Clare V. McKanna, Jr., Book Review Editor
Murder and Justice in Frontier New Mexico, 1821-1846. By Jill Mocho. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1997. Notes. Bibliography. Index.
Reviewed by Richard Griswold del Castillo, Professor of Mexican American Studies, San Diego State University and author of The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict.
During the twenty-five years of the Mexican administration of New Mexico there were only eleven homicides that came to trial for which there is documented evidence. Even allowing for lost records or un-reported murders, this is an amazing statistic that might confirm our suspicions about “the good old days.” This was the most populous frontier province west of Texas with probably more than 60,000 inhabitants, not counting nomadic Indians. Jill Mocho has written a book based on these eleven murder trials in order to give us a glimpse into the daily lives and struggles of the Hispanos of New Mexico. Each chapter tells the story of the deed, the trial and the ultimate fate of the perpetrator. Together with two chapters analyzing the social and political environment of New Mexico in this period, the book is a gem of social history.
One category of murder involved family violence, a section in the book called La Familia. Here we find husbands murdering wives and servants and the trial record confirming the patriarchal system. The common motivation for these killings was that the head of the household felt that his authority had been questioned. There were ethnic and racial factors as well, in the case of the killing of a genizaro (detribalized Indian) servant. Because of the prevailing norm of discounting domestic violence the Mexican courts did not give vary harsh sentences, and, the author asserts, few cases of wife beating were ever brought to trial.
Another section in the book deals with violence and murder between friends and neighbors. The cases presented here show how insults to male honor resulted in murder. Rage and wounded pride magnified by liquor in at least one case had lethal consequences. One soldier killed because he had been embarrassed. The courts took this kind of killing a little more seriously than domestic violence — nevertheless an insult to honor was deemed a legitimate defense for killing an antagonist. Unfortunately many of these cases do not have resolution since the papers documenting the final disposition are missing.
Finally Mocho discusses homicides involving foreigners mostly Anglo Americans. Often murders were incidental to a robbery perhaps provoked by the racial attitudes of the foreigners towards the New Mexicans. Sometimes they were provoked by political events, such as the Texas invasion during the 1840s. The foreigners frequently complained about the slow and inefficient Mexican juridical system. Only one American was put on trial for the murder of a Mexican citizen and he was acquitted.
With the American takeover of New Mexico there was a huge jump in homicides and executions, some 62 legal executions and scores of lynchings and unprosecuted murders mostly of Mexicans by Americans during the territorial years. This fact alone warrants another study comparing the two eras with respect to crime and punishment. Does the lack of capital punishment in New Mexico before the Americans challenge the Black Legend of Spanish cruelty? Does the way in which murder is prosecuted reveal more about the stresses of society than the deed itself? Did capital punishment deter murder? Professor Mocho has done a wonderful job of showing how rich a resource homicide trials are in telling us about the culture and society of the past.