by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was the biggest political scandal of the Roaring Twenties and it resulted in the first felony conviction of a sitting member of a presidential cabinet in American history, though the name Albert B. Fall (1861-1944) wouldn’t be recognized by very many people today. But, the Teapot Dome scandal was an enormous event during that decade and involved greater Los Angeles in a couple of important ways.
First was the involvement of the oil magnate Edward L. Doheny, who, with partner Charles Canfield, opened up the Los Angeles field in the early 1890s that launched the biggest phase of the region’s oil industry. By the end of the decade, Doheny brought in the first well in Orange County on the Olinda Ranch in modern Brea and his success and power grew exponentially from there.
Fall, a native of Kentucky who practiced law and held political office in territorial New Mexico and was one of its first U.S. senators after statehood was achieved in 1912, was an associate of long standing with Doheny. So, when Warren G. Harding became president early in 1921 and appointed Fall Secretary of the Interior, it didn’t take long for a scheme to be hatched up that would turn over the naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome in Wyoming and Elk Hills in central California to the Department of the Interior.
It was also in short order that Fall assigned leases, without required competitive bidding, to his pals, Doheny at Elk Hills and Harry F. Sinclair at Teapot Dome, and later investigations by the Senate Committee on Public Lands revealed that both oil moguls provided financial incentives. Sinclair gave Fall some $300,000 in cash and government Liberty Bonds issued during the First World War, while Doheny gave his old friend a $100,000 “no-interest loan,” which Fall used to buy a New Mexico ranch.
Even by the standards of a corruption-ridden Harding administration, Fall’s escapades were more than shocking, but, even after he resigned and then faced investigation and a much later trial, he was doggedly defiant in denying culpability. Fall holed up in New Mexico after he left office and waited for investigations and indictments to slowly take place in succeeding years.
By early 1928, when Sinclair’s fourth trial came up on the docket (Sinclair was found guilty of contempt of the Senate during its investigations; a criminal trial, the prior fall, ended in a mistrial when it was learned Sinclair had private detectives following members of the jury; and a trial for contempt involving the detective issue led to another guilty verdict), Fall was deemed by his doctors to be too ill to travel to Washington, D.C. and face trial and a certain death, so he was dismissed from the case.
Instead, Fall was subpoenaed and, being unable to testify in person, a four-day marathon session was arranged for him at his home in El Paso, Texas. Notably, as his physician hovered around his patient during the lengthy testimony, Fall was reported to have told him, “get away, doctor, I am having more fun than in years.” The document was quite extensive, as it was stated that “it has run into many thousands of words, due largely to Fall’s loquaciousness.”
Naturally, Fall pushed back on any assertions of wrongdoing, but his health was said to have taken a serious turn for the worst, including pneumonia, and his physicians dourly predicted his demise within half a year if he didn’t get a “rest cure.”
This led to the second important local connection to the scandal, as Fall motored west to seek a restorative to his health at Las Encinas Sanitarium in east Pasadena and at which one of his two daughters had taken refuge previously. Opened in 1904 as the Southern California Sanitarium for Nervous Disorders, it was one of many such facilities that operated in our region, including in the foothill communities of the western San Gabriel Valley from about the 1880s onward. Its founders were doctors James H. McBride, Norman Bridge, Wallace Barlow, Merritt Campbell and Henry G. Brainerd, the last of which was featured in a post on this blog.
Las Encinas, a name adopted in the late teens and which means “the oaks,” featured some fine Craftsman architecture with its main building and some detached cottages designed by the well-known firm of Myron Hunt and Elmer Gray. It also had some notable patients over the years, perhaps the best-known being comic actor W.C. Fields, who died at the facility in 1946.
Actor Samuel Hinds, recognized most for his role as the patriarch of the Bailey clan in It’s a Wonderful Life, died there two years later. Astronomer and physicist George Ellery Hale, who worked out of CalTech and oversaw observatories like Mt. Wilson and Palomar, went to Las Encinas after suffering a stroke and passed away there after a heart attack later in 1938. Renowned author Willa Cather’s mother was a patient, as well, from 1929-1931 until her death.
As for Fall, as soon as he completed his El Paso testimony in the Sinclair trial, it was announced that reservations were made for a private cottage at Las Encinas. After a brief delay, he and a small entourage, including his wife and one daughter, arrived at the facility on 7 April, when this post’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s collection, a press photo of Fall in a car in Pasadena, probably at Las Encinas was taken. The image shows the former secretary in profile in the back seat of a car with hair rather long for the time and sporting his his signature cigar in his mouth.
In its 9 April edition, the Pasadena Post discussed the improving condition of Fall in the two days since his arrival and quoted Las Encinas medical director Dr. Stephen Smith as stating that “no immediate cause for alarm concerning Mr. Fall’s condition exists . . . though he cannot be permitted to walk too much.” The physician added that a “complete diagnosis has not been made.”
The article also reported that “rigid seclusion in order to recuperate will prevent intimate contacts with the public.” In documenting his arrival at the Shorb train station in south Alhambra, the Post observed that Fall was supported by his wife and daughter as he disembarked and walked some thirty steps to a waiting car (the one shown in the photo) and did so “apparently without difficulty.” The piece concluded, though, with the statement that Fall “sought to avoid being photographed,” which was, naturally, unsuccessful in its aims.
Some two weeks after he settled in at Las Encinas, a verdict was reached in the Sinclair trial and the oil magnate was acquitted, even though he’d admitted to handing over some $233,000 in Liberty Bonds and nearly $70,000 in cash to the Interior secretary. Interview by the Post for its 21 April edition, Fall stated, “I am gratified, but not surprised,” though many observers were, by the verdict.
Expressing his concern that there might be a hung jury, with one member of the jury deciding to vote guilty because of “prejudice injected into the atmosphere in Washington [some things never change!],” Fall went on to aver that “throughout the trial the defense presented the true story of the transaction” despite those who “injected the poison and adverse criticism into public comment on the case.”
Miraculously, Fall’s condition improved markedly after the Sinclair trial ended and on 25 April, the Los Angeles Times reported the next day,
E.L. Doheny, wealthy oil man of Los Angeles, and Mrs. Doheny, chatted for half an hour with Albert B. Fall at Mr. Fall’s Las Encinas Sanitarium bungalow . . . the meeting is said to have been in the nature of a conference relating to recent developments which are expected to follow the acquittal of Harry F. Sinclair in the Teapot Dome case.
The facility’s business manager talked to the Times, which noted that “Mr. Fall has slept much better during the last three days” and that the expectation was that the patient would be able to leave Las Encinas “within six weeks to two months.” In fact, things were going so swimmingly that, in late May, Fall decided to make his first excursion from the facility and ventured out to Santa Monica.
At the coastal city, Fall met with Charles N. Bassett, a banker friend of long-standing from El Paso and who just happened to be the owner of over 800 acres on the Rancho La Puente granted by William Workman to his son Joseph in 1870. A quarter-century later, financial problems during a national depression led to a foreclosure and Bassett’s father, Oscar, acquired the Joseph Workman ranch by redeeming the mortgage.
In 1918, Joseph’s daughter, Josephine (who had just retired after a career as a popular movie star known as Princess Mona Darkfeather) sued Charles Bassett claiming she was not properly notified as a minor of her inheritance rights when the acquisition of the property was made in the mid-Nineties. Josephine Akley, as she was legally known, won a Superior Court judgment, but this was overturned after several years by the appellate court.
Fall’s visit to the cooler coast caused a cold aggravating his chronic bronchitis and there were rumors he’d suffered heart attacks while in Santa Monica and was in a bad way, though Dr. Smith stated that Fall’s condition was “satisfactory.” Within days, however, Fall was sufficiently invigorated that, on 7 June, he left Las Encinas and motored back to El Paso because he “must attend to urgent business.” Doctors, though saying he was in fairly decent shape, advised against the trip, but Fall not only took the jaunt but, despite suggesting he’d return to the sanitarium in two or three weeks, remained at his New Mexico ranch instead.
At the end of June, the Post reported that the Las Encinas stint was “so greatly improved by his recent rest and treatment” that the former cabinet member “would not be compelled to return here as planned,” though Fall’s daughter, soon joined by Mrs. Fall and other family members, did return for another round of her own treatment.
Despite his rapid recovery, Fall faced future legal woes. In October 1929, a few months after Sinclair’s jury tampering conviction was upheld on appeal and he was sent to prison, the ex-secretary’s trial for accepting a bribe from Doheny was held. Seated in a wheelchair, Fall listened as his attorney implored for his client’s innocence “before he passes into the great beyond.”
On 25 October, the day after the crash of the stock market the launched the Great Depression, a jury, after first voting 7-3 to acquit, convicted the disgraced Fall after seven ballots, but asked the judge to give him mercy in meting out punishment. Head bowed and slumped in his chair, Fall was embraced by his sobbing wife as Doheny sat in the courtroom and evidently covered his ears as the judge detailed Fall’s illness during the proceeding.
The Times reported that “tears rolled down the cheeks of Doheny” and that the septuagenarian tycoon “shook a clenched fist in that direction [of the bench] and cried ‘It’s that damn court!'” His convicted friend left the courthouse in the wheelchair and Mrs. Fall assisted him at the hotel as he took “faltering steps.” Remarkably, though virtually the same evidence was presented at Doheny’s trial in spring 1930, he was acquitted for the crime for which Fall was convicted.
Fall appealed for about a year and the District of Columbia Court of Appeals upheld the conviction and the United States Supreme Court, usually loath to consider lower court rulings, refused to hear the matter, while President Herbert Hoover brushed aside numerous pardon requests. In mid-July 1931, a decade after the whole sordid affair began, Fall was transported by ambulance to Santa Fe. Parole was applied for within months and denied, but he was released in May 1932 after ten months. A $100,000 fine imposed by sentence went unpaid and Fall remained unrepentant, though Doheny did foreclose on the New Mexico ranch over the $100,000 unpaid loan!
Despite his several alleged bouts with the Grim Reaper during his legal battles, Fall lived another dozen years outside the public eye and died in 1944 a few days after his 83rd birthday. Those leases at Teapot Dome and Elk Hills were cancelled and $50 million returned to the government from Sinclair and Doheny, with those naval reserves being significant during World War II and remain in government hands serving a useful purpose.
As for Las Encinas, it remains a mental health hospital and was the subject of an application, eight years ago, for a National Register of Historic Places designation as the “Southern California Sanitarium Historic District.” The statement of significant focused largely on architectural merit and nothing is mentioned in the application about the brief stay of Albert B. Fall, the first cabinet member in U.S. history to be a convicted felon, but it certainly is a notable part of the story.