By Massad Ayoob
A heavily-armed lynch mob has you surrounded and under fire. You’re armed with two revolvers and whatever ammunition you had on your person when trouble started.
Cover and concealment can make up for a defender’s lack of firepower, but the day may come when you need more ammo than you thought. Remember “citizen’s arrest” can have unintended consequences.
The little village of Reserve, N.M., population 200 or so, was called Frisco in the latter 19th century. It sits a little over 60 miles west of Socorro. On December 1, 1884, it was the scene of a gun battle so epic in scope, three quarters of a century later, it would capture the imagination of Walt Disney. Like many of you, I was one of the millions of little boys who watched raptly when the Disney TV show ran its series romanticizing the life of Davy Crockett. (Yes, as a matter of fact, I did whine until my parents bought me a coonskin cap.) Realizing he was onto something, Walt Disney decided to do a couple more mini-series — this time based on real heroes of the “Wild West” cowboy epoch.
One focused on Texas Ranger and sheriff John Horton Slaughter. As I recall, it took some typical Hollywood liberties with actual history. The theme song for each episode ran, “Texas John Slaughter made ’em do what they ought ’ter ’cause if they didn’t, they died.”
The other series was The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca, and it had its own catchy theme song. My generation remembers the refrain, “… and the legend was, like El Gato the cat, nine lives had Elfego Baca.” Most memorable was the opening episode, in which he held out in a little sod shack against a big gang of gringo cowboys who riddled it with 4,000 bullets without hitting him or a plaster statue of a saint, which stood inside, as if to watch over him. He, however, racks up a significant body count of dead or wounded cowboys. At one point in the episode, Robert Loggia (playing Baca) looks at the unmarked statue and whispers in awe, “… a miracle.” He’s charged with multiple murders, acquitted and promptly becomes sheriff. Even as a kid I was rolling my eyes over this one.
I grew up, and got into history and stuff … and whaddaya know? Disney pretty much had it right.
Prelude To A Gunfight
Armed citizens in America have heard a lot in the last three years about “self-appointed wannabe cops.” It’s wrong to throw this appellation at a duly-elected captain of a neighborhood watch, but 130-some years ago, it pretty well fit Elfego Baca.
When Elfego Baca found himself in Frisco at age 19, he realized he was swimming with sharks. There was an outlaw element there which would have been called “ruffians” in the past and today would be characterized as, well, “scumbags.” Shortly before Baca’s own involvement, local bullies had gone over the top at an establishment called Milligan’s Saloon, castrating a young Mexican man in front of horrified onlookers. When one of those onlookers tried to defend the victim, according to one account, “the drunken cowboys tied him to a post and used him for target practice.” This part of the backstory, needless to say, didn’t make it to Disney’s show.
The clique involved seems to have been comprised mostly of Texans, and eventually, one of them picked on the wrong Mexican. A fella named Charles McCarthy decided to shoot up a Frisco saloon while young Baca was present, and after five bullets whistled past his general location, Elfego decided it was time to take matters in hand; according to one account, a round from McCarthy’s gun had shot Baca’s hat off. He disarmed McCarthy and arrested him — under dubious authority, it was believed then and now, but we’ll discuss this a little bit later.
The situation snowballed. McCarthy’s compadres attempted to reclaim McCarthy, Baca refused and shots were fired. (In the Disney version, it is Baca who opens fire, with warning shots.) In the ensuing melee, a horse fell upon one of the stockmen, crushing him to death. Some accounts have the horse shying from the gunfire, while at least one historian believes Baca shot the horse, which then fell on its rider.
In their 2003 article “Elfego Baca Lived More Than Nine Lives,” writers David Santana, Melissa Ann Villela, Rosalynn Torres and Michael Telles pick up the story: “After a brief trial where McCarthy was charged and fined for drunk and disorderly conduct, Baca made himself scarce. He eased through a crowd of cowboys, concealing his identity by lowering his hat over his eyes. Soon members of the angry mob sought out Baca and discovered he was hiding in a jacal, or shack.”
The stage had been set. Western history and folklore alike were about to be born.
The jacal was constructed of wooden poles and sod, with a wooden door. It would keep out the elements. It would not keep out bullets. The shooting began when one of the cowboy clique, rifle-wielding William Hearne, attempted to kick down the door and make entry on Baca. Baca fired two revolver bullets through the door and Hearne fell back, mortally wounded. Carrying their dying friend, the cowboys retreated to available cover and began shooting at the jacal. The siege was on. What was probably the highest volume gunfight in the history of the Old West had begun.
A majority of historical accounts agree the mob howling for the blood of Elfego Baca numbered 80 men or more. They were “area aiming” at the building itself, hoping to hit the hidden man inside. This man occasionally, sparingly, shot back.
As for the guns of the Baca shootout, which some historians called “The Battle of Frisco,” historical accounts are not as specific as we would like. The cowboys no doubt employed revolvers. Rifles also seem to have played a huge part: Historians refer to “Winchesters” emptied again and again at the jacal by the cowboy contingent.
It’s believed Elfego Baca was armed with two revolvers. One historian refers to his two Colts, and another to the 250-gr. lead bullets he fired through the door to kill William Hearne, which would place the caliber as .45 Colt. While the Disney version begins with Baca wearing twin Colt Single Action Army revolvers with 4.75″ barrels in matching holsters on a Buscadero belt, we know such gear was not likely to be found on the New Mexico frontier in 1884.
According to most accounts, Baca started out with his own revolver and the one he had taken from Charles McCarthy when he took him into custody. Indeed, his refusal to return the gun in court after McCarthy had been convicted of “drunk and disorderly conduct” and assessed a small fine was apparently one of the things to add fuel to the anger of McCarthy’s friends.
It’s unlikely Elfego Baca found ammunition compatible with his guns in the little shack he commandeered; the only cartridges he would have likely had would have been those on his person when he entered. I’ve found no historian who even implied Baca saw a siege coming and filled his pockets with additional ammunition. Given most wise handgunners of the Old West carried their six-shooters with only five rounds and the hammer down on an empty chamber, Baca might have had as few as 10 cartridges when the stand-off began, and only eight after shooting Hearne through the door of the jacal.
Some Westerners did carry six rounds in their SA revolvers, either with the firing pin of the hammer at rest between two cartridge rims, or just trusting to luck, since the half-cock notch was a weak thing if the gun was dropped with a round under the hammer. Some would load the sixth round only if they saw trouble coming, which would certainly “fit the profile” of Elfego Baca’s situation. So, we can say, perhaps 12 rounds.
Some Westerners did wear “cartridge belts” routinely in those days. If we give the benefit of the doubt to Walt Disney’s researchers — and it looks as if they did indeed do their homework — we can look at Disney’s recreation and see the Baca character’s Buscadero belt has 20 to 24 cartridge loops along the back. This, with two fully-loaded sixguns, would still have left Elfego Baca with a maximum of 36 handgun cartridges to hold off 80 antagonists, many if not most armed with rifles, and able to send some of their company “back behind the lines” for more ammunition.
On the cowboy side, the disparity of firepower was awesome. The lowest estimate of bullets unleashed at Elfego Baca during the siege in Frisco is 400, and this may have been a typographical error with a dropped zero.
The majority of historical accounts agree some 4,000 bullets were fired in hopes of hitting Elfego Baca. In his subsequent trial, the door of the jacal was brought into the courtroom as evidence, and it alone had somewhere between 367 and 400 bullet strikes visible.
What did those assorted bullets do? Well, historians agree no bullet ever hit Elfego Baca. Baca, on the other hand, is claimed generally to have killed four of his antagonists during the shootout, including Hearne at the outset, and to have wounded 13. One source claims he killed only one, and the four previously-cited historians note “he was charged with the death of Hearne,” and not for shooting anyone else.
Not being a statistics major, I’ll let all y’all do the math on this, but one thing is indisputably clear. In the end, against overwhelming odds, Elfego Baca decisively won the gunfight.
Back to the Shootout
Early on, at least one friend of Elfego Baca rode out to Socorro to summon duly-constituted law enforcement, but 60 miles takes time on horseback. The guys with the stars on their shirts responded as fast as transportation of the day allowed … which wasn’t very fast.
The shooting lasted throughout the first day. In his book The Shooters, historian Leon Metz wrote, “The cowboys tossed torches on the roof, but the dirt prevented a fire from starting. They hurled dynamite, and it went off with a shattering roar, collapsing part of the roof.” Night fell, and the gunfire tapered off. Some historians say the mob ran out of ammunition, or at least ran low, and sent some of its members to fetch more cartridges. Others believe the mob was collectively convinced Baca must be dead, but they wanted to wait until dawn to approach and make sure.
The sun rose again. Smoke was seen coming from the shack. Smells of cooking food wafted toward the surrounding contingent of the lynch mob. They realized Elfego Baca wasn’t just up and running — he was making himself some breakfast with food and cooking utensils he had found inside the jacal. I have to say — when I saw this as a kid in the late 1950’s I called BS. It turns out historians agree 100 percent it actually happened. Talk about “the last great act of defiance”…
On this day — somewhere between 30 and 36 hours after the shooting had begun, 33 hours by the majority of accounts — officially constituted law enforcement arrived at last in the form of Deputy Sheriff Frank Rose. The ring of cowboys was convinced to put up their guns, and Elfego Baca offered to surrender and stand trial … but only if he was allowed to keep his guns.
Incredibly to us today, it was agreed upon. Apparently still armed (and presumably still with some live ammo left) Elfego Baca was transported to Socorro, where he was disarmed, jailed and charged with murder. He remained in jail until August of 1885, when he was found not guilty.
Elfego Baca was, indeed, later elected Sheriff of Socorro County, largely as a result of this incident. He had become a hero, not only in the Mexican community, but also among those who believed in standing up for law and order. He later become an attorney, and would claim at the end of his life he had defended 30 clients on homicide charges, and won acquittals for all but one.
Baca would win various other elected offices. He also wasn’t done with shooting men to death. During the FDR administration, when WPA researchers were doing oral histories of Americans, he said of one chase of two shooting suspects, “We rode after them and I shot one of them about 300 yards away. The other got away — too many cottonwood trees in the way.” He also told the researchers to ask the then-current sheriff of Socorro County “to show you the records. You might see the place on the way down where they buried a cowboy I shot. It’s a little way off the main road though.”
Researchers Santana, Vellela, Torres and Telles report, “On January 31, 1915, Baca gunned down Celestino Otero on an El Paso street. He claimed Otero fired first, but the prosecution claimed Baca had purchased the gun from an El Paso pawnshop and placed it in Otero’s hand once he fell dead.” However, they add, an “all-white jury” tried Baca for the killing, and found him not guilty. Historian Metz claimed the shooting was indeed justified, beginning when Otero shot Baca in the groin, and Baca responded by shooting Otero twice in the heart.
Elfego Baca died peacefully in 1945 at the age of 80. In 1993, famed New Mexican Bill Richardson said of him, “The story of Elfego Baca demonstrates a man’s will to preserve justice in a land and time of rampant corruption and bullying. Baca’s bravery instilled hope to the native New Mexican people who upheld the laws of the land and refused to succumb to racial injustice.”
The first lesson is, in the 21st century, “Don’t be a self-appointed lawman.” Baca’s trial for the Frisco shootout might have turned out far differently today. The previously cited quad of historians claim Baca was “carrying a mail-order badge and a stolen gun” when he made the arrest of Charlie McCarthy, triggering the cataclysm which followed. Some others say he was deputized.
Baca himself told a WPA researcher, “In those days I was a self-made deputy. I had a badge I made for myself, and if they didn’t believe I was a deputy, they’d better believe it, because I made ’em believe it.” Suffice to say today, “If you can’t document you are official, don’t presume you are.” In modern times, there’s no such thing as a self-made deputy.
The second lesson, from the tactical side, is best phrased in a quote from officer survival expert Evan Marshall: “Be a lover of cover.” How could Baca evade as many as 4,000 rounds? The floor of the jacal was below the visible foundation and door by as much as 18″. What the building could not stop, the earth did. The lynch mob was hitting too high; Baca is believed to have spent most of the shootout in a protected prone position.
And, by the way, I can find no historical information to contradict the legend none of those many, many bullets hit the plaster statue of the saint inside the jacal. Make of it what you will.
Finally, thanks to the American Handgunner reader who suggested a story on Elfego Baca. Yes, we do listen to your input.