Our “Postscripts” feature “Of Cruel and Unusual Death Sentences” in the October, 1977, issue called forth an unusual run of mail from readers. The item had to do with an 1881 death sentence passed down by an anonymous (we assumed) judge on the luckless José Manuel Miguel Xavier Gonzales, a sentence that combined eloquence and racist venom in about equal portions. At the end of the feature, we wondered if any of our readers could enlighten us as to the origins of this singular example of jurisprudential excess.
They could indeed. While the name of the defendant has come down to us variously as José Maria Martin, José Maniah, and José Maria Martinez, most of our respondents agreed that he was a Mexican sheepherder who had killed a local cowboy in New Mexico over a disputed card game. Some recounted the legend that the accused later escaped jail and died some years afterward when he fell off a horse. Almost all attributed the death sentence itself to the infamous Judge Isaac ("Hanging Judge") Parker, a jurist, it was said, who would string up a man quite as cheerfullv as he would kill flies. And as often.
Others disagreed, and from the evidence supplied us, they appear to have made a good case. Among these particularly diligent readers was Harry L. Bigbee, of Santa Fe, New Mexico. “This entire matter, in my opinion,” he writes, “is a distorted, fictionalized version of an actual sentence imposed by Judge Kirby Benedict in about 1864 in Taos, New Mexico.” He then goes on to cite several contemporary sources, including a version of the death sentence that appeared in an 1864 letter to the editor of the Santa Fe Weekly New Mexican . The recipient in this case was one José Maria Martin, but in most other respects the language of the sentence is nearly identical to that attributed to Judge Parker. Consider this passage, for example: “José Maria Martin, it is now the springtime, in a little while the grass will be springing up green in these beautiful valleys, and on these broad mesas and mountain sides, flowers will be blooming; birds will be singing their sweet carols, and nature will be putting on her most gorgeous and her most attractive robes, and life will be pleasant. .. but none of this for you, José Maria Martin.”
Another reader, George Johnson of Wausau, Wisconsin, pointed out that Judge Benedict was an old acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln, as well as a’ twofisted drinker whose alcoholic didos sometimes got out of hand. This apparently did not upset Lincoln, who resisted all demands that Benedict be removed from office. “We have been friends for thirty years,” Lincoln reportedly said in 1863. “He may imbibe to excess, but Benedict drunk knows more law than all the others on the bench in New Mexico sober.” In any case, drunk or sober, it seems clear that Kirby Benedict was the poet on the bench.