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Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: The victim refused to leave his wife for her
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: March 23, 1861
Date of arrest: Next day
Date of birth: 1842 ?
Victim profile: Juan Miguel Martin (her married lover)
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: San Miguel County, New Mexico, USA
Status: Executed by hanging at Las Vegas on April 26, 1861

On the 26th of April 1861 - Paula Angel, a 19 year old Hispanic girl, was hanged by Sheriff Herrera in San Miguel County, New Mexico for the murder of her married boyfriend, whom she had stabbed to death when he refused to leave his wife for her.

She was taken from the jail in a wagon to a suitable tree from which she was to hang. 

When they arrived at the place of execution, Paula put up such a fight with the sheriff as she stood on the back of the wagon, that he had to start over and get her properly tied up before he could draw the wagon from under her.


Paula Angel

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.


Paula Angel: The Only Woman Ever Hanged in New Mexico

By Robert Torrez

New Mexico's 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 out.

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. Sena.

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 execution.

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 Colorado.

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 continues,

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 frontier past.


Observations on the demise of Paula Angel

By Don Bullis

Historical 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 the time.

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 Las Vegas.

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.



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