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Ada Hulmes Murder Trial

On Tuesday evening, February 19, 1889, Ada Hulmes, the piano player at Silver City's Monarch saloon, shot and killed John V. “Jack” Brown, a Silver City carpenter and also the fire chief of that town in southwestern New Mexico Territory. As reports of the killing spread, people flocked to the murder scene at the Centennial saloon to join in the excitement, discuss the lurid details and condemn the murderess. They also gossiped about Jack and Ada's intimate relationship. By the weekend, most of Silver City knew that Brown had recently jilted her, thanks to the Silver City Enterprise. Ada Hulmes was a woman scorned.

In a note Brown had received from his distraught ex-paramour, she pleaded with him to spend the evening with her. He in turn dashed off a curt response that he “wished to break off all further familiarity.” He then penned a second note to his new favorite lady, “Claude” Lewis, who was Ada's housemate. Jack invited Claude to meet him at the Centennial. Young Henry Rosecrans delivered the messages to the women. After Ada read her note, she jumped up, grabbed a pistol, wrapped it in a silk handkerchief and plunged it into the bosom of her dress. Oddly, she yelled to her rival to accompany her and stormed out of the room swearing that she was “going to kill the son of a bitch.”

“If you are going to have any trouble, I will not go with you,” Claude Lewis replied. But Ada insisted, “I will not have any difficulty with him.”

The two rode together to the Centennial. The saloon, according to the Enterprise, was full of men and “several frail creatures” drinking in the barroom. Claude stopped at the bar and asked Ada to join her for a drink. Ada spurned the invitation and marched directly to the gambling room, where she found Brown “lazily looking on a game of cards.” Ada's shout that she was going to kill him shocked Brown and grabbed the attention of everyone in the room. Brown should have seized and subdued Ada. Instead, his instincts took over, and he turned and dashed around the stove to put it between him and the enraged woman. A shot rang out. Brown threw up his hands as the bullet ripped into his left side, carved an upward trajectory, raced through his heart and burst out the right side of his chest. Brown stumbled across the room, staggered through the door and fell to the sidewalk on the south side of the building.

Ada, the newspaper reported, fled to the rear of the Centennial, “occupied by people of her own class,” and ran into Savannah Randall, a middle-aged mulatto whose day job was as a laundress. In a futile effort at concealment, the “golden-toothed sirene [sic]” secreted Hulmes in one of the cribs located behind the saloon. Deputies Al Card and C.L. Cantle arrived, pushed their way through the Centennial and out the back. When they kicked in the crib's door, Ada “came forth swinging her arms and yelling like a hyena.” As her captors hauled her to jail, she asserted her innocence, yet she also tried to feign insanity. Spectators sided with Brown; they agreed that the fire chief, a Michigan native, “had many faults, and yet was not a bad man.” The Enterprise rationalized that his thrilling experiences on the frontier had not made for a “life of refinement. He had a weakness for loud dress and flashy jewelry,” but, the report continued, he possessed “a warm heart and a generous hand.” The faithless fire chief, who had been a resident of the area for the past decade, left behind his 23-year-old wife, Adelaide, a 19-month-old daughter and an infant son.

Less than a week later, the heavily veiled Hulmes, described as a “bold adventuress,” appeared before Justice Harry W. Lucas (her first cousin, Ada later claimed). With Silver City's citizens in an uproar, her attorneys, Idus L. Fielder and Gideon D. Bantz, moved for a change of venue. Lucas ordered the trial moved to Doña Ana County. The five-day-long murder trial of Ada Hulmes began in Las Cruces during the first week of October 1889. William L. Rynerson and his partner Edward C. Wade, district attorney for the third judicial district, prosecuted. Rynerson had first gained notoriety on December 15, 1867, when he shot and killed John P. Slough, New Mexico Territory's chief justice, and was acquitted on grounds of self-defense. Political powerhouse Albert J. Fountain (1838-1896), later a victim in one of the Southwest's most renowned murder mysteries (see story in February 1998 Wild West), joined Bantz and Fielder at the defense table for what the Enterprise described as “one of the most remarkable as well as one of the most interesting trials that has ever occurred in southern New Mexico.” What stirred so much interest? The defendant was a “good looking, well-developed young woman of 30 years, with a bright and intelligent countenance and possessed a very nervous temperament.” Those who did not know her or the circumstances of the killing, “with heroic and true Western magnanimity,” perceived a sympathetic defendant. In contrast, Silver City residents who did know her and the facts of the killing beheld a “cold-blooded murderer.”

The prosecution's task seemed simple enough. Medical testimony confirmed that Brown had died as a result of the bullet that passed through his body. More than a few eyewitnesses linked Ada and her revolver to that bullet. For her part, Hulmes offered what most observers deemed a dubious claim of self-defense, propped up by an equally feeble insanity defense. William E. King, a witness to the murder, testified that Brown threw his left hand against his left hip as though to grasp for a pistol. In spite of his further testimony that Brown was left-handed, and that his coat was “thrown back beyond the hip in such a position that he could see the white handle of the revolver,” the Enterprise reported that most considered this “no predicate upon which to base the doctrine of self-defense.” During cross-examination, the newspaper noted, the prosecution established that “the ball passed through the coat from and above where the pistol handle would be, showing that at the time of the shooting, King could not have seen the pistol without he was able to look through the coat, and that it was admitted he could not do.” In rebuttal, the prosecution also produced evidence that inside his vest, on the left side, Brown carried a knife within a leather shield, adding: “Of course anyone who will study for a moment will see that a left-handed man could not reach on the left side of his vest and grasp a knife.” Observers concurred that “King's evidence was completely annihilated, and he put in a position that is not to be envied by any witness desiring to be truthful.”

Hulmes testified that she had no knowledge or recollection of what occurred from the moment young Rosecrans delivered the notes up to the time she landed in jail. El Paso doctor W.T. Baird gave evidence that he had treated her for a uterine disease known as paralysis of the neck of the bladder and concluded that Ada, under nervous strain and tension at critical periods, suffered a “loss of accountability.” Dr. E.L. Stephens, of Silver City, concurred with certain hypotheticals proposed by Dr. Baird, but was uncertain whether these conditions necessarily resulted in legally defined insanity. Attorney Fielder closed the argument for the defense. He asked for the jury's indulgence as he recounted a child's experience with a storm “as the artilleries of the heavens opened upon the battle.” He shifted the scene to California and “a peaceful country home, a kind father, a fond mother, a bright promising son, and a dear loving daughter.” Slowly, in the most florid terms, Fielder unfolded a tragic account of Ada's life. As “lightning's lurid flashes” disrupted a peaceful night's slumber, so, too, upon the “happy scene fell the shadow of black disaster.” While in her teens, her father and brother “were snatched suddenly away by the cruel hand of death,” causing her grieving mother to become deranged. “The heart-stricken girl turned to a lover,” and, for a time, with a husband and a newborn child, “her life seemed full of hope and promise.” Again, misfortune intervened, as the husband sought “days and nights of riotous living.” He abused Ada, squandered her estate and abandoned her and their child. “Shelterless and penniless,” Ada placed her child in a convent and began to play the piano in a saloon. “Year by year, from her humble earnings,” she paid the youngster's tuition.

Fielder next asserted that it was not his intention “to dissect or assail” Brown's character. He then, amid repeated objections from prosecutor Rynerson, proceeded to dissect and assail Brown's character -- that of “a would-be desperado” and coward. “Gentlemen of the jury, the country loses little when it loses such a man,” Fielder declared. He then sought to convince the jury that such a desperate character truly posed a threat to Ada and “providence employed the frail hand of this distracted woman as the instrument with which [it] visit[ed] upon him a just retribution.” Having appealed to the jury's emotions, and having offered the case for self-defense, Fielder closed in on the issue of Ada's sanity, as “the law has neither power, nor desire to punish the irresponsible.” He recounted for the jury the testimony of Drs. Baird and Stephens and contended, “Her poor brain was like a seething volcano; it was like an open powder house; it was then, ah, it was then, gentleman, that Jack Brown purposely, wickedly, lit the fatal fuse.” Rynerson, in his closing argument for the prosecution, scoffed that Grant County defense attorneys habitually sought changes of venue to Doña Ana County, which enjoyed the reputation of seating juries that would free clients. He expected this jury to “wipe that slander out of existence and preserve the fair name of Doña Ana County.” His words, the Enterprise observed, brought glares from Hulmes, “filled to the brim with indignation and as angry as she could be.” Yet, the newspaper judged, “Her physiognomy and appearance show her to be well bred and well raised until the time she had unfortunately fallen.”

District Attorney Wade followed Rynerson, and for three-quarters of an hour he summarized the prosecution’s case. Hulmes, he said, had committed “a dastardly and unprovoked murder.” The jury retired to debate. Reporters later learned that none of the jury members favored acquittal, while several preferred the greatest penalty -- hanging. Others wanted a sentence of 15 years, a couple opted for 10 years, and only one preferred a three-year sentence. Nonetheless, the argument of the one proved persuasive. At 8 o'clock in the evening, the jury returned a verdict of guilty and recommended a sentence of three years in the New Mexico Territorial Penitentiary at Santa Fe. When the verdict came in, the composure that Hulmes had maintained throughout the trial finally failed her; she broke down and cried. Later, at the Rio Grande Hotel, she fell into hysterical convulsions. It took two hours for a doctor to revive her.

Sheriff Harvey Whitehall of Grant County transported Ada Hulmes to Santa Fe on October 30, 1889. After breakfast at the Exchange Hotel, they took a carriage to the penitentiary. “A glimpse of the woman as she stepped into the carriage at the hotel revealed a rather prepossessing face; brown hair and blue eyes over which fell the shade of a jaunty black hat,” a nearby reporter noted. “She wore a black silk dress and a fifty inch seal coat which set off her plump figure in the nobbiest style.” The warden confined prisoner No. 324 in the women's cell on the third floor. Through a heavily grated window on the east side of her 14-by-14 room, she could catch a glimpse of the city. Ada, the only female prisoner then at the penitentiary, required a personal matron, Mrs. H.F. Swope, the wife of the captain of the guards.

Soon after her admission, the Albuquerque Daily Citizen asserted that Ada Hulmes enjoyed “more comforts and privileges than any other convict in the land.” The newspaper described her cell at the penitentiary as a “large, airy apartment on the third floor of the main building, entirely separate from the prison proper, and its windows command a fine view of the Santa Fe valley.” The Citizen decried her enjoyment of a carpeted floor, a piano and a $60-per-month matron to see to her needs: “The contrast between the treatment of this murderess and a boy who is in for stealing a calf is very marked.” W.A. “Pink” Leonard, editor of the Enterprise, read the report, bemoaned the $60 salary “to attend to the every want of this nymph du pave,” and proposed that the penitentiary be closed and that Eastern states be hired to keep New Mexico Territory's prisoners “at one-half the cost to the tax payers.”

As other editorials followed the lead of the Citizen and the Enterprise, New Mexico Territory's citizens also began to write. One complained to Las Vegas' Optic that Ada's treatment encouraged crime. Amid the charges, in early December New Mexico's board of prison commissioners responded directly to Max Frost, editor of Santa Fe's Daily New Mexican, and labeled all the assertions false. Hulmes' room in the women's ward “has been the place of confinement of female prisoners since the establishment of the prison, and was constructed for this purpose.” They further informed Frost that the matron's salary was $30 a month and that the territory did not pay for the piano. “The Santa Fe correspondent of the Optic knew he told a falsehood pure, simply and malicious when he wrote the communication,” claimed the commissioners. The explanation seemed to satisfy. Even Pink Leonard of the Enterprise, living where the crime was committed, agreed “the taxpayers have no particular complaint to make.” Six months passed before the chastised Optic broke the story of a new scandal.

During the week that followed his release from the penitentiary, Sam Griffin, a railroad worker and petty thief from Silver City, had informed the Optic that while the matron attended the dying warden, D.E. Abrahams, two employees enjoyed Hulmes' sexual favors, she still being the prison's only female inmate. This time, Russell Kistler, the enduring editor of the Optic, investigated the report before publishing it. A reporter interviewed the new warden, Colonel Edward W. Wynkoop.

No stranger to controversy, Wynkoop had been among the first to seek investigation of Colonel John M. Chivington's command at Sand Creek in November 1864. His testimony as to the brutality of Chivington's actions in Colorado Territory stirred emotions nationwide. Now Wynkoop averred that he knew nothing of the circumstances before he became warden, but he did correct the record as to the number of female inmates. Lola Garcia and Barbarita Word, both committed for six-month terms on arson convictions, shared Ada Hulmes' room. A Mrs. Clark, who had replaced matron Swope, explained that during the late warden's illness, the prison commissioners gave her instructions to attend to him, rather than to her other duties. “Some time after the death of the warden I heard that there had been something wrong, but I cannot say there is any truth in the report,” Clark said. Kistler judged the responses of Wynkoop and Clark to be supportive of Griffin's claim, and he published the story. Other newspapers in the territory readily spread the tale. The Albuquerque Morning Democrat proclaimed, “There is a skeleton in the penitentiary closet,” and charged that “every effort is being made to hush up the matter.” Nevertheless, the press quickly forgot this scandal. Ada Hulmes had become old news.

With the first year of her three-year sentence behind her, Hulmes and a number of her supporters began to lobby Governor L. Bradford Prince for early release. On December 27, 1890, the governor received petitions from Silver City, Deming and Hermosa with five pages of attached signatures, including those of New Mexico's solicitor general, Edward L. Bartlett, and Sheriff Whitehall of Grant County. Two weeks later, Ada Hulmes invited the governor to call at the penitentiary to discuss the possibility of a pardon. Prince's reply informed her that it would be “impossible for me to visit the Penitentiary for some time.” Hulmes continued her letter-writing campaign to the governor. “Oh, if you had seen me when I first came here and to see me now I don't believe you'd hardly know me,” she bemoaned on January 17, 1891, and she expounded upon her poor health at great length. She defended her conduct in prison, claiming that the recent controversy surrounding her had no foundation, but “was merely done for political work.” A month later, she appealed again and asked whether a convict had any protection at all. She denied that she “had been familiar with any parties here” and offered a convoluted argument that should the governor allow her the right to do herself justice “by being a free woman,” her pardon would aid the Republican Party in the forthcoming election. She also reminded the governor that her “nervous system was nearly shattered.”

Hulmes had her supporters as well as her detractors. Denver attorney Edgar Caypless, formerly of Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory, rose to her defense. Caypless had once been the lawyer for outlaw Dave Rudabaugh, and Billy the Kid had also sought Caypless' services. Now, as Ada's advocate, he described her to the governor as “an actress of acknowledged standing and merit, a lady of intelligence and intellect; an artist who had known only the brighter and more beautiful side of life, and whose personal worth was minimally conceded throughout the profession she called her own, and which, in turn, called her one of its queens.” Yet, Mary Teats, also from Las Vegas, and the national superintendent for prison and jail work of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, described a strikingly different woman. Teats contended that Hulmes was “a dangerous person…a contamination...who wished to go back to her former wicked life.”

In mid-March, Hulmes again contacted Governor Prince to complain of her nervousness and “head troubles.” She explained that she needed a pardon or a commutation by June 24, in order to seek work in the theater. She also intertwined her plea with references to her child and her need to secure her child's future. “Oh Governor do tell me you will commute my sentence at the latest upon the 24th of June.” Ada also directed a March letter to the solicitor general, Bartlett, to remind him of his “kind promise to use your influence in obtaining my release.” She also explained to him the importance of her release by June 24. Bartlett, in turn, wrote the governor that May in support of Ada: “She never ought to have been sentenced, and since she has been a convict, she has been cruelly abused by the public and the press generally. I think this is a special case which merits executive clemency.”

Official concern now arose about Hulmes' health. Dr. Robert H. Longwell, the penitentiary's physician, wrote: “This woman is a nymphomaniac, and to such an extent does she practice this vile habit, that she has developed a suicidal mania. If she is not released from the Penitentiary by Executive clemency, she will soon be a raving maniac with no hope of ultimate recovery.” Dr. John Symington, a consultant, concurred and opined, “Her reason and health are both seriously impaired by her confinement and the melancholy incident thereto.” Dr. J. H. Sloan, yet another physician brought into the case, also concurred, and warned, “We have enough insane people in our Territory without deliberately making another.”

On June 2, Ada's long absent husband, Edward H. Sheehan, accompanied by Bartlett, called on the governor. Sheehan returned three days later for a long talk. He maintained that her difficulties dated back only five years, and expressed his belief that if she returned to Chicago and their child, her problems would cease. Finally, in late June, J. Franco Chavez, superintendent of the New Mexico Penitentiary, wrote Prince with the news that Hulmes “was perceptibly failing very fast.” She suffered from “frequent attacks resembling mania” with suicidal tendencies, and it seemed only a matter of chance as to whether she would “deprive herself of her own life, or become a raving maniac.” Superintendent Chavez urged the governor, in the interest of “common humanity,” to issue a prompt pardon and deliver the prisoner to her husband. Two days later, on June 29, 1891, Prince granted Ada Hulmes a full pardon.

The Santa Fe Sun reported that the night of her pardon, Sheehan, “the man who claimed to be her husband,” got drunk, and after he fell asleep, Ada and Alcario Dominguez, a twice-convicted horse rustler, “made a night of it at the dance halls and brothels of Santa Fe.” The Optic expressed New Mexico's final judgment of the conniving murderess: “The career of this woman, and the connection of some of the territorial officials therewith, is one of the most remarkable and shameful pages in all the history of New Mexico. It is doubtful its equal can be found in the civilized world.” Following Ada Hulmes' night on the town, her name disappeared from the New Mexico Territory newspapers.