It’s not clear today how old she was — nineteen, maybe, or twenty-six, or twenty-seven — the reports all differ. It’s not even clear what her true name was: Paula Angel by most accounts, but she was also called Pablita Martin. But the most pressing questions, still unanswered nearly 150 years after her execution, are why she was hanged in the first place and how the sheriff managed to bungle the job so badly.
Paula Angel was the first and last woman ever executed in New Mexico (while it was yet a territory). Her crime: she stabbed her married lover, Juan Miguel Martin, to death when he tried to end their affair. Her execution was on April 26, 1861, in San Miguel, now Las Vegas.
Anyone familiar with historical crimes and trials, particularly those involving women, will marvel at such an outcome. A capital conviction for stabbing a lover, a crime passionel? That’s certainly not the outcome one would expect for that era (or this era, for that matter; today we’d label it second-degree murder at worst).
One explanation for Miss Angel’s hanging is that the newspapermen never got the story. Decades later, the wire services circulated very brief accounts of her trial and execution under headlines such as “The Story The Newspapers Missed.” So she may well have lacked the greatest champion anyone facing a murder charge can have: public opinion — the verdict of the greater jury. Throughout the nineteenth century, there was a universal revulsion for the execution of women, no matter what their crime, and judges and juries were anxious to find a reason to acquit a woman.
But the authorities in New Mexico Territory were eager to see her hanged. The accounts that survive today report that the jailer taunted her every day leading up to her execution — “I’m going to hang you until you’re dead, dead, dead,”* is the quote attributed to the sheriff.
What was her social status? Was she a prostitute? Was she a violent menace to the community? Had she committed other terrible acts? Was she unrepentant? Did she sullenly testify at her trial and put in a poor appearance on her own behalf? Most importantly, was she ugly? The accounts available today don’t say.
When it came time to launch Angel into eternity, the sheriff did not build a gallows. He selected a sturdy cottonwood tree outside of town. Paula Angel was driven there on a wagon, forced to ride on her own coffin to the site of her execution, which was witnessed by ranchers and townsmen. The sheriff fixed the rope to the tree, garlanded her with hemp, and then resumed his seat on the wagon and hawed the horses. But he’d made an error. He forgot to tie her hands behind her.
Paula Angel managed to get her fingers underneath the rope in a last pitiful effort to save her own neck, and she struggled on the end of the rope. It must have been an awful sight to see. The crowds surely voiced loud complaints. The sheriff was forced to put the wagon beneath her a second time, to cut her down, retie the rope amid the jeers and catcalls, properly secure her hands and feet, and to repeat the process. She did not survive her second hanging.
And there hasn’t been one woman executed in New Mexico since. Rarely has any woman from that state even faced the possibility, though a few years ago Linda Henning nearly became the second woman executed there — and she certainly deserved it. Fans of Court TV will recognize the name, since Court TV has rebroadcasted Henning’s bizarre trial more than once. She was tried for the cooly planned and bloody murder of Girly Chew Hossencofft, the estranged wife of her boyfriend, in one of the weirdest trials of the century. But the jury rejected the death penalty. The reason Henning agreed to involve herself in the murder of a woman she had not even met: Henning was convinced that Girly Chew was a reptilian alien queen from another galaxy.
You read that right: an alien queen from another galaxy. You can’t make this stuff up.
Recommended reading: Death on the Gallows : The Story of Legal Hangings in New Mexico, 1847-1923 by West Gilbreath (High Lonesome Books, 2002).
For the stories of the men executed in New Mexico see the excellent compilation by Mark Allan of the Angelo State University Library. [Note: link updated from Laura’s original post. -ed.]
For more on the Hossencofft case see the website of author Mark Horner.
* [Shades of Billy the Kid. Maybe it was something lawmen said to lend it that Wild West atmosphere. -ed.]
[Former New Mexico state historian Robert Torrez unpacks the Paula Angel story and reprints a corrido (folk ballad), “La Homicida Pablita” written by her cousin in Myth of the Hanging Tree. -ed.]