Death by Investigation

On the night of Saturday, October 30, 1875 New Mexico Territory rancher William Low joined Mexican-born Cruz Vega beside a campfire about a mile and a half north of Cimarron. Low had hired Vega to watch his cornfields that Halloween weekend. But when a group of masked men led by Methodist missionary Oscar P. McMains showed up that night, Low wasn’t surprised. Reverend McMains had asked him to hire Vega to watch that particular cornfield. He wanted him within easy reach of the Poñil River stage road and the telegraph line that ran it.

McMains and his men had a sinister use for those telegraph poles. They suspected Vega of murdering McMain’s fellow missionary, the Reverend Franklin J. Tolby the month before, and they intended to extract a confession from him.

Oct 30 illustration
Las Vegas Gazette, Nov. 14, 1875

According to William Low, “One of them says, halloo boys, and he walked up toward Cruz with a lariat and put it around his neck, and says, come on, and they took him into the road and we along with him. We went up I judge about 500 yards among the timber, along the telegraph line: there was a party of men. It was pretty dark. These four or five men took him to a telegraph pole of their own accord: none of the parties said a word . . . One of the four or five men climbed the telegraph pole and put the rope over the wire and they raised him up, on their own accord, and after a few seconds let him down again.” After Vega recovered enough to talk, McMains interrogated him.

This process was repeated until McMains got all the information he was looking for. Then the Reverend returned to the Poñil River ranch where he and Low were staying the night and left Vega to the mercy of the now-drunken mob. McMains said later that he thought they were too drunk to do Vega any real damage. But shortly after McMains reached the ranch house, he and Low heard gunshots. “My God!” McMains exclaimed. “I fear these are the shots that kill Cruz Vega.”

And he was right. Vega’s body was found the next morning near the base of the telegraph pole. A clump of hair from his bashed-in head lay nearby and rope burns circled his neck.

Ironically, the information McMains gathered that night acquitted Vega of Tolby’s murder. Although Vega admitted that he’d witnessed the killing, he identified Manual Cardenas of Elizabethtown as the shooter. So the murderer was still at large. The saga of Reverend Tolby’s murder wasn’t quite over, and more deaths would ensue before it was. . . . Stay tuned.

Sources: Las Vegas Gazette, Nov. 14, 1875. Las Vegas Gazette, August 25, 1877.

 

 

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