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Albert B. Fall's Career Ended in Disgrace
By Mary Sianez, Susan McKibbon and Kim Dawson
Born a Southerner, he worked in a cotton mill at 11, then washed bottles and cleaned up in a drugstore. In his teens he helped farm his aunt's land and taught school. He came west working as a cowboy and chuck wagon cook and then worked the mines of Northern Mexico, becoming fluent in Spanish. Albert Bacon Fall was to become a lawyer, politician and a member of President Harding's Cabinet. As impressive as his ascent was in politics, he will always be remembered for his ruin by the Teapot Dome Scandal .
Albert B. Fall was born Nov. 26, 1861, in Frankfort, Ky. Historian Gordon R. Owen says his education was limited and came mostly from his grandparents and his father, who was a teacher. Like many Easterners, Fall hoped that his chronic respiratory illness would improve in the dry, warm weather of the West. Once his health improved and he had made some money in Mexico, Fall moved to Clarkesville, Texas.
Image caption: Albert B. Fall had a stormy political career. Photo from Herman Weisner Papers, MS249, Archives and Special Collections, NMSU Library, Las Cruces, NM.
In Clarkesville, Fall worked various jobs and studied law. It was here that Fall met and married his wife, Emma G. Morgan. Money was scarce for the couple, so Fall and his brother-in-law went back to Mexico to work the mines. From there, they followed the mining circuit throughout Mexico and into the mines of Southwestern New Mexico. Fall remained away from Emma and their two infant children for months until word reached him that his family had contracted tuberculosis. Fall decided to move his family to Las Cruces in late 1887.
Once in Las Cruces, Fall opened a bookstore and went into partnership with a man named Lowry as real estate, stock and mine brokers. He also raised tobacco for a short period. Soon Fall decided to pursue a career in law and politics. By 1889, Fall had been admitted to the Territorial Bar.
Fall admitted that he took any case he could get. Often his pay came in the form of produce, meat or not at all. Fall found it a small price to pay to gain a reputation. With his facility in Spanish, he built quite a rapport with the Hispanic community.
Less than a year after moving to Las Cruces, local businessmen persuaded Fall to accept the nomination as the Democratic candidate for the Territorial House of Representatives. His opponent was the seasoned Republican politician and lawyer, Colonel Albert J. Fountain, and thus commenced a long running feud between the "two Alberts," as Owen calls them. Fall lost by a mere fifty votes, the only election that he ever lost.
The 1892 legislative campaigns were tumultuous. Name-calling and mud-slinging were commonplace. It was during this election that Fall's close relationship with Tularosa rancher Oliver Lee came in handy. The Republican Party brought in the militia to monitor the polls. Fall said that they were trying to intimidate the "less affluent" and called on Lee to assist him. Lee and his men rode all night to reach Las Cruces before the polls opened. They stationed themselves across from the polls with their rifles in full sight. When the militia arrived, Fall convinced them to leave by threatening them with Lee and his riflemen. Fall and the Democrats were victorious. Grover Cleveland, also a Democrat, won the presidency and named Democrats to all of New Mexico's appointive positions.
In March 1893, Fall was appointed Associate Judge of New Mexico's Third Judicial District in spite of the great opposition waged by A. J. Fountain and other influential Republicans. Primary on Fall's agenda was the appointment of Lee and his cowhands Billy McNew and Jim Gilliland, as Deputy United States Marshals. This same trio would later be accused of murdering Colonel Fountain and his young son Henry.
Fall was unable to run in the next election for the House because of his position as judge so he backed Pinito Piño in the race against Fountain's eldest son who had been groomed for the office. The first count made Fountain the winner, but Democrats demanded a recount. District Judge Fall tallied the votes, with Piño emerging the victor. Allegations of stolen ballot boxes and registration abuses followed. This election led to an investigation into Fall and the role he played in possibly securing the election for the Democrats. Fall formally submitted his resignation in February 1895 and returned to his law practice.
Fall defended small ranchers, often accused of stealing cattle, while Fountain assisted large ranchers and Mesilla residents. In 1896, Fountain presented evidence to the grand jury in Lincoln that he had collected against various cattle rustlers including Fall's friend and body guard, Oliver Lee, and his ranch hands. The Fountains disappeared on their way back from Lincoln on Jan. 31, 1896, and were never found.
Fall served in the Spanish-American War for seven months between 1898 and 1899. He returned to New Mexico in the spring of 1899 in time to win acquittals for Lee and Gilliland for the murder of Fountain's son. During this time Fall opened a new law firm -- Clark, Fall and Hawkins in El Paso, Texas.
In 1906, the Falls built an elegant mansion high on a hill at 1725 Arizona, with views of the Rio Grande in the distance. Fall had pillars from his childhood home delivered to be used in the construction of his new home where his four children grew up. Nora Henn writes that a granddaughter said her grandmother loved living and entertaining in this house. "They knew everybody and gave fabulous parties," she said of the Falls.
Despite his success to this point, Fall's political aspirations continued growing. Only his party alliance was holding him back. The Republican Party seemed destined to dominate territorial and national politics, and he had ambitions to go to Washington as New Mexico senator when the territory finally gained statehood. He served New Mexico one last time as a Democratic legislator in 1903. His transition to the Republican Party was complete in 1904.
In 1912, New Mexico became the country's 47th state, and Fall won election to the Senate, just as he had planned. He remained in the Senate from 1912 to March 4, 1921, when he resigned in order to accept appointments to national committees. Then President Warren Harding named Fall to the position of Secretary of the Interior in March 1921. It was during his term in this position that Fall met his political demise by becoming involved in the Teapot Dome Scandal.
The Teapot Dome Scandal involved two naval oil reserves located at Elk Hills, Calif., and Teapot Dome, Wyo., so named because of the teapot-shaped rock above the Wyoming oil beds. These reserves were to be used only in a national emergency. Under Fall's prompting, Edwin Denby, Secretary of the Navy, requested that President Harding order control of these reserves be placed under Fall. Fall proceeded to secretly lease the reserves to oil magnates Henry F. Sinclair and his old friend Edward L. Doheny.
Fall resigned from his cabinet post in 1923, the first cabinet member ever to be convicted of a felony. He was convicted on federal bribery charges, having received about $400,000 for manipulating the leases. Fall maintained that the money did not come from bribes but from loans. He was sentenced to one year in prison and was assessed a $100,000 fine. C. L. Sonnichsen wrote that the ailing Fall was taken to prison in an ambulance and that his cell was the prison hospital. Fall and his family steadfastly maintained that he was innocent of wrongdoing, and some historians think he was a scapegoat for Sinclair and the Harding administration.
Fall was forced to sell many of his assets, including his beloved ranch at Three Rivers near Tularosa, N. M., and move back to his El Paso home. The Falls had lost two of their children to the 1918 flu epidemic, and Emma died in 1943. On December 1, 1944, Albert Bacon Fall died in his sleep at Hotel Dieu Hospital . He is buried at Evergreen Cemetery in El Paso.
Albert B. Fall spent most of his adult life building an impressive yet questionable political career. He was seemingly unstoppable and went to great lengths to acquire power, but he made one bad decision too many. His participation in the Teapot Dome Scandal may have destroyed his political career, but his political reputation lives on in Southern New Mexico and West Texas.