Hang’em high for the last time
By Julie Carter
With little fanfare, the last legal hanging in New Mexico took place on a Friday morning at sunrise. It was April 6, 1923, in the town of Estancia.
Led to a scaffold in the jail yard of the Torrance County Courthouse, the condemned man was prayed over by a Catholic priest and read his death warrant by a U.S. Marshal. He was asked if he had anything to say, to which he responded with a negative as the noose was adjusted around his neck.
Torrance County Sheriff John Block sprung the trap, sending 25-year-old Francisco Vaisa to eternity. Ten minutes later he was pronounced dead by two doctors and lowered into a coffin to be buried in the Estancia Cemetery.
Remembered more for being the last man to be executed by hanging in New Mexico than for his name, Vaisa was the last of four men to be hung for the murder of Duran, New Mexico merchant Anton J. Coury.
On a Saturday evening, Sept. 3, 1921, Coury was closing his store when five Mexican Nationals came into the store. They asked to buy some small items, and while Coury tended to their request, one of them asked for a drink. He was directed to the rear of the store while the others lingered at the front.
As Coury went behind the counter, the men drew revolvers and told him to “put up his hands.” Reportedly, instead of complying, Coury grabbed something on the counter and threw at his assailants. One of the men fired at Coury, shooting him twice in the face and killing him instantly.
A local newspaper reported that Mrs. Coury was present and made an attempt to wrestle with the murderer and in the struggle, was shot above her hip. It was later determined that the metal stay in her corset had deflected the bullet and saved her life. Her son Freddie became her hero when he peppered the assailants with canned goods when their last attempt to shoot was aborted by a jammed pistol. They fled the scene.
A call was made to the sheriff and a manhunt was launched. Word of the crime was sent by wire and phone in all directions as bloodhounds from the penitentiary in Santa Fe were summoned. Within days, Sheriff Block had captured Vaisa, Isidoro Miranda and Carlos Rentería. A fourth assailant, Luis Medrano, was captured several months later. The fifth perpetrator, identified as Eziquel Machucha, eluded capture presumably by returning to Mexico.
During the interrogation by the sheriff, Miranda was fingered as the shooter and the one who had planned the hold-up. He had a long criminal history including time served in the State Penitentiary for murder and forgery. He’d been given a pardon by Governor Larrazolo during his last days in office.
At their trial in June, all four defendants were convicted of murder. Miranda, Rentería and Medrano were hung as the sun rose on July 28, 1922 in the Town of Estancia. Hundreds of people assembled to watch but the gallows platform had been draped by a tarp to shield the event from view. However, the rising sun shone on the tarp from the back, giving spectators a silhouetted outline of the defendants in an eerie semblance of shadow puppets.
The trio died a slow painful death with Miranda to be the last pronounced dead. His body was claimed by family and taken to Vaughn to be buried. The bodies of Rentería and Medrano were buried in the furthest remote corner of the Estancia Cemetery, reportedly away from the “good” Catholics in that section.
An interested party took up a collection and hired an attorney for Vaisa. The attorney applied for an appeal to the New Mexico Supreme Court, who ultimately upheld the conviction and Vaisa was sentenced to hang.
Less than a year after his gang members had met a similar fate, Vaisa marked a moment in New Mexico history with only a few witnesses and a last request for his letters to be mailed to his family in Lamesa, Texas.