A harmless windmill was erected over a water well at the east side of the Old Town Plaza in 1876, across from the present day Parish Hall. The frame windmill rose about 40 feet above ground, and wooden ladders were used to reach both the lower platform and the derrick.
Four years later, on Feb. 9, 1880, the Optic’s front page headline was “Lynch the Wind Mill.” The story reported the previous night’s vigilante hanging of three men at the Old Town windmill, noting that a citizens’ petition was being circulated to have the windmill torn down, because it was “too great a temptation.”
The Optic did not express outrage at the vigilante hangings, but meekly suggested they should not continue at the windmill. Such was the sad state of criminal justice in Las Vegas at the time, when crime became so prevalent, and murder and mayhem so commonplace, that citizen outrage compelled them to organize as vigilantes to exact justice.
As mentioned in previous columns, soon after the railroad arrived in 1879, Las Vegas became a very lawless community. Hooligans followed the railroad in those days, preying on the denizens of new rail towns.
Later romanticized in western lore, these outlaws were nothing more than common criminals, and included dregs of the Dodge City gang, who arrived here with the first trains.
The first reported hangings at the windmill took place on June 4, 1879, when Manuel Barela and Giovanni Dugi were both forcibly taken from jail and hanged from the Old Town derrick. Barela was in jail for killing an innocent bystander in a saloon, and Dugi, an Italian immigrant, was there on an unrelated murder charge. (The county jail was located immediately north of the plaza, at the northwest corner of Valencia and North Gonzales Streets.)
Seeking only Barela, the vigilantes overpowered the lone jailer and carried off both Barela and Dugi, who was obviously in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were marched the short distance into the plaza and strung up on the windmill, the Las Vegas Gazette reporting that “a minute after the hanging, the plaza was perfectly clear of people and the town was as quiet as a graveyard.”
Eight months later, on Feb. 8, 1879, accused murderers John Dorsey, Tom Henry and James West were hanged at the windmill, and it was this hanging that prompted the Optic’s milquetoast urging that the windmill itself be lynched.
The Optic’s next-day story reported that between two and three in the morning, Dorsey, Henry and West were forcibly taken from jail, each with a rope around his neck, and strung up on the windmill derrick, where they were hanged. According to the Optic story, West was so badly wounded that he had to be carried to his hanging, and was pleading for his life, crying “boys, you are hanging a mighty good man,” to which Tom Henry replied, “Jim, be still and die like a man.”
As usual, the Optic’s inimitable Russ Kistler was more concerned about the ethnicity of the jailers, than the lynching. After noting the lynching was a “big bonanza for the papers,” Kistler devoted a good part of his coverage to ranting against the fact that the jailers could not speak English, and that “it would be a good idea to employ an American as turnkey.” (A frustrated Kistler probably had a hard time putting his story together, not being able to communicate with the jailers.)
Still later, on Nov. 7, 1880, three murderers, two train robbers and a mule thief escaped from the county jail. A group of vigilantes set out for the fugitives and killed them near Chaperito. They brought the bodies back into town, and laid them on the platform of the Old Town windmill, obviously as a stark warning to others.
Things settled down after the last incident, although in the summer of 1882, a man known as Navajo Frank killed one R.H. Hunter. Navajo Frank fled but was apprehended near Sapello and taken to the county jail. At night, a mob of 200 removed him forcibly from the jail and hanged him on a telegraph pole on Railroad Avenue.
The last attempted lynching in Las Vegas was in July, 1883, when Frank Maier was pistol-whipped to death by H.C. Brown, who was jailed. A mob soon assembled and approached the jail, seeking to lynch Brown. This time, however, Sheriff Hilario Romero (third oldest of the Romero brothers), had 15 deputies waiting on the jail’s roof, and they dispersed the crowd, firing into the mob and wounding four.
Thus it was that for a brief period in Las Vegas history, a windmill in the Old Town plaza served as our town’s ghastly gallows.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.