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Borderlands: El Paso Mayor: Tom Lea Jr. 26 (2007-2008)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

El Paso Mayor: Tom Lea Jr.

Article first published in Vol. 26 (2007-2008)

By Nora Orozco

During the summer of 2007, El Paso celebrated the centennial anniversary of the birth of artist and author Tom Lea. But El Pasoans in the early twentieth century knew another Tom Lea: the lawyer, the mayor, the reformer. And the father of the artist.

The eldest of three children, Thomas Calloway Lea Jr. was born on October 29, 1877, in Independence, Missouri, to Amanda Rose and Thomas Calloway Lea. He earned his law degree in 1898 from the Kansas City Law School in Missouri. In his 1995 biography Tom Lea: An Oral History, Tom Lea III tells how his father landed in El Paso. In 1901, he came to the Southwest to visit cousins who lived on a ranch in Carrizozo, N.M.

""Image caption: Tom Lea served El Paso as mayor from 1915 to 1917.  Photo courtesy of  El Paso County Historical Society

Passing through Alamogordo on his way home in a stagecoach, Lea discovered he had left his wallet at one of the rest stops. He rented a horse to retrace his route but failed to find his wallet. He then hitched a ride on a freight train on its way to El Paso where with his last silver dollar he bought several meal tickets at a restaurant simply called “Eats.” Offering to wash dishes when his tickets ran out, Lea found how kind and generous El Pasoans could be. Restaurant owner Oscar Uhling refused his help but staked him until Lea found a job – as a bill collector.

Lea first saw his wife-to-be on Kansas Street. Zola Utt was a high school freshman at Central School, and Lea was told that the best way to meet her was to go to church. He chased away other potential suitors while courting Utt, and the two became engaged. In between his arrival and his marriage, Lea traveled in Mexico, seeking gold with friends and hoping to strike it rich. Three years of adventuring later – but no gold – Lea married Utt in June 1906.

Appointed Police Court Judge in 1907, Lea served four years in this role and the El Paso Herald reported that he established a reputation as fair and compassionate with the downtrodden, but harsh and relentless with the expert criminal. In an April 1911 article, the Herald noted: “When Lea first took office, he set a rule that a man who assaulted a woman, no matter what her character or color, he should be fined not less than $25, and to that rule he stuck to the last.”

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Lea became a trial lawyer in partnership with Robert Ewing Thomason who would later serve as mayor, U.S. congressman and federal judge. In his autobiography, Thomason said of Lea, “He ... was the most colorful and successful trial lawyer in the Southwest.” Of Lea’s courtroom power, Thomason had this to say in a eulogy printed in the El Paso Herald:  “Tears were his chief weapon and he could bring them forth from judge, jury, and himself in behalf of the innocent horse-thief as well as the ‘dear little lady’ who had been forced to dispose of her ‘brute of a husband.’ ”

Tom Lea is remembered as a charismatic political reformer, and his oratorical style and success in the courtroom helped him to become an effective leader in the cause. Nationally, the Progressive Movement (1901-1917) was an effort to stamp out political corruption, promote democracy and close the gap between the classes. Reform usually began at the city level, and a major focus was cleaning up the corruption of political machines.

In El Paso’s case, it was a group called the “Ring,” a group of professional men and politicians who had controlled city government since 1899. Revenue from local brothels often funded schools, road improvements and the acquisition of private utilities. The “Ring” controlled political opposition often by brute force, and buying votes was common, especially paying Juarenses to vote in city elections, according to Thomason.

Reformers had tried since 1905 to effect a change in local politics with little success. Mayor Sweeney, a prominent “Ring” leader in 1907, “ordered gambling to cease but took no positive steps to stop it. He closed the front doors of the saloons on Sunday, but the back doors opened for business as usual. It was a help, of course, to get the ungodly off the sidewalks when the righteous were on their way to church,” wrote C. L. Sonnichsen in his book Pass of the North. This farce of an attempt at cleaning up the town failed to satisfy the reformers.

During the 1913 mayoral election, reformers worked hard to reveal the corruption under “Ring” city officials. The Herald sent undercover reporters to look for evidence of corruption and found alcohol laws were not being enforced, and on Utah Street (today’s Mesa Street) alone, 367 prostitutes were found living and operating with no shortage of demand, according to Sonnichsen. Although reformers lost another election, it was a different story two years later.

Sonnichsen wrote that the incumbent Charles Kelly, so sure of victory, boasted he could be mayor of El Paso for the rest of his natural life if he wanted to. Kelly’s arrogance caused him to misjudge his campaign efforts until the last month before elections when he realized that his opponent, the young lawyer Tom Lea, had gained significant ground with the people. The “Ring” rented every meeting hall in the city the night before the election to make it impossible for Lea to hold a rally. He surprised them by holding his rally at the local skating rink, speaking to an enthusiastic crowd for an hour. He not only promised the same city improvements that Kelly did, but equalization of taxes and an efficient administration as well.

On February 16, 1915, Tom Lea became the youngest mayor ever elected to that date, carrying four out of seven precincts, with a vote of 4,218 to 3,149. The “Ring” had been defeated and never recovered political power. One of Lea’s first orders of business was to discontinue the collection of “fines” from prostitutes. The Herald reported, “The mayor announced that he did not want to conduct his administration ‘with the blood money of these unfortunate women.’ ” Each woman had been paying $10 a month, a practice that had produced thousands of dollars for the city, which used the money to pay police and fire fighters. Although he lost a battle to shut down the red-light district, Lea had police routinely conduct raids, and the women underwent health exams on a regular basis. During his administration, the city council also passed an ordinance forbidding the public sale of narcotics and marijuana.

True to his promise, Lea began keeping a tight rein on the expenses claimed by city employees. He issued an order to suspend the practice of operating city automobiles for non-related business, especially on the weekends when taking long Sunday drives were a custom.  Lea’s adherence to the law admitted no exception. In El Paso Chronicles, Leon Metz noted that on September 14, 1915, when city police sympathized with streetcar strikers and declined to arrest the rioters who were burning street cars and littering the town, Lea threatened to fire the officers.

During Lea’s administration, events precipitated by the Mexican Revolution came to a head when President Woodrow Wilson gave Pancho Villa’s enemy Venustiano Carranza his support, and Villa withdrew any kind of protection Americans had while traveling in Mexico. On January 11, 1916, a train carrying 20 mining engineers invited by the Mexican government to reopen the Cusihuiriachic Mines outside of Chihuahua City was stopped by Villista troops in Santa Ysabel, Chihuahua. The men were taken off the train and ordered to disrobe; 18 of them were shot to death. Their bodies arrived in El Paso two days later.

Police received word that an El Paso mob was planning to lynch any Villistas they could find. Lea had 50 pro-Villistas arrested and ordered them to leave town, an act that El Paso historian David Dorado Romo equates with racism in his recent book Ringside Seat to a Revolution. Romo neglects to point out that Lea could have let them meet their fate with the mob, but instead afforded them protection. Meanwhile, the U. S. Congress wanted the president to intervene militarily.

With feelings running high on both sides of the border, a fight began two days later when two soldiers knocked two Mexicans from a sidewalk at Broadway and San Antonio Streets. The brawl accelerated into a near-riot in a crowd that grew to almost 1,000. As more fights broke out, General John J. Pershing called out companies of the 16th Infantry. Before order was restored, at least 25 Mexicans were beaten, with two taken to the hospital. Nineteen men were arrested, including 11 Anglos and eight Mexicans.

By late 1915, a typhus epidemic was wreaking havoc in Mexico City, Puebla and other cities. Known to infect war-torn areas where poverty and unsanitary practices abound, typhus, spread by body lice, resulted in 20,000 to 30,000 cases in Mexico City alone, according to the New York Times, as the revolution raged throughout the country. In January 1916, the Mexican Superior Board of Health acknowledged 2,001 deaths during December 1915, according to Claudia Agostoni of the Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

In an attempt to stave off the disease, health officials in El Paso wanted to set up a quarantine station for immigrants coming from Mexico. The disease, which has an incubation period of 10 to 14 days before high fever sets in, had been diagnosed in three men who had recently arrived from Aguascalientes, Mexico. Lea requested immediate quarantine, but disinfecting stations were set up instead. Immigrants crossing the El Paso border were bathed in kerosene and vinegar, inspected for lice and had their head and body hair shaved if lice were found.

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Romo criticizes Lea and says his “atavistic fear of being contaminated by Mexicans  –  both bacteriologically and socially – seemed to have been an underlying motif of many of his administration’s policies.” Romo further attacks Lea for wearing silk underwear because he was told by Dr. W. C. Kluttz, city health officer, that typhus lice did not stick to silk. Kluttz also would die of typhus, contracted during his official duties.

Typhus had been and remained a scourge for many countries of the world, not just Mexico, and leaders everywhere were concerned with its spread and prevention. Not until it was discovered that DDT worked in prevention and that a vaccine came into widespread use in 1943 did the fear of typhus lessen.

Romo might be justified in his accusation that Lea was a xenophobe, but it is also the case that the assessment of the condition of the Mexican people because of the revolution was undeniably accurate. Living conditions had become dire. Thousands of hungry and jobless who witnessed their country ravaged by war sought refuge in El Paso. Agostoni contends that “the military and health authorities, the press and the public asked if the bullets or the microbes were causing the largest number of casualties.” In order to combat the typhus epidemic, Mexican health authorities also performed delousing procedures on their own citizens. Ironically, Howard Ricketts, the scientist who discovered the tiny bacteria causing typhus died in Mexico of typhus.

Tragedy did strike the Lea administration on March 5, 1916, when a group of prisoners who were ordered to take a gasoline bath was burned to death in a fire ignited by a cigarette. Twenty-seven men were killed, including 19 Mexicans. The mayor’s son Tom remembered this disaster and its aftermath. In Tom Lea: An Oral History, he said: “It really devastated my father and he thought about it an awful lot. Somehow or other he took the blame for it, you know, as he would. I remember that vividly.”

A year later what would become known as the “Bath Riots” occurred in connection with the required fumigations of immigrants. When a 17-year-old maid named Carmelita Torres refused to submit to the gasoline bath, others on the international trolley joined her. Romo says that within an hour, 200 women had joined in the protest, effectively stopping traffic into El Paso. Neither American nor Mexican troops could subjugate the women. However, the disinfections, which had begun about 1910, would continue for decades.

Besides these events, Mayor Tom Lea also became a personal enemy of Pancho Villa. Lea refused to tolerate the man who had caused so many Mexican refugees to live in tents at Fort Bliss with nothing to call their own except the clothes on their backs and government rations. Although Villa was often in El Paso, Lea told the El Paso Herald, “If that bandit comes here again, the police have orders to throw him in jail.” When Lea had Villa’s wife Luz Corral Villa and his brother Hipólito arrested for smuggling arms and ammunition in El Paso, Villa offered 1,000 pesos in gold for the mayor, dead or alive.

Furthermore, the mayor received obscene notes in Spanish threatening to kidnap and harm his two sons, nine-year-old Tom and five-year-old Joe. In his book A Picture Gallery, Tom Lea III wrote, “For quite a while in 1916 a special policeman was detailed to guard our house at night. My father was always armed. Joe and I were taken to and from Lamar School daily by a special policeman wearing a long-barreled .44 plain on his hip.”

When Tom Lea’s term as mayor was up in 1917, he stepped aside as he had resolved to do. He had served as a volunteer in the Spanish-American War and again in World War I, but by the time he had completed officer’s training school, that war was over. Lea’s wife Zola died in 1936, and three years later, he married Mrs. Rosario Partida Archer. After his military service, he resumed his law practice and was a member of the Texas Bar for 40 years. He died from a heart attack on August 2, 1945. The Texas Supreme Court honored him in a November 1945 resolution, and El Paso named a city park below Rim Road for him.

Tom Lea was not perfect. What he and others did in their own age is still being debated by historians. But he took his job as mayor seriously, determined to help make El Paso a better city in which to live, not an opportunity to enrich his own pockets, as so many other politicians had and would.

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Tags: biography

Mayor Tom Lea Sources

Bath Riots Sources

The dark history of "gasoline baths" at the border.  VOX documentary on Youtube

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