Old Times and Old Timers

Perfecto Padilla & the Lost Dupont Mine. 

It is a tale of greed, betrayal, murder, and a startling miscarriage of justice, and perhaps the treasure in a lost gold mine.

As Arthur L. Campa1 told the story in 1963, F. D. Thompson and Harris Dupont met in an El Paso, Texas, saloon in 1879 and soon agreed to begin a joint effort to prospect for gold in the remote reaches of New Mexico.

They first visited the Organ Mountains east of Las Cruces where they discovered nothing but remnants of earlier prospecting efforts. They traveled on west to Magdalena where they tried again, and were again unsuccessful. They journeyed north to Albuquerque and then on to Bernalillo where they heard good reports of “color” in the Gallinas Mountains near Cuba in what is now northwest Sandoval County.2 By the time they arrived there, they were broke, but fortunately they were able to find work in an operating mine near Copper City, three or so miles from Cuba.3
As they labored and saved money, they were able to explore the area around San Pedro Peak looking for likely places to prospect and at last Dupont located such a place. He and Thompson agreed to work the claim on equal shares and soon gave up their jobs, equipped themselves and set about working their mine. It was a success. At the end of every week, Dupont would hike to a nearby town and trade their gold dust for gold coins, and each week he would give Thompson a twenty dollar gold piece.
For a time, Thompson was happy with the arrangement. After all, twenty dollars a week was a considerable increase over the dollar per day he’d been earning at the copper mine. But then he became curious about where Dupont went every Saturday evening after his return from town when he disappeared for several hours. Thompson soon followed his partner and learned that Dupont had been cheating him and hiding many gold coins in hole in the ground among some scrub oaks.
One day soon afterwards, in 1884, while Dupont held a drill as Thompson pounded it, Thompson decided that he would settle the matter and with one swing of the heavy sledge hammer, he killed Dupont by crushing his skull. He was immediately sorry for what he’d done, and he didn’t know what to do next. After a few days, he hid Dupont’s body in some brush along a trail and he camouflaged the mine opening. He filled his pockets with all the gold he could carry, and left the rest in its original cache. Thompson returned to Texas.
This might have concluded the matter. Thompson might have disappeared without a trace, but conscience is an odd thing. So is greed. By his own account, Thompson returned to the Cuba area in 1900, but he could find neither the mine nor the stash of gold coins. He was able to learn that a sheepherder named Perfecto Padilla had been hanged for the murder of Harris Dupont upon the evidence that he had sold Dupont’s watch. This so distressed Thompson that he sought redemption for his soul by writing an account of the entire affair, including his own culpability; a document he gave to an Alameda priest with the comment, “I’m glad to get this off my chest!”
F. D. Thompson then disappeared from notice, official or otherwise.
But what of Perfecto Padilla and his unfortunate demise?
Former New Mexico State Historian Robert J. Tórrez took up Padilla’s case in 2008.4 While Professor Campo used Thompson’s confession as his primary source, Tórrez had the advantage of using official documents to describe events of the day, and there are striking differences. For one thing, the murder victim’s name was William Vipond, not Harris Dupont. (One must wonder if Thompson deliberately misrepresented facts in his “confession.”) For another, there were more than two men in the prospecting party including “. . . Bernard J. McGinnis, William Feyerheim, and several others . . .” They prospected along the Rio Gallina (as opposed to the Gallinas Mountains). Vipond disappeared from the prospecting camp in 1894 (not 1884) and a body believed to be his was found in October of that year with the skull “crushed in on one side.” That at least is consistent with Thompson’s version except that the suspected weapon found nearby was a “prospector’s pick” not a sledge hammer. In spite of all this, it seems safe to assume that the two accounts describe the same crime.
Perfecto Padilla became a suspect when two of Vipond’s partners, McGinnis and Feyerheim, alleged that the sheepherder was found to be “driving” Vipond’s burros. Padilla denied he was driving them, but averred that they were simply walking in the same direction along the same trail. It was also reported that Padilla had been spending much more money in Cuba than he would have had available to him as a lowly sheepherder. He was also alleged to have sold a watch identified as belonging to Vipond. Upon that evidence, Padilla was arrested and held for more than a year before being charged with murder.
And there is yet another dimension to this matter. Tórrez presents good evidence that during that year of incarceration, Santa Fe County District Attorney Jacob Crist and Sheriff William Cunningham attempted to coerce Padilla into testifying against some accused killers in a totally unrelated case. Padilla in fact wrote of his concern with the intimidation in a letter to defense attorney Thomas B. Catron. During this time, Padilla did not seem to worry about his own case, which he considered a matter of “false accusation.” He should have worried. He was tried, convicted and hanged on September 24, 1896.
If Perfecto Padilla was guilty of any crime, it seems likely that it was no more than stealing a dead man’s watch, which was certainly not a hanging offense. It may be, too, that his hanging was nothing more than legal murder at the hands of public officials who needed to hide their own cupidity in prosecuting defendants in a totally separate politically-charged case.
And what of the treasure of the Lost Dupont Mine? If Torrez’s research is correct, which seems most likely, there never was any treasure. Surely McGinnis and Feyerheim and the other partners would have had access to the entire mine’s proceeds.
But if Thompson told the truth, well, “¿quien sabe?”

1 Arthur L. Campa (1905-1978) was a professor of Spanish at the University of Denver. His book, Treasure of the Sangre de Cristos is used here.
2 Professor Campa is a bit confused about New Mexico mountains. The Gallinas are near Magdalena, not Cuba. He may have been referring to the Rio Gallina, near Cuba.
3 Nothing remains of Copper City today according to Robert Julyan in The Place Names of New Mexico.
4 Robert J. Tórrez (1949-) was State Historian from 1987 to 2000. He has written numerous books on New Mexico history. His book “Myth of the Hanging Tree” is used here.