Nuestra Historia - ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’

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On June 11, 1923, Judge David J. Leahy issued an arrest warrant for Carl Magee, ordering Sheriff Lorenzo Delgado to “take the body of Carl C. Magee and keep him safely so that you have his body forthwith before the District Court within and for San Miguel County.”

Secundino Romero had set in motion the wheels of San Miguel County justice — his justice. Carl Magee’s Albuquerque newspaper would be silenced, and Magee himself punished. The stage was set in a town controlled by a family whose very name meant Las Vegas and San Miguel County.

Just who was Secundino Romero, and how did one man command such enormous power? Much has been written about the Romero family, the Romero brothers, and Secundino Romero, the golden boy of that dynasty.

This column even devoted a series of articles recounting the family’s important contributions to Las Vegas. (See Nuestra Historia, April-May, 2011.)

But to fully understand the omnipresence of Sec Romero in the tragic saga which would consume Judge Leahy and Carl Magee, a brief review of the long Romero reign is necessary. Secundino was the grandson of Miguel Romero, one of the founders of Las Vegas in 1835. Sec’s father, Eugenio Romero, was second oldest of the five Romero brothers, Miguel’s sons.

Since the earliest days, Las Vegas and San Miguel County were dominated by the Romero family (first Miguel and then his five sons), all of whom acquired immense wealth as a result of early freighting along the burgeoning Santa Fe Trail, followed by large-scale ranching and lumber operations, and a sprawling mercantile business. Even after the railroad arrived in 1879, and non-Hispanics moved to Las Vegas in great numbers, the Romero family continued to dominate — never taking a back seat to Anglo newcomers, in politics, business or personal wealth.

For many years, it was the Romero family which provided law and order in Las Vegas, and the office of sheriff — the only law officer at the time — became a badge of their dominance. For decades, either one of the Romero brothers, or a nephew, was himself the high sheriff.

As early as the 1870s, the family had extended its influence beyond Las Vegas, and in 1878 Trinidad Romero, oldest of the Romero brothers, was elected New Mexico’s Territorial delegate to Congress. Even before then, the family had been instrumental in founding the Republican Party in New Mexico, with the election of President Lincoln in 1860.

The State Hospital was located in Las Vegas because of Benigno Romero, fourth oldest of the brothers, who also built the Plaza Hotel. Secundino’s father, Eugenio, was the first and only elected mayor of the combined city of Las Vegas in 1882, and founded the E. Romero Hose and Fire Co. For many years, Don Eugenio was among the most prominent dons and Republican bosses in New Mexico, and was a dominant leader at New Mexico’s constitutional convention in 1910.

As one journalist of that era wrote in describing Las Vegas, the Romero family was “omnipresent and as pervasive as the air men breathed.” When the five Romero brothers grew old and began to withdraw from public life, it was Secundino who assumed the family mantle and continued its dominance into the 20th century. Educated at the Las Vegas Jesuit College and in Kansas City, Missouri, Secundino had been well prepared by his father and uncles.

By the time Carl Magee began “trifling” with the suave and sophisticated Secundino, the golden boy had been sheriff of San Miguel County, speaker of the New Mexico House of Representatives, twice candidate for the Republican nomination for governor, chairman of New Mexico’s Republican party, and Sec was the sitting U.S. marshal for New Mexico, appointed by President Harding. (Sec’s uncle Trinidad had also been U.S. marshal at the turn of century, appointed by President Benjamin Harrison in 1899.)

It was this mantra of Romero power that faced Carl Magee as he was arrested in Albuquerque and brought to Las Vegas to appear before Judge Leahy, causing Magee to write that he “never believed a condition existed in the United States such as surrounds me at the moment.” Even Magee’s jailer, Sheriff Lorenzo Delgado, was Secundino’s close cousin and protégé, allowed to hold down the sheriff’s office while Secundino served as U.S. marshal.

Magee’s arrest and upcoming trial became a cause célèbre, and throughout New Mexico rallies and meetings were held in support of the Tribune’s publisher. Freedom of speech and of the press were at the forefront of the case, but the epic struggle would also evoke the stark antagonism between New Mexico’s Republican and Democratic Parties, which was especially virulent at the time.

Appearing for Magee would be the most renowned attorneys in the state, all prominent Democrats. Never before had a more distinguished legal team assembled in one courtroom. Their task before Judge Leahy would be daunting, and Magee himself reported in the Tribune when the case began, “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”

Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.