March 11, 2012

A Poisoning at Hillsboro

By Robert J. Tórrez
Rough on Rats killed Manuel Madrid
One of the most fascinating and tragic incidents of crime and punishment in New Mexico's history unfolded the morning of March 30, 1907 as news of the death of Manuel Madrid spread through the community of Hillsboro. The surprising news of Madrid’s untimely death must have quickly turned to shock when Dr. Frank Given, a Hillsboro physician called to Madrid’s bedside by his brother the morning he died, reported to Sierra County District Attorney H. A. Wolford that the dying man had exhibited obvious signs of arsenic poisoning. A coroner’s jury convened by Wolford quickly implicated Valentina Madrid, the sixteen year old widow, and Alma Lyons, her seventeen year old childhood friend. Both girls quickly confessed they had poisoned Madrid, but also implicated Francisco Baca as the mastermind behind the crime.

Albuquerque Citizen. LOC.
News of the arrests caused a sensation throughout New Mexico. The alleged love affair between Mrs. Madrid and Baca, the girl's age, and the heinous nature of the crime, sparked a storm of public comment and controversy. The trio was brought before District Court Judge Frank Parker at the May 1907 term of Sierra County District Court on charges of first degree murder. Elfego Baca, the famous former lawman from Socorro was appointed special prosecutor to handle the case for the territory. The three entered pleas of not guilty but Judge Parker separated Francisco Baca's case from that of the girls and ordered his trial held over to the next term of court. Baca was transferred to the territorial penitentiary in Santa Fe for “safekeeping.”

Tragically, the files of the girls’ and Baca’s trials have disappeared from the district court records held at the New Mexico State Records Center and Archives in Santa Fe, so developments and testimony from the trails has to be pieced together from newspaper reports and correspondence of the time. These documents and stories in Hillsboro’s own Sierra County Advocate show that Manuel Madrid and Valentina had not been married long when Francisco Baca fell "desperately in love" with Valentina.  Both girls testified Baca wanted to get rid of Madrid so he could marry Valentina and laid out a plan to poison Madrid. The girls initially resisted the idea, but Baca allegedly threatened them if they did not cooperate. Caught in a quandary, Valentina and Alma decided they had no alternative but to proceed with the plan, and with fifty cents Baca gave them, Alma purchased an arsenic poison called “Rough on Rats” which Valentina mixed into her husband's coffee every morning. Within a week, Madrid was dead.

Both girls insisted that Baca had urged them on and promised he would stand by them even at the risk of his own neck. Baca's resolve, however, did not last long. Throughout the girl's trial, he maintained his silence, and when his own trial was held in May 1908, he vehemently denied the girls' testimony. Baca's 1908 trial ended in a hung jury, and when he was finally re-tried in 1910, he was acquitted. A newspaper reported that although the jury felt he was an accomplice, they did not feel there was enough evidence for a conviction of first degree murder. 

Meanwhile, the girl's own trial concluded the evening of May 9, 1907. It took the jury less than an hour to return a verdict of guilty in the first degree. The following morning, both girls stood before Judge Parker to hear him impose the only sentence allowed by law - Valentina and Alma were to hang together on June 7, 1907. 

Teenage convicted murderers Alma Lyons (l) and Valentina Madrid were hours away from hanging from a rope outside the Sierra County Courthouse in Hillsboro in 1907. Dept of Corrections, Penitentiary of New Mexico, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives.

Albuquerque Citizen, June 4, 1907. LOC.
The sentences drew an outpouring of sympathy for the girls, as dozens of letters and petitions poured into Acting Governor James W. Raynolds' office at Santa Fe. Many were sympathetic and urged Raynolds to exercise his privilege of executive clemency and commute their death sentences to life imprisonment. Others insisted that justice demanded the sentence of the court should be carried out. Finally, reasoning that their execution would eliminate the territory's principal witnesses against Baca, Raynolds issued the commutation on June 4, three days before the scheduled executions. On June 7, 1907, the day they had been scheduled to hang, Valentina and Alma were transferred to the penitentiary in Santa Fe to begin serving their life terms. When Baca ended up being acquitted, the girls alone had to suffer any penalty for the murder of Manuel Madrid. 

Controversy, however, continued to swirl around the girls. In prison, Alma was assigned to do domestic work in Warden John B. McManus' quarters. While there, she developed an intimate relationship with a prison trustee, and soon found herself pregnant. When the situation became public, it took some quick action by prison officials to avoid a major scandal for the administration of Governor William McDonald. Slowly, however, public indignation died down, and early in 1914 Alma was admitted to St. Vincent's Hospital, where she delivered an apparently healthy boy who was adopted by a local family. Both girls were pardoned by Governor Octaviano Larrazolo in 1920 on the condition they not leave New Mexico, stay out of Sierra County and find “honorable employment.” The exact date Valentina and Alma exited the state penitentiary is unclear but they presumably walked out of the prison gates into a life of freedom quite different from the naïve young girls that entered those same gates thirteen years earlier.

You can read other news of the day on the Manuel Madrid murder and the tribulations of these two young women on this Library of Congress web site, Chronicling America. 
Robert J. Tórrez is the former State Historian of New Mexico. He is the author of The Myth of the Hanging Tree: Stories of Crime and Punishment in Territorial New Mexico.