1875: Tiburcio Vasquez, California bandido

9 comments March 19th, 2012 Headsman

A spirit of hatred and revenge took possession of me. I had numerous fights in defense of what I believed to be my rights and those of my countrymen. I believed we were unjustly deprived of the social rights that belonged to us.

-Tiburcio Vasquez

On this date in 1879, legendary Californio outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez was hanged in San Jose.

Born to a respectable family (his grandfather was the first mayor of San Jose) when the land was under Mexican control, Vasquez was among the many chagrined to find themselves demoted to second-class citizenry by the norteamericano conquest of the Mexican-American War.

That occurred when Vasquez was in his early teens, and soon thereafter the young man was plying California’s ill-policed byways with the whole litany of depredations characteristic of the frontier outlaw: livestock rustling, highway robbing, shopkeep stickups.*

One of the latter furnished the proximate cause of his death and probably the most infamous single incident among his exploits: an armed robbery in Tres Pinos** that resulted in three shooting deaths and a serious manhunt.

For Vasquez, the end of the rope (last word: “Pronto”) was just the last act of a legendary career, of poetry and horsemanship and countless enchanted inamoratas. He was renowned in his own time, and has graduated since into a mythical, and potently symbolic, figure of the other peoples of the Golden West.

For this anniversary of Tiburcio Vasquez’s execution, we’re pleased to welcome John Boessenecker, author of the recent biography Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez . (Find another topical interview with this same author here.)

Book CoverHow did you separate fact from folklore researching this outlaw? How much do we really know about him?

Generally speaking the whole genre of outlaws and lawmen is sort of known for bad research and myths and crazy stories. It tends to attract — here I’m denigrating myself– people who are a little off. Like myself. The movie buffs tend to get reality mixed up with what they’ve seen in the movies.

The whole genre has attracted poor research and sensational writers since the days of the dime novels. Though there are real historical groups: the Wild West History Association is probably the best example — True West magazine and Wild West magazine do a god job of publishing authentic history.

With Vasquez in particular, he became a folk hero in his own lifetime to disadvantaged Hispanics.

He was personally very well-liked; as a general rule, he didn’t rob Hispanics (although he did from time to time); he paid for safe harbor and food; he was a terrific dancer; he wrote poetry to is female admirers. He was a bigger-than-life personality, sort of the life of the party.

Among the larger Hispanic community as he became more notorious in the 1870s, he became a folk hero in his own lifetime. A lot of the myths are exaggerations of things he really did.

When the colonized cannot earn a living within the system, or when they are degraded, they strike out. The most physical way is to rebel. This can be done in an organized way, as was done by Juan Cortina in Texas, or it can express itself in bandit activity. An analysis of the life of Tiburcio Vasquez clearly demonstrates that, while in the strict sense of the word he was a criminal, at the same time his underlying motivation was self-defense. Some Anglo-American folklorists have attempted to portray Tiburcio Vasquez as a comical and oversexed Mexican bandit … dismiss[ing] the legitimate grievance of Chicanos during the nineteenth century. While it is true that Tiburcio Vasquez was an outlaw, many Mexicans still consider him a hero.

-Rodolfo Acuña, Occupied America: A History of Chicanos

His outlaw career seems like it’s bound up in this Anglo-Hispanic cultural collision. To what extent does that influence how he’s “read” by others?

His life is sort of a microcosm of what was going on. The first portion of my book deals with the rise and fall of the native settlers of California.

With the loss of California in the Mexican-American War and then the discovery of gold, they became second-class citizens in their own land. So Vasquez becomes a folk hero — he robbed stagecoaches, thumbed his nose at the sheriff, and got away.

But he was also a bandit.

In the 1960s, the so-called Chicano historians (pdf) latched on to Vasquez, and they actually believed he was a Robin Hood figure or a “social bandit”. This is a total crock.

You find these same outlaw myths in all cultures. Vasquez is no different, though he’s better documented than most. People would sing corridos about him.

There were some quotes by him that says that he was driven to it, the Anglos drove me to it — but that’s no different from Jesse James or Billy the Kid saying they were driven to it, even if it’s true. Most of these guys I’m talking about are or were history professors; they should have known better.

What led you to this story?

When I was a kid in the early 60s I watched all the westerns. Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen were my favorite. But then I wanted to know, was there a Wild West here in California? So when I got into high school I went and read everything I could get my hands on about early California history.

Vasquez and Black Bart were pretty much the most famous early California outlaws. So I started researching Vasquez in high school, and collected information for about 40 years, but it took me another four years to write it.

There’s never been a biography about Vasquez. There were three paperback books published about him, one after he was captured and two right after he was hanged — they’re not dime novels, but they’re sort of semi-fictional. There have been many magazines, many book chapters since, but everything published about him has just been a rehash of those three books. (n.b. — here’s a pdf of one of those original 1870s books -ed.)

It must have been a compelling story for you to stick with it for 40 years.

It’s just sort of a great story from early California. Vasquez was very colorful.

He fell under the influence of a guy named Anastacio Garcia when he was about 16 years old, and his parents seem to have separated. He had a large family; all of them were extremely honest. One of his brothers was a very prominent rancher; another brother served a term as a justice of the peace in Los Angeles County.

Vasquez, possibly because his father wasn’t around, fell under the influence of Garcia and got involved in the Roach-Belcher feud. Garcia was a hired gun, and the two of them were involved in a brawl in a Fandango house in 1854 and one of them killed a local constable. Tiburcio Vasquez fled Monterrey and never appeared openly after that.

But he basically did not change.

He was engaged to Garcia’s sister when he was 17 and she apparently broke it off. That seemed to have embittered him because he never had another serious relationship again with another woman. He was a real rounder, he got shot over women, took off with the wives of other gang members.

That was very foolish — that’s what got him the noose, when a cuckolded gang member testified against him at trial. He never made any effort to change; he was what you call a career criminal.

He was a very cultured person, and even if you compare him to more modern-day criminals like Clyde Barrow or Pretty Boy Floyd or John Dillinger, none of them had that kind of culture. He really was sort of the prototype of that sort of charismatic bandit who at the same time is both charming and deadly.

Probably the thing to me that was the most fascinating was the information I dug up about his family: his parents, his sisters who were very loyal to him; his brothers who all tried to get him to go straight. I was very pleased to meet the descendants of some of his brothers, so it was fascinating to reconstruct his family life to try to explain his personality.

So what was the nature of that bandit career?

Well, he wasn’t a remorseless killer, though he was involved in nine murders — he always said it was someone else.

The one that he was hanged for, his gang killed three people in a robbery. He claimed someone else pulled the trigger. Some witnesses said it was Vasquez himself, but under the law then and now, if you band together to commit a felony and someone dies, everyone involved is culpable for murder.

He’d been doing a lot of robberies before then, but he’d do them in remote areas. He tried not to kill anyone; he’d tie people up — but he was also involved in a lot of gunfights. Basically he’d shoot to escape. In doing the research I found that he had fired into a brothel in Santa Cruz and wounded three people; another time he fired into a stagecoach station.

One of the great Vasquez stories is, he gets out of San Quentin and he goes to San Juan Bautista which is one of the most picturesque villages in California then and now — it was one of his favorite hangouts. One of his gang members, Salazar, had tried to go straight. Vasquez shows up at San Juan and finds out that Salazar has married this gorgeous 15-year-old named “Pepita” and he and another gang member lust after her and get her to run off with the gang. So Salazar comes gunning for him; they have a gunfight right there in front of the mission, and Salazar shoots Vasquez through the chest and damn near kills him. His gang gets him out of it … the girl gets pregnant, evidently with Tiburcio’s child and she dies of a botched abortion. It’s sort of the Vasquez story in a microcosm, it looks pretty romantic on the surface and you look a little deeper and it becomes pretty grisly.

He gave a lot of interviews after he was captured and they give color to the story. There’s the natural human inclination to paint yourself in the best light.

None of which helped him avoid execution.

His hanging was actually the most publicized hanging in the history of the Pacific coast; newspapers came from Canada, New York all over the country to witness the hanging.

He was hanged in front of a big crowd, a thousand people or more present. People climbed trees and telegraph poles became the jailhouse was packed. The sheriff had 300 or 400 invitations issued and then many many more were clustered around.


Executed Today would be remiss not to add that our day’s gallows-bird was the namesake of the Vasquez Rocks, a small Natural Area Park north of Los Angeles where the outlaw used to hide out.


The Vasquez Rocks. (cc) image from KateMonkey.

This striking triangular rock formation, thrust out of the earth by tectonic action, has been used extensively in film productions of every genre since at least the 1930s, including with almost compulsive frequency in the Star Trek franchise — e.g., Captain Kirk fighting the Gorn:

* There’s a good deal of material about Tiburcio’s career linked here.

** The Tres Pinos robbed by Vasquez’s gang is now known as Paicines; it would lose its original name to the distinct settlement that grew up around the Tres Pinos train station 4.7 miles away.

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1961: José Isaías Constante Laureano, the last executed in Mexico

Add comment August 9th, 2011 Headsman

At dawn fifty years ago today, Jose Isaias Constante Laureano was shot in Saltillo, Coahuila for murder — the last application of capital punishment in Mexican history.

Laureano, an infantryman, died under military law for getting drunk and shooting dead two of his comrades in arms. (Spanish link; here’s another)

Though only formally abolished in 2005, capital punishment in Mexico simply dwindled away in the middle part of the century. The last civilian execution was all the way back in 1937. Mexico’s closest engagement with the death penalty these days has been protesting the dozens of cases of Mexican nationals condemned in the United States after being denied Vienna Convention rights of consular access.

Since past performance is no guarantee of future returns, nowhere is it written that the next five decades will also remain death penalty-free in Mexico. In fact, given the country’s wave of destructive drug war crimes, calls to restore the ultimate sanction have been heard from Coahuila’s own governor as well as from such unexpected quarters as Mexico’s Green Party.


Green Party pro-death penalty billboard in Mexico. (cc) image from Randal Sheppard.

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1909: Jesus Malverde, narco patron saint

2 comments May 3rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1909, a Mexican bandit was executed by the police. Maybe. Unusually for these pages, the date is quite certain but the existence of the executed man is not.

If he existed — and this caveat is standard in practically every profile of the fascinating cultural phenomenon fathered by the man or phantom — Jesus Malverde was a Robin Hood-esque “social bandit” who preyed on Mexico’s plutocratic agricultural lords and distributed the spoils to the poor.

According to Patricia Price (“Bandits and Saints: Jesus Malverde and the Struggle for Place in Sinaloa, Mexico”, Cultural Geographies 2005; 12; 175), the Malverde of legend entered the world as Jesus Juarez Mazo, but his

own parents died of hunger or a curable illness, and that this was the catalyst for his turn to a life of crime. While Malverde was said to have worked variously on the railroads, as a carpenter, or as a tailor, he soon joined the ranks of bandits that roamed Mexico’s countryside at the end of the nineteenth century. He reportedly stole gold coins from the rich hacienda owners living in Culiacan and threw them in the doorways of the poor at night.

Truly a figure who, if he did not exist, it were necessary to invent.

All the particulars about his legendary exploits are a bit fuzzy, right down to his end on May 3, 1909 — possibly gunned down, possibly left to die of exposure with his feet hacked off, or possibly (and certainly more picturesquely) summarily hanged from a mesquite tree by a posse.

(In a version that appealingly combines these threads, he’s said to have been dying of gangrene after being shot, and in a last act of charity prevailed upon his friend to bring in his body to collect the reward. The police gibbeted his corpse.)

In the years since, Malverde has become a popular divine intercessor for the marginal social classes who could identify with such a figure, like Sinaloa’s poor farmers of corn and beans.

And other cash crops.

Malverde is also the patron saint — decidedly unofficial, of course — of the region’s robust narcotics trade.

His shrine stationed across the way from a government compound in Sinaloa’s capital city draws a bustle of devotees.* Offerings like produce and shrimp share space with icons of marijuana and AK-47s, and votive notes appreciating “how things turned out, and how nobody was grabbed.”

The underworld angle may draw the gawking Yankees, but Jesus Malverde — man, legend, shrine, all — is a genuine civic institution who meets a genuine need for solace not unlike his very namesake. In the words of a researcher quoted by Price, Malverde draws

the poorest, the handicapped, pickpockets, thugs, prostitutes, drug traffickers and drug addicts, in sum, the stigmatized who, in civil or religious iconography don’t find anyone who looks like them, in whom to confide and in whose hands to put their lives.

We’ll drink to that.

* So does Malverde’s Facebook page.

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1843: Ewen Cameron, black bean leftover

Add comment April 26th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1843, a Mexican firing squad disposed of Texan commander Ewen Cameron.

A Scottish immigrant, Cameron arrived in Texas just as it broke free of Mexico. His reputation for martial prowess on the frontier earned him a newsman’s tribute as “the Bruce of the West.”

High praise indeed: but his end would better resemble Wallace.

Cameron hitched on to the ill-fated Mier Expedition plundering raid over the border.

He was among the men forced to participate in the Black Bean Lottery wherein 176 Texan prisoners picked beans from a pot to determine who would live and who would die. Cameron picked a white bean, saving his life … but only briefly.*

The verdict refused by Fortune was reinstated by the hands of men.

Abrasive characters like the Bruce are not so well appreciated across their respective frontiers, and Cameron had built some ill-will in the Mexican army with his intrepidity the previous year.

The officer thereby embarrassed, Antonio Canales, was loath to let this reviled prisoner escape his clutches, and urgently petitioned Santa Anna to dispose of him.

This was duly done at Perote Prison, where the other lottery survivors languished for months or years along with other captives of various Mexican-Texan skirmishes.

Cameron County, Texas (the state’s southernmost) is named for Ewen.

* According to this account, the Mexicans loaded the fatal black beans onto the top layers in an effort to get the officers (who drew first) to pick them. Cameron was wise to the scheme, and foiled it by thrusting his hand all the way into the pot.

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1916: Three in the Mexican Revolution

Add comment March 8th, 2011 Headsman

On an uncertain date — approximated only to “about the time of the Columbus affair,” which was Pancho Villa‘s famous (and otherwise unrelated) raid on Columbus, N.M. March 8-9, 1916 — a triple execution took place in Juarez, Mexico.

The who, why, and wherefore appear to be completely lost. Only the image remains:

These images were captured by C. Tucker Barrett, a lawyer and amateur photographer serving with the U.S. Army’s 16th Infantry Regiment then stationed right across the border from Juarez, in El Paso, Texas. (This regiment would be detailed for a punitive expedition into Mexico, which Barrett also photographed.)

The Mexican Revolution may be ancient history, but Juarez and extrajudicial executions are still very much in the news.

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1815: José María Morelos, Mexican revolutionary

2 comments December 22nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1815, the Catholic priest turned revolutionary leader Jose Maria Morelos was shot for rebellion.

Morelos was born in New Spain — the town of his nativity was posthumously named in his honor — and entered adulthood a humble agricultural laborer* before engaging the career in letters necessary to undertake Holy Orders.

Designated to save his countrymen’s souls, he proposed instead to save their liberties and ungratefully joined up with fellow-priest Miguel Hidalgo when the latter sounded the tocsin for the Mexican War of Independence.

Morelos distinguished himself rapidly in the revolutionary army, and upon Hidalgo’s capture attained its leadership, complete with Generalissimo status.

Upon capture, he was handled first — and rather meticulously — by the Inquisition, which defrocked him in an auto de fe before relaxing him to the secular authority for the inevitable punishment.

Without a dissentient voice it [was] agreed that … [Morelos] be declared guilty of malicious and pertinacious imperfect confession, a formal heretic who denied his guilt, a disturber and persecutor of the hierarchy and a profaner of the sacraments; that he was guilty of high treason, divine and human, pontifical and royal … his property should be confiscated to the king … His three children were declared subject to infamy and the legal disabilities of descendants of heretics.

-Source

Nobody said being a national hero was easy.

* “His morals were those of his class,” remarks our source on the Inquisition. “He admitted to having three children, born of different mothers during his priesthood, but he added that his habits, though not edifying, had not been scandalous, and the tribunal seemed to think so, for little attention was paid to this during his trial.”

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1539: Don Carlos Ometochtzin, Aztec heretic

1 comment November 30th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1539, the Spanish Inquisition had Aztec noble Don Carlos Ometochtzin (or Don Carlos Chichimecatecuhi, or Don Carlos Ahuachpitzactzin) burned at the stake for reverting to the pre-Columbian indigenous religion.

Just another Mesoamerican depredation?

Surprisingly, this execution stands out as an exception in the first generations of its conquest. It even cost the first bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumarraga, a reprimand for his excess severity. Why?

Certainly any European Christian would have had trouble with the Inquisition if, like Don Carlos (Spanish Wikipedia entry | English), he had been caught with idols of Xipe Totec in his place.

But it was precisely the point that these weren’t Europeans. In 16th century “New Spain,” syncretisms of Christianity and the native Mexican cults still in living memory were the norm, a scenario recalling early Christianity co-opting the pagan rites it supplanted.*


Respect Xipe Totec’s authoritah!

And that created for the Spanish a problem: how stringently to insist upon an alien orthodoxy for its new subjects? The problem was pragmatic at least as much as it was theological, because the business of winning converts for Christ had to coexist with the business of running an empire. No sense provoking civil war just because the newest souls in the fold don’t have the Te Deum down; Cortes himself, in his initial conquest, had prohibited human sacrifice but not risked closing native temples.* That wasn’t done until 1525.

Over the 1530’s, a campaign unfolded to pare down the many holdover native behaviors — polygamy, idolatry — and cement Christianity. Of particular concern were the “converted” elites who had both means (their social position) and motive (privileges lost to the Spanish) to use nostalgia for the old ways to make trouble.

So, a powerful indigenous priest who “converted” and then went about preaching heretically was investigated by Zumarraga, wielding the Inquisitorial authority, in 1536.

But even that didn’t draw a death sentence.

In Zumarraga’s 19 Inquisitorial trials involving at least 75 suspects, the one and only instance of an Indian being “relaxed” to the secular authorities for execution came in 1539, when Zumarraga was tipped that the hereditary ruler of one of the Aztec Triple Alliance‘s principal city-states was a secret idolator, and a public declaimer of treasonable utterances like this:

Who are those that undo us and disturb us and live on us and we have them on our backs and they subjugate us? … no one shall equal us, that this is our land, and our treasure and our jewel, and our possession, and the Dominion is ours and belongs to us.

Don Carlos was ultimately acquitted of the idolatry stuff, but convicted of heretical dogmatizing.

So far, so good, right? Executions for heresy might be horrible in general, but if you live in a world where they’re routine, surely having your colonial satrap out there calling the empire parasitical, and telling the unwashed masses to go ahead and take multiple wives (Aztec elites seem to have been especially piqued by the lifestyle austerity preached by Franciscan missionaries) is the sort of thing that’ll get you burned at the stake.** And there were plenty more like him out there.

But though the Christianizing campaign of the 1530’s would continue in many forms for decades still to come, the bloodletting which Don Carlos figured to presage was abruptly canceled.

According to Patricia Lopes Don’s “Franciscans, Indian Sorcerers, and the Inquisition in New Spain, 1536–1543,” in Journal of World History, Vol. 17, No. 1,

[a] holocaust was most probably at hand in the spring of 1540. However, when the Council of the Indies in Spain learned of Don Carlos’s execution, they reprimanded Zumárraga, sent a visitador, an inspector-auditor, to New Spain to take away the bishop’s inquisitorial powers, and left him in a state of some humiliation until his death in 1548. All indications were that they feared further such executions would lead to widespread indigenous rebellion in New Spain. As was the case with the Muslims in the Old World, although orthodox Christianity was central to the concept of Spain and the monarchy, when the imperial Spanish needed to choose between religious orthodoxy and the security of the state, they could learn very quickly to be flexible and politique, yet express their concerns in judicious language. In a letter of 22 November 1540, Francisco de Nava, bishop of Seville, explained to Zumárraga that while he understood that he had executed Don Carlos “in the belief that burning would put fear into others and make an example of him,” the Indians, he suggested, “might be more persuaded with love than with rigor.”

When the Inquisition was formally instituted in New Spain in 1571, the native populace was explicitly outside its jurisdiction: its job was to monitor the European population for covert Protestants, Muslims, and Jews.

Although this development has to count as a break for the locals, it’s interesting to note that the theological superstructure of the Spanish policy tension between religious conformity and practical colonialism turned at least in part on a condescending dispute over the “capacity” of Indians to truly become Christian. In that dispute, Zumarraga and his Franciscan order were the ones who thought more highly of the indigenous “capacity”, as against the more skeptical Dominicans; the logical consequence of the Franciscan position was to impose upon those capacious natives the fullest severity of God’s law.

* Though not to be underestimated is the persistence within the citadel of Christendom of everyday folk beliefs, and occasional social movements, at odds with ecclesiastical dogma.

** Treasonous quote and details about the investigation and trial from Richard E. Greenleaf, “Persistence of Native Values: The Inquisition and the Indians of Colonial Mexico”, The Americas, Vol. 50, No. 3 (Jan., 1994)

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1927: Martyrdom of Five Christeros

Add comment October 8th, 2010 Headsman

Artist unknown. The inscription reads:

Execution of Cristeros by federal soldiers on the outskirts of San Gabriel, Jalisco, October 8, 1927. On the same site, the soldiers were ambushed, suffering the same fate.

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1903: Hilario Hidalgo and Francisco Renteria

Add comment July 31st, 2010 Headsman

Border-related violence and crime due to illegal immigration are critically important issues to the people of our state, to my Administration and to me, as your Governor and as a citizen.

-Statement (pdf) by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer on signing the anti-immigration law, which went into effect July 29, 2010

Some stories are just plain classics.

In February 1903, two Mexicans shot up Goddard Station stagecoach stop, for motivations that were never plain. (There was no robbery, but it might have been revenge.)

The shooters got away, but law enforcement soon enough decided that a couple of railroad workers on the Mexican side of the border matched their description, and contrived to lure them into Arizona where they could be arrested.

Hilario Hidalgo and Francisco Renteria, were put on trial for their lives in Prescott, Ariz., in June 1903, where they were doomed to hang on the strength of eyewitness testimony and thirty minutes of the jurymen’s time. Appeals forbidden, the sentence was executed on this date — not six months after the crime.

With feelings of profound regret and sorrow, I hereby invite you to attend and witness the private and decent and humane execution of two human beings, namely: Richard Roe and John Doe. Crime — Murder.

Said men will be executed on July 31, 1903 at 12 noon. You are expected to deport yourself in a respectful manner and any flippant or unseemly language or conduct on your part will not be allowed. Conduct on anyone’s part bordering on ribaldry and tending to mar the solemnity of the occasion will not be tolerated.

-Sheriff’s invitation to the hanging, quoted in Frontier Justice in the Wild West: Bungled, Bizarre, and Fascinating Executions

The men cracked wise at the reading of their death warrant — “I have heard that repeated so often that if it was a song I would sing it to you,” reported the Los Angeles Times (Aug. 1, 1903) — and with “perfect nerve” checked out, calling only “Adios! Adios!” from the scaffold.

It was the last hanging in Prescott, Ariz.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arizona,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mexico,Murder,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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