Deadly politics: Mesilla Plaza site of worst political riot
By Christopher Schurtz / For the Sun-News
Posted: 10/02/2010 08:39:27 PM MDT
Printed with permission
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LAS CRUCES - The echo of gunfire grew faint as the men carrying John Lemon away
from the plaza approached his southern Mesilla home.
As they set him on a bed, they took special care with his bleeding head, which had
been split by an ax handle moments earlier. He was lucid enough to draft a will
for his wife and young children.
Lemon would die that evening, the most well-known victim of the Mesilla Riot of
1871, one of the bloodiest political riots in New Mexico history.
On that hot afternoon of Aug. 27, tensions between the local political parties erupted
in violence on the Mesilla Plaza, resulting in nine deaths and dozens of injuries.The streets and plaza of Mesilla now, 140 years later, could not be more quiet on
most days, and the building the riot started in front of, the old Griggs-Reynolds
store, was recently donated to the state by its owner, J. Paul Taylor.
But it was once the setting of New Mexico politics at its worst.
Democrat Jose M. Gallegos was running against Republican J. Francisco Chaves, a veteran of the Civil War in New Mexico, for territorial delegate to the U.S. Congress. It was reportedly a heated campaign, and at some point had gotten personal and very partisan. Mesilla, a town of 1,500 people, was the county seat and the epicenter of political activity south of Socorro. On the Sunday afternoon of Aug. 27, hundreds of Democrats gathered in the plaza for a rally. Though they had earlier relented the plaza to the Democrats, the Republicans instead held their large rally at party leader John Lemon's nearby home.Predicting trouble, troops from Fort Selden had come south to Mesilla to maintain order. After both rallies seem to have gone off without problems, the troops headed back to the fort. Shortly after, the trouble began. Historians have said that "free campaign whiskey" flowed freely on both sides that day, which likely fueled the decision among the Republican crowd to disrupt the Democrat rally in the plaza. Newspaper accounts say the crowd headed out, led by Lemon, a candidate for probate judge, and arrived just as Democrats were making a ceremonial march around the plaza. The two groups were soon marching in opposite directions, yelling and glaring at each other across the plaza, and came to a head in front of the Barela-Griggs-Reynolds store.
Lemon was soon in a shouting match with Democrat I.N. Kelly, a printer for the local newspaper, The Borderer. As it was getting physical between the two, a man named Apolonio Barela for some reason fired off his pistol in the air, and that's when Kelly struck Lemon over the head with a heavy ax handle, felling him to the ground. Immediately, Lemon's friend Felicito Arroyas y Lueras shot and killed Kelly, and he himself was shot through the heart and killed as the violence erupted. In just seconds, the two crowds charged, fists and clubs flying, as shots were fired from all, and in all, directions. Just as quickly, people fled away from the plaza and down the narrow streets. People attending mass at San Albino, most of them women and children, were coming out of the church when the fighting began, and some of them were injured or crushed amid the panic and chaos. Mariano Barela, the 240-pound sheriff and a local Democratic Party leader, reportedly tried in vain to stop the escalating violence. A federal officer stationed in Mesilla sent for messengers to get help from Fort Selden. By some accounts, men from both sides took positions in doorways, windows, and the rooftops of buildings and exchanged shots across the now emptied plaza. Some reports say people unaware of the fray entered Mesilla and were shot at without warning. The troops of the 8th Cavalry from Fort Selden had started back earlier in the day, so the messengers sent by Barela and others were able to reach them fairly quickly. At least 60 cavalrymen rode into Mesilla early that evening, though by then much of the shooting had stopped and the people dispersed. Troops remained in Mesilla throughout the election and over the next few weeks, but there were no more flare-ups.
'A terribly bloody affair'
Nine people died and as many as 50 people were seriously injured in the riot, and most of those were treated discretely at home. One lucky member of one of the marching bands was saved when his coronet stopped a bullet heading toward his chest. (That instrument as well as other artifacts of the riot are on display at the Gadsden Museum in Mesilla). Even the town doctor was shot in the hand while trying to help the wounded, and some candidates and office holders were themselves injured. Others narrowly escaped injury, including Democratic probate clerk candidate and future county leader Daniel Frietze, who counted four bullet holes in his coat. The Santa Fe Daily New Mexican reported on Sept. 1, 1871, that the riot "appears to have been a terribly bloody affair. There seems no doubt that the disturbances commenced by an outrageous, unprovoked attack upon the Hon. John Lemon." U.S. Attorney S.M. Ashenfelter, then a newspaper editor in Silver City, reported others killed in the riot included "Sotello Lopez, Francisco Rodrigues, Felicito Arroyas y Luera, Fabian Cortez, the Chihuahua bully, and an idiot boy who was shot down while standing beside Mariano Barela." The Santa Fe Daily New Mexican reported large crowds came to Lemon's burial two days later at San Albino Church in Mesilla, along with other victims of the riot.
The paper, whose editors were Republican, said "a deep-seated feeling prevails against ex-Padre Gallegos and he left here with vows to do him reverence. Chaves will now get a large majority." However, Gallegos ended up prevailing over Chaves statewide, even in Do-a Ana County. At least locally, people felt intimidated in going to the polls, and many supporters of the Republican Chaves had literally left the area after the riot. Republicans also blamed third candidate Jose Sena, who drew votes away from Chaves, giving Gallegos a narrow win. The aftermath ccording to the Republican editors of the Santa Fe New Mexican, the riot was the end result of the lawlessness that had prevailed in Do-a Ana County's biggest town. Mesilla was the county seat, but it had been without a residing judge for four years before the riot.
"As a natural consequence," the Santa Fe Daily New Mexican reported after the riots, "there has always been more or less disorder; law and justice have fallen into contempt, and some of the vilest scoundrels that ever infested a community have enjoyed complete immunity." Second District Judge Hezekiah Johnson came to Mesilla a few weeks after the riot to conduct an investigation that many hoped would lead to indictments.
But the Santa Fe Daily New Mexican reported after two days the judge "found no one under arrest, nor were there any accusations made, consequently no investigation of the affray of the 27th ultimo was had."
Historians believe Johnson determined that, with possibly half of the area's populace involved directly or indirectly with the riot, a fair investigation and trial would be impossible, not to mention dangerous.
Ultimately, no one was ever charged. The riot caused many to resettle elsewhere. About 40 Mesilleros, including Apolonio Barela, who had fired the shot that set off the riot, left the town and headed south to Mexico, where they founded the settlement of Ascension. Meanwhile, Lemon's close friend and fellow Republican Party head Col. William Rynerson, a Las Cruces attorney and Union veteran, took Lemon's place as probate judge on the 1871 ticket, and several years later married Lemon's widow. In 1977, people working on the renovation of the Mesilla plaza found Lemon's tombstone east of St. Albino's Church.
Legacy of the Civil War
The riot not only reflected the acrimonious political climate in the New Mexico Territory, but also the simmering bad feelings left over from the Civil War, still a recent and bitter memory for the town that for almost a year served as the capital of the short-lived Confederate Territory of Arizona. Among the Republicans the day of the riot were Union veterans who'd come to the area in 1862 as part of the California Column, and among the Democrats were Southern sympathizers. Before the war, political divisions ran deep, but during and after the war, it got personal, for none more so than John Lemon, who came to Mesilla in 1860.
Lemon and other Mesilleros watched the Union Army's awkward, unsuccessful attack on Confederate Lt. Col. John Baylor's forces encamped at Mesilla in late July 1861, and heard all about it surrendering to Baylor the next day, virtually without a shot fired. A pro-Union Republican, Lemon narrowly escaped the noose soon after, according to historian Maude McFie. Baylor had Lemon and two friends arrested, and Lemon watched as they were hanged in a thicket of trees. He was somehow spared, and later escaped to Fort Craig. Ten years later, Lemon was running for probate judge, a leader of the Republican Party, and a chief organizer of a Republican rally held at his home that would lead to his death.