Nuestra Historia - La Gavilla de Silva

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Vicente Silva came to  Las Vegas in 1875 from Bernalillo, in Sandoval County. He soon opened, on the south plaza, a saloon and gambling house known as the Imperial Saloon. Silva’s wife Telésfora and her brother Gabriel Sandoval helped run the raucous saloon, which was open round-the-clock.

Reputed to be a tall and handsome man with reddish brown hair, Silva sported a well-groomed mustache and goatee, and was a smart  dresser.  He and Telésfora were accepted into the community, and often strolled about the plaza and walked hand-in-hand to church at Our Lady of Sorrows.  

Silva’s dapper appearance and civility were a  camouflage, however, as the chameleon would soon become the arch villain of Las Vegas,  known to this day as the town’s most notorious criminal.   

His  main criminal enterprises were cattle rustling and horse thievery, for which he recruited many of the reprobates who frequented the Imperial Saloon. As the gang’s  rustling became rampant, so  did their robberies, homicides and other vice too replete to list  here. We limit our account, therefore, to Silva’s most infamous and deadly crimes. (The Spanish title used for this column means Silva’s Gang, and is the familiar local designation  for them.)

The mock trial and hanging ordered by Silva on a snowy Las Vegas night on Oct. 22, 1892, is always remembered as one of his most nefarious   moments.  Silva accused gang member Patricio Maes of betrayal, and summoned his gang to the Imperial Saloon, announcing that Maes would stand trial for his life. From among his gang, Silva appointed a judge, a prosecutor and someone to defend Maes, with the remaining gang serving as the jury.

Maes was found guilty and the gang decided he should hang immediately. Despite the near blizzard conditions outside the Imperial Saloon, the execution was not delayed.  Maes was marched down Moreno Street to the Bridge Street bridge, where he was discovered later that morning hanging from the girders beneath the bridge, frozen and dead.

In early 1893, Silva accused  his brother-in-law, Gabriel Sandoval, of betrayal. Sandoval, however, was not afforded even a mock trial.

Instead, he was ambushed and murdered by Silva and two of his gang,  near the intersection of South Gonzales and South Pacific streets, his body dumped down an abandoned outhouse.   

Silva’s most heinous crime was committed May 19, 1893.  On that Friday he murdered his wife at his ranch in Los Alamos, along the Sapello River, about 12 miles north of Las Vegas. After taking the money she brought him from the saloon, Silva stabbed Telésfora to death, intending to leave the country with his mistress, and his adopted daughter Emma. (Emma had been  found abandoned as an infant near the Old Town plaza in 1885, and the waif grew to adulthood but suffered a tragic end, burning to death in 1911 after her dress caught fire while she stood next to a fire place.)  

Silva was then murdered by members of his own gang, who were waiting outside the house when Silva killed Telésfora. They turned on Silva and shot him to death, burying both Vicente and his wife in a nearby arroyo. It is unknown whether they murdered Silva because of outrage at his brutal killing of Telésfora, or to steal his money. (Antonio José Valdez,  known as  Patas de Rana/frog legs, was the gang member who shot Silva and absconded with his money belt, purportedly containing $10,000.)

By the late 1890s most of La Gavilla de Silva had been  arrested and convicted of their crimes. Many served time in the New Mexico penitentiary, and several were hanged, including Herman Maestas, whose hanging in Las Vegas on May 25 1894, is shown in the photograph which appears with this column. (Others, including Martín Gonzales y Blea, were committed to the New Mexico Insane Asylum, where they died.)

The first narrative of Silva’s predations was written by Manuel C de Baca, who participated in the apprehension of many of Silva’s  gang, and wrote a first-hand account. His manuscript, entirely in Spanish, was written in 1896.  (Many of Don Manuel’s descendants live in Las Vegas, including great grandsons José Zalo Gutierrez and former Optic reporter Don Pace.)

The exact number of Silva’s gang will never be known, but  they were a horde, and included Genovevo Ávila (el Cachumeno), and Francisco Ulíbarri, a full-blooded Comanche. The gang’s last survivor was José Chávez,  who allegedly shot off Billy the Kid’s index finger during a shooting contest, and  died quite old in 1940 near  Milagro, in Guadalupe County.
Jesus L. Lopez is a native of Las Vegas and a local historian. He may be reached at 425-3730