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On Mayor tom lea II, artist tom lea III's father 

Questions and Answers Regarding Tom Lea II.

City of El Paso Mayor from 1915-1917 | 


Some writers have inaccurately characterized Mayor Lea and we feel it is important to set the record straight with the facts.

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Was Artist Tom Lea once the Mayor of El Paso?


No. The artist Tom Lea Calloway is actually the third Tom Lea of his family. His father, Tom Lea Calloway II, was formerly the mayor of El Paso.


We refer to the artist Tom Lea, whom the Tom Lea Institute is named after, as Tom Lea III to avoid confusion. 

If Mayor Lea did not shut down the border, then why did it happen?

At no time did Mayor Lea even attempt to shut down the border between El Paso and Juarez. The border was and still is under the federal government's jurisdiction, not the City of El Paso. Mayor Lea, like all mayors before and since his term, had no authority to do such a thing. 

Of note, several factors affected border traffic and demanded special attention by federal and local jurisdictions during that time:


  1. Sugar smuggling from Mexico during WWI was a significant problem;

  2. Draft resisters crossing into Juarez to avoid the war was also a major problem;

  3. The Immigration Law of 1917 was passed and required that all immigrants have a passport, take a literacy test, and pay an $8 tax;  

  4. Nationally, there was some fear that German spies and anarchists would invade the country through its southern border.

Why did Mayor Lea request a quarantine of Mexicans coming to El Paso from Juarez?

Because the federal government was in control of all international crossings, a quarantine was requested to assist in stopping the spread of typhus from Juarez. 

  A quarantine did not stop people from crossing the border; however, it was intended to delay their introduction into the general population for health reasons during the typhus crises.  


The "Bath Riots" or protest led by Mexican maid Carmelita Torres was against the Federal Government's policy. Although some have attempted to associate Mayor Lea with the event, the City of El Paso had no jurisdiction over the border and the disinfecting stations. 


Ultimately, Mayor Lea was defeated in his desire to implement a quarantine. Instead, the federal government and U.S. Surgeon General opted to set up disinfecting stations on the Santa Fe Bridge. Before being allowed to cross into the U.S., Mexicans had to strip nude for an inspection, bathe, undergo lice treatment, and have their clothes treated in a steam dryer. Mayor Lea had no jurisdiction in this matter, and the disinfecting station process continued for forty more years under the federal government's policy. This process was not under the jurisdiction of the Mayor of the City of El Paso.

What role did Mayor Lea play in the arrest of Pancho Villa's wife?

While Lea was Mayor, Pancho Villa's wife, Luz Corral Villa, and Villa's brother Hipólito, were arrested for "gun-running." Throughout his term, Mayor Lea was noted for upholding the law for everyone in El Paso -- which Villa and his followers violated numerous times. That was the case in this instance, and Villa's arrest had nothing to do with Mayor Lea hating lower-class Mexicans." However, in retaliation, Villa issued a public notice in Mexico offering $1,000 in gold for Mayor Lea, dead or alive., He also sent a threat to kidnap his sons. Throughout this entire difficult period, Mayor Lea continued to place a high value on law and order. He attempted to maintain that order in El Paso – all while contending with the chaos just across the border.

Why did Mayor Lea wear silk underwear?


An interesting question, and one that has no relevance to any matters of significance. But it does have a legitimate answer: Mayor Lea's choice to wear silk underwear was to protect himself from viral infection due to typhus. His rationale was based on sound advice derived from scientific research since disease experts found that lice preferred fabrics other than silk. In fact, visitors to Mexico during the 1910's typhus outbreak were advised to wear silk underclothes to avoid infection. 

This disease was widespread in the region and took the life of Mayor Lea's first health commissioner.  

Was Mayor Tom Lea II a Member of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the early 1920s?


Tom Lea II did join the KKK, after he served as Mayor of the City of El Paso. The KKK of the 1920s was not just a hate group but also a means of political and civic action, and during this time recruited over 3,000 members. As is detailed in Professor Shawn Lay's book, the group was seized upon as a reform vehicle to challenge the political Ring that had dominated El Paso for so long. 


 However, once they had attended a Klan meeting and realized what the group was really about, many members, including Lea, left. In the important mayoral election of 1923, it was Lea or one of his political allies who said “Good men got into that organization, but they soon left.”  Lea played a prominent role in attacking the Klan and helping secure the election of the anti-Klan candidate Dick Dudley. Mayor Lea was especially affected by the racist rhetoric focusing on Catholics and Mexicans. Lea fought against the KKK activities and publicly denounced the KKK in El Paso, and even participated in dismantling race riots.  

Tom Lea, Sr. has been accused of disliking Mexico and Mexican people. True or false?

 The accusation is entirely false and notably unfounded. Even as a young man, Tom Lea. Sr. loved Mexico, lived there for two years, and was drawn to it and its people throughout his life. He had many friends in Mexico, and his second wife, Rosario Partida Archer, was a Mexican from Cd. Juarez. Also, Tom Lea II successfully defended many Mexicans from all walks of life through his law practice.  

Adios, amigo.

El Paso lost a picturesque and lovable figure when Tom Lea died last night.

He was one of the last of the old-time lawyers, of the breed of courtroom knights who loved to pit their wits, their histrionics and their eloquent voices against the prosecutors and in behalf of one charged with crime. “Criminal lawyers,” they are called, and to us their specialty has always seemed the highest branch of the law because it deals with life and freedom rather than real estate and coin. Tom Lea was one of the best of them.  Tears were his chief weapon and he could bring them forth from judge, jury and himself in behalf of the innocent horse-thief, as well as the “dear little lady” who had been forced to dispose of her “brute of a husband.”

A few years ago, speaking to the County Bar Association, he chose “Idle Tears” as his subject and he told how in his long and happy – but tearful- career they had swayed juries and influenced judges. He was very fine in the courtroom.  And outside he was an upstanding and patriotic citizen.  He made El Paso a vigorously excellent mayor in the years of World War I. Tom Lea came to El Paso out of Missouri at the turn of the century.  He became authentic Southwest.  He was as much a part of this country as the cactus, the caliche, the gaunt, rugged mountains and the rare, refreshing desert showers.

The Tom Leas aren’t being made any more and we will not see his like again.  But we can keep his memory green.  The El Paso Southwest gained much because he passed by here.  Adios, amigo. 


- El Paso Newspaper Editorial, 1945

Read more on Mayor Tom Lea


Download Nora Orozco's article here and read an extended biography on Mayor Lea.












See our curricula The Mexican Revolution Through the Eyes of Tom Lea, Jose Cisneros & Posada. Here you will find extensive history and detail. 


Rebuttal to Texas Observer.

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