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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Angel: The Only Woman Ever Hanged in New Mexico
history is full of marvelous stories about ordinary people who happen
to end up in the historical record when they get caught up in
extraordinary circumstances. As we leaf through the stories of such
individuals, one often wonders how much of what has been passed on to
us about their lives is fact and how much of it is myth. The following
is the story of one such person, Paula Angel, a fascinating and
mysterious woman about whom we know very little, but who has for
several decades been endowed by our history books with the dubious
distinction of being "the only woman ever hanged in New Mexico."
Paula Angel's story was brought to wide public
attention when an article about her was published in The New
Mexican, on April 26, 1961, under the title, "Bizarre Frontier
Hanging Recalled." The story was timed to coincide with the 100th
anniversary of her execution in 1861 at Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Reporter Ernie Thwaites indicated the story was "as told" to him by
then New Mexico District Court Judge Luis E. Armijo.
The essential elements of Judge
Armijo's story are as follows. Paula Angel, he tells us, earned her
small niche in history on April 26, 1861, when she was executed for a
crime that was “as old as Eden." Paula was arrested and brought to
trial during the March 1861 term of San Miguel County District Court
for the murder of a lover who had jilted her. Found guilty of first-
degree murder, Judge Kirby Benedict imposed upon her the only sentence
allowed by New Mexico’s territorial law—death by hanging. The date of
her execution was set for Friday, April 26, 1861.
While awaiting her appointed day
of execution, San Miguel County Sheriff Antonio Abad Herrera daily
taunted his prisoner: "Paula Angel, you have only _____ days more to
live," reducing the figure from day to day. When April 26th dawned, a
large crowd had gathered in Las Vegas from every corner of the
territory to witness the hanging. Sheriff Herrera selected a large
cottonwood in a nearby grove and took Paula there in a wagon that also
carried her coffin. He drove the wagon under the noose that dangled
from a limb, halted, and placed the noose around her neck. Then,
"perhaps overeager... [he] whipped the team and wagon away."
As Herrera pulled away, he
glanced over his shoulder and was horrified to see that he had
forgotten to tie her arms. Instead of being hanged, Paula had grabbed
hold of the rope and was "frantically trying to pull herself upward
from the strangling noose." The sheriff leaped from the wagon and
grasped her around the waist, trying to pull her downward, while Paula
desperately clung to the rope. But the spectacle was too much for the
startled crowd, and they rushed forward, pulled Herrera to the ground,
and cut Paula down. Herrera protested, noting that justice had not
been done, but he was shouted down by the crowd which contended that
Paula had been hanged—albeit unsuccessfully—and the sentence carried
Then Colonel J. D. Sena of Santa
Fe, "a prominent and forceful man," stepped forward and addressed the
crowd. Reading from the warrant of execution, he emphasized Paula had
to be “hanged by the neck until dead.” The crowd backed away, and
Paula Angel was again stood on the back of the wagon, this time with
her hands tied behind her back, “and with little further delay gained
her own particular claim to fame.…”
Judge Armijo’s story of Paula
Angel’s hanging contains many elements of fact, an unusual
characteristic for a tale that seems to have reached us largely
through oral tradition. Several of the individuals named in the story
by Judge Armijo are accurate for the time and place. These include San
Miguel County Sheriff Antonio Abad Herrera, District Court Judge Kirby
Benedict, defense attorney Spruce M. Baird, and “Colonel” Jose D.
The presence of "Colonel" Jose
D. Sena and the role he played that fateful day is most plausible.
Jose D. Sena had a long and distinguished public career and possessed
a well-documented talent for public speaking. At his funeral in 1892,
Sena was eulogized as a popular speaker whose "eloquence and rhetoric
often inspired the multitudes to the highest enthusiasm." It is not
difficult to imagine him standing before that crowd in Las Vegas in
1861, pointing out that Paula’s bungled hanging did not comply with
the letter of the law.
However, the use of a military
rank with Jose D. Sena's name suggests that parts of this story
developed after the actual event. Sena entered military service in
July 1861, three months after Paula's hanging. At that time, he was
mustered in as a captain in the New Mexico Volunteers and later
participated in the Civil War battles at Valverde and Apache Pass
(Glorieta) and several Indian campaigns. He was promoted to the rank
of Major in 1863, but there is no indication he ever attained the rank
of colonel, although his son, Jose D. Sena Jr., was later a colonel in
the New Mexico National Guard.
The fascinating and entertaining
accounts of Paula's execution, however, are unsubstantiated by a
single shred of primary documentation. The following will explore this
historian’s efforts to determine whether or not someone named Paula
Angel was in fact, hanged at Las Vegas on April 26, 1861, and if so,
whether she has been the only woman executed in New Mexico.
The question of whether Paula
was the first or the only woman to be hanged in New Mexico is answered
by a marvelous manuscript found in the Spanish Archives of New Mexico.
This folio of ancient documents records the story of two women from
the Pueblo of Cochiti who were hanged together in Santa Fe on January
26, 1779. On that date, Maria Josefa and her daughter, Maria
Francisca, suffered the penalty of death for the premeditated murder
of Francisca's husband.
So while we can easily determine
that this distinction is not Paula’s alone, documenting the facts of
her own story has proven more of a challenge. For several years, this
writer harbored doubts that her hanging had actually taken place. This
skepticism surfaced during an on-going project to compile a complete
and accurate list of the legal executions that took place in
territorial New Mexico (1846 -1912). To accomplish this, it was
necessary to establish two basic criteria. The first required primary
evidence of an indictment, trial, or other judicial actions that
documents the due process that distinguishes legal hangings from the
dozens of lynchings that took place during that period of our history.
The second required primary
evidence that the execution took place. It became clear early in the
course of this research that documentation of a death sentence imposed
through due process was, in itself, insufficient evidence that an
execution had actually taken place. New Mexico's territorial judges
imposed many death sentences that were not carried out, principally
because governors frequently exercised their privilege of executive
clemency and issued a number of pardons and commutations of death
sentences to life imprisonment. Additionally, a few condemned persons
died while awaiting execution, while others cheated the hangman by
escaping from the territory's notoriously inadequate jails. William
Bonney, better known to us as Billy the Kid, is merely the most famous
example of a condemned prisoner who escaped from jail while awaiting
The records needed to fully
document Paula Angel's case have been difficult to find. Several
authors have cited the handwritten transcripts of Paula Angel's trial
and sentence, presumably located at the San Miguel County Courthouse
in Las Vegas. However, between the times when these books were
published and when the San Miguel County Territorial District Court
records were transferred to the New Mexico State Records Center and
Archives in Santa Fe in 1976, Paula's case file had disappeared.
There are only two extant items
related to Paula's trial at the State Records Center and Archives, New
Mexico's official repository for territorial judicial records. The
first consists of an entry of the case name and number, Territory
of New Mexico vs Paula Angel, 73b, in a surviving San Miguel
County District Court docket index. The second item is an April 3,
1861, entry in the Executive Record where New Mexico Territorial
Governor Abraham Rencher notes he "issued his writ for the execution
of Paula Angel, sentenced to be hung, at the March term, 1861, of the
District Court, for San Miguel County."
This scant information seems to
indicate Paula was probably tried and condemned through due process,
but it does not constitute the primary evidence needed to prove the
execution actually took place. Even the newspapers of the period
failed to carry a report of what should have been a well-attended
public event. The firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, meant that
by the time Paula Angel was scheduled to hang, the territory's few
newspapers were more concerned with reporting the unfolding events of
the Civil War as well as rumors of silver strikes in southwest
Was it possible that during
these trying and undoubtedly hectic days, Paula could have been set
free or had her sentence commuted? This possibility was reinforced
when the Las Vegas Daily Optic, commenting on a 1907 case of
two women being tried in Sierra County for capital murder, noted
emphatically that "No woman has ever been hanged in New Mexico." Other
newspapers in the territory made the same claim, and while it is no
surprise these papers did not know of the 1779 hanging mentioned
earlier, it does not seem likely the Las Vegas newspaper would have
been unaware of Paula Angel's story.
Furthermore, there is among the
vast treasure of Las Vegas folklore the tale of an unnamed weeping
woman, or llorona as these wandering spirits are called, which
tells of a young woman who was condemned to hang for killing her
lover. As related by Edward Garcia Kraul and Judith Beatty in The
Weeping Woman, Encounters with La Llorona, when the time came for
this woman to be hanged, no one dared "pull the rope" for fear her
spirit would come back to haunt them. Consequently, she was set free,
but when she died years later, her spirit was condemned to wander the
hills at the outskirts of Las Vegas because she had not expiated her
heinous crime. Could this story have been based on what might have
happened to Paula Angel and explain why there seemed to be no primary
evidence of her hanging?
Part of the answer to this
historical puzzle was provided by Julian Josue Vigil’s publication of
an old folk ballad entitled La Homicida Pablita. Vigil
determined that Juan Angel, Paula’s cousin, had composed the ballad in
1861 to commemorate her tragic crime and death. Juan Angel’s ballad
includes several elements of the story passed on to Judge Armijo by
his grandmother. As the ballad unfolds, one can visualize Paula's
trial and feel the heavy burden of the death sentence imposed on her.
We shudder as the closing cell door brings Paula to full realization
of her disgrace and the fate that awaited her. The ballad even
describes her final ride on the wagon that carried her to the gallows.
But while folklore often
complements and provides direction for research on local history, this
ballad still was not the primary evidence needed to determine what
happened to Paula Angel. It was not until quite recently that the most
important but elusive piece of documentation showed up in the most
unlikely of places—the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
The Huntington’s William Gillet
Ritch Papers, a collection of nearly two thousand documents extracted
from New Mexico’s archives more than a century ago, contains the
original warrant issued by Governor Abraham Rencher for the execution
of Paula Angel. The document, dated April 3, 1861, is written in
Spanish and contains language rather typical of the genre. Addressed
to the Sheriff of San Miguel County, it opens with "Greetings," and
Whereas I have received official information that
at the March 1861 term of District Court, held in and for the county
of San Miguel, in the Territory of New Mexico, where, one Paula
Angel, was convicted at said court of the crime of murder committed
against the body of one Miguel Martin, and was sentenced by said
court to suffer the penalty of death:
With this you are ordered that on the 26th of
April of 1861, you take the said Paula Angel from the jail of the
County of San Miguel, in which she now finds herself incarcerated,
to some appropriate place within the limits of said county, and
within a distance of one mile from the seat of that county, and that
between the hours of ten in the morning and four in the afternoon of
said day, 26th of April 1861, you then and there hang the said Paula
Angel by the neck until she is dead, dead, dead; and may God have
mercy on her soul.
Here is the "writ [of] execution" Governor Rencher
had noted in the Executive Record of that date! The final piece of
documentation needed to complete the search for Paula’s story is on
the reverse side of Governor Rencher's warrant. It consists of a
simple handwritten statement and signature of San Miguel County
Sheriff Antonio Abad Herrera. There, Herrera, perhaps still a bit
shaken by the day's events, certified compliance with the order to
hang Paula Angel with the simple phrase, "Retornado y cumplido este
mandato, hoy Abril 26 de 1861."(This order was completed and
returned today, April, 26, 1861)
We now can be reasonably certain about the basic
facts surrounding Paula Angel's execution. Someday the missing
judicial case file may surface and provide us details of her
indictment and trial, and, possibly, something about Paula herself.
For now, we can certainly relieve her of the dubious distinction of
being “the only woman hanged in New Mexico.” But this does not mean we
should forget her story. In fact, we should continue to tell it, not
only because it is a splendid tale deserving of being told, but also
because it serves as a wonderful example of how myth and history often
combine to provide us with colorful and fascinating views of our
Observations on the demise of Paula Angel
By Don Bullis
researchers love to deal with anomalies, and the matter of Paula
Angel, also known as Pablita Martin, is an anomaly in several ways.
In the first
place, she was the only woman to be legally hanged in New Mexico. That
alone makes her stand out in a crowd of 62 men who were hanged between
1847 and 1923. But there is much more to her story.
Her crime was
murder. On March 23, 1861, she stabbed her lover, Miguel Martin.
Miguel was no paragon of virtue, being married to another woman at the
time, and the father of five children. As the story goes, he'd
announced to Paula that he wanted to break off the affair, and she'd
requested a final assignation. As they embraced one last time, she
plunged a butcher knife into his back. Paula was 26 or 27 years old at
One source mentions in passing
that Paula lived in the San Miguel County town of Loma Parda, with her
parents. Loma Parda was at the time a collection of buildings along
the Rio Mora that had become what some referred to as the most sinful
town in New Mexico, called 'Sodom on the Mora.'
The community catered to an
assemblage of gamblers, harlots and saloon keepers who provided their
unseemly services to the soldiers at Fort Union, six miles away. No
mention is made as whether Paula's crime was committed in Loma Parda,
but the town would have been in full swing at the time since Fort
Union had been in operation for about 10 years. It is most unlikely
that Paula was one of the town's prostitutes.
Paula was arrested within a day
or so of the killing, and oddly in any context, she went on trial only
five days later, on March 28. Representing her before the court of
Judge Kirby Benedict was attorney Spruce M. Baird. There is no
indication that Paula had much in the way of resources, and yet her
lawyer was high profile and well known. Baird had successfully
defended Major R. H. Weightman in the killing of F. X. Aubrey at Santa
Fe in 1854. He was also involved in land grant litigation and he'd run
for a seat in the U. S. Congress less than two years earlier.
Baird argued her case in both
Spanish and English. She was, he said to the jury, "disturbed by her
lover's rejection. Do not be so cold in soul as to demand death of
this fair maiden who has been wronged by an uncaring adulterer." It
didn't help. On that very afternoon she was convicted and sentenced to
die by hanging on April 26. In yet one more interesting twist, Judge
Benedict ordered Paula to pay for all the costs of legal action
against her, including her own hanging.
At this late date it is
impossible to understand the social dynamic of Las Vegas, New Mexico,
in 1861. It seems, though, that Paula was not universally liked by her
fellow citizens. In fact, the Sheriff, Antonio Abad Herrera, harangued
her daily, reminding her that he was going to hang her until she was
"dead, dead, dead."
A word about Sheriff Herrera is
in order. His law enforcement career seems to have been quite short.
Records show that Jose Sena was appointed sheriff of San Miguel County
in December 1860. Herrera is known to have been in office at the time
of the Angel matter, but Juan Bernal was elected sheriff in September
1861. Herrera served less than one year in office.
And when execution day came,
Sheriff Herrera further displayed his ineptitude. He had identified a
cottonwood grove where the hanging would take place, and on the
appointed day he drove to the spot. Paula was obliged to ride on the
back of the wagon, seated upon her own coffin. Once there, Herrera
drove his team under the tree, then he stepped to the rear of the
wagon and put the noose around Paula's neck. Next, according to one
source, "he eagerly jumped on to the wagon seat and popped the reins
for the horses to go forward."
The problem was that in his
haste he'd failed to bind Paula's hands. Herrera looked around to see
the hapless woman swinging about and holding on to the rope that was
choking her. Herrera jumped down from the wagon and ran to Paula,
wrapped his arms around her waist, and attempted to weigh her down and
facilitate her demise.
Some of the spectators were so
appalled at this turn of events that they pushed the sheriff aside and
cut Paula down. The problem was that the execution order said that she
was to be hanged by the neck until she was dead. At that point she'd
been hanged but was not dead. So they did it all over again, with her
hands and arms bound, and that time Paula died.
There are a number of questions
about this case that remain unanswered. One has to do with the urgency
of the matter: a trial five days after the commission of the crime,
and execution only four weeks later? Was the case appealed, as were
all capital cases, then and now? No source offers answers.
The one possible explanation is
that the people of New Mexico, including the courts, were somewhat
distracted by another matter: The invasion of the territory by the
Texas Confederates. In fact, on the very day that Paula was tried,
March 28, 1861, the Battle of Glorieta raged only a few miles west of
Looks like Paula Angel had bad
luck all the way around.
Sources & Further Reading:
Don E. Alberts. The Battle of
Glorieta. Texas A & M University Press, 1998
Larry D. Ball. Desert Lawmen:
The High Sheriffs of New Mexico & Arizona 1846-1912. UNM Press 1992
Howard Bryan. Wildest of The
Wild West. Clear Light Publishers, 1988
West Gilbreath. Death on The
Gallows. High-Lonesome Books, 2002
Howard R. Lamar. The Far
Southwest 1846-1912, UNM Press 1966.
DON BULLIS writes about New
Mexico history for the Rio Rancho Observer.