Kirby Benedict was a close friend and former colleague of President Abraham Lincoln, and was among the earliest of the famed judges who occupied the Las Vegas bench. He remains New Mexico’s most notorious inebriate, and was district judge for Las Vegas from 1858 until 1866, when he was removed from the bench by President Andrew Johnson.
But first, a little background as to the judicial system imposed in New Mexico after the U.S. takeover in 1846, when Gen. Kearny issued the first laws under American rule. Known as the Kearny Code, the civil statutes divided the vast New Mexico territory into three judicial circuits, the southern, the northern and the central districts, with Las Vegas and San Miguel del Bado included in the latter, along with Santa Fe. (Written by two of Kearny’s Missouri volunteers, both lawyers, the Kearny Code was patterned after Missouri law, and was issued by Gen. Kearny in Santa Fe on Sept. 22, 1846.)
Four years later, when New Mexico was established as an official U.S. Territory, the Kearny Code was replaced by the Organic Act, adopted by Congress on Sept.9, 1850. Under the Act, Anglo-American jurisprudence (common law) was made applicable in New Mexico, together with the statutory law imposed by the Act, which was in many respects a replication of the Kearny Code.
Also under the Organic Act, the three judicial circuits established by Kearny remained essentially the same, each with a trial judge appointed by the President. The three judges would also act as the Territory’s supreme court, meeting in Santa Fe when not riding circuit, with the chief justice always the judge for the central circuit, which included Las Vegas and San Miguel County.
So it was that after 1850, New Mexico’s judges would come to the new territory from all parts of the United States, including the Midwest, the deep South and New England — and they were a mixed bag. Most were patronage appointees, rewarded for their political allegiance, though after arriving in New Mexico many felt they had been punished. (Suffering culture shock and arduous travel over their vast circuits, several resigned and left not long after arriving.)
Born and raised in Connecticut, Kirby Benedict moved to Illinois and practiced law there in the 1830s and 1840s, riding circuit alongside another young attorney, Abraham Lincoln. Over the years, the two country lawyers became good friends — a fortuity that would later bode well for Benedict, who was first appointed as a New Mexico judge by President Franklin Pierce in 1853.
Five years later, Benedict was re-appointed by President James Buchanan, as chief justice, thereby assuming the Las Vegas circuit in 1858. Living in Santa Fe, Benedict rode circuit to San Miguel del Bado and Las Vegas, and it was around this time that he presided at the trial of Pablita Angel and sentenced her to death by hanging, for killing her lover in Las Vegas. (When the Confederate army captured Santa Fe during the Civil War in 1862, Kirby and other Territorial officials moved to Las Vegas, until Union forces reclaimed the capital.)
Kirby Benedict had a problem, however. By the time his old friend Abraham Lincoln had become President, Judge Benedict was an unabashed drunk — both on and off the bench — whether in Santa Fe or Las Vegas.
So notorious was his drunkenness that a group of prominent New Mexicans asked President Lincoln to remove Benedict from office. Ever the loyal friend, the President refused to do so, offering his oft quoted and now famous reply: “Benedict may imbibe to excess, but he knows more law drunk, than all the others in New Mexico sober.”
Of course, an assassin’s bullet ended Judge Benedict’s protection, and after President Lincoln’s death in 1865, Benedict was quickly removed from office by President Andrew Johnson, in February 1866. Undeterred, Benedict applied for re-appointment three years later, but met formidable opposition from Jose Francisco Chaves, New Mexico’s Territorial delegate in Congress.
In a letter delivered to Washington officials on April 5, 1869, Chaves did not reserve his scathing opinion of the former judge, writing, “Benedict was dismissed from the position of chief justice in New Mexico for habitual inebriety. He has not reformed and is a confirmed inebriate and may be seen every day about the drinking shops in Santa Fe, more or less intoxicated and sometimes sitting publicly asleep in open daylight in that condition.”
Needless to say, Benedict was not reappointed. Instead, his tragic life met still further humiliation. In 1871, he was disbarred from the practice of law by the very court over which he had presided as New Mexico’s chief justice.
Three years later, on a Friday morning on Feb. 27, 1874, while walking not far from his home at the corner of Grant and Catron Streets in Santa Fe, Benedict collapsed and died, at age 63.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730.