Last October, I hit the road again. Not on one of the long treks that have been my way for the last few years, this time it was in a hired campervan with the aim of exploring the deeply lovely and mysterious New Mexico. I was going to spend a few days on an Indian reservation, take two and three-day hikes into the fantastic wilderness areas of the state and search out the legends and ghosts of a region which had seen at least four different civilisations flourish and often fade within its magnificent landscape. Coming out after a few days trek into the Bandolier wilderness, I headed down to Las Vegas; not the Las Vegas of one armed bandits and Tom Jones stripped to the waist, that is in Nevada but, maybe a more interesting Las Vegas, once one of the most lawless places in America. A place where people like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday used to hang out and Billy the Kid would enjoy the company of dark-haired Spanish ladies. A place where you can be shot for looking at the wrong person in the wrong way, or perhaps even the right way. It turned out to be a day of serendipity and magic; a day in which you look for one thing and to your delight find another.
Las Vegas was the scene of the melancholy and mysterious tale of Paula Angelo, the story of whom I had come across by accident once before. It is wrongly claimed she was the first woman to be hanged in New Mexico. Hanged she certainly was but maybe not the first to so end her days. Even so, in the peculiar and skewed morality of the times, when it was perfectly okay to shoot, stab, strangle, scalp, bludgeon as well as hang men, executing women was not seen as the “done” thing.
Her portrait shows an evocatively beautiful face. She had killed a married man, probably a soldier, who had jilted her, and her execution was ordered by a judge who was in a hurry to move things along and get back to his drinking and gambling. She was allowed to appeal, though rather thoughtlessly, the date of execution was not postponed whilst the appeal was held. Thus, in front of a crowd of onlookers, both curious and appalled, she was strung up from a cottonwood tree, standing on the back of the cart that had transported her there with her coffin. The jailer and executioner who seemed to have some antipathy towards her, maybe he was a relative of the soldier, had botched the job and her hands were left free. When the cart was driven away to leave her swinging in the air, the onlookers were appalled to see her grasping at the noose around her neck in an effort to relieve the fatal pressure on her windpipe. Angrily some bystanders cut her down and whilst she struggled to recover an argument broke out between those who said that as she technically had been hanged she could now be set free and those who said the judge had called for her to be hanged until she was dead, and therefore the whole ghastly business should continue. In the end the latter argument prevailed, and the poor girl was finally killed
The story had been intrigued me and in my mind it seemed a great opportunity to write a ballad in a traditional form – something that often has a dozen or more verses following a fairly strict structure. So plenty of material required and I hoped that in Las Vegas to find out more about Paula and her melancholy story.
I had read that after the excitement of the late 19th century when Las Vegas had stood as one of the key cattle towns at the top of the Santa Fe Trail and railhead, that it had fallen on hard times as history had moved on to other stories and tales. But this adversity seems to have had a positive consequence, many of the old buildings along the main street and in the central area called the Plaza, had not been pulled down but hung in there waiting renovation. This is now happening as gradually the buildings are restored. With polyglot names like Stern and Nahm, Kortes, and the E Romero, Hose and Fire Company 1882, the great old buildings stand in that distinctive American western style and in sunburned colours of blue, olive and red. At the end is the old Plaza Hotel on the edge of a grassy area where perhaps once the stagecoach pulled in and horses moved restlessly in the heat. I had lunch in the old hotel and is now a rather genteel establishment. It is hard to imagine that once upon a time the legendary Doc Holliday, gambler, gunslinger and most improbably, dentist – his surgery was out the back of the hotel apparently - hung out in the saloon bar once killing a man in an argument.
I asked the manager of the hotel if he had heard of Paula Angelo but he said he was afraid that he hadn’t. I went into one or two old bookshops asked the same question got the same answer. I tried some antique shops with no luck either. I then headed to the museum confident that they would be able to help me, but they were cleaning it and despite my best pleading, they would not let me in. Somewhat despondently, I wandered back along the Main Street and paused outside a shop that appeared to house some sort of local history exhibition. Going inside, I saw promisingly that there were lots of old photos and exhibits about the Santa Fe Trail and Las Vegas itself on the walls. At the back of the store two old men sat watching me. One was short and rather dapper -looking; the other seemed incredibly ancient, with sprouts of hair appearing everywhere including on top of his nose. He was wearing blue-bib dungarees and his eyes were red rimmed and rheumy. He was, I thought, the oldest man sitting upright I had ever met.
“Can I help you?” said the first guy, who I later learned was called Leroy Ledoux.
“I’m over from England,” I said, “and wonder if you knew anything about Paula Angelo?”
“Sure”, he is said, “a bit, sit there and we will tell you what we know.”
Offering me a chair, he went to the front door and locked it so that we might not be disturbed.
Returning he spoke to the other guy in Spanish after introducing him as Joe Lopez.
“I asked him if he knows anything” , Leroy said to me
Joe looked at me slowly and shook his head.
“Why don’t you tell me what you know”, said Leroy, “and I will tell you anything I know in addition to that”
Which I did.
“That’s about the whole of it’ said Leroy when I finished.
“She came from Loma Parada !” Said Joe suddenly in English.
Leroy questioned him in Spanish and Joe repeated himself and added:
“It means grey hill in Spanish, was a wild place, 5 miles from the soldiers stationed at Fort Union. There was a casino and bars for the soldiers, and it was the closest place to find a woman.”
Leroy nodded “soldiers would all head over there.”
Joe looked at me again as if summoning up memories.
“Soldiers used to fight with the local ranchers. There was plenty of hanging done out there - the locals didn’t like the way the soldiers treated their women.
So if Paula had come from Loma, Parada, she would have come in regular contact with US Soldiers I wondered aloud.
“He had five children”, said Joe.
We both looked at him.
“He went back to his wife so she killed him”
This part of the story I had heard before. Paula was probably about 19 and had fallen in love with a married man who had broken it off. She had asked to meet him one last time and in the course of this meeting had stabbed him to death.
We speculated as to whether the fact he had five children probably meant he had served in the army for some time. Was he a popular man with a strong group of comrades who would want to avenge his death including officers who had the influence to hurry things through to see rough justice done.
It seemed easy to picture the scene in which a naive, beautiful girl is drawn in by an older man and then destroyed by the inevitable narrative of the times.
“Loma Parada is a ghost town now” said Leroy. “Not much remains but you can get out there if you turn off the Interstate 25.”
I felt the warmth breath of history touch my imagination and felt that rush of momentum as another story starts to unfold. But before I got carried away Leroy and Joe wanted something back in return,
Leroy and Joe were both intrigued by my Englishness and the conversation moved on to the origins of names and families. Joe told me his family had moved over from Spain in 1700s and that he was born on an Apache reservation, on land illegally given by the US government in spite of the treaties that were supposed to protect land rights. Leroy was the descendant of French trappers who had worked their way down the western side of the US originally from Canada.
They began to ask me what I knew of the origins of names from the British Isles. Where for instance the Higgins might have come from or the Conways and the O’Neills.
“Where would the Bonneys have come from,? There are Bonneys in my family”, Joe suddenly asked.
I smiled. “You know Billy the Kid was a Bonney supposedly, William Bonney?”
Joe looked at me and nodded.
“He’s the Kid’s third cousin” said Leroy “his grandfather knew him well!”
Joe simply nodded again.
“He was a handsome man, despite that picture, the Spanish ladies loved him.”
And so I had met a relative of one of the most, no, the most famous outlaws that ever lived. Was it true? Who knows? On one of the exhibition stands was Joe’s family tree and his mother was a Bonney. So little is known of the Kid’s life, a man who embarked on a three-year killing spree and was dead by the time he was 21. A man whose grave I would visit a couple of days later only to read that perhaps he wasn’t buried there after all and had escaped to Mexico.
But it was getting late, I could see that Joe was getting tired, and I had a ghost town to visit before the sun had set