Legendary “El Gato” Elfego Baca outlived the Wild West

August 27, 1945

On this day Elfego Baca, the last of the Old West’s legendary lawman died in Socorro, New Mexico.

Born there in 1865, it seems Baca (left) always wanted to be a lawman even though his father was reputed to be a pistolaro.  He’d killed to men in a gunfight, perhaps prompting the family’s relocation to Topeka Kansas.

Elfego’s mother died when he was 15, and the elder Baca moved back to New Mexico, just ahead of a silver strike that turned the sleepy community into a rowdy boom town. The 1887 discovery in the Magdalena Mountains brought more than 3,000 miners to crowd the town’s saloons and bordellos, rendering law and order non-existent.

Unclear whether Baca was appointed or self-appointed sheriff  but quickly gained a reputation as a tough lawman.  So when cowboys from the Slaughter Ranch began drinking, harassing the locals and shooting up the nearby town of Frisco, the deputy there decided the incident had escalated above his pay grade and came looking for Baca.

Socorro’s Silver Bar Mine

Baca accompanied the deputy back to Frisco and sought warrants for the offenders from the local Justice of the Peace.  The official, not a man of courage refused, fearing reprisals.   Baca arrested one of the cowboys anyway.

When 150 of the ranch hand’s closest friends reportedly gathered in the street demanding the man’s release, Baca shot into the crowd, killing one of the cowboys.  That ended the trouble for a day but the following morning the cowboys were back, intent on seeing their friend released and/or killing Baca.

Gunfire erupted and Baca escaped to a nearby house, barricading himself inside with his prisoner handcuffed to his wrist.  

According to contemporary accounts, the gun battle raged for more than 30 hours.  Tiring of the standoff, Baca’s pursuers tried to set the roof on fire and  attempted to set a dynamite charge at one corner of the building.

Baca emerged unscathed but not before killing four cowboys and wounding eight more.  He was 19 years old at the time.

Charged with murder, he was acquitted when the entire door to the house containing more than 400 bullet holes,was entered into evidence. 

While serving as their sheriff, residents claimed he wrote letters to wrongdoers instructing them to turn themselves in by a date certain or, he said, “I will know you intend to resist arrest and I will shoot you.”  Most unlucky lawbreakers were eager to turn themselves in.

He signed on as a U.S. Marshal in 1890, serving two years before giving up law enforcement in favor of lawyering.  He was admitted to the New Mexico Bar in 1894 and began practicing in Socorro.

Baca unsuccessfully ran for Congress when New Mexico became a state in 1912.  He lost but continued to be an important political asset because of his ability to deliver Hispanic voters. 

As a private detective, he was closely allied with New Mexico senator Bronson Cutting (left).  Cutting, an Anglo-America born in New York,  published a Spanish language newspaper, El Nuevo Mexicano.   He was criticized by many for his attempts to bring Hispanics into the electoral mainstream.  Baca worked as a political investigator and wrote a weekly column in Spanish for Cutting’s paper.

One of Baca’s biographers said of him, ”Elfego was. . .controversial.  He drank too much; talked too much … and had a weakness for wild women.  He was often arrogant and, of course, he showed no compunction about killing people.” 

He apparently had no compunction about defending murderers, either.  On his 75th birthday, he told a reporter from the Albuquerque Tribune that he had defended 30 men charged with murder and lost only a single case.

Too colorful for Hollywood to resist, Walt Disney Studios produced a 1958 television miniseries entitled “The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca” which later became a movie, “Elfego Baca: Six Gun Law,”starring Robert Loggia (right).  The Disney theme song included the line “And the legend was that / Like el gato, “the cat” / Nine lives had Elfego Baca.”

Elfego “el gato” Baca is buried where the legend began, in his hometown of Socorro.  He was 80.

Elfego Baca Heritage Park, in the heart of the historic district of Socorro, is home to monumnets that tell the story of the community and one of its most colorful residents. 

Heritage Park’s History Wheel 

In addition, visitor to Socorro will find the country’s oldest Catholic parrish, San Miguel de Socorro, built on the ruins of the Nuestra Señora de Socorro mission,  built around 1626 and destroyed in the Puelbo Revolt in 1680.  A portion of the original church wall is still visible near the alter.   In addition, the 1884 Garcia Opera House, located at California Street and Abeyta Avenue in downtown Socorro is architecturally significant with unusual curved walls and a “rake” stage. 

San Miguel (above) is on the National Register of Historic Places and the Garcia Opera House are on the list of National Historic Sites.  For more information go to socorronm.org, email Tourism@SocorroNM.gov or call  (575) 835-8927. 

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.