When New Mexico became the 47th state in 1912, the new state legislature chose Albert Fall as one of its first U. S. Senators. It was a long journey for the preacher’s grandson and son of two school teachers who also listed years as a teacher and businessman in East Texas, mine prospector, Spanish-American War veteran, and an attorney in El Paso attorney with his adventures. But it would all come crumbling down.
The initial Senate term would only last until the end of 1912. But with questions swirling around the legislative election, even with his fellow Republicans dominating both houses of the legislature, the governor refused to sign the election certification. Fall was narrowly re-elected in the Senate to a full term a few months later. He immediately pushed through a bill to seize parts of Mescalero tribal land to convert to national parkland, land that Fall’s adjoining ranch could utilize for grazing.
He served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and also chaired oversight committees on the Departments of Labor and Commerce and on the Pacific and Caribbean territories. After Pancho Villa’s attack on the border community of Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916, Fall unleashed a blistering attack on President Woodrow Wilson. Though Wilson had sent the army on an expedition into Mexico to capture Villa, Fall continued to attack Wilson.
The 1918 Spanish Flu Epidemic that swept the globe would not spare his family. His son and his eldest daughter both succumbed to the pandemic as would nearly 500,000 other Americans. Grief-stricken, he refused to campaign for re-election that year, an election now open to the people and not the legislature. In spite of the many criticisms of Fall, he narrowly won the election on a sympathy vote by a margin of 51% to 47%.
His criticisms of Wilson increased after World War I ended. He had several tense exchanges with Wilson over the Treaty of Versailles and the potential of American entry into the League of Nations. However, the stress of the fight against his critics led Wilson to suffer a massive stroke in October 1919.
After Wilson’s stroke, Fall managed to visit with him briefly in December during his recovery. According to one account, Fall respectfully noted, “I have been praying for you, sir.” Wilson, an often stern and difficult to impress schoolmaster, reportedly replied, “Which way, Senator?”
Fall became a regular at Ohio Sen. Warren Harding’s poker games at his home in Washington, where liquor was regularly served by Harding’s wife, in spite of Prohibition being the law of the land. When Harding won the presidency in a landslide in 1920, Fall was tapped to become the Secretary of the Interior.
As secretary, Fall continued to antagonize tribes in New Mexico by pushing his plans for seizing tribal lands for national parks as well as opening up reservations for mineral exploration by non-tribal groups. He also proposed letting states sell off parts of national park lands. Facing increasing criticism, he resigned from the post in March 1923. In the meantime, his own holdings in New Mexico grew to over one million acres.
When Harding died in August, the floodgates opened on the corruption and scandals. Fall had pushed to have the naval oil reserve at Elk Hills, California, and Teapot Dome, Wyoming, from control of the navy to the Interior Department in 1921. These reserves were held for the navy for national defense purposes. California oilmen Harry Sinclair and Edward Doheny offered Fall $1 million in bribes to turn over these public lands to their companies for oil development. Fall willingly turned over the lands. In the outrage that followed, Congress stripped away the leases, and Sinclair was sentenced to six months in jail for jury tampering. Doheny managed to get acquitted. The Teapot Dome Scandal gripped the nation and threatened to topple Calvin Coolidge and his bid for a full term in 1924 before Democratic divisions turned the election into a Coolidge landslide.
Fall was convicted in 1929 for accepting a bribe, but he continued to appeal. By 1931, with his legal options exhausted, he reported to a prison in New Mexico to begin his one year term. Though there had been other cabinet members broken by scandal, Fall was the first to be sent to prison.
His partners in crime would have their revenge. Declaring that the bribes were a loan, Doheny declared that Fall had defaulted and seized his beloved ranch in 1936 as collateral. His lust for profit had now cost him everything.
Fall returned to El Paso, and confronted with growing health problems, eventually entered a local nursing home. After the death of his wife in 1943, Fall’s decline accelerated. He showed worsening symptoms of dementia and suffered many heart problems. Four days after his eighty-fourth birthday, he died at the El Paso nursing home, largely forgotten by the world.
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.