First Divorce

Augusta Meinert stood firmly in the center of the makeshift courtroom, her eyes on the judge. At thirty-seven, she was still attractive, though the stubborn tilt to her chin said she didn’t often take “no” for an answer.

Judge Watts studied her. “You understand what divorce means?” He spoke slowly, as if unsure her English could withstand the strain of the concept.

Augusta’s chin went up. “I understand no longer the bastard takes the money I earn.” A ripple of suppressed laughter ran through the onlookers behind her. She turned and glared, and the men fell silent.

“You will be a marked woman,” Judge Watts warned. “This isn’t Germany.”

She frowned. “In Germany, he takes my money, and I can do nothing.” She smiled suddenly, her eyes twinkling. “It is why I like America.”

The Judge nodded and gaveled the rough wooden planks of the table before him. “The first divorce in Colfax County, New Mexico Territory, is hereby declared final,” he announced.

from Moreno Valley Sketches II

New Mexico Territory’s Chief Justice is Fooled Again

Friday, April 1 was the first day of the Spring 1870 Court session in Colfax County, New Mexico Territory, and Judge Joseph G. Palen must have thought someone had pulled an April Fool’s joke on him. At the end of the 1869 Fall session, he’d made three local men responsible for selecting jurors for the Spring term, but it hadn’t done much good. Only six of the identified grand jury members had showed up, so the Judge ordered Sheriff Andrew J. Calhoun to bring in 15 more potential jurors. Which he did but eleven of them had excuses. The 57-year-old Harvard-educated Judge Palen must have wished he’d never accepted President Ulysses S. Grant’s offer to promote him from Hudson, New York postmaster to Chief Justice of the New Mexico Territorial Court and therefore Judge of the Territory’s First District, which included Colfax County.

April 1 illustration.1870 court transcript.resized

Something similar had happened at the beginning of the Fall 1869 session, Judge Palen’s first in Colfax County, and he’d thought he’d solved the problem by giving E.B. Dennison, Benjamin F. Houx, and John Sutton the task of ensuring there’d be enough jurors for the Spring Session. But even their fellow citizens couldn’t corral the miners and ranchers of Colfax County to do their civic duty.

Late that day, the Sheriff finally brought in enough men to fill out the grand jury panel, none of them with reasons strong enough excuse them from the task. However, Palen still had no petit jury members. It was the morning of Tuesday, April 5 before he had both panels in place. Which wouldn’t have been too much of a problem, except that the court session was scheduled to end on Saturday, April 9. There wasn’t much time to address the over 70 separate actions that came before the court during the week-long Spring 1870 session.

Sources: Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, David L. Caffey, UNM Press, 2014; Colfax County District Court Civil and Criminal Record 1, 1869-1871, Serial No. 14400; The Leading Facts of New Mexico History Vol. II, Ralph E. Twitchell, Sunstone Press, 2007.