Updated: Jun 1, 2021
The weather was beginning to warm and the street leading to the church was thick with mud from the thaw. It wasn't Sunday meetin' day, but it was a meetin', nonetheless. Today, the house of God would serve as a house of judgment.
The townspeople crowded into the small church, filling the rough-sawn oak pews, leaving only standing room for the unlucky latecomers. The crowd pressed against me from both sides as I awaited her entrance.
The crack of the gavel signaled the crowd that the proceeding was about to begin. The church door opened wide. Two deputy sheriffs led in a young, Mexican woman. They nudged her forward and pushed her into a chair before the altar. Her hands were tightly bound. Her ankles shackled with rough, rusted iron. The cotton skirt she wore was torn and frayed and her once crisp calico blouse, bloodstained and ripped at the shoulder.
Sheriff Floyd Dunaway strode through the church door, followed by the feared and respected Judge Kirkby Benedict. The Judge was a hard man. His lust for drinking and gambling was a spot of contention for many. It was well known throughout the New Mexico territory that he was mean and ruthless in his tactics. He offered swift and certain punishment to those who dared break the law he was entrusted to uphold. He made his trip to this territory twice a year and, twice a year, everyone would gather to witness the Judge's iron hand. As they approached the altar, a man in the crowd shouted, "Hang her! Hang the murdering whore!" The crowd cheered in agreement.
"Order! Order!" Judge Benedict shouted. The crowd hushed once again. The Judge seated himself behind the communion table that would serve as his bench. Sheriff Dunaway and his deputies quickly cleared a few grumbling spectators from the front pew.
Twelve jurymen stepped through the doorway and made their way, single file, to their seats. The young woman they would judge sat straight and tall. The sun's sharp rays lanced through the window, catching the shine in her black hair. Her dark, almond shaped eyes slowly surveyed the assembly. As her eyes swept past mine, I caught her look of anguish, and I shuddered.
"This Court is now in session, the Honorable Kirkby Benedict presiding," Sheriff Dunaway announced.
No witnesses were called on the woman's behalf. The evidence: a dead man and a bloody knife would bear out her guilt. The crowd was silent as Sheriff Dunaway addressed the jury:
"Gentlemen of the jury, the facts are these. In the early evening hours of 28 March, 18 and 62, Lieutenant Juan Miguel Martin, at the hand of one, Pablita Sandoval, was brutally and senselessly murdered. Pablita Sandoval did purposefully and intentionally carry out this crime by repeatedly stabbing Lieutenant Martin with his own knife. It is, therefore, your God given duty to find this woman guilty of murder." With a cheer from the crowd, the proceeding commenced.
The trial was brief. Pablita's attorney had little to say, telling the jury only that she was innocent and acted in self-defense. Pablita never uttered a word.
The twelve men who were to decide Pablita's fate were excused from the church to deliberate. They were gone only long enough to roll a tobacco stick and smoke it. The crowd hushed as the jurors returned their deliberation, and the jury foreman handed the verdict to the Sheriff. "We, the jury, find Pablita Sandoval guilty of murder," he read. The crowd's spiteful cheers showed their approval.
Never hesitating, Judge Benedict commanded: "Pablita Sandoval, stand and face your accusers."
I noticed the lawyer whisper in Pablita's ear. Afterward, he stood and pled, "Your honor, my client is not guilty. In self-defense she fought for her life. I move for an appeal of this woman’s conviction!”
Some of the crown arose to shout in protest. Pablita sat quietly and watched us, her eyes seeming to penetrate our very souls.
Judge Benedict stood from his chair. “That will be enough! Enough, I said! This is a court of law, and I demand order,” his voice bellowed.
Once again, silence fell.
“Counselor, you have represented your client zealously,” Judge Benedict continued. “You have given more than most would have. I find no basis for this appeal. Notwithstanding, if it would ease your conscience, you may submit a written appeal to me before I leave town. I shall rule upon it sixty days hence. However, the sentence I am about to render, will not be stayed.”
The attorney glanced at Pablita, but she offered no show of emotion. She knew he was powerless to stop the fate that awaited her.
“Pablita Sandoval, stand so I may render your sentence,” the Judge demanded.
The lawyer reached for his client’s arm and slowly helped her to her feet. With her head held high, Pablita looked directly into the Judge’s eyes.
“Pablita Sandoval, you have been found guilty of the murder of Lieutenant Juan Miguel Martin. For this act of savagery, you shall be taken to the edge of town, and you shall be hanged there by the neck until dead. Your death sentence shall be commenced on 26 April, 18 and 62, between the hours of 10 o’clock and 4 o’clock. Further, to the extent it is possible, you shall pay all expenses associated with your hanging and burial.” Finished, the Judge threw down the gavel, startling Pablita. Her eyes welled, but not a tear fell, at least that I could see. She began to falter as her knees gave way, her lawyer catching her arm before she wilted to the floor.
"Do you have anything to say on your behalf?" Judge Benedict curtly questioned. He did not expect an answer; it was clear from his demeanor that he did not care to hear anything she had to say.
"Only that I am innocent," she whispered. Her words filled with the conviction of truth.”
“Then court shall be adjourned, and the sentence shall be carried out as ordered. Sheriff, make certain that the prisoner is secured within the jail until the commencement of her execution." The gavel broke the silence for the last time as the Judge stood and made his way to the door.
The Sheriff yanked his prisoner from her chair and led her through the crowd. Pablita's lawyer stood helplessly and made no attempt to follow her. She glanced back, and my gut wrenched with pity.
The crowd filed out of the church, chattering of the hanging to come. Ironically, these same people will gather Sunday next to hear the word of God. Their tongues will wag with talk of charity and forgiveness, where only days ago they thirsted for innocent blood.
Twenty-six April, 18 and 62, the crowd I joined at the entrance of town was much larger than at the trial. There were people I did not recognize. The news had spread quickly; reporters from newspapers everywhere were in attendance. They had come from miles around to see the first woman in the western territory hanged.
Majestic cottonwood trees lined each side of the narrow, boggy road leading into our town. The tree trunks were as large as oak barrels, the branches thick and sturdy. It was a place of beauty but also of punishment.
The people had come early in the forenoon, careful not to miss a moment of the fate that awaited Pablita Sandoval. As the morning turned to afternoon, the men talked of the crops they would harvest. Women prattled about the latest fashions from Paris at McGuffrey's store. The children ran and played hide-and-seek behind the gigantic trees. Blankets had been stretched under the canopy of every tree, save one. The women set out their picnic baskets filled with fried chicken, sandwiches, cheese and fruit.
It was a gorgeous spring day. The sun was bright and warm. The air smelled sweet. The sky was blue and cloudless. The canyon walls in the distance were richly red, and the rolling hills that led to them were green with the new life of spring. A thick hemp rope hung from the branch of a lonely cottonwood. The gentle canyon breeze eerily clutched the rope and let it go again. It swayed slowly, foreshadowing things to come.
It was nearly one o'clock and still no sight of her. Lunch eaten; the crowd was growing restless.
"Here they come!" an excited reporter shouted.
As the wagon neared, I pushed my way to the front of the crowd, so I was nearest to the noose. The wagon creaked as Sheriff Dunaway halted the horses' gallop and advanced them slowly toward the tree. A hush fell over the crowd as men, women, and children gazed upon Pablita quietly seated upon a crude, pine-wood coffin in the rear of the wagon.
The Sheriff carefully maneuvered the wagon under the noose as he brought it to a rest. She was so close I could have reached up and touched her. Her confinement had surely been a suffering. Her face was pale and thin. Her hair, once silken, was now matted and dull. She was clothed in the same skirt and blouse she wore at trial. Everyone knew what pleasure Sheriff Dunaway took in tormenting his prisoners. I wondered how much more he tormented this young woman.
The enormous crowd shoved, eager to place themselves strategically for the execution. I defended my ground, elbowing two young men who thought to push me from my place.
The Sheriff set the wagon's brake and rose from his seat, stepping onto the buckboard. He grabbed Pablita's hair at the back of her skull and yanked hard. She winced as she was forced to stand and meet the noose. He pushed her head through the loop and cinched it tight around her delicate neck. He took his seat again, picked up the reins, and waited for the crowd to clear a wide path. Then, as if in slow motion, Sheriff Dunaway freed the wagon's brake, lifted the reins with both of his arms, and came down hard against the horses' backsides. "YAAHHHH!" he cried. The horses lunged forward. Pablita was dragged to the end of the buckboard, her side smashing hard against the back of the wagon. Her tattered skirt caught on a jagged sliver of wood, ripping it from her body; leaving only a thinly, soiled muslin slip to cover her.
In horror, I watched as the air was cut from her. It seemed that every vein in her neck and temple would burst. She reached over her head and grabbed the rope, lifting her body up, sucking in every precious breath she could manage, onIy to lose her strength and come down again, gagging and choking.
The Sheriff turned to look at his handiwork and saw Pablita working to save herself. With a look of disgust, he quickly drove the wagon back, jumped from it and ran toward her, scolding his deputy for failing to bind her arms. Mortified, the Sheriff threw his arms around Pablita's thrashing legs and began to pull down hard on her body, stretching her neck, hoping she would die quickly, the noose cutting her throat.
Suddenly, someone in the crowd shouted, "Help her! Won't anyone help her? She's been hung; the sentence is done." Heeding the person's cry a man in the crowd pushed his way forward and shoved the Sheriff back. He jumped up on the wagon, reached above Pablita's head, and severed the rope with his knife. She fell heavily to the ground in front of me, gasping and gulping for air. Her neck was bloody and bruised.
The Sheriff condemned the man that cut her down and ordered his deputy arrest him. The local townsfolk turned on the Sheriff and demanded that the woman be freed; the visiting crowd threatened to hang Pablita themselves if the Sheriff did not follow through with the death sentence. I stooped to Pablita's side. She was too weak to lift her head. Out of the crowd, a cup of water was handed to me. I lowered it to her cracked, dry lips, and she slowly took a sip.
During the confusion, the town's schoolteacher, Mr. Baker, made his way to the wagon and jumped onto the coffin. He took the death warrant from the Sheriff and began to read it aloud. He implored that Pablita was to be hanged until dead between the hours of 10 o'clock and 4 o'clock. "Clearly, my friends, it is not yet 4 o'clock, and she is not yet dead, as you can rightly see," he said pointing to Pablita. The crowd's roar leveled to a murmur; Mr. Baker pleased with their response.
"Please, please," Mr. Baker continued, "we cannot allow this murderer to go unpunished. There will be no justice in this town if this woman's sentence is not carried out." The well respected and revered Mr. Baker managed to extinguish the townspeople's uncertainty. The execution would be consummated.
The crowd subdued. Sheriff Dunaway triumphantly walked from the front of the wagon to where Pablita lay helplessly. Once again, taking hold of her hair, he forced her to her feet only to have her bow weakly at the knees.
The wagon was brought around once again. Another noose was tied, hung, and placed around its target. The Sheriff dragged the weak and defenseless Pablita back onto the wagon and made her stand upon her coffin; this time, he gave her an additional two feet farther to fall when the wagon was forced from under her. This time, the Sheriff did not neglect to bind her wrists.
Like before, the wagon ripped from beneath her. As she fell before me, our eyes met for an instant, and I feared she saw my weakness. I heard the snap of her neck as her feet stepped lightly in the air and her body convulsed. Her eyes bulged, and then she was quiet; the crowd watched in silence. The children clung to their mothers, and the men held their wives as they turned from the gruesome scene to collect their blankets and baskets and make their way home.
The rope continued to swing, creaking from her weight. Her body hung lifeless, twisting and turning like a child's empty swing in the wind. As the Sheriff and his deputy headed back to town, I heard Sheriff Dunaway order his deputy to cut the whore down at nightfall and bury her with the other nameless criminals outside town. I was left alone with her. I reached to touch her still warm hand. Tears of gratitude ran down my cheeks as I said to her, "I am Senora Juan Miguel Martin. I prayed that God would end my misery. I did not have the courage to act, for a wife is forced to bear what a mistress is not."
Historical fiction, based on a true story.