Monday, April 13, 2020

Jornada del Muerto

In twenty-five years of visiting, and almost three years of residency, we had never gone farther south in the state of New Mexico than the Albuquerque Sunport. 
So we eagerly accepted when Connecticut friends D & P invited us to join them and their Las Cruces NM amigos (S & Pt) in February for a few days of R & R down south.  He had a great time and learned more about our new home state’s history – some of which I would like to share with you in a series of "history vignettes.”  

El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Royal Road of the Interior Lands) – the main trade route between Mexico and Santa Fe – began in Las Cruces and, before continuing north, crossed ninety miles of flat desert with no water or forage known as Jornada del Muerto ("journey of the dead man.”)


Although quite flat, the Jornada del Muerto took the earliest Spanish travelers – traveling on foot, with carts or wagons pulled by oxen – as long as a week to cross. (“It passed not a single spring or stream, not a single dependable waterhole. It offered little forage for mules, horses and oxen. It left the thorns of its cholla and prickly pear cacti embedded in the flesh of travelers,” according to 

I recently came across some interesting information on the etymology for this deadly no man’s land’s macabre moniker.  We figured that it had to do with the extremely harsh landscape and/or the sheer number of fatalities. But Noooo!  

You too will be surprised  – because (as the Monty Python comedy group has taught us) "NO-body expects the Spanish Inquisition!"
So here is the story.

Bernardo Gruber, also known as "El Alemán," was a German immigrant and itinerant trader from Sonora who did business at the Pueblos and missions along El Camino.  Being European he was undoubtedly aware that in Spain the Catholic Church’s Inquisition could imprison and torture anyone even vaguely suspected of violating the "edicts of the Faith."  
Likewise here.  
 Yet, during the celebration of a Christmas mass at Nuestra Señora de las Purísima Concepción church in Quarai Pueblo in 1666, Gruber wrote a series of seemingly mystical letters (“+. A. B. V. A. + A. D. A. V. +.”) on some small bits of paper. He then told his companions that if they swallowed one of these “papelitos," they would be immune to injury by any weapon for twenty-four hours.

Nineteen-year old Juan Nieto, ingested one, and then, in a public square, seemed to repeatedly stab himself with an awl – all the while exhibiting no wounds. He then proudly proclaimed to the stunned crowd that it was all just a hoax.  Juan Martín Serrano, challenged Gruber to a sword fight – then backed down apparently having no faith in the protective powers of the mysteriously monogrammed recycled rag byproduct that he had just consumed.
Nieto reported the incident to the Holy Office of the Inquisition. Gruber was formally arrested by that institution’s (perhaps overzealous) agent Fray Juan de Paz  – and charged with promising “immortality to Juan Nieto on a holy day inside a church while mass was being said [using] a mysterious formula to work his charm. There would be no pardon…”  

When he lived in Germany, Gruber explained, the poor often inscribed cryptic letters on small notes in order to invoke magic. He pleaded that such a little thing should not be considered a serious offense.  Did his argument convince the court?  
To quote Chief Inquisitor Cardinal Ximénez (Michael Palin),   "Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!" (Superimposed caption: 'DIABOLICAL LAUGHTER’)"

Gruber was imprisoned but – after twenty-seven months of confinement – escaped with the help of the Apache servant who was guarding him.  Weeks later his "hair and the remnants of clothing...skull, three ribs, two long bones, and two other little bones which had been gnawed by animals" were found at the site that would thereafter be called "El Alemán," in the area that would become known as Jornada del Muerto.


Sometimes the story of how a place got its name reveals something that NO-body expects.

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