Old Times and Old Timers

by Don Bullis

New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers

Judge Kirby Benedict: Justice New Mexico Style

Judge Kirby Benedict (1809-1874) was one of the most colorful characters in Territorial New Mexico.

Born in Connecticut, Benedict practiced law in Illinois in the 1840s during which he rode the judicial circuit with Abraham Lincoln. President Franklin Pierce appointed Benedict to the New Mexico bench in 1853 and he kept his seat through the administrations of James Buchanan and Lincoln.

“Physically, Kirby Benedict looked the part of a judge, with his habitual taciturn expression, his backbone ramrod stiff, and a wavy beard that spilled onto his chest.”  He also had a crippled right hand, the result of a wound from a bowie knife. Even though he had difficulty in writing, he distinguished himself by his lyrical pronouncements from the bench.

In one 1854 case which involved some questionable documents, allegedly stolen, in a land grant adjudication case, the justice asked: “How, and when did, it [the grant document] desert its secure abode, among the archives of El Paso, and separated from its companions upon the shelf, wander like a bird, from the arik [ark] of her safety, to be found lost & floating, upon the revolutionary ocean, which the imagination of the defendant, has pictured in his answer?”

Then there was the occasion when Benedict was holding court in Las Vegas (New Mexico) at a time when the territory’s ordinance against gambling was being strictly enforced. The Grand Jury returned a long list of indictments for gambling infractions against many of the territory’s most upstanding citizens, including several members of the bar. Most appeared and promptly paid the statutory $50 fine. One of them, Tom Catron, intended to embarrass the judge by pointing out that he, the judge, was known to engage in poker playing on a regular basis. As the court processed those accused, the sheriff read out the names, and at last he called, “Kirby Benedict, for gambling.”

The judge promptly stood and listened as the sheriff read the indictment. “Kirby Benedict enters a plea of guilty,” he said loudly, and then added, “and the court assesses his fine at $50 and cost; and, what is more, Kirby Benedict will pay it.” Tom Catron subsequently plead guilty, too.

But legend holds that Benedict’s most famous pronouncement came at the conclusion of 1864 murder trial in Taos. The defendant was accused of brutally killing blacksmith Julian Trujillo. The judge is supposed to have said this upon conviction of the accused:

“José Maria Martin, stand up! José Maria Martin, you have been indicted, tried and convicted by a jury of your countrymen of the crime of murder, and the court is now about to pass upon you the dread sentence of law. As a usual thing, José Maria Martin, it is a painful duty for the judge of a court of justice to pronounce upon a human being the sentence of death. There is something horrible about it, and the mind of the court naturally revolts from the performance of such a duty; happily, however, your case is relieved of all such unpleasantness, and the court takes positive delight in sentencing you to death.

“You are a young man, José Maria Martin, apparently of good physical constitution and robust health. Ordinarily you might have looked forward to many years of life, and the court has no doubt you have, and have expected to die at a green old age, but you are about to be cut off as the consequence of your own act. José Maria Martin, it is now the spring time; in a little while the grass will be springing up in this beautiful valley, and on these broad mesas and mountains sides, flowers will be blooming; birds will be singing the sweet carols, and nature will be putting on her most gorgeous and most attractive robes, and life will be pleasant and men will want to stay; but none of this is for you, José Maria Martin; the flowers will not bloom for you, José Maria Martin, the birds will not carol for you, José Maria Martin; when these things come to gladden the senses of men, you will be occupying a space about six by two beneath the sod, and the green grass and those beautiful flowers will be growing above your lowly head.”

(Another part of this legend holds that Martin escaped jail and was not recaptured and was thus not executed. Not so. He was hanged at Taos on May 13, 1864.)

For all of the elegance of the pronouncement of the sentence—and there is much more to it—it is unlikely that Benedict ever spoke the words. Former New Mexico State Historian Robert J. Torrez has tried in vain to locate any official document which contains the speech. This seems to be a case where legend has become, more or less, fact.

Judge Benedict had two character flaws: he was known to drink too much from time to time, and he cheated at poker, and apparently he was a poor cheat.  This latter item is not mere speculation.  He was caught at it more than once, and on one occasion in Albuquerque in the late 1850s, he had to sprinted away by friends before an irate loser could shoot him.

There was a movement to remove Benedict from the bench for drunkenness in the mid-1860s, and a petition was presented to President Lincoln to do so. Lincoln, however, was not moved to do so. He wrote: “. . . Benedict drunk knows more law than all other judges in New Mexico. I shall not disturb him.”

In the early 1870s, Benedict became embroiled in some controversy with the Territorial Supreme Court and he was suspended from the practice of law. In January 1874 he petitioned the Court thus: “I present this petition to your honors in the spirit of confession, respect, obedience and supplication. I confess to have committed against this court, its dignity and judges, disorder, improprieties and contempts [sic] for which I should be punished . . . I now come as a supplicant and sincerely crave the pardon and forgiveness of your honors . . .”

The Court declined to restore Benedict to practice. He died on February 27, 1874.

Selected sources:
West Gilbreath, Death on the Gallows: The Story of Legal Hangings in New Mexico, 1847-1923
William A. Keleher. The Fabulous Frontier
Howard R. Lamar. The Far Southwest, 1846-1912
Miguel Antonio Otero. My Life on the Frontier (1864-82)
Marc Simmons. Albuquerque, A Narrative History
Robert J. Torrez, Bar Journal, Sept./Oct. 1996

Don Bullis’ latest book, Unsolved: New Mexico’s American Valley Ranch Murders & Other Mysteries, available at www.donbullis.biz or www.NMSantos.com