that they often treated unfairly by the frontier justice system. The story is told that when he was practicing law in Albuquerque, Baca received a telegram from a former client in El Paso, Texas. “Need you at once,” the urgent message said, “Have just been charged with murder.” According to lore, Baca wired back, “Leaving at once with three eyewitnesses.” On his 75th birthday, Baca told the Albuquerque Tribune that he had defended 30 people, mostly Mexicans, charged with murder, and only one was convicted. It could be true. Some of them might have been innocent, too.
Elfago Baca was no saint or Ethics Hero, but he had at least as dramatic and colorful career as icons of the Old West like Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickock, was about as, uh, ethically complex, and demonstrates how Hispanic Americans contributed to the civilizing of the West, at the risk of becoming corrupted, or dead, in the attempt. Like all of the American Western heroes, he was a tantalizing mixture of good and bad, cockiness and compassion, principles, courage and ruthlessness. I wouldn’t call him a role model, but damn! What a life!
I think he earned the right to be remembered, especially on National Hispanic Heritage Month.
And here’s a song about him: