Albert Bacon Fall was born in Frankfort, Kentucky in 1861. He was the son of William Fall, who had served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and the grandson of a Scottish preacher. As an adult, Fall moved west, first to Indian Territory (later part of Oklahoma) and Clarksville, Texas before relocating to New Mexico. After moving to New Mexico, he studied law. After his admission to the New Mexico bar, he practiced law served a number of public offices before being appointed as a United States senator.
In Fall’s legal practice, he was known for his defense work in some high profile cases. He successfully defended rancher Oliver Lee in the murder trial in which Lee and others were accused in the death of Judge Albert Jennings Fountain. Fountain had disappeared along with his son, under suspicious circumstances in the White Sands area. He also successfully defended John Henry Selman, the constable who killed John Wesley Hardin and Jesse Wayne Brazel, the accused killer of Pat Garrett. He also developed various business interests including mining, lumber milling, dealings in land, railroading, farming and stock raising.
Fall served as a territorial representative from 1891 to 1892, was appointed judge of the third judicial district in 1893 and appointed associate justice of the territorial supreme court that same year. He served as territorial attorney general in 1897 and again in 1907. Fall also had served in Company H of the First Territorial Infantry under the United States Army during the Spanish-American War at the rank of captain. Fall was elected a United States Senator from New Mexico from 1912, when the seat was first established at the time New Mexico became a state, was reelected several times and served until 1921 when he resigned his Senate seat to accept an appointment to the Cabinet of President Harding.
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Fall was appointed to serve as Secretary of the Interior by President Warren G. Harding in March, 1921. While serving in this capacity, Fall was accused of conspiracy and bribery pertaining to funds paid to Fall from an individual relating to the awarding of certain United States Navy strategic oil leases located in California and Wyoming in the matter known as the Teapot Dome Scandal. Previous presidents had reserved these properties for emergency use by the Navy, should other resources be diminished. The three main properties were Elk Hills and Buena Vista Hills in California and Teapot Dome in Wyoming, the latter property being named for a peculiar surface feature.
Briefly, prior to the alleged illegal events, the properties were under the control of the Secretary of the Navy, but in 1922, Fall was accused of convincing the acting Navy Secretary to convey them to the Department of the Interior. Then, rather than hold them in reserve, the properties were leased to Sinclair Oil, then known as Mammoth Oil, without competitive bidding. Other properties were alleged to have been leased by Fall to a company named Pan American Oil in exchange for gifts and no interest loans. As a result, Fall was accused both of bribery and conspiracy in connection with the awarding of the leases.
After a long court battle, Fall was acquitted of the charge of conspiracy, but was convicted of bribery. After an unsuccessful appeal, Fall was fined and sentenced to prison. He served nine months in prison in 1931 and 1932 before being released. Fall’s health was failing and practically all of the time that he served was spent in the prison hospital. The United States government later rescinded the oil lease agreements that were in question and the leases themselves were transferred back to the Navy.
One of the people who was alleged to have paid the funds to Fall was a former friend and acquaintance of Fall in New Mexico. To the best of our knowledge, neither individual was convicted of any charges pertaining to the transaction. A company connected to one of the individuals also later purchased Fall’s New Mexico ranch in foreclosure and evicted him from his ranch, though Fall was permitted to keep his ranch house and 100 acres of land. Some accounts say that at least some of the transactions pertaining to the foreclosed debt on the ranch were originally characterized as loans, and were the same funds that were considered to be illegal payments in Fall’s conviction.
Fall never regained his health and died in 1944 in El Paso, Texas after a long illness. He and his wife, the former Emma Garland Morgan who had predeceased him a year earlier, had four children. His family also never abandoned the effort to clear his name.
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