Albert B. Fall’s fate
Controversy surrounded the life of New Mexico’s Albert B. Fall. In spite of the prominent part he played in local politics, his name will forever remain under a cloud because of his role in the infamous Teapot Dome oil scandal of the 1920s. Forced to leave the humid air of his native Kentucky because of his ill health, a youthful Fall sought the bracing climate of the West. He taught school in the Indian Territory, worked as a cowhand on a Texas cattle drive and engaged in several mining ventures in Mexico. In 1885 he began prospecting in the Kingston mining district of southwestern New Mexico. There he befriended Edward L. Doheny, who would be a major figure in the later scandal. With his family, Fall settled in Las Cruces in 1887 where he was quickly admitted to the bar. A career in law soon led him into politics and he became a power in the Democratic Party. Fluency in Spanish, gained during his mining days in Mexico, understandably gave him an edge with New Mexico voters.
Historian Will Keleher described the Fall of that era as “young and handsome and fearless as a fighter, for during those days in New Mexico the game of politics was played for keeps.” Fall had many bitter foes and his life was threatened on numerous occasions. Cattleman Oliver Lee of the Tularosa Basin was his staunch friend and provided protection. When in danger, Fall had only to send a quick message and Lee would ride all night at the head of an army of cowboys. Another of his close friends was renowned cowboy novelist Eugene Manlove Rhodes. In most of his 14 books, Rhodes used characters from real life, not even bothering to change their names. One of those who appeared on the pages of his western novels was “Judge Fall.” Later, after Fall was in disgrace, steadfast Rhodes stuck by him, remaining a defender and partisan, when all others had deserted him. Sometime about 1900, Fall changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican. Looking ahead, he saw the Republicans gaining in influence, and he wanted to be on the winning side. With achievement of statehood in 1912, Fall became one of New Mexico’s first two senators. The other was Santa Fe political boss Thomas B. Catron.
Nine years later, his friend President Warren G. Harding made Fall the Secretary of Interior. That was the highest post in the federal government thus far attained by a New Mexican. Unfortunately, it led the secretary to personal disaster. Fall was charged with leasing government oil lands at Teapot Dome, Wyo., and Elk Hills, Calif., to two of his cronies, Harry Sinclair and Doheny. In the storm that followed, Fall was obligated to resign. Although maintaining his innocence, the secretary was convicted and sentenced to prison, becoming the first cabinet member in history to be found guilty of a crime while in office. At age 70, an ailing and broken man, Fall was enrolled as a federal prisoner in the state pen at Santa Fe. There he spent a year, shunned and forgotten by the men who had once courted his favor. One exception was Don Liberto Baca, who drove to the prison and asked to see the former secretary. Years before, Fall had engineered a plot to deny Baca a political job that had been promised him. Admitted to the infirmary, Baca found that Fall was the only patient. The old man peeped from the covers and suddenly recognized his visitor.
“Don Liberato. You of all people!” he exclaimed. “After what I did to you, and now you are the only one who has come to see me!” And he broke down in tears. Embarrassed, Baca patted him gently on the shoulder and told him the past was forgotten. That was not actually true, of course. For even today, in the history books Albert B. Fall stands linked with political corruption.