The Rousing Life of Elfego Baca
By Byron A. Johnson
When you think of New Mexico and the subject of “badmen,” the first name which comes to mind is, of course, Billy the Kid. While a small portion of this paper does include the Kid, its subject is a man who stood on both sides of the law, Elfego Baca. He engineered at least two jailbreaks, single-handedly took on eighty Texas cowboys in a shootout, served as legal counsel for General Huerta during the 1914 Mexican revolution – despite American neutrality – and had a price put on his head by Pancho Villa.
On the positive side, he was a mayor, school superintendent, district attorney and sheriff. He has had only one real biographer, Kyle Crichton, who wrote Law and Order Limited in 1928, but, ironically, Walt Disney produced a short-lived television series on his life. He is a man New Mexico historians would like to know better, but the unfortunate theft of his archive from the University of New Mexico in 1972 makes this all but impossible.
Baca is an intriguing rogue because it is difficult to get two sources to agree on his adventures; even Baca disagreed on versions of his own exploits recorded by himself. In any event, let’s examine some of the more notable events of the rousing life of Elfego Baca.
Elfego was born, with typical flair, on February 27, 1865, at Socorro, New Mexico, during a ball game. His mother, Juanita, was playing La Iglesias, a game similar to softball. When she jumped up to catch a fly ball, in his own words, “here comes Elfego.” Despite this unorthodox method of birth, both mother and child recovered.
At one year of age, Elfego’s parents decided to move to Topeka, Kansas, so his father could take advantage of the money to be made in this freighting center of the 1860s. They started out by wagon from Socorro, but near Estancia, about forty miles southeast of Albuquerque, the family was attacked by a nomadic group of Indians, and baby Elfego was kidnapped. One might expect a captured child to be treated in the usual fashion – killed, raised as a slave, or ransomed. However, we are talking about Elfego Baca. Four days after the attack and kidnapping he was returned to his parents none the worse for wear. Many persons were to learn that it was far more trouble that it was worth to mess with Elfego.
Baca lived in Topeka for seven formative years and grew up speaking better English than Spanish. In 1872 his mother died, and his father sent him back to Socorro to a relative’s ranch to be raised as a caballero, or cowboy. A year later his father returned to New Mexico, settled in Belen, and became the town sheriff. Belen in the late 19th century was a turbulent town thirty-one miles south of Albuquerque populated by Native farmers and frequented by transient cowboys, miners and gamblers.
The elder Baca was apparently considered a good sheriff, but when Elfego was in his teens his father was put on trial in Los Lunas after he shot two cowboys for disorderly conduct. Word of his indignity reached young Elfego, and he and a friend walked from Socorro to Los Lunas to rescue his father from the old adobe jail.
The jail in Los Lunas was a two-story adobe structure with a courtroom and offices on the top floor and cells underneath. Elfego hid in the brush outside of the jail until night had fallen. The feast of St. Theresa was being celebrated in town, and the jailer eventually grew tired of the monotonous duty of guarding his one prisoner and wandered off to join in the eating and drinking.
Elfego then used a window cleaning ladder he found in the rear of the courthouse/jail to break into the second story. He sawed a hole in the floor of the jury room, let his father out, returned the ladder to its place, and stole some venison and chile drying in the back of the jail. Then he and his father retired to a clump of high grass seventy-five feet away to dine and observe the proceedings.
During the next day they watched the antics of the sheriff, jailer and innumerable posses as they formed up and chased the fugitive over half the county, never guessing that he was less then a hundred feet away. That night they left under the cover of darkness, got horses from some friends in Albuquerque, and the elder Baca rode off for a seven-year stay in Isleta, near El Paso. Thus ended the first jailbreak engineered by Elfego.
Another tale of Elfego’s youth was his stint of bar-hopping with Billy the Kid in Albuquerque, an episode missed by many Kid biographers. The details, as related by Elfego years later, seem to match up with what we know of the places and period, so it may be plausible.
In 1881, at the age of sixteen, Elfego met Billy at a round-up at the Ojo de Parida ranch twelve miles north of Socorro. The two of them became friends and decided to go to Albuquerque, then a new railroad town with some forty saloons in the New and Old Town areas. They left their horses at Isleta for safekeeping, and hitched a ride in on a railroad section foreman’s cart. I’ll let Elfego tell the story from here as related by Kyle Crichton:
“Billy and I went to Old Town which was wide open, liquor of all kinds, women of all kinds. Billy carried a little pistol called a Bulldog repeater; when it fired it made a noise perhaps louder than a .45 gun. We went into a saloon called the Martinez saloon where there was gambling, drinking, and every other thing. Billy and I went out. Billy thought the town was more silent than what he expected. He fired a shot up in the air and it made an awful strong noise. Here comes the deputy sheriff, a very brave man by the name of Cornelio Murphy. He searched both of us and was very mad. Billy made most of the talking to him in Spanish. The deputy charged us of having fired that shot but he couldn’t find a pistol. The deputy walked away, so did we.”
“The deputy must have been about one block away when Billy fired two more shots. The deputy came back about as mad as a man could be and searched us again, he called us every name that he could think of. Anyhow we went back to the Martinez saloon. While in the saloon Billy fired once more and the lights went out. Billy and I determined to leave the place and we did. Every time Billy fired a shot he put the pistol under his hat, and it was a stiff, derby hat.”
Several years later Elfego was working as a general hand for Jose Baca of Socorro. There was a lot of violence at a place called Frisco (short for San Francisco) about 120 miles west. The brother-in-law of Baca’s boss, Pedro Saracino, the sheriff of Frisco, came to Socorro to try and recruit some help to tame the town, which was being terrorized by a group of cowboys. He inflamed young Baca and convinced him to become an unofficial deputy by relating one incident. In a Frisco saloon one night, six or seven cowboys brutally attacked a hump-backed Hispano called “El Burro” and laid him on the saloon counter. They apparently didn’t like his appearance, so they sat on his legs, arms and chest and rearranged his spine then and there. A bystander, Epitacio Martinez, tried to intercede on behalf of “El Burro,” and for his trouble was tied up and used for target practice. He was shot four times, non-fatally, and survived the incident.
Baca, with the impetuosity of youth, set out for Frisco as an unofficial deputy sheriff, and shortly after arriving arrested a cowboy for disorderly conduct who belonged to the large Slaughter outfit, numbering about 150 cowboys. In the process of apprehension, which Elfego was not legally executing, the man escaped. Baca and a friend rode to the ranch, arrested the man in the presence of thirty other cowboys, and took him to Sheriff Saracino’s house near Frisco. Saracino, it will be noted, was safely cooling his heels in Socorro.
Shortly after the prisoner was removed to the Saracino house, a party of twelve cowboys, backed by numerous others, rode up and demanded the prisoner’s release. Elfego answered this by counting to three and opening fire, indirectly killing one man who was fatally injured when Elfego shot his horse, which rolled over on the man.
Next morning two cowboys reappeared and offered to take the prisoner to the jail in Frisco. Elfego refused, and they heatedly warned him that there would be 100 cowboys gunning for him. The men left, and Elfego ordered the neighboring townspeople to take refuge in the church. About that time eighty Slaughter hands rode in to the area and dismounted. Baca nonchalantly walked up and removed the guns from two of the mens’ holsters before they realized what was happening, and he ran into a nearby jacal, evicting the occupants.
The events of the fight which followed are clouded, and most sources disagree on precisely what took place. At the beginning of the fight a drover named Jim Herne boldly went to the front door of the jacal and opened it; Elfego responded by neatly shooting him through the heart. For between thirty-three and thirty-six hours the fight proceeded with some 400 shots fired into the jacal. Baca was saved primarily because the floor of the shanty, made of packed swept dirt, was below ground level. Baca baited the cowboys by putting his hat on a santo, a statue of a saint, and waving it back and forth in a window. His hat was riddled but miraculously, the santo was not damaged. The day after the fight started he infuriated the cowboys by cooking dinner on the stove of the jacal.
For their part, the cowpunchers tried just about everything including dynamiting a portion of the jacal. The final score was one man killed and one man shot through the knee, while Elfego was unhurt. When the fight was in its second day a deputy sheriff, a real one, came along and negotiated Baca’s release. The terms allowed Elfego to keep his guns; he and the deputy sheriff rode to Socorro in a buckboard, and six of the cowboys rode in front of them. Elfego was held in Socorro for four months, removed to Albuquerque for trial, and finally exonerated. The legend of Elfego Baca grew, and the 400 bullets he dodged became 4,000, until finally one source placed 3,000 bullets just in the front door!
Somewhere along the way Elfego acquired an education and some training in the law. His popularity rose rapidly after the Frisco incident, and in 1893, at age 28, he was elected Socorro County Clerk, a post he held until 1896. Baca believed that small farmers had enough trouble making a go of it without facing expensive fees to enter documents and obtain licenses, so he announced that all transactions in his office would be free for the months of November and December.
While acting as clerk he was admitted to the practice of law in 1894, and thereafter held a number of elected offices: Mayor of Socorro from 1896-98; School Superintendent of Socorro County in 1900-01; and District Attorney for Socorro and Sierra Counties in 1905-06.
After leaving public office in 1906, Baca was hot on the trail of a Kansas cattle thief named Gillette who fled to Mexico and who had a $5,000 price on his head. In Parral, Elfego made arrangements to buy some mules, which later turned out to be stolen by one Pancho Jaime –whom we know as Pancho Villa. Elfego contrived a plan with Villa to have him kidnap Gillette and bring him to the U. S. side of the border for $1,000. However, before the plan went into operation, Baca learned that the $5,000 reward had been revoked.
During the Mexican revolution in 1914, when Villa had estranged himself from the cause he was ostensibly fighting for, he asked Baca, who was in El Paso, to secretly meet him in Juarez and take some unidentified belongings, probably stolen valuables, to the U. S. for safekeeping. Elfego had difficulty getting through the border guards, and by the time he showed up, Villa was gone.
No one ever accused Villa of being a forgiving soul, and he threatened Baca’s life if he ever set foot in Mexico. In retaliation, Elfego arranged the theft of Villa’s specially made Mauser rifle. This prompted the revolutionary to place a $30,000 price on Elfego’s head – a reward which Baca allegedly tried to collect by setting up a fake capture which never came to culmination.
Perhaps because of Elfego Baca’s familiarity with the border, and his persona non grata status with Villa, he became a legal counsel for the forces of General [Victoriano] Huerta. One of Huerta’s generals, José Inez Salazar, was captured in 1914 by U. S. army forces and held on several charges. Baca became Salazar’s attorney and defended him, but the general was later convicted of perjury and sent from Fort Bliss to Albuquerque to stand another trial. On the evening of November 20, 1914, there was a jailbreak in Albuquerque in which Elfego Baca figured prominently.
Prior to Salazar’s transfer to Albuquerque to stand trial, two members of General Huerta’s staff and a mysterious woman code-named Señora Margarita came to town. Margarita scouted the town from the railroad depot to the jail in Old Town where Salazar was to be confined, and made an accurate map. As a ruse, she began to visit prisoners in jail and bring them presents of food in the guise of a good samaritan.
Shortly after Salazar’s transfer to Old Town, a party of Huerta generals and a colonel disguised as beet pickers arrived in Albuquerque. They had a quiet supper and viewed Señora Margarita’s map. At 7:30 some members of the party took up positions at street corners leading from the railroad depot to the jail. At 9:30 Señora Margarita made a false call to the jail asking for help because her house was being broken into. The jailer departed post haste to the rescue, leaving one Charley Armijo in charge. Armijjo was quickly overpowered, gagged and beaten, and José Salazar was released, taken to a car, and driven to the station. The party boarded an El Paso-bound train at 10: 05 p.m. which departed at 10:20.
During the entire episode Elfego Baca was in the Graham saloon among friends and had an ironclad alibi, although he was tried for complicity in the jailbreak. According to witnesses, when Salazar passed the Graham saloon he yelled something out the car window to the effect of “Adiós y gracias mi amigo Elfego!”
While the revolution was underway Baca maintained an office in El Paso at 211 ½ San Antonio Street, and, as Salazar’s lawyer, and in the direct line to General Huerta, stood to profit if Huerta had acquired much power. Elfego was approached as an agent to secure gambling casino rights in Mexico City, a cannery concession in northern Mexico, and other such projects. Unfortunately, Huerta was arrested during a trip through Texas on the way to the eastern U. S. and died in an internment camp, a victim of his addiction to absinthe.
From 1919 o 1920, Elfego again served the people of Socorro County, this time in the position of sheriff. Instead of having his deputies run around the county placing indicted persons under arrest he evolved a novel, but effective honor system. He simply had the chief clerk issue a letter to whit:
I have a warrant here for your arrest. Please come in by [a specific date] and give yourself up. If you don’t, I’ll know that you intend to resist arrest, and I will feel justified in shooting you on sight when I come after you.
The one time it did not work was when Elfego received a reply:
“Ef yu want me, you God Damn Mexican, cum and git me. I will be under the big cottonwood by the river at noon Wednesday.”
Elfego went to the river as specified, but the alleged criminal had had second thoughts about confronting THE Elfego Baca and turned himself in.
Another story about his tenure as sheriff concerned the time two prisoners collaborated on an escape, but only one made it out. The other was dejected, and Baca sympathized with his captive and took him to a restaurant. Over dinner, Elfego offered to give the man a gun, pocket money and a set of handcuffs if he would bring in his conspirator. The prisoner agreed, and Elfego equipped him and released the man.
For the next few weeks public derision was such that Baca decided to take a vacation in Santa Fe. While there, a Western Union telegram arrived, to the tune of $8.75 in charges, from the deputized prisoner describing in several hundred words his brave capture of the escapee, and ending with “What do I do with him?” Baca’s terse reply, within the Western Union ten-word minimum, was “Kiss him twice and bring him in you damn fool.”
Elfego exhibited a lifelong trait of sticking up for the poor and common working man. A new law against debtors called for sixty-day jail sentences for persons who had outstanding debts of as little as $10.00. Baca found himself with eleven prisoners, most with families, who were sentenced for owing ridiculously small amounts of money. Taking in the situation at a glance, the sheriff opened the doors of the debtors’ cells and told them to go home and pay their bills. The district attorney, hearing of this, called Elfego to chide him for his leniency. Elfego’s reply was that “they ate too much” and were better off at home. The law was soon repealed.
For much of his life, Elfego lived in Albuquerque and became a local legend. As usual, he was on both sides of the law. There was an Albuquerque Judge Heacock who was known for his gambling, and who had a reputation for abusing the bench. After a bad night of losses at the game of monte he would send the constabulary out to round up anyone on a trumped up charge – usually disorderly conduct. The offender would be brought before the judge, his pockets searched, and his money counted. The fine was inevitably one dollar less than the convicted individual possessed.
One night, Elfego and his friend, Jesus Romero, a county commissioner and former sheriff, were sitting in a saloon when Heacock’s lawmen came in and placed Romero under arrest. Romero resisted, and Baca laid out the arresting officer by bringing a huge pocket watch down on the man’s head. Other men soon subdued the aging Baca, and he was hauled before the judge and sentenced to either thirty days or a fine of $17.19, including costs – how convenient, for Elfego had $18.19 in his pocket. The indignant Baca refused to pay up and took the sentence.
An officer was assigned to escort Elfego to the Old Town jail and turn him over to the assistant jailer. What they did not remember in court was that Baca himself was the newly appointed jailer. He dutifully signed into the record book of prisoners as E. Baca, and went about his business. The jailer was paid $.75 a day for food for each prisoner, so Elfego actually made $22.50 from the incident.
Stories about Elfego abound, and it would be impossible to tell all of them here. In later life he ran for district attorney and lost, but accumulated enough votes to throw the election to the Republicans. He started a club and a newspaper, La Tuerca (The Nut), which had subscription rates of:
$2.00 a year to good citizens
$5.00 a year to bootleggers
$5.00 a month to prohibition agents,
and which favored light wines and beers and 110-proof whiskey. In a more serious vein he was a prominent, though unorthodox, attorney and was influential in arranging for the passage of the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District legislation.
Despite his rousing life, the great Elfego died quietly on August 27, 1945, at the age of eighty. As Kyle Crichton summarized, he was a potent force for more than forty years around New Mexico and El Paso.