Texas has long been a crossroads for some of the more colorful figures of American History. Whether they were forces for good or ill, their various deeds demanded the attention of the world. Among these are those who seem to have everything going for them, only to self-destruct. Albert Fall, a one-time Texas businessman and lawyer and later a Secretary of the Interior and New Mexico politician, would go from the life of a preacher’s hard-working grandson and frontier lawyer to becoming forever tied to one of the worst political scandals of the early twentieth century.
Albert Bacon Fall was born in Frankfort, Kentucky, in November 1861. His father was a school teacher, with his mother teaching on occasion, and his grandfather was a minister. His father also served as a Confederate officer during the Civil War.
The family moved often after the war, with his father taking teaching positions across Kentucky and Tennessee. His mother would sometimes work as a music teacher. His own education was sporadic, supplemented by efforts at home, and he picked up a series of odd jobs along the way. In 1872, he began work in a cotton factory, but the fibers in the air caused him to develop serious breathing problems.
After he completed his schooling in Kentucky, he headed to Clarksville in Northeast Texas in search of new opportunity and a better climate for his health. Being an enterprising sort, he took a series of jobs, from school teacher to grocer to insurance salesman.
He married Emma Morgan, a Clarksville native, in 1883. Not long afterward, and with the assistance of a portion of the wealth of his wife’s family, Fall headed to Mexico to scout out sites for mining operations. Mining gold and silver had long been a profitable part of the Mexican economy. However, Fall returned within a few months with nothing. He tried again within a couple of years and eventually settled in the southern portion of the New Mexico Territory, impressed enough by the possibilities to move his parents, his wife, and his children.
He quickly jumped into politics and was elected to the territorial legislature in 1888. By 1889, Fall had earned his law license and set up a successful firm in Las Cruces. Within a few years, his firm had become so successful that he was able to set up an office across the state line in nearby El Paso. His political fortunes grew quickly as he ascended to the territorial council (the territorial version of the senate) in 1892 and became a district judge in 1893.
The territory was growing quickly, but it was also feeling the aftershocks from the bloody Lincoln County War from earlier in the 1880s. Fierce rivalries still existed, resulting in shootouts and cold-blooded murders. In 1896, Albert Jennings Fountain, a former Texas Lieutenant Governor and one-time attorney to outlaw Billy the Kid, suddenly disappeared. Two neighboring landowners were arrested for Fountain’s murder, and Fall became their attorney. Fountain had defeated Fall for re-election to the territorial legislature, and the two had become bitter rivals. Fall mounted a vigorous defense, ultimately acquitting the accused. The disappearance and presumed murder remain unsolved.
Pat Garrett, the Lincoln County sheriff who shot Billy the Kid and who had later become a Texas Ranger before returning to New Mexico, was murdered on his ranch in 1908. Ranch hand and business partner Jesse Brazel was arrested for the murder, and according to some witnesses at the time, confessed to the shooting. Fall represented Brazel in the sensational trial that followed in early 1909. The only witness to Garrett’s death did not show up in court, and Fall managed to get Brazel acquitted. To this day, controversy swirls around Garrett’s death.
In the meantime, Fall’s political fortunes rose steadily. He served briefly on the territorial supreme court, and in 1897, he briefly served as the territory’s attorney general and served again on the territorial council. In 1907, he again served as attorney general. With statehood approaching, he attempted to position himself as a key political figure in the new state. In 1910, he served as an alternate to the state constitutional convention, with statehood coming for New Mexico in 1912. As state legislatures chose senators at this time, and with Republicans solidly in control of both houses of the New Mexico legislature, they chose Fall as one of the state’s first two United States Senators.
In what had been an understated life, Fall had pushed himself to the top and become associated with some of the most famous figures of the fading frontier. Within a few years, however, he would throw it all away. The circumstances of his election and the scandals he would create in Washington would destroy his once-promising career and nearly topple a presidency.
Ken Bridges is a Texas native, writer and history professor. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.