Fantasmagoría Eterna: The Hanging of Antonio Flores

August 31, 2023
By: Ervin A. Zubiate-Rocha
El Paso County Courthouse, Courtesy of the C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections, University of Texas at El Paso Library.

A few days before families gathered for Christmas in El Paso, bailiffs in Vernon, Texas, were busy wrestling a noose from the neck of Rev. Morrison’s lifeless body. Morrison had been tried and sentenced to death by hanging, for his wife’s murder. The rope used to execute Morrison then traveled five hundred miles to the Sun City, where it was prepped for reuse, and sat waiting in the county jail.[1] On the day of the execution, before hundreds of witnesses, including court officials, news reporters, physicians, and Mexicans living on both sides of the border, Antonio Flores stood atop the gallows staring into eternity.

On January 5th, 1900, Antonio Flores was hanged for the murder of Ramona Viscaya. Flores had gored Viscaya to death after she declined his marriage proposal. During his trial, Flores’s attorney Jay Good pled insanity as his defense, to no avail. Superficially, this case describes a crime of passion and the ensuing conviction. Upon closer examination however, the hanging raises important questions: Why was Antonio Flores hanged despite his insanity plea? What does his story tell us about the history of mental illness as it relates to crime, race, and gender?

The ultimate outcome of Antonio Flores’s trial is best understood when juxtaposed to two other court cases that took place in El Paso within a ten-year period of Flores’s hanging. On December 12, 1907, Mary D. Arloff, an “attractive” twenty-four-year-old English woman was booked at the El Paso County Jail for the killing of Robert J. Schram. In her cell, Arloff lamented, “I don’t care whether I live or die, in fact, I prefer to die.” According to Arloff, she loved Schram more than life itself. Rather than pity Arloff’s weak and delicate condition, Schram misled and deceived her, compelling her to secure the revolver that ended his life.

 At the hearing, defense attorneys Lea, Jackson, and Ware declared that insanity would be the plea, arguing that Arloff was emotionally insane at the time of the shooting. On the prosecutor’s side, District Attorney Estes pushed to convince the jury that the murder was premeditated. Asserting that Arloff plotted the murder, Estes traced the sequence of her plan. He revealed that a day prior to the killing, Arloff purchased a revolver in Ciudad Juárez, acquired the bullets in El Paso the following day, stalked Schram while he ate supper later that night, and killed the man after chasing him to his room. This was a clever strategy by the prosecutor, since in the popular mind, an insane act of violence could not be premeditated in any reasonable sense.[2]

Arloff’s insanity plea is further complicated by a fascinating revelation she made while awaiting her hearing. In her cell, Arloff disclosed that she experienced fear and nervousness from the presence of a deranged Mexican woman. The woman took baths every few minutes and prowled around Arloff’s bed with water dripping from her soaked clothing. Arloff did not want to be in a cell of her own however, since another Mexican woman, who was also of unsound mind, was kind to her. The woman’s name was Maria, and Arloff denied that she was insane, stating that the compassionate woman swept the floor, washed the bathtub, and tucked her in at night. Maria would gently hold Arloff’s head when she was sick, and she greatly appreciated this.[3]

At the final hearing, while jurists reflected on the case for only thirty minutes, District Court Clerk Ike Alderete prepared to read the final statement.[4] As he reached the stand, spectators left their seats and gathered around the railing in anticipation. Following the words, “we, the jury find a verdict acquitting the defendant on the grounds of insanity,” women in the crowd frantically rushed toward the stand, flooding Arloff and the jury with congratulations. One woman was so overcome with emotion that she grasped each juror’s hands and repeatedly said, “God bless you. You did exactly right.” Another woman offered Arloff her tiny flat, claiming that the women of El Paso would care for her and that “she shall not suffer for anything.” Arloff’s defense team applauded her as well. Attorney Ware remarked that he did not care whether his actions were met with God’s approval, because they met his own.[5]

Prior to Arloff’s acquittal, El Pasoans witnessed a similar trial that further illuminates the injustice of Flores’s hanging. On May 14, 1904, after leaving a dance hosted by the Sons of Herrmann at the Masonic Hall, Henry Hierholtzer was heard shouting in German, “there, you’ve got it!” Pointing his pistol in the direction of John L. Hoerr, Hierholtzer fired a bullet that breached Hoerr’s cranium, easily ripping through his cerebral tissue and killing him instantaneously. Newspapers swiftly reported that Hierholtzer suffered from fits of madness but was “well liked” by all.[6] Similar to Arloff, Hierholtzer pled insanity to a jury consisting entirely of White men.[7] In this case however, Hierholtzer was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death on the gallows.[8]

A deeper dive into Hierholtzer’s defense reveals remarkable insight. According to expert witness provided by physicians, Hierholtzer was indeed deranged. Yet, it was determined that Hierholtzer’s condition was super induced by “sexual perversion.” Evidently, Hierholtzer and Hoerr had been intimately involved for some time prior to the shooting. Driven to madness by Hoerr’s embrace of a woman, Hierholtzer’s jealous rage compelled him to murder his inamorato.[9] During the nineteenth century, homosexuality was perceived to be incited by lust. It was a “sin of the flesh” that threatened both family and nation, eliciting a moral crusade in regions of Europe.[10] Such a degree of perceived immorality certainly factored into the jury’s decision. Yet, in a whiplash inducing turn of events, nearly a year after being condemned, Hierholtzer’s sentence was reduced to fifteen years on the grounds of insanity. Succeeding in his appeal, Hierholtzer perhaps garnered enough sympathy on the basis of race. Still, the peculiar shift in verdict was not lost on observers, with one lawyer insisting that, “Hierholtzer was either insane and therefore guiltless of any blame and deserving of acquittal, or he was guilty of a cold-blooded murder.” [11] While both Arloff and Hierholtzer successfully dodged the death penalty, Antonio Flores did not. Perhaps the defining factors in the outcome of these tribunals were race and gender.

In 1899, Antonio Flores was a middle-aged man around fifty-two years old with thin hair above the temples and a silver-gray beard. He sometimes wore blue overalls, a white shirt with no collar, a linen coat, and a dark vest. His large cloth sombrero accompanied him throughout scorching summers in El Paso that could reach temperatures high enough to threaten the life of a man his age. At this point, Flores had been in the United States for fourteen years but was not yet proficient in the English language.[12] Following years of transition and instability, Flores, his wife Maria Concepción Ramires, and their five children seemed to have finally found a home in the border city of El Paso after having resided throughout Mexico. Alas, seven years after the Flores family had settled, tragedy struck. For reasons lost to history, Maria Concepción Ramires suddenly drew her last breath, leaving Flores to care for his five children alone. This heartbreaking loss, according to Doroteo and Nestor, Flores’s eldest sons, was the moment their father’s mental health began to deteriorate.[13]

Flores’s mental deterioration led to despair on Sunday, March 19th, 1899. That day special quarantine officer J.F. Witt and Dr. Edgar Race were sitting on the Santa Fe tracks, on the lookout for potential smallpox cases. From a distance, the pair observed Antonio Flores engaging in conversation with a washerwoman whom he often visited for services. While attending to her patron, Witt and Race witnessed the woman being violently assaulted. In a deafening exclamation, Flores was heard saying, “well, if I can’t have you, no one else shall!” [14] Drawing a large knife from his pocket, Flores mindlessly impaled the woman three times, once in the chest and twice in the back. With her cerebral nerve severed, the woman immediately collapsed, landing on the tracks directly in the path of an incoming train. Onlookers frantically rushed to her rescue, managing to catch the train engineer’s attention in time to prevent further tragedy.[15] Amidst the madness, Officer Witt sprinted to the scene, chasing Flores as he ran towards the river.[16] Seemingly inebriated, Flores slipped down the railway embankment and rolled several times on the floor before being met by authorities. With his pistol drawn, Officer Witt approached the suspect, placed him under arrest, and transported him to the county jail to await his hearing.[17]Accompanying Flores and Witt was the large knife, wrapped in a brown paper envelope. After being lost in the desert, the blade’s rivet had gathered sand and a clot of blood remained stuck to the wooden handle.[18]

The murdered woman’s name was Ramona Viscaya. She lived in a small hollow in the Mexican settlement of El Paso beside the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroad tracks. A neighborhood known today as Chihuahuita.[19] Viscaya was labeled a “grass widow” ever since her husband had vanished, leaving her to raise several small children on her own. She took up laundering to feed her family and washed clothing for several patrons, including Flores.[20] Multiple times, Flores expressed his love for Viscaya, insisting that she marry him. Yet each time, Viscaya humbly dismissed him. It is unknown why Viscaya rejected Flores. Perhaps she expected her husband’s return or was simply not attracted to a middle-aged man. What is known, however, is that in this final declaration of love, an inebriated Flores was dissatisfied with rejection.

At Flores’s final hearing, after a short convening, the jury had reached a verdict. Throughout the entire proceeding, Flores sat quietly in his chair. In preparation for his trial, his long bushy beard had been shaved, making him look considerably younger. The barrage of unfavorable outcomes in Flores’s life had seemingly not taken a drastic toll on his appearance. Perhaps he truly was unaware of his destiny. Though several expert witnesses attested to Flores’s mental illness, with one physician declaring that “based on all the evidence, the man was clearly laboring under mental derangement,” the court determined that Flores was sane. He would soon take his final breath, likely suddenly and violently. Three weeks after the hearing, Flores would hang, only five days after the turn of the century. [21]

As Deputy Comstock commenced reading the death warrant, Flores seemed to be the least concerned person in the jail room. When Comstock read the words “assess his penalty at death,” Flores smiled and broke into a fit of laughter when he heard Deputy Bryant interpret these words into Spanish. When a person in the crowd, standing within five feet of the gallows, made a nondescript movement, Flores responded with a smile and a bow, as if receiving praise for a performance. Flores’s actions were completely detached from the reality of his final act. When asked for his last words, Flores simply replied, “forgive me, deliver my body to my family.” As if awakening from a dream however, when the noose was carefully slipped over his head, and the black hood adjusted over his face, Flores shouted, “this, no! Tell him to take this off!” Father John Cordova, a priest standing a few feet from Flores responded harshly, “be quiet, you are about to appear before your God. This is no time to talk.” In a desperate tone, Flores pleaded, “can I have time to speak to my son? He is outside.” Sheriff Boone, who was in charge of setting off the trap that would end Flores’s life, callously replied, “it is too late now.” Seemingly accepting his fate, Flores somberly spoke his last words, “then, goodbye gentlemen.”

El Paso Country Courthouse, Courtesy of the El Paso Museum of History.

With a loud clank, Flores’s body dropped seven feet through a trap door on the county jail’s second floor, his descent coming to an abrupt stop just above the heads of spectators. Concentrating gravity’s pull on a small section of Flores’s neck, the traveling noose snapped the vertebrae instantaneously. The directed energy of earth’s force violently detached Flores’s soul from his body, leaving behind a limp figure, swinging back and forth across the audience in the county jail. Fifteen minutes after the drop, Flores’s body was lifted back onto the corridor, the knot being so tightly fixed on his bruised neck that it was impossible to loosen. Gerónimo Parra, Flores’s cellmate, and soon to be his companion in eternity, was forced to watch the entire affair. Parra’s face gradually drained of its color as the moment drew closer and was visibly pale by the time the hood was placed over it. Records do not reveal this but based on Parra’s grisly experience on the gallows, one can imagine that blood similarly rushed from under Flores’s hood, over his chest, and into a bright red stream on the cement floor below. In Parra’s case, when the noose was removed, streams of blood poured out and down to the floor, with at least a gallon or more of blood being spilled.[22] Doctors breathed a sigh of relief, stating that had the fall been six inches longer, the convicted man’s head would have surely been severed.[23]

This microhistory focused on the life of Antonio Flores and his experience with insanity is but a fragment of a prolonged story about the intersectionality of crime, mental illness, race, and gender. There is no better way to sum up the objective of this study than with the words of Jill Lepore. In her love letter to history, Lepore expresses that, “however singular a person’s life may be, the value of examining it lies, not in its uniqueness, but it’s exemplariness, and how that individual’s life serves as an allegory for broader issues affecting the culture as a whole.”[24] Antonio Flores’s execution is more than a single story about a man’s struggle with mental illness. His tragic fate urges a reflection of society’s approach to criminal responsibility, forcing a reckoning rooted in empathy and humanitarianism, and in the vague hope of altering the fate of a similar subject.

[1] “A Ultima Hora,” Las Noticias, December 23, 1899, 1.

[2] Charles E. Rosenberg, The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau; Psychiatry and Law in the Gilded Age (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1968), 57.

[3] “Mary Arloff, Indicted for Murder, Says She Cannot Eat Prison Food,” El Paso Herald, November 5, 1911, 18.

[4] “Jury Acquits Mary Arloff,” El Paso Daily Times, January 23, 1908, 3.

[5] “Mary Arloff Given Her Liberty; Jury Says She Was Insane,” El Paso Herald, January 23, 1908, 4.   

[6] “Murdered in Cold Blood,” El Paso Sunday Times, May 15, 1904, 1.      

[7] “Trial of Hierholtzer Case is Entered Into,” El Paso Herald, June 3, 1904, 1.          

[8] “Hierholtzer Gets Death Sentence by Jury,” El Paso Herald, June 6, 1904, 1.        

[9] “Hierholtzer a Pervert Say Medical Experts,” El Paso Herald, June 4, 1904, 1.     

[10] Jeffrey Weeks, “Sins and Diseases: Some Notes on Homosexuality in the Nineteenth Century,” History Workshop Journal 1, no. 1 (Spring 1976): 211–219.

[11] “Hierholtzer is Given Term of 15 Years,” El Paso Herald, February 7, 1905, 1.    

[12] “Likely to Hang,” El Paso Daily Herald, March 31, 1899, 8.

[13] “Flores Last Hope Gone,” El Paso Daily Times, December 17, 1899, 8.

[14] “Flores Must Hang,” El Paso Daily Times, May 17, 1899, 7.

[15] “Brutally Assaulted,” El Paso Daily Herald, March 20, 1899, 1.

[16] “Held Without Bail,” El Paso Daily Times, April 1, 1899, 7.

[17] “Antonio Flores On Trial for His Life,” El Paso Daily Times, May 16, 1899, 7.

[18] “Brutally Assaulted,” El Paso Daily Herald, March 20, 1899, 1.

[19] Monica Perales, Smeltertown Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2010), 47.

[20] “Antonio Flores On Trial for His Life,” El Paso Daily Times, May 16, 1899, 7.

[21] “Flores Last Hope Gone,” El Paso Daily Times, December 17, 1899, 8.

[22] “The Hanging Yesterday,” El Paso Daily Times, January 6, 1900, 6.

[23] “Fought With Daggers on the Scaffold,” El Paso Daily Herald, January 5, 1900, 5.

[24] Jill Lepore, “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography” The Journal of American History 88, no. 1. (June 2001): 133.

Ervin A. Zubiate-Rocha

Ervin A. Zubiate-Rocha is a Borderlands History MA student at the University of Texas at El Paso. His research examines the transnational history of crime and psychiatry in the early 20th century along the U.S.-Mexico border and its impact on Latinxs' lives. Currently, he is working on his master’s thesis which explores the link between insanity trials taking place on the border and marijuana’s identity as a quintessential “Mexican” drug. In this study, he hopes to demonstrate how antidrug ideology and prohibitionist policies were influenced by racialized notions of mental illness on the border to criminalize the mind and emphasize the demarcation between a global North and South on the path towards U.S. modernity.

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