Rising over the desert of north-central New Mexico are the green and rugged Jemez Mountains. Nestled among these mountains, ringed by walls of jagged and wooded lava rock, is a valley. Rolling through this valley is a meadow. All across this meadow are the faint traces of an old ranch, and hidden among these traces is a legend.
In the late 1920s, the legend says, “Scarface” Al Capone, Chicago’s notorious Prohibition-era crime boss, used this mountain ranch as a getaway, when he needed a place to hole up for a while.
“Capone was here, but he was kept pretty well hidden,” remembered Mary Caldwell, a lifelong mountain resident. “He had a hideout. There’s no question he was here.”
“He used to come by, and when he’d come by he’d just stop in and have dinner with you,” added Jack Caldwell, Mary’s son. “There wasn’t a lot of people here back then.”
But one person who was around back then, and someone who may have known Capone, was an eccentric Chicago businessman named Seth Seiders.
Born in 1883, in Paulding, Ohio, Seth Seiders seemed to have entered this life driven by an intense desire to make money. As a child, he sold magazines, trapped muskrats for their pelts, and sold buckets full of wild blackberries. He read nothing but books about successful men, did little besides work, and thought of almost nothing but how to make a million.
Before long, he had grown into “a big, well-dressed, blonde-headed man with an arresting gray eye,” as writer Neil M. Clark described him in 1926. Possessing a seemingly endless supply of blustery enthusiasm, Seiders started a short-lived business, sold advertising for a newspaper, traveled the country selling door to door, married a businesswoman, and ultimately did make a million dollars.
How he made that money, though, is a matter of some debate. After moving to Chicago, he founded and presided over Seth Seiders Incorporated, and built a tiny empire selling printed pep talks and motivational sales booklets.
“…There’s something about the whole situation that keeps it from quite jelling—an almost intangible something,” wrote Merle Crowell, editor of The American Magazine, in response to a 1926 draft of an article about the man. “For one thing, you can’t quite visualize [Seiders’] business. ‘Made a million in six years out of selling some kind of mottoes,’ you say. ‘Sounds kind o’ phony to me.’”
“There was a rumor that he was a little shady,” recalled Tom Abousleman, an old friend of Seiders’. “Said he was in advertising, though that comes with a lot of territory.”
During the same years of the first half of the 1920s that Seiders was building his business in Chicago, Al Capone was taking over the Chicago underworld—making millions every year off liquor and gambling and prostitution—bribing and threatening and striking deals with countless lawmen and politicians and businessmen.
“Many of the businessmen and politicians who knew Capone best are still to be found in Chicago and its suburbs,” wrote George Murray in 1975, in The Legacy of Al Capone. “Some are living out their days in Florida, California, Arizona, or New Mexico. Few will acknowledge in so many words that Capone started them on the road to riches and power.”
In 1924, Seiders left Chicago for New Mexico, for the Jemez Mountains, but continued to spend at least half of every year in Illinois. He bought a large piece of property in the Jemez Mountains’ Cebolla Valley, built a house, a dancehall, an exclusive and technically illegal bar, a little store, and numerous outbuildings. Stables held horses for his guests to ride, hop plants grew around a mysteriously locked building, and there was more than enough room for friendly local girls, banquets, and slot machines. The property became known as the Rancho Rea, after Seiders’ wife, Rhea, and Seiders’ friends and associates would come west from Chicago and the East Coast just to see it.
“It was a very private place and lots of things went on there that wouldn’t go on in the normal world,” said Elsie MacKinnon, owner of the Laughing Lizard Inn & Café, in the mountain town of Jemez Springs. “And that’s where Al Capone stayed.”
“We kind of figured [Seiders] was in partnership with Al Capone in some ways,” said Mary Caldwell, and the situation wouldn’t be unthinkable. Seiders business was based in the same city as Capone’s, and by almost all accounts his morals were nearly as flexible: he bought and produced large quantities of illegal alcohol, engaged in a number of questionable business transactions, cheated on his taxes, and perhaps cheated on his wife with a young woman who sued him in 1928 for “both mental and physical suffering”—suffering caused in part by Seiders’ forcing the girl to dye her hair red. (“…The business executive will associate with none but red haired women,” reported the December 16, 1928 Chicago Daily Tribune.)
“Seiders knew Capone, but Capone wasn’t up here,” said Tom Abousleman. “First I heard about those rumors was after World War II, at an auction. Guy was selling a milking stool from Seiders’ ranch and said, ‘Al Capone might have sat on this,’ and everyone rushed to bid on it.”
Rumors or not, there are literally dozens of stories that place Capone and his henchmen all over these mountains. Employees at the Jemez Springs Bathhouse, in Jemez Springs, claim that Capone liked to drive down from his hideaway for a soak in the Bathhouse’s famous tubs. Residents tell of Capone visiting a nearby liquor store, an area church, and Seth Seiders’ other Jemez property, on the edge of Jemez Springs. That property was known as the Rancho Chico, featured a small stone hotel, and was bought and developed when Seiders’ wife got tired of Rancho Rea.
And, all rumors aside, Capone did pass through New Mexico. In December of 1927, Capone and some his cohorts boarded a train on the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. They rode from Chicago to Los Angeles, passing through both Santa Fe and Albuquerque along the way. The police and the media quickly hounded them out of town, and Capone and his men hurried onto another train, headed back through Albuquerque, back through Santa Fe, and back to Chicago.
So, Capone was in New Mexico.
Capone was here, and it is possible that when his train pulled into Albuquerque, he might have considering stopping to see an old acquaintance. Seiders often hired cars to drive guests up from Albuquerque’s train station, and it’s not impossible that Capone could have been such a guest, discovered the beautiful seclusion of Rancho Rhea, and gone back later when life in Chicago grew too intense.
Many of Capone’s biographers believe that his life was probably too well documented to have included multiple previously unknown trips to New Mexico, but they remain open to future proof.
“Just as ‘George Washington slept here’ is probably true of many places in the East, Al Capone got around in his day as well,” said John Binder, author of The Chicago Outfit. “He traveled widely and may have stopped at many places. Logically, it’s impossible to prove that he was never at a particular place.”
The Seiders’ place, the old Ranch Rea, was long ago taken from Seiders by the IRS, renamed the Lazy Ray, and torn down by the Forest Service, but the site can still be hiked to today. Visitors to the site can pause to hear the wind lift the valley’s aspens and ponderosas, watch lava-colored clouds smolder along a rocky horizon, and catch themselves wondering how anyone—even Al Capone—could have possibly stayed away.