LAS VEGAS, NEW MEXICO
A visit to Las Vegas, New Mexico by Dan Kenneth Phillips
Includes photographs of Four Corners and the background of why Dan wrote this book.
Dan goes to Tucumcari, New Mexico, to visit the photographer who took Ian Frazier's picture for the the book Great Plains
He travels to the Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider Museum to visit the "smartest lady in the world."
Who would have guessed that riding an airplane-
dressed as Shumu the whale-,would take him to the mysterious rhealm of multi-millionaire Howard Hughes.
Read some weird stories of a bunch of "wild consultants" who spend a week in Nevada exploring!
This story describes his first visit to San Francisco to celebrate a wedding anniversary. He discovers the "ghost" of Jack Kerouac and hits several other literary high spots while here.
Visiting Cape Cod,he discovers Henry Beston and Gugliemo Marconi. This leads to a history lesson on the beginning of radio listening and a unique baker (Ollie Ross) known to have picked up every radio station in the world. Was Ollie Ross for real?
Jekyll Island is a special place for Dan. Study the billionaires who inhabited this island every winter. Listen to their stories of richness and pettiness.
Did you know that the sign indicating where Flannery O'Connor was born is really a lie? And did you know John Wesley once fell in love here and caused a major disturbance because of this love affair. If you have read The Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, you need to read The Writer and the Preacher to capture even more weird tales of Savannah.10. Patti's - The Best Restaurant in the World (Grand Rivers, KY.)
This is Dan's favorite eating place in all the world. Read this story and discover how a pot-bellied pig named Calvin Swine became the symbol of great American cooking.
Las Vegas, New Mexico, is 68 miles northeast of Santa Fe, 78 miles south of Taos, 123 miles east of Albuquerque, 325 miles south of Denver, and 288 miles southeast of Four Corners. Its elevation is 6,470 feet. Annually it rains 15 inches and has 300 days of sunshine.
The population of Las Vegas is 15,000: seventy percent are Hispanic and twenty-six percent Anglo. The major employer is the New Mexico State Hospital with 898 employees, and the public schools employee 700 persons. Over 900 buildings in Las Vegas are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The pivotal moment in the history of Las Vegas was the arrival of the railroad on July 4, 1879, changing forever the destiny of Las Vegas. With its arrival came legitimate businesses; but it also brought a large number of frontier riffraff including murderers, robbers, thieves, gamblers, swindlers, gunmen, vagrants, and just plain tramps.
Among the "who's who" of Las Vegas were: the dentist Doc Holliday and his girl friend Big-Nose Kate, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Mysterious Dave Mather, Hoodoo Brown, Rattlesnake Sam, Cock-Eyed Frank, Web-Fingered Billy, Hook Nose Jim, Stuttering Tom, Durango Kid, and Handsome Harry the Dancehall Rustler.
"Without exception there was no town which harbored a more disreputable gang of desperadoes, and outlaws than did Las Vegas," said historian Ralph Emerson Twitchell.
During the year following the arrival of the railroad, 29 men were killed in and around Las Vegas, either murdered outright, shot in self-defense, or hung by the well-regulated vigilance committee.
Doc Holliday, Wyatt Earp, and Billy the Kid all made their mark in Las Vegas, as did mysterious Dave Mather, an indestructable shady lawman, who frequently disappeared on mysterious journeys, and was once accused, along with Wyatt Earp, of peddling phony gold bricks to naive citizens in Mobeetie, Texas.
When Billy the Kid was killed, his index finger was sent in a jar to the local newspaper; The Las Vegas Optic. Reporting on the absent finger, the writer said; "It is well-preserved in alcohol and has been viewed by many in our office today. If the rush continues we shall purchase a small tent and open a side show to which complimentary tickets will be issued to our personal friends." Bob Ford, the bounty hunter who killed Jesse James, owned a saloon in Las Vegas. And Las Vegas renown included the first hanging of a woman, Paula Angel, who stabbed to death her lover Juan Miguel Martin.
THE ROUGH RIDER MUSEUM
Of particular interest to me in Las Vegas was the Rough Rider Museum. I first became acquainted with Las Vegas through the enthusiastic comments of the Reverend Belvin Cox. According to "The Reverend Belvin," an itinerant roving religious consultant, the museum was a memorial to the Rough Riders who were led by Teddy Roosevelt to conquer Cuba in Cuba's war with Spain in 1898. The Reverend Belvin was especially impressed by the lady who ran the museum, a one-legged woman in her 80s who had the "most incredible memory" he had ever seen.
I do think it appropriate to say a few words about the Reverend Belvin. He is a good friend of mine, and we have traveled across the United States several times together. We have also seen, and been involved in, several strange experiences: we almost got in a fight in Chicago at a Cubs game when the person next to me spilled beer on my best suit, we explored Wyoming together and it was there that the Reverend Belvin discovered the world's greatest chocolate milk shake, and in North Carolina we found a place known as The Light Center - a unique religious center where, according to the brochures, the Almighty had seen fit to show forth intense light waves of healing. "It has been found that if you come several times a day and sit under these lights, special healing effects can can be noted," said the elderly lady who was showing us around.
In my humble opinion, "the Reverend Belvin" is an honest man: His opinions are realistic; his evaluations of life are generally on target; and he is a gregarious and joyful companion. When the Reverend Belvin says, "The eighty year old, one-legged lady in Las Vegas is one of the most intelligent historians I have ever met," you can bet it's the truth.
I found the museum on Grand Avenue next to the Chamber of Commerce. According to a local brochure, the museum contained "historic and Rough Rider memorabilia, Indian artifacts, city history, and was free to the public." It was opened on an irregular basis Monday through Saturday. At the museum, Harold F. Thatcher, age 84, Director Curator, gave me a history lesson and shared some of his own exploits as a cowboy earlier in this century.
The day I arrived Thatcher was giving his famous cowboy lecture to a few strangers willing to listen. He was sitting in a rickety chair, his hands were on the back of his head, he was talking as fast as he could, and every mouthful of words contained a picture of a world that existed over a hundred years ago. With my small tape recorder aimed toward him, I gleaned many fascinating tales from the past.
"Sure, Billy the Kid once spent time in jail here. You know that dumb-looking picture of him with his mouth halfway attached to his face? That was taken here. But Billy the Kid wasn't nothing. The baddest cowboy of them all was Hoodoo Brown," he said.
The "baddest cowboy" caught my attention. Badder than Billy the Kid, or Doc Holliday, or Jesse James? Just the thought conjured up terror in my mind. What made him badder? Did he castrate his enemies, cut off the ears of passing strangers, or poke out the eyes of his friends?
HOODOO BROWN - THE OUTLAW
By the late 1870s Las Vegas was inhabited by over 2,000 persons. There were several saloons, gambling halls, and hotels, along with a number of merchants. But tremendous changes were coming, the result of the continuing westward movement of the Santa Fe Railroad. With the westward spiral of the railroad, a number of infamous towns followed the railroads movement. These towns produced fearless lawmen and equally notorious outlaws.
The most violent of these towns was Dodge City, Kansas, located east of Fort Dodge. Dodge City was the home of Hyman G. Neill, better known as Hoodoo Brown. Historians have noted he was from a good family in St. Louis, and early on he became a follower of the railroads as they were built. He drifted westward through Kansas and Colorado as a small-time gambler and confidence man, and he was occasionally arrested for minor charges such as vagrancy.
With the railroads' arrival in 1879, Hoodoo Brown, supported by other recent immigrants of somewhat dubious distinction, was elected Justice of the Peace in East Las Vegas. He was also the coroner and mayor. He gathered several former Kansas gunfighters and formed a police force. An article in the Chicago Times in March of 1880 described him as "one of the worst class of low gamblers." He was further described as a tall, thin man, with light hair, small mustache, and a rakish look.
"The baddest cowboy of
them all was Hoodoo Brown."
Thatcher's description of Hoodoo Brown as "the baddest cowboy of them all," included the mysterious story of a person he called the Sundance Kid. "In 1921, I was 14 and the Sundance Kid was 62. We rode together near Green River, Wyoming. He had seven notches on his gun. Now, this is not the same Sundance Kid that rode with Butch Cassidy," he told me. "That Sundance Kid supposedly died in South America. But, the truth is he lived near Bryce, Utah, in 1937. In fact, my brother got his autograph at that time." Thatcher went on to declare that the Bryce, Utah Sundance Kid was the "best cowboy of them all," and then he continued with the Hoodoo Brown story.
"In 1881 an upstanding citizen was killed in Las Vegas. A $7,000 reward was offered. Hoodoo, then 'the law' in East Las Vegas, formed a posse with his friend, the Sundance Kid, and went after the murderer. People, angry because they realized that Hoodoo had a part in the murder, chased Hoodoo and hung him. The Sundance Kid went free. He was the one I rode with," he said. Then he added, "To tell you the truth, Sundance should have hanged with Hoodoo."
In trying to confirm Thatcher's story, I came upon a notable conflict in testimony, which no doubt was common in 1880. Some historians account that Hoodoo stole money from a dead man and went to Houston, Texas.
In the meantime, the widow of one of his deputies (who had been killed two months earlier), exhumed the body of her husband to move him to Houston, Texas. When she arrived in Houston, Hoodoo had been arrested. The wife of his former deputy met him at the jail. The Parsons Sun reported, "The meeting between the pair is said to have been affecting in the extreme, and rather more affectionate than would be expected under the circumstances." Another newspaper, the Parsons Eclipse added, "The offense committed at Las Vegas, as near as we can gather the facts relating to it, was murder and robbery, and the circumstances connected with the arrest here would indicate that the lesser crime of seduction and adultery was connected with it."
Brown hired two local attorneys and was released when the officers failed to show any legal authority for holding him. The Chicago Times, writing of the affair in Las Vegas, said that the Justice of the Peace, the marshal's widow, and the coffin "have been skylarking through some of the interior towns of Kansas ever since." That was the last heard of Hoodoo. Somehow it seems appropriate that he and the widow were never found.
THE END OF AN ERA
Townspeople soon tired of the escapades of the lawless conditions of their city and took matters in their own hands. The Las Vegas Optic on April 8, 1880 posted this notice:
TO MURDERERS, CONFIDENCE MEN, THIEVES:Soon after this notice, the outlaws left for new locations to haunt. Many, like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, went to Tombstone, Arizona, to begin new lives.
"The citizens of Las Vegas have tired of robbery, murder, and other crimes that have made this town a byword in every civilized community. They have resolved to put a stop to crime, if in attaining that end they have to forget the law and resort to a speedier justice than it will afford. All such characters are therefore, hereby notified, that they must either leave this town or conform themselves to the requirements of law, or they will be summarily dealt with. The flow of blood must and shall be stopped in this community, and the good citizens of both the old and new towns have determined to stop it, if they have to HANG by the strong arm of FORCE every violator of the law in this country. "
To the beginning of this story about the Rough Riders Museum in Las Vegas, N.M.
Thatcher's stories of Theodore Roosevelt were as enlightening and entertaining as his stories of the outlaw days.
"In 1898," he said, " 8,000 newspapers called for the United States to invade Cuba and free it from Spain. Theodore Roosevelt, wanting headlines himself so he could run for governor of New York, asked the territorial governor of New Mexico to get volunteers to go to Cuba. Twenty-three thousand eight hundred volunteered. Roosevelt took these ragged soldiers to San Antonio and trained them for two months. Roosevelt eventually took 1,193 of them to Tampa, Florida, to prepare for the invasion. Sixty years later, men were still complaining of how hard Roosevelt trained them. Eventually, he took 740 of these men to Cuba and was victorious at San Juan Hill."
Then he added, "The reason Roosevelt became such a hero was that President McKinley had asked for 165,000 troops to conquer Cuba and before McKinley had even got started, Roosevelt was home." He chuckled as he finished the sentence.
"In 1899, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York; and in 1901, when McKinley was assassinated, Roosevelt became the youngest man to serve as president. Now people get that confused with John Kennedy. Kennedy was the youngest elected president; but when he was inaugurated, Roosevelt at the same age had already been president three months."
Thatcher then described the uniqueness of Las Vegas and its importance to The Rough Riders: "The first year after San Juan Hill, 623 Rough Riders returned here for the first convention. It was held every year until the last one died. And Teddy Roosevelt was here. In fact, he announced his candidacy for president here in Las Vegas."
I was impressed by Thatcher's memory. He and Mrs. Crabtree - evidently the one-legged schoolteacher the Reverend Belvin spoke of - ran the museum when they had time. At 84 years of age, Thatcher was a marvel. I couldn't help but wish that, should I reach that age, my memory would be as good as his. A true gift for other generations.
"The reason Roosevelt became such a hero was that President McKinley had asked for 165,000 troops to conquer Cuba and before McKinley had even got started, Roosevelt was home."
When I left him to explore the rest of the museum, he was still talking 90 miles an hour to whoever would listen.
The Rough Rider's Museum collection included: tin coffee cups; tobacco boxes; maps; pictures of Archbishop Lamy, Pat Garrett, and Billy the Kid; old bedspreads; beds; a typewriter; an old tub - presumably the type Billy the Kid would take a bath in; a Japanese fan; a black shawl made in Germany in 1975; calvary medals; spurs; an autograph of John Quincy Adams; implements of the Civil War; a rock collection; saddles; guns; and a picture of Jesse Langdon - the last Rough Rider to return for the annual meeting of the Rough Riders in Las Vegas. His last visit was on August 22, 1974.
There were several pictures of Teddy Roosevelt - many with him smiling and laughing. One was of him in his Dakota days. The Dakota days picture brought back a haunting memory of why Roosevelt went to the Dakotas: both his mother and young wife died on the same day, February 14, 1884. In his diary on that day he wrote, "The light has gone out of my life." Torn by such a great loss, he went to the Dakota's as a cowboy. That he could triumph over those depths of grief has always been a source of strength for me, and is also a powerful reminder of why I admire Roosevelt.he Dakota's as a cowboy. That he could triumph over those depths of grief has always been a source of strength for me, and is also a powerful reminder of why I admire Roosevelt.
Walking through the museum, the most impressive Roosevelt item was a plaque with words he penned during the training of the Rough Riders at the fairgrounds in San Antonio. They are probably his most famous words: "Far better it is to do mighty things than take rank with those poor timid spirits who know neither victory nor defeat." I wrote those words in my notebook. No words sum up the life of Theodore Roosevelt better than those.
After visiting the museum, I drove to the old town square - site of many a hanging - and parked in front of the La Galeria de los Artesanos Book Store. The proprietor, Joe Stein, told me he opened the store in 1949. "Every year, the same people stop here on their travels. I have the best collection of western books that can be found."
After several minutes of passing trivia between us, I asked, "Joe, What is the best book I can buy that gives the truth about Las Vegas?"
"The Wildest of the Wild West by Howard Bryan is without a doubt the best. It tells the truth of Las Vegas," he said. I bought a copy of Bryan's book from Stein. I was sure that no where else would I be able to find the book.
It was 2 pm. I was hungry, so betting again on a Reverend Belvin tip, I drove a couple of blocks to Estellas Cafe at 148 Bridge Street.
Estellas was a small restaurant with an authentic Mexican cuisine. On one wall was a picture of the owners when they were 20 years old. Another wall had a picture of Coronado riding a horse. A forty year-old yellow Royal Crown Cola freezer was behind the counter. Several artists had their paintings on the wall.
Beside me, a local gringo read a Web of Spiderman comic book. Oil lamps of various sizes hung over the ledge about the counter. A large sign over the cash register read No Checks Cashed. I ordered three beef taco's and tea. Buck Owens twanged loudly in the background. It was getting late. I was behind schedule. I finished my meal and drove toward Santa Fe thinking of politicians and cowboys.
As I left, I considered a favorite political quote I had recently read from a former Las Vegas politician; Pablo Herrera. Herrera was a convicted murderer who once was elected to the House of Representatives in the New Mexico Territorial Legislature. After sitting through several legislative sessions, he delivered this brief address to his colleagues:
"Gentlemen, I have several years time in the penitentiary but only 60 days in the legislature, the present House of Representatives. I have watched the proceedings here carefully. I would like to say that the time I spent in the penitentiary was more enjoyable than the time I spent here. There is more honesty in the halls of the territorial prison than in the halls of the legislature. I would prefer another term in prison than another election to the House."
Herrara's opinions were not received well by others in Las Vegas. He was shot to death by a sheriff's posse on a West Las Vegas street on Christmas Eve, 1894.
As I drove westward, thinking of presidents and cowboys, I thought, "at least, when he died - even though he was a murderer - the people could say, he was an honest politician."
Continuing on with my thoughts, I laughed. "What a rarity," I thought. "I know the perfect epitaph for his tombstone. He was an honest politician!"
Send any comments about The Outlaw and The Politician, and experiences you have had there, via E-mail Dan Kenneth Phillips
Dan K. Phillips, writer of this Savannah, Georgia story, is the author of the internet travel book FOUR CORNERS - A LITERARY EXCURSION ACROSS AMERICA and is the editor of the monthly travel e-zine The Web Surfer Travel Journal. He also writes extensively on the works of the monk and poet, Thomas Merton. Please check all of these sites. THANKS! To E-Mail him click here!
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