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Hangings and Lynchings in New Mexico

By Robert Torrez
Former New Mexico State Historian

New Mexico was an integral part of the "Wild West" era. The Santa Fe Trail, William "Billy the Kid" Bonney, Pat Garrett, Elfego Baca, and many other names we associate with these frontier times had their beginnings during New Mexico's territorial period. Unfortunately, most of our "wild west" images have been formed by their portrayal in three generations of western movies. In order to correct some of these perceptions, we will take a brief look at one aspect of frontier New Mexico—crime and punishment and the role played by hangings and lynchings in the administration of justice in our territorial courts.

Between 1848 and 1912, New Mexico's courts condemned over one hundred persons, including several women, to death by hanging. We have signed death warrants and other records that show that forty-nine of these individuals actually were executed. The rest had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment or were pardoned by the governor; others, such as Billy the Kid, cheated the hangman by escaping from jail.

An examination of these legal hangings shows some surprising facts about frontier justice. The record demonstrates very clearly, for example, that New Mexico's courts never condemned anyone to death for stealing a horse. While there is evidence that a few men were lynched for stealing horses, all but one of these legal executions was for a conviction of first-degree murder. The one exception, of course, was Thomas "Black Jack" Ketchum, who was convicted and hanged in 1901 for "assault on a railroad train."

It also should be noted that none of these forty-nine executions was done on a tree. Every single one took place on a gallows or scaffold constructed specifically for that purpose. These structures ranged from a simple cross beam and two poles to the elaborate gallows used to hang Milton Yarberry in Albuquerque in 1883. Milton Yarberry was executed by a "jerk" gallows, designed to jerk the condemned man upwards when a weight was dropped, instead of the typical model which dropped the victim through a trap door. The machine was described as the latest "model of scientific skill" and was supposedly based on drawings found in the Scientific American magazine.

Santa Fe, with nine, had the most legal hangings. Silver City had six; Las Cruces and Las Vegas, five each; Albuquerque had four; Socorro and Lincoln, three each; two respectively at Alcalde, Raton, Taos, and Tierra Amarilla; and one each at Cimarron, Clayton, Deming, Eddy (Carlsbad), Roswell, and Springer. Most of these were single executions, but on five occasions more than one hanging took place from the same scaffold on the same day, if not at the same time. These multiple executions took place at Silver City, Santa Fe, Tierra Amarilla, and Raton. The most spectacular of these was at Santa Fe on April 2, 1897, when four men were stood on a specially designed six-foot trap door that enabled all four to suffer the fateful drop together.

Hangings tended to be gruesome affairs, a fact commonly overlooked when they are portrayed in the movies. There are several instances where the desired result of hanging—a cleanly broken neck—was not achieved. Instead, shocked officials and horrified audiences often witnessed the victim slowly strangle to death.

A letter reporting the hanging of William Wilson at Lincoln in 1875, for example, indicates Wilson had been lowered from the gallows and placed in his coffin before someone noticed he was still alive. After conferring, officials decided to string Wilson up for twenty minutes longer in order to comply with the instructions of the death warrant, which specified the condemned was to hang "until he [was] dead." Sometimes, the death warrant was even more emphatic, specifying the victim was to be "dead, dead, dead."

The most horrific example of these bungled executions was when Black Jack Ketchum was decapitated by the hangman's noose at Clayton in 1901. But the prospect of such appalling spectacles did little to dissuade thousands of curious spectators from attending these public executions. Crowds became such a problem that territorial law later required that the scaffold be hidden behind an enclosure. Regardless of whether they could see anything, however, large crowds were the norm at territorial executions, and many spectators resorted to scaling the rooftops of nearby buildings to get a better look.

Another type of hanging that was an integral part of territorial justice in New Mexico was the lynching. These took place when a group of men, usually described as a "mob" or "vigilantes," forced their way into the jail where a suspect was being held, took the prisoner, and hanged him without the benefit of a trial. So far, research has found ninety-seven reports of lynchings between 1852 and 1893, but it is rumored that lynchings took place in New Mexico as late as the 1920s.

Fifty-six of these ninety-seven reports of lynchings provide enough detail so we can determine how the lynching was carried out. These reports show how our perception of lynchings is often quite different from the reality of how things happened. Twenty-seven of these fifty-six victims were reported hanged from trees, while twenty-nine (over half) were hanged from other objects. Of fourteen reported lynchings in Las Vegas, for example, none utilized a tree.

The reason for this was simple—large trees tended to be quite rare in many New Mexico towns, so vigilantes improvised with just about anything tall enough to do the job. Telegraph poles, gate frames, vigas, and even conveniently located business signs were utilized with deadly efficiency. Towns in central New Mexico, however, did have large cottonwood trees, so most, but not all, of the lynchings that utilized trees took place in Bernalillo, Los Lunas, Socorro, and Albuquerque. Overall, lynchings were reported at over thirty New Mexico communities.

There are many other interesting aspects of crime and punishment in territorial New Mexico, but suffice it to say that the harsh realities of our frontier history are usually much more interesting than any myths which have persisted over the years.