‘DOOMED TO AN ETER­NITY OF ANONYMITY’

Track­ing down the le­gend of the three bru­jas

Tradiciones Leyendas - - TRADICIONES | TRADICIONES /LEYENDAS 2018 - BY KATHY CÓRDOVA

If only the tomb­stones at Kit Car­son Ceme­tery could talk, Taos area res­i­dents might be able to solve a mys­tery that has con­trib­uted to the col­lec­tion of lo­cal folk­lore.

Many grand­mas and great grand­mas in the com­mu­nity say that a fi­nal burial place for three un­known Taos bru­jas (witches) ex­ists in the his­toric ceme­tery. For decades, el­ders have shared the story with their younger fam­ily mem­bers and those who care to lis­ten.

The fa­bled re­mains oc­cupy a fi­nal rest­ing place be­neath ad­join­ing as­phalt/con­crete-mix blocks of equal size, viewed as a sym­bolic seal­ing-off be­tween the women and the phys­i­cal realm. No one wants the spir­its to es­cape, so part of their pun­ish­ment for a bad life keeps the com­mu­nity pro­tected. The space is lo­cated at the en­trance near the wrought iron gate on Dra­goon Lane. Three large rock frag­ments at the head of each grave have been re­duced to blown-up rock, mi­nus any text. These jagged, par­tial blocks of­fer a sem­blance of tomb­stones. The mid­dle mound’s marker in­cludes a rusted, bro­ken metal stake.

Le­gend says that the women per­formed such de­lib­er­ate, hor­rific acts against the res­i­dents that they are doomed to an eter­nity of anonymity and erad­i­ca­tion of their me­mory. The ex­act acts per­formed by the bru­jas re­main vague (as do the num­ber of peo­ple they al­legedly af­fected), but elder sources list the rea­sons one would sus­pect from a “witch.” Did some­one be­come very ill af­ter eat­ing food pre­pared by the sus­pect(s)? Witches can spread evil through the prepa­ra­tion of a bowl of chile, you know. An­other ac­tion told refers to the pos­ses­sion of an ar­ti­cle of cloth­ing or other item owned by the tar­get of witch­craft. Even send­ing bad wishes to a vic­tim with­out the need to touch or phys­i­cally see the per­son could some­times pro­duce deadly or dread­ful re­sults. Like the Salem Witch Tri­als, women sus­pected of witch­craft re­mained in a dif­fi­cult spot to prove their in­no­cence.

Although witch tri­als sub­sided on the East Coast, they be­came more com­mon here. John H. Vaughan notes in his 1921 book, ‘His­tory and Gov­ern­ment of New Mex­ico,’ that ‘Pa­gan rites flour­ished as be­fore the Pue­blo Re­bel­lion.’

Medicine men claim­ing su­per­nat­u­ral pow­ers were able to ap­peal to the fears of the su­per­sti­tious pueb­los. In the ef­fort to deal with these ‘witches’ in the early 18th cen­tury, witch­craft tri­als be­come some­what fre­quent in New Mex­ico soon af­ter they died out in New Eng­land. A fa­vorite pun­ish­ment for the witches was to make them ser­vants in Span­ish fam­i­lies.”

The his­toric ceme­tery, lo­cated in what is now Kit Car­son Park, opened in 1847 with “mod­ern” buri­als be­gin­ning in 1957. Orig­i­nally, the land was do­nated by Doña Teodora Martínez-Romero as a fi­nal rest­ing place for the sol­diers killed in the Taos Re­bel­lion of 1847. Lo­cals knew the ceme­tery as El Ceme­te­rio Mil­i­tar. In 1852, the ceme­tery changed names and fo­cus. The Amer­i­can Ceme­tery al­lowed non-Catholics burial priv­i­leges; a dif­fer­ence in the faith of the de­parted ones buried on the grounds. May 1969 marked the date of yet an­other change. With the ad­di­tion of the burial plots for Kit and Josephine Car­son, civic lead­ers re­named the ceme­tery Kit Car­son Memo­rial Ceme­tery. The re­mains of mainly traders, mer­chants and mem­bers of old Span­ish, French and Amer­i­can fam­i­lies were buried on the premises. The ceme­tery was ac­quired by the town of Taos from the state in 1988. To­day, ceme­tery of­fi­cials do not al­low buri­als in an ef­fort to keep the ceme­tery his­tor­i­cal.

The le­gend cap­tured the at­ten­tion of the Taos High School Cul­tural Re­porter Lan­guage Arts class in 1994. Stu­dents in the class used the skills learned dur­ing a stint as one of two pilot schools in the na­tion to use in­ves­tiga­tive tech­niques un­der the aus­pices of the Smith­so­nian In­sti­tu­tion’s Mu­seum of Amer­i­can His­tory. One of the in­ves­ti­ga­tions the class headed was ti­tled “Des­can­sos — Fi­nal Rest­ing Places.” The study ex­am­ined the burial places and var­i­ous ceme­ter­ies in the Taos area, in­clud­ing the Kit Car­son Ceme­tery. The stu­dents’ work re­sulted in a mu­seum ex­hibit at the Martínez Ha­cienda and an ac­com­pa­ny­ing man­ual for the Taos Pub­lic Li­brary.

THE HIS­TORIC CEME­TERY, LO­CATED IN WHAT IS NOW KIT CAR­SON PARK, OPENED IN 1847 WITH ‘MOD­ERN‘ BURI­ALS BE­GIN­NING IN 1957.

Be­sides in­ter­views with their el­ders, the stu­dents at­tempted to learn as much as pos­si­ble about the ceme­tery and its oc­cu­pants. The text of the man­ual reads as fol­lows: “Kit Car­son Park is lo­cated on Paseo del Pue­blo Norte, about two blocks from the His­toric Taos Plaza. The land on which the peo­ple were buried was sold in plots to the var­i­ous fam­i­lies. When one of the fam­ily mem­bers would pass away, the fam­ily was re­quired to pro­duce a proof of pur­chase for the plot. The land on which the peo­ple were buried was sold for $5,000 and a leg­isla­tive act made the land an of­fi­cial ceme­tery.”

The des­ig­na­tion of “of­fi­cial ceme­tery” au­to­mat­i­cally cre­ates the ex­pec­ta­tion of the ex­is­tence of records. At the time, stu­dents at­tempted to find a list of those buried in the ceme­tery. Un­for­tu­nately, the avail­able in­for­ma­tion could not leave the premises of Taos Town Hall, but the stu­dents read a ci­ta­tion called “Three Taos Women.” The ci­ta­tion did not in­clude names of the graves’ oc­cu­pants. The young in­ves­ti­ga­tors as­sumed the women to be “the three bru­jas or La Lloronas” of whom the el­ders re­ferred be­cause other names on the list ap­peared fa­mil­iar to them.

In 2018, fur­ther at­tempts to dis­cover the iden­ti­ties of the side-by-side oc­cu­pants of the graves yielded no re­sults. The town of Taos ceme­tery list — which was not al­lowed to be copied, was ac­com­pa­nied by an iden­ti­cal hand­writ­ten list on le­gal pad pa­per and two maps of the Car­son fam­ily plots — com­pared with sur­veys done in the 1960s by the New Mex­ico Ge­nealog­i­cal So­ci­ety and by Bill Phillips in 1996-1997 for Kit Car­son His­toric Mu­se­ums re­sulted in no new in­for­ma­tion for the graves in ques­tion. All the lists noted the con­joined plots with “No Names” or “Un­known.” There was no au­thor given on the town’s two lists, although the oldest one was spec­u­lated by town of Taos Ex­ec­u­tive Sec­re­tary Cathy Romero to be from the 1950s. Web­sites of­fered in­for­ma­tion on ceme­tery buri­als, but re­quired names and date(s) of burial for a search.

In the end, at­tempts to dis­cover the women’s iden­ti­ties was a wash. It is a lit­tle cu­ri­ous that the only records handed over to the town from the state were so lim­ited. “There is no doc­u­men­ta­tion in our pos­ses­sion re­gard­ing ‘El Ceme­tery Mil­i­tar’ or ‘The Amer­i­can Ceme­tery,’ though these des­ig­na­tions may have pre­ceded the own­er­ship by the town and pre­vi­ously by the state of New Mex­ico,” ex­pressed Romero via email. She added that the town “has no way to ver­ify the source or ac­cu­racy” of the records or maps.

Only one ex­pla­na­tion re­mains plau­si­ble — the three women buried in Kit Car­son Ceme­tery are an im­por­tant part of Taos lore, and maybe that’s where their story be­longs. The ideas of the three bru­jas stir the imag­i­na­tion and fit the de­scrip­tion of the word “folk­lore.” Maybe not ev­ery mys­tery should be solved, be­cause many peo­ple en­joy a tan­ta­liz­ing tale of “dou­ble, dou­ble toil and trou­ble, fire burn and caul­dron bub­ble.”

M. El­well Ro­mancito

A dark­en­ing sky hov­ers over the Kit Car­son Memo­rial Park en­trance from Dra­goon Lane near the un­marked graves of the al­leged ‘three bu­jas.'

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