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Enrique Garfias’ Pursuit of Frontier Justice

By Jeffrey R. Richardson
10/9/2017 • Wild West Magazine

Born to Mexican parents in California, he became the first city marshal of Phoenix and was determined to root out injustice in the legal system—as in the case of miner Manuel Mejia.

Mexican miner Manuel Mejia was fighting for his life in Phoenix, Arizona Territory, on the night of September 3, 1886. His American assailants had gagged, kicked and beat him before hauling him to the edge of town and slipping a noose around his neck. Throwing one end of a rope over a tree branch, the men pulled on the free end as Mejia desperately squirmed to keep the pressure off his throat. Twice more the mob hauled up Mejia before he managed to get a hand free from his bonds and retrieve, undetected, a small clasp knife from his pocket. When the mob again hauled on the rope, intending to leave their victim for dead so he could not identify them, Mejia slashed through the rope, fell atop a barbed wire fence and tumbled with fresh lacerations into a ditch on the far side from his tormentors. Hacking at the bonds that held his feet, he struggled away as members of the mob fired at him with pistols. Somehow they missed, and he took refuge at a farm. Knowing his assailants would keep after him, he sent for the only man he believed would intervene on his behalf—former Phoenix city marshal Enrique Garfias.

“I went at his request,” Garfias later recalled. Garfias, a Mexican American born in California shortly before it achieved statehood, found Mejia in wretched condition and grew outraged as he listened to the battered man’s tale. The day before, authorities had released Mejia from the Maricopa County Jail after 17 days of imprisonment, having detained him without a warrant, without a formal charge and essentially incommunicado. Law enforcement officials believed him to have information related to a brutal multiple murder recently committed on the desert between Phoenix and Prescott. It was Garfias who secured Mejia’s release, after repeatedly confronting the district attorney to end the illegal incarceration.

Garfias knew the law. A longtime interpreter in Phoenix courtrooms, he had also served for seven years as a law enforcement officer in Phoenix, earning a reputation for courage and tenacity in pursuit of lawbreakers. What we know of his upbringing and his public career reveal a man with respect for the principles and institutions of the law and a strong sense of responsibility for public order and safety. But he also was attuned to the potential for the law to trample on the rights of average citizens, either through overreaching zeal, blind indifference or cowering weakness in the face of mob action.

Enrique Garfias, who was born to a prominent southern California family in 1849, saw firsthand the pervasive antiMexican sentiments that had led to the recently concluded war with Mexico, as well as Anglo resentment of “foreigners” in the recently discovered goldfields. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, signed February 2, 1848, Mexico had ceded upper California to the United States. The struggle between established California rancheros and ambitious Yankee immigrants over land rights and political power would continue long after the United States made California the 31st state on September 9, 1850.

Garfias’ father, Manuel, was a sublieutenant in the Mexican army when he arrived in Los Angeles with the last Mexican governor. He met and fell in love with Luisa de Avila, daughter of a prominent Los Angeles family that had provided leadership to the fledgling pueblo. The couple acquired Rancho San Pascual, started a family and became known throughout the region for their civic-mindedness and hospitality as well as their wealth. Voters elected Manuel the first treasurer of Los Angeles County, and he later served as a U.S. consul in Mexico. He and Luisa were among the Los Angeles families who worked to embrace, rather than reject, the new order. Both were strongly sympathetic to the Republican cause of Mexican leader Benito Juárez.

Enrique himself demonstrated an early sense of civic awareness, registering to vote in Los Angeles County on August 21, 1871. Soon after, he moved to Arizona Territory, where he worked as a freighter. He began putting down roots in the Salt River Valley, registering to vote in Phoenix on May 11, 1876, and looking for other means of support. He picked up assignments as a court interpreter and was elected in November 1878 as one of two constables serving the Phoenix precinct of Maricopa County. When the town incorporated in 1881, Garfias became its first marshal and served five consecutive terms.

“Garfias is our most efficient officer and frequently makes laborious trips with his own animals for which he does not get paid a cent,” wrote Phoenix district attorney J.W. Stephenson in an 1880 letter to Territorial Secretary John J. Gosper, seeking payment of a reward to Garfias. William Breakenridge, himself an Arizona Territory lawman who penned the classic frontier autobiography Helldorado: Bringing Law to the Mesquite, described Garfias as “a brave and fearless officer.” Among many incidents, he was long remembered for the day he faced down three drunk cowboys who rode down the main street firing wildly into commercial and residential buildings. Notwithstanding a veritable shower of lead, Garfias held his ground, shot one man out of the saddle for keeps and sidelined another.

Garfias remained a constable in the summer of 1879 when, with the aid of a colleague, he apprehended Jesus Romero, wanted in Phoenix for a bizarre and brutal mounted saber attack on a horse race crowd that left three men seriously injured. But the town was still on edge due to economic hard times, a string of unsolved stagecoach robberies and the killing from ambush of a well-liked local farmer. Garfias helped apprehend the suspected murderer, a man named Keller, and then decided, with rumors of vigilante action in the air, that both Keller and Romero would be safer at nearby Fort McDowell. Others did not show his concern for the pair. The jailer, for one, balked at turning them over. Then, in quick succession, Romero was killed while trying to escape (probably fearing the mob’s wrath), a saloon dispute left another well-known citizen knifed to death, and a lynch mob left both Keller and the knife murderer hanging in the plaza. Garfias wrote a lengthy and forceful piece in the September 5 Territorial Expositor, suggesting, among other things, that the upcoming grand jury might be interested in examining the circumstances leading up to the lynchings. This was an early sign he was aware of the excesses and weaknesses of the machinery of law.

As a marshal, Garfias’ reputation for tenacity and courage spread well beyond Phoenix. On April 16, 1886, the Phoenix Herald endorsed him for a sixth term, noting, “Mr. Garfias’ record as city marshal of Phoenix is not only known here for the ability by which it has been made but is known throughout the territory.” Still, he lost the election by 11 votes, seemingly due to anti-incumbent sentiment more than for any specific fault with his performance. Undaunted, Garfias continued court translation, and he and wife Elena began raising stock, dealing in both cattle and horses.

That August rancher and storekeeper Barney Martin, his wife and two sons were robbed and murdered en route to Phoenix from their home near Weaver. When the four failed to arrive on schedule, searchers began combing the desert, and a party led by Charles Genung soon discovered the Martin family’s charred remains. “The search for the murderers has now begun in earnest,” the Phoenix Herald reported on the 11th, noting that the Maricopa County supervisors had authorized a reward. “A trailer has been at work, and this morning Deputy Sheriff [J.W., often called Billy] Blankenship, Charles Genung, Henry Garfias and a Mr. Sanders went to the assistance of the trailer.” A coroner’s jury headed by pioneer Henry Wickenburg interviewed people who had seen the family but concluded that “the perpetrators of this crime [are] unknown to us.”

While the crime appeared a case of robbery gone wrong, some people suspected the motives involved old feuds in Antelope Valley. Martin had long been in conflict with Charles P. Stanton, an assayer and gemologist by trade who had served for a time as postmaster and justice of the peace yet was dogged by suspicions he led an outlaw element in the area. Charles B. “Charley” Genung was apparently a close friend of the Martins and suspected Stanton had masterminded the murder but that others —in his words, “greasers” (Mexicans)— were involved.

On August 18 authorities detained Manuel Mejia in connection with the Martin case. Mejia lived near the community of Antelope in Yavapai County, where the Martin family had resided. Maricopa County Sheriff Noah Broadway, perhaps pressured by Genung, came to believe that Mejia, a placer miner working a small claim in the district, was either complicit in the murders or had knowledge of them. Maricopa Deputy Billy Blankenship was sent across the line into Yavapai County— without a warrant—to bring in Mejia. Later testimony indicated that Blankenship led Mejia to believe they were going together in pursuit of suspects. However, when they arrived in Phoenix, Mejia was lodged in jail without charges being filed and with no opportunity to contact an attorney.

While Mejia languished in lockup, investigators identified and brought in other suspects, including C.P. Stanton. Judging from newspaper reports of the time, Stanton inspired strong feelings among detractors as well as supporters. When authorities subsequently released him, the August 31 Phoenix Herald complained the arrest had been a bit of political “spite work.”

Jailers finally released Mejia on the morning of September 3—thanks to the persistent efforts of Enrique Garfias. The would-be lynch mob attacked him later that night. The next day, again thanks to Garfias, Mejia appeared in court to relate his ordeal, and the Herald for that day reported that “arrests are being made” in connection with the attempted lynching, for Mejia had recognized Charles Genung and Thomas Bryan among his tormentors.

While the days-long examination of Genung and Bryan unfolded in the courtroom, Stanton wrote to Mexican officials in Tucson and Washington, D.C., reporting the attack on Mejia and suggesting that federal authorities might look into the matter. While his action may have been motivated by sympathy for Mejia, he would also have known that authorities were pressuring Mejia to implicate him in the Martin family murders. Then, on September 15, the Herald tersely reported that Genung and Bryan “were discharged by Justice Woods this forenoon, the men having proved an alibi.” The verdict must have both angered and dumbfounded Garfias, who probably had not taken further action of his own, believing the pair could not possibly escape at least some consequences for their actions against Mejia.

Now, with Genung and Bryan set scot-free by the court he had served and upheld for so long, Garfias faced a choice. Up to this point, citizen Garfias had had no official standing to intervene on behalf of the beleaguered Mejia. But he did have access to the legal machinery due to long professional association, as well as the sheriff’s apparent willingness to use him to help break Mejia; he had leveraged both to press for an end to Mejia’s illegal detention. This same familiarity, and common decency, would have been sufficient motivation to help Mejia press the case against his attackers. But with Justice Wood’s decision, should he continue the fight? Perhaps for Garfias, the choice was not so hard to make. He would continue to champion Mejia’s cause by whatever means presented themselves. Without regard to his own political fortunes, Garfias would stick out his neck for Mejia in a town where anti-Hispanic sentiment was running high, without benefit of badge or brief, relying only on his own sense of justice and a deep reservoir of nerve and determination.

Garfias first ensured the Mexican government had all the details it needed to advocate for Mejia. On September 22 he provided Mexican Vice Consul Rufino Vélez in Tucson a detailed statement (in which a translator likely mistakenly spelled Mejia’s name with an “s”). The statement, which hints at Garfias’ facility with the language of the law, reads in part: “Mejias [sic] was detained in the jail as a prisoner until the 3rd of September instant, and as I was of opinion that there was no legal ground in the due course of law for depriving Mejias of his liberty, some days before the date last above mentioned, I appeared before the prosecuting attorney of the county and stated to him that if the sheriff kept Mejias in prison merely because he was Mexican, I wished to know it, at the same time I requested Mejias’ liberation. The prosecuting attorney replied that he had directed the sheriff four or five times to discharge Mejias, but that he did not know the reason or why the sheriff had not done so at that date.”

Garfias recounts the mob attack in great detail, noting that Mejia sent for him after his escape. He adds: “In company with one Señor Refugio Tanro, we immediately brought him to town. I myself laid a complaint against the persons whom Mejias recognized; they were arrested; I did everything in my power that the parties accused of this crime might be punished. The prosecuting attorney of the county did all he could, but our efforts were fruitless. The trial/examination . . . lasted eight days, and at the close the judge discharged the parties accused. I transmit this to you for your information and proper action.”

And indeed, Matias Romero, Mexican ambassador to the United States, did take action. Prompted by the communications from Stanton and Garfias, he launched a months-long campaign of correspondence with his counterpart, Secretary of State Thomas Bayard, pushing for federal authorities to lean on territorial officials to in turn hold Maricopa County accountable for the failings of its judicial system.

And Garfias kept pushing as well. On October 10 he again took up pen and paper, providing additional details regarding the object of the attack on Mejia: “They arrived at the place where they were to hang him and demanded that he should, under pain of death, tell them whether an American of this place was an accomplice in an assassination which had taken place in this county. Mejia replied that he did not know whether the person was guilty or not. They demanded of Mejia that he should say that the person whom they suspected was guilty and (said) that unless he assented this before the court, they would hang him then.” The “American” can only be C.P. Stanton. Whether for political or other reasons, someone was out to get Stanton and thought Mejia stood in the way.

On October 20 a grand jury finally indicted three men—Francisco Vega, José Vega and Simón Lucero—for the Martin family murders. Although their capture and conviction, if effected, would no doubt bring a sense of closure or abstract justice to some, for Garfias the effort to aid Mejia was an opportunity to restore a life not yet lost to senseless violence, and his letter of the 10th helped maintain the pressure on territorial officials.

When Territorial Governor C. Meyer Zulick ultimately contacted District Attorney Frank Cox for information about the attack on Mejia, the latter was defensive and oblique. His November 3 letter to Zulick did nothing to dispel the impression that Cox, a longtime friend and colleague of Garfias, could have done more to address Mejia’s plight while the latter was incarcerated, although he may have felt compromised by the considerable pressure to bring the Martin killers to justice, especially after Stanton’s release.

Two days later came electrifying news. The November 15 Arizona Gazette, citing a telegram from Prescott, reported that Stanton and another man had been murdered at Antelope. This development likely caused much talk in Phoenix, but it had little practical implication for resolution of either the Martin case or Mejia’s dilemma. According to a December 14 letter from Cox to Governor Zulick, authorities had located one of the Vegas in Sonora, and the district attorney hoped for assistance in arranging extradition.

In January 1887 the government of Mexico lodged a formal complaint with the U.S. government. Accompanied by a raft of supporting documentation, Romero’s letter to Secretary Bayard stated that the complaint arose from “the failure of the Arizona authorities to punish the parties who were guilty of those outrages.” He sought “a reclamation based upon the evident lack of proper administration of justice, which in the opinion of my government there has been in this case, and to ask for the punishment of the delinquents and of the authorities that have been derelict in the performance of their duties.”

If the Mexican government was not prepared to let the Mejia matter fade into obscurity, neither was Enrique Garfias. On April 20, 1887, he signed an affidavit, his third lengthy statement about Mejia’s brutal experience, which had a greater level of detail intended to bolster the efforts of Matias Romero. After again describing Mejia’s detention by Blankenship on August 18 of the previous year, Garfias related his tour of various county law and judicial offices, seeking a credible explanation for the continued detention, and reiterated his discussions with Cox as well as the attack on Mejia following his release. He continued: “I brought Mejia before a justice of the peace and swore out a warrant for the arrest of Charles Genung and Thomas J. Bryan, who were identified by Mejia as being two of the parties who were implicated in the outrage perpetrated against him. They were arrested and examined upon the charge, and notwithstanding the evidence against them was very positive, they were discharged by the justice of the peace, and justice was not done to Mejia in the case. And affiant further states that to the best of his knowledge and belief, the hanging and ill-treatment before referred to of the said Mejia was entirely due to the illegal imprisonment he suffered [emphasis added].”

This was strong language, for now Garfias’ indictment of the county legal system went beyond the judge who released Genung and Bryan to encompass the public safety organization, the office of the county sheriff. Garfias argued that the open flouting of the law by the sheriff’s office, the extralegal shakedown, intimidation and false imprisonment of Mejia for 17 days, granted the lynch mob implicit permission to take up where county officials had left off.

As a man who had long held elective office, and who per- haps already aspired to do so again, as a man who had been and continued working in the local judicial system, Garfias had clearly assumed at the least a very real political risk in pursuing a better result for Mejia, especially working through channels of the Mexican government, an option not calculated to arouse sympathies among the Anglo opinion-leaders of Phoenix. But he abhorred the treatment of Mejia and was appalled at what he saw as a serious dysfunction in the system he held dear.

Despite Garfias’ determined and articulate efforts, there is no indication that federal, territorial or county officials ever moved to address Romero’s complaint or extended any consideration to Mejia. As surely as the documentary record of the Mejia incident —and Garfias’ role in it—ends, Mejia himself fades from the view of history. Fortunately, Garfias did not.

He experienced his share of personal tragedies—the death of his first wife and their third child from childbirth complications, a frequently unhappy second marriage and the death of the couple’s yearold son. But through all that stress at home, he remained active in local politics and in the Hispanic community and would again be elected to multiple terms as a constable for the Phoenix precinct. When he died in 1896, Garfias was widely hailed in the territorial press for years of dedicated public service. Clearly, his reputation survived the risks he took as a private citizen to seek justice for Manuel Mejia. The praise was expansive and sincere, and it clearly established Garfias as an important figure in territorial history, not only for his accomplishments but also for the way he achieved them. The May 8, 1896, Phoenix Herald reminded readers that Garfias “was brave and conscientious and never failed in his duty, no matter how much danger menaced him.” In its edition the next day the Arizona Republican declared, “In the apprehension of criminals there was never locally known his superior.”

Even the Arizona Gazette, which during the early and mid-1880s had more than once sniped at Garfias personally in the rough-and-tumble political discourse of the day, was effusive in its remembrance, asserting in its May 9 edition: “Although small in stature, he was a giant in strength and knew no such word as fear. Arizona has many brave men, but for cool determined nerve, coupled with a modest unassuming manner, Henry Garfias stood at the head.”


Jeffrey R. Richardson writes from Bend, Ore. He used mostly primary sources, including newspapers and firsthand statements and accounts contained in correspondence and other documents at the History and Archives Division of the Arizona State Library.

Originally published in the October 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here

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