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Elfego Baca Lived More Than Nine Lives
By David Santana, Melissa Ann Villela, Rosalynn Torres and Michael Telles
A legend is an unverifiable story passed from generation to generation. Many are exaggerated to make the truth sound interesting or a person seem larger than life. A great example of one such legendary figure is that of the famous marshal-lawyer Elfego Baca. After staving off a reported 4,000 bullets over 30 hours, Baca emerged unharmed and a champion of the Mexican population of a small New Mexico town.
Legends surrounding Baca began in 1865 in Socorro, N. M., south of Albuquerque. As the story goes, his pregnant mother Juanita was playing a softball game known as Las Iglesias. When she went up for a fly ball, out came Elfego. A genuine tall tale recounts the kidnapping of the one-year-old Baca by Navajo Indians who boiled him in oil, slammed him into a rock, and then returned the infant to his family unharmed, with only a reddish glow to his skin.
When Baca was about 15, he claimed to have befriended the infamous Billy the Kid. Looking for excitement in Albuquerque, they supposedly witnessed a murder. Later, Billy fired his pistol several times, making noise and irritating a deputy sheriff. Although Baca believed his companion was Billy the Kid, history has placed Billy elsewhere. While Baca and New Mexicans perpetuated the legend, his real life played out like a Western novel.
In 1867, when silver was discovered in the Magdalena Mountains, more than 3,000 miners journeyed to the desolate, unpopulated territory of New Mexico, along with rustlers, gunfighters and other outlaws. Socorro soon became the gathering place for trading, gambling and drinking.
At 19, carrying a mail order badge and a stolen gun, Baca arrived in Frisco, near Reserve, N.M. The Spanish settlement had three scattered plazas, which were the stomping grounds for many cowboys who would wreak havoc on the citizenry.
Baca had heard from Lower Frisco’s Deputy Sheriff that some cowboys drinking at Milligan’s Saloon had “altered” a man nicknamed “Burro” in front of an aghast crowd. When a brave man stood up for “Burro,” the drunken cowboys tied him to a post and used him for target practice. The sheriff would not make any arrest because he feared for his life, but Baca did not scare so easily.
The now deputized Baca struck the opening blow of a “war” by arresting one Charlie McCarthy after he shot off Baca’s hat in defiance of his orders to end his aggressive behavior. A gunfight ensued between Baca and a group of cowboys demanding McCarthy’s release. One man died when his horse fell on top of him.
After a brief trial where McCarthy was charged and fined for drunk and disorderly conduct, Baca made himself scarce. He eased through a crowd of cowboys concealing his identity by lowering his hat over his eyes. Soon members of the angry mob sought out Baca and discovered he was hiding in a jacal, or shack.
The jacal consisted of flimsy walls and dirt floor that was 12 to 18 inches below ground. When a cowboy named William Hearne tried to kick the door down, Baca fired two shots through the door, killing Hearne and beginning what became known variously as the Battle of Frisco, the Mexican War or the Baca Cowboy War.
Several versions of the story say that some 80 cowboys surrounded the jacal and began firing. Baca withstood the next 36 hours of gunfire by lying prone on the sunken dirt floor and returning fire from crevices between the wooden slabs of the shack. Night came and many wondered if Baca was still alive. By morning the answer came when smoke arose from the house and the smell of breakfast filled the air.
Frank Rose, a Socorro County deputy sheriff, agreed to take control of the matter. Rose offered to spare Baca’s life if he agreed to surrender and stand trial for the killing of Hearne. Baca responded, “I am your prisoner, but I will not surrender my guns.” According to the story, thousands of shots had shredded the jacal, but Baca emerged unscathed.
Baca kept his promise. In May 1885 he was charged with the death of Hearne and jailed until his trial. In August 1885, a jury found him not guilty.
The story of Baca and his amazing aim spread quickly. He became Bernalillo County Sheriff and served until 1888.
Baca used his reputation to intimidate fugitives. Baca sent out warrants reading “Dear Sir: I have here a warrant for your arrest. Please come by the fifteenth and give yourself up. If you don’t, I will know that you intend to resist arrest and I will feel justified in coming after you and shooting you on sight. Very truly Yours, Elfego Baca, Sheriff.” No one dared to test Baca’s threat, and one by one, fugitives and escapees filed into his jail before their time limit expired.
In 1888, Baca became a U.S. Marshal. He served for two years and began reading law. In December 1894, he was admitted to the bar and joined a Socorro law firm. He practiced law in El Paso on San Antonio Street from 1902-1904.
Baca often defended the underdog, usually Mexican, against the more powerful whites. Writer Howard Bryan explains one such incident. Baca met two ranchers who had posted a $2,000 bond for an elderly sheepherder in Roswell. The man had gotten in trouble with the law and was due to appear in court, but he could not be found. The ranchers were complaining about the loss of their money, so Baca offered some help.
He looked around town until he found an elderly Mexican who did not speak English. Baca brought the man in front of the judge and paid him $25 to declare himself guilty and not say another word. The judge fined him $50 to which he replied, “Gracias.”
The judge said, “I’m going to make you Mexicans obey the law in this country, and the next time I find you in my court, I am going to send you to the penitentiary. Do you understand?”
Baca translated saying, “The judge says that any time you are not treated properly by the people of Roswell, you have to let him know.” The man again said, “Gracias.”
The judge did not speak Spanish and became irritated. He said he did not like the man’s looks and that he was most likely an escaped fugitive. Baca’s translation to the man was, “The judge says that he is very much impressed with your appearance. He also likes your courtroom manner. He sends his compliments to your mother.” The Mexican replied once more, “Gracias.”
The ranchers angrily told Baca that the man in court was not the one they had posted the bond for. Baca’s response was, “What the hell do you care, the case is settled isn’t it?”
During the course of his controversial career, Baca forged a relationship with lawyer A. B. Fall who was defending cattle rustlers. In 1896, it was rumored that Baca had something to do with the disappearance of prosecutor Albert Fountain and his son, a case that has never been solved. Although the bodies were never found and Baca was never charged, many suspected Fall of masterminding the crime.
In 1914, Baca was linked to yet another scandal involving his new client, Mexican revolutionary General José Ines Salazar. He had been arrested for violating U.S. law prohibiting revolutionaries from escaping onto U.S. soil in order to fight another day. General Hugh Scott, commanding U.S. troops along the Mexican border, refused to allow Baca into Fort Bliss. Baca appealed to his friend A. B. Fall who telegraphed Scott to let Baca counsel his client.
Salazar was indicted for perjury, denied bond and relocated to the Bernalillo County Jail in Albuquerque. Four days before the trial began, Baca secured the release of Salazar by means of a jailbreak. Baca and six others were indicted for the Salazar jailbreak.
Two months after the indictments were read, Baca removed one of the players he perceived would betray the group. On January 31, 1915, Baca gunned down Celestino Otero on an El Paso street. He claimed that Otero fired first, but the prosecution claimed that Baca had purchased the gun from an El Paso pawnshop and placed it in Otero’s hand once he fell dead.
Testimony by Otero’s widow connecting Baca and her husband to the jailbreak was rejected when Baca’s attorneys revealed that she had been a prostitute before and after her marriage to Otero. In addition, Baca asked his lawyer to drag the case out for at least two weeks, enabling him to stare down a juror a day. His brother, Francisco, also hinted revenge towards those who brought harm to his brother. The all-white jury returned a “not guilty” verdict, just as Hispanic juries had consistently done. Baca’s intimidation of the jury and witnesses had triumphed.
In 1912, Baca was instrumental in securing the senate seat for his friend A.B. Fall during the first legislative elections in New Mexico. In 1921, President Warren Harding named Fall as Secretary of Interior. Fall, in turn, granted Baca the position of Indian and Land Inspector. It was a brief stint since Fall was forced to resign in March of 1923, amid the Teapot Dome scandal.
Baca held a succession of public offices, including county clerk, mayor and school superintendent of Socorro, and district attorney for Socorro and Sierra counties. In his book “The Shooters,” Leon Metz writes that “most reports say he was the best peace officer Socorro ever had.”
But Metz also writes, “Elfego was, and is, controversial. He drank too much; talked too much ... he had a weakness for wild women; he was often arrogant and, of course, he showed no compulsion about killing people.” On his 75th birthday, Baca told the Albuquerque Tribune that he had defended 30 people charged with murder, and only one went to the penitentiary.
Elfego Baca lived a remarkable life, legends aside. Although he died quietly in his bed in 1945 at 80, he had more brushes with death than most men of his time. In 1958, Walt Disney released a movie titled “The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca.”
Today, the annual Hilton Open golf tournament in Socorro features the Elfego Baca Shoot, a chance for daredevil golfers to compete in a one-hole game from Socorro Peak, 7,280 feet high. The hole is a 50-foot square of dirt three miles away on the New Mexico Tech campus, 2,550 feet down. Baca would have loved the odds.
Reserve residents still embrace the legend of Elfego Baca, especially his great-nephew who wants to establish a memorial to honor Baca, the young defiant deputy who shot his way into history.