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Jerked To Jesus: Hangings and Lynchings In Old Las Vegas, New Mexico

To Murderers, Confidence Men, Thieves:

“The citizens of Las Vegas have tired of robbery, murder, and other crimes that have made this town a byword in every civilized community. They have resolved to put a stop to crime…leave this town…or be summarily dealt with.” [signed] Vigilantes

Such was the introduction to the notice published by a group of vigilante citizens in the Las Vegas Optic on April 8, 1880.1

Enough was enough. And the good people of Las Vegas wanted the world to know it. The criminal world, that is. Word was spreading that Las Vegas was a violent town – a popular hangout for many of the Southwest’s nastiest outlaws, hooligans, gunslingers, thieves, robbers and rustlers.

For captured killers, justice usually came at the end of a rope. Lawful hangings were performed by lawmen, and lynchings by vigilante mobs when tempers ran too hot. The act was often indelicately referred to as being “Jerked to Jesus”.

In Las Vegas, lawful hangings were most often performed in the center of town, in the Plaza, from a constructed gallows or from the base of the old windmill.

Windmill Gallows. Las Vegas, NM

Windmill in the Plaza, Las Vegas, New Mexico, doubles as a gallows. Photo courtesy of the Las Vegas Citizens Commission for Historic Preservation.

The windmill, constructed in 1876, was made to pump well water. It only produced for several months before drying up. A substantial wooden structure, it was left to stand in the Plaza for many years, becoming a curiosity place for boys to play and climb. 2

It also had another use. The windmill’s strong timber frame made a reliable scaffold for a hanging.

Not A Pretty Sight

Between 1848 and 1912, Las Vegas hanged four persons. They 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.3

Such was the 1861 hanging of Paula Angel – the only woman to be hanged in New Mexico. Convicted of murdering her married lover, San Miguel County Sheriff Antonio Abad Herrera fastened a noose around her neck and hawed the horses forward leaving Paula to swing.

As the Sheriff looked back he was shocked. Paula was gasping and grasping desperately at the noose with both arms. The Sheriff had forgotten to tie her hands. Determined to carry out his orders, the Sheriff prepared to get it right this time. A stunned and sickened crowd watched as Sheriff Herrera was successful on the second try.

Mob Mentality

Another memorable spectacle was the 1880 execution of three notorious Dodge City Gang members. Sentenced to die for their drunken murder of Las Vegas Marshal Joe Carson, his distraught widow pulled out a gun and began to fire at the killers just as they arrived at the gallows. Instinctively, several others in the crowd followed suit. The gangsters were dead before they could be hung.1, 3

Lynch First, Ask Questions Later

Lynchings on the other hand were less “civilized” events. From 1852 to 1893, there were fourteen recorded lynchings in Las Vegas. Usually performed by an angry mob, the condemned might be pulled from a jail cell or strung up in the dead of night from a bridge with little ceremony. Telegraph poles, gate frames, vigas, and even conveniently located business signs were utilized as improvised gallows with deadly efficiency.3

“The flow of blood must and shall be stopped in this community…” Vigilantes

In the case of Patricio Maes, a member of the Vicente Silva gang-member-turned-informant, he was summarily lynched according to gang code. He was hung an hour before dawn on a snowy morning from the frame of the Gallinas River Bridge on October 22, 1892.

His stiff, icy body discovered swaying in the morning light, sent a chilling message to all, that both good and evil were alive and well in Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Our thanks to:

1. Old West Legends: The Dodge City Gang, by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, June 2010
Legends of America

2. Blowing In The Wind: Citizens in Las Vegas New Mexico found a macabre use for their windmill, by Mark Boardman, January 13, 2015, True West Magazine

3. Hangings and Lynchings in New Mexico by Robert Torrez, New Mexico History. Org. NewMexicoHistory.org

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