The Unruly Judge

G ambling was both legal and wide open in Albuquerque. Town authorities relied heavily on the sale of saloon licenses and fines imposed for disturbances at the gambling tables to help maintain the municipal government. As towns sprouted in the 19th-century American West-outside Army forts, at river crossings along wagon trails, in mining districts and at railheads-some of the first structures built were recreational facilities. Recreation for the almost totally male population inevitably meant Three-W vices of the frontier-whiskey, whoring and wagering.

Since no stigma was attached to games of chance, distinguished pillars of the community indulged openly. One prominent gambling addict was the town’s leading magistrate, Judge William C. Heacock. He could be found most nights whiling away his time dealing three-card Monte in his favorite Albuquerque saloon Dealers banked their own games. If they made money, it was theirs. If they lost, it was out of their own pocket. Judge Heacock loved playing three-card Monte in the backroom of a saloon in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He also presided over Albuquerque’s night court, which he opened and closed at his own discretion. When the judge suffered a bad losing streak, he called in a town deputy and said, “Get me a drunk with money in his pockets that is guilty of disorderly conduct.” Judge Heacock’s widow told an interviewer of one incidence in which the judge ran out of money. Deputies were dispatched to find a drunk. The deputies soon returned carrying a limp man between them. “What the Hell?” asked the judge? “What’s that you got? “Your honor,” replied a deputy, as he laid his burden on the floor, “we found him in the back room of the Blue Indigo.” “Can he stand trial or is he dead drunk?” asked the judge. “He’s not drunk, but he’s dead all right. He croaked himself over there in the Blue Indigo and the proprietor insisted we get him out of there.” This annoyed the judge. “Didn’t the fools ever hear of an inquest?” he asked. Heacock had sent for a lucrative drunk, not a drooling suicide. The judge turned to his deputies. “This court is a court of justice. The right of habeas corpus must not be ignored. The prisoner must be given a speedy and fair trial. This court is ready to hear evidence. What is the charge?” “Your Honor,” said a deputy, “The charge has not yet been determined.” “This court will hear no case without a charge. Did you search the prisoner?” “There was a letter to some dame-“began the deputy.” “Any money?” The deputy counted out $27.32. “Any weapons?”

A deputy produced a gun found in the dead man’s hip pocket. “Has the prisoner anything to say before sentence is imposed upon him?” The judge cocked his ear toward the dead prisoner, listening for a response. “In view of the unresponsiveness of the prisoner, which this court interprets as contempt, and in view of the unlawful possession of a lethal weapon, this court imposes a fine of $20.00 and court costs,” pronounced the judge. “You might as well leave him there till morning,” the judge instructed his deputies, pocketing the money. The judge returned to his Monte game in the saloon below with enough money to continue dealing. His wife remembered well enough the shack she and Judge Heacock lived in-you couldn’t call it a house-for there weren’t any real houses in Albuquerque in those days. The shack was on South Second Street where it was replaced by the Crystal Beer Garden. It was a dusty spot and she wanted her husband to buy a little land near Robinson Park where there were a few trees and a pump. She would have been satisfied with a one-room house and a tent there, she said, but her husband said a house built on that spot would sink into the quicksand in no time. “He had no eye for business,” she said. “He knew just one thing-the law.” Mrs. Heacock recalled one night in the 1890s when she heard shots as she was clearing the supper table. She ran to the door to see what was happening. Her husband, the judge, called her back, telling her the safest thing to do was to lie on the floor. The cowboys had no desire to kill, but it was safer to keep out of the way of their bullets.” On one occasion, a cowboy killed a child. The cowboy was drunk and was looking for black cats to shoot. He was horrified when he realized what he had done. The townspeople hung him as an example in order to make Albuquerque safe for their children. Judge Heacock, who prosecuted the case, was so upset when the man was hung he refused thereafter to serve except as a defense lawyer.

In an interview Mrs. Heacock said they used to do funny things in Albuquerque, many of them in the name of justice. She told of a well-dressed stranger coming to town from the East. He rode a “hack” to the hotel on First Street and was paying his fare when two big deputies arrested him for being a suspicious character. “He was too well-dressed and they needed money for the city that day,” recalled Mrs. Heacock. In another instance, Judge Heacock sent El Fago Baca to his own jail for a month. The judge was low on funds and dispatched his deputies to find a drunk for the night court. When they tried to arrest Jesus Romero, a friend of Elfego Baca’s, Mr. Baca objected and hit one of the policemen over the head with his huge silver watch. Coincidentally, the injured man was one of Albuquerque’s favorite policemen. When the crowd saw him lying unconscious, they assisted the other deputy in escorting Mr. Baca to night court. Deputy Romero was completely forgotten. “Drunken and disorderly conduct” was the charge against Baca, who vehemently denied the allegation. “You’re crazy,” said Elfego. “Silence,” bellowed the judge. The judge wanted to delay matters until a night sergeant could check Elfego’s pockets and find out how much money he had. “I know exactly how much I’ve got,” Elfego blared at the sergeant. “$18.19. If you count a nickel less you’ll get yours later and good and plenty.” “Shut up!” said the judge, trying to assume a judicial dignity. “Well, wait and see,” replied Elfego amiably. “Guilty or not guilty” asked the court. “Not guilty!” said Elfego, “and you all know it damn well!” “Thirty days or ten dollars and costs,” said the judge. “I suppose ten dollars and costs are $17.19,” said Elfego. “You ain’t going to pull that stuff on me. I’ll take the thirty days.” A deputy escorted him to the jail in Old Town, where, unbeknownst to the judge, Elfego had recently been appointed jailer. The name of E. Baca was signed into the record and Elfego Baca received the regular seventy-five cents a day for the feeding of the prisoner. At the end of the month, Elfego was $22.50 richer for his encounter with Judge Heacock’s night court.