Have Gun, Will Vote
1880s Laredo, Texas weathers election riot between combatants armed with guns and a cannon.
Certain persons have and are now threatening the peace of the city... life and property will be insecure on the day of the election... it is the duty of the Council to preserve order at all times within the city limits -Corpus Christi Ranchero, February, 1863
Laredo, Texas, a modest border city by any standard, was a quiet place in the mid-nineteenth century. Citizens were banned from dumping dead animals in public lots. Only one dog per household was allowed. Letting one's hogs run wild in the streets was an offense punishable by a twelve and one-half cent fine. All things considered, it was a dusty, hot, miserable, bucolic place.
That is, except for town elections. Laredo had a venerable tradition of fraudulent democracy solidly in place by the end of the 1800s. In an effort to stuff the ballot boxes and ensure a tidy election, unseemly politicians illegally imported Mexicans across town and across the border for an afternoon of free beer and clandestine voting. Occasionally, members of this fleeting electorate were caught. For example, one hapless Teodoro Gaitlan arrived in town only to be taken aside by a local candidate:
I was induced to vote on the day of election by Juan Trevino while I was drunk. He give me a dollar to vote.
An unsympathetic jury sentenced him to two years at a state penitentiary. However, this was the exception. Other times the local judges had, shall we say, certain political leanings, and their rulings bore out whether or not they agreed with election results. After another election that was won with some 200 illegally imported voters, a crooked judge declared that new voters did not have to declare intent to become American citizens right away in order to vote, but maybe later, if they felt like it.
Drowning the Lame Duck in a Sea of Beer
As one might well imagine, this sort of regulatory environment fostered would-be political masterminds. Fed up with the incumbent always winning, a political family, the Benavides clan, decided to have weekly "voter's meetings" where they got everyone drunk and talked big talk. This group grew to be hundreds strong and was very popular, for what might be termed obvious reasons (Jerry D. Thompson in Warm Weather and Bad Whiskey remarks that "Benavides's weekly beer bill was certain to have thrown anyone less financially secure into bankruptcy."). This group called itself los Guaraches, meaning "the sandals", and they met, drank, and got agitated. The younger upstarts would brandish clenched fists and walk the streets of Laredo at night, determined to make a little, but not too much, mischief, lest their political aspirations not be taken seriously.
Incumbent mayor Raymond Martin started his own party, named los Botas, meaning "the boots". He too won favor by fiery speech and free-flowing liquor. The election year of 1884 saw drunken revelers throwing rocks at one another in the streets and voters turning out en masse to be confronted by decidedly partisan sheriffs. These cops enjoyed the jobs given them by the incumbent, and were unwilling to see him lose: when approaching the ballot box, a voter would be accosted by men wielding large guns, and
in some instances ballots were snatched from the hands of voters, and their contents scanned.
Maybe Ducks Can Swim
The incumbent won, allowing him to leave his sponging, ne'er-do-well friends in office. They were an unruly lot: for example, the city attorney J. P. C. Whitehead was in a state of drunkenness for well over six months. He was variously described by contemporaries as in a "beastly condition of intoxication", "behav[ing] in a highly boisterous and improper manner"; he was carried out of town meetings and frequently discovered "lying on the floor of his office". Rowdiness and like behavior was so prevalent among well-connected police officers that a special committee was forced to recommend that "no policeman, while on duty, [should] be permitted to visit any saloon, gambling house or public resort, unless in the discharge of his official duty."
Among this rabble, city marshal Stephen Boyard managed to dismiss some of the nastier policemen who were friends with mayor Martin. He did this out of a sense of duty, coupled with self-righteousness after mayor Martin had him arrested for adultery, and again for "misconduct, corruption, and malfeasance." The Guaraches accused the Botas of trying to take over the police force in its entirety. The Botas told the Guaraches to sod off. Ominously, the election of 1886 approached.
So Let's Try Guns Instead
Both groups grew louder. To placate themselves, the Botas took to shooting pistols in the air, and also at an anvil on the outskirts of town. The Guaraches procured a cannon once used to ward off Indian raids (it had since been upended in the dry earth as a hitching post in front of the local pharmacy), painted it yellow, and staggered drunkenly through town, shattering ears of passersby with random peals of thundering ordnance. The official keeper of the cannon could be seen dressed in a red shirt, sitting astride the piece of artillery as though it was a horse, kicking at its metallic haunches with jangling spurs.
On election day, tensions ran high. The Guaraches lost most of the races by the slimmest of margins (629 to 618, for example, or 122 to 112, in two different districts), and retired to the bars to get sourly drunk. In celebratory fashion, the Botas did the same. Large groups of crabby young men roamed the streets, chanting slogans, throwing rocks. The cannon was fired, guns shot in the air. Nobody slept in town that night.
Hung over and heavily armed, the two groups bumped into each other in the town square the following morning. The Botas were holding a funeral for the Guaraches in effigy. The Guaraches sat stoically behind their cannon, their pep band playing El Torito. Anticipating trouble, the Botas had strategically placed snipers on the roofs of nearby buildings. Somebody flinched, and in the next thirty minutes, some two thousand rounds were fired. Botas shot Guaraches and Guaraches shot Botas as both groups tried to clear their heads from the prior evening's drinking. The buildings in town, the church in particular, were filled with lead, and plaster and glass exploded all over the square. The cannon was filled with nails, rocks, and whatever else could be found and fired in the Botas's general direction. Most of the debris whistled overhead and lodged in the church, where some of it can be seen today. The melee, at its peak, was made up of 250 people. As a witness reported,
There was a crack of Winchesters... a struggling mass of yelling combatants. In the streets, the cries of the different parties, the shrieks of women, the groans of the wounded, the scurrying of feet, the whirling of dust high in the air and all the incessant reports of the pistol and rifle. The town had run mad.
One of the Benavides brothers' house got shot, narrowly missing the man's wife. He later told a reporter,
We picked up a number of bullets in the house. Here is one which struck within a few inches of her head. I am keeping it and will remold it and return it, through my pistol, to the man who fired it at her.
As the morning dragged on, more men got injured. Fighters dragged away their injured or dying brethren, sometimes dumping the latter in the Rio Grande. Word of the melee (or perhaps just the sounds of cannon fire) made way up to nearby U.S. Army Fort McIntosh, conveniently located next to Laredo proper. Military police arrived to clean up the mess and bust up the brawl.
When the dust cleared, newspapers reported the death toll at nine and the wounded twenty, but no doubt the numbers didn't include the dead sent floating down the river. The results of the election stood; however, we think we would have skipped the inauguration.
No matter. Partisanship's days were numbered: by 1894, a draught so decimated Webb county (the "stench from dead animals [was] almost unendurable," said one witness) that the two groups buried the hatchet, formed an alliance, and fought the real enemy: the burgeoning temperance movement.
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