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This chapter discusses the process leading up to, during, and after the execution of the three perpetrators of the Dongo killings. Information about the preparations which took place during the few days between the sentencing and the executions comes from a final accounting of the costs of the trial process. Lucero and other court officials made a special point of acknowledging the difficult work accomplished by a number of people over the course of the two weeks between the crime and the execution. Many worked through “sleepless nights” on this “anguishing process.”
The Spanish judiciary thrived on complexity. Judges in the Americas worked within multiple court systems with interwoven jurisdictions and could consult seven different overlapping law codes when considering their decisions. This chapter covers the relevant judicial institutions in the context of the late eighteenth century.
Nine servants were murdered on the night of October 23, 1789: five men and four women. In contrast to Dongo, his uncle, and the killers, every detail of the biographies of these working people has disappeared. This chapter attempts to restore their place in history by imagining what three of these humble employees did on the day of the crime, a recreation of the typical experiences of plebeian daily life in late eighteenth-century Mexico City.
In the early 1790s, three momentous discoveries of Aztec monoliths took place in the Mexico City central plaza, now commonly known as the Zócalo. The stones reemerged into the light of day after centuries underground due to Viceroy Revillagigedo’s ambitious plans to renovate this plaza into a clean and organized space. He carried out this plan by removing market stalls, as well as trying to prevent flooding by installing and improving the stone paving in the zócalo and the surrounding streets. Workers on these projects uncovered dozens of artifacts, including the monoliths known today as the Stone of Tizoc, the Aztec Calendar Stone, and the Coatlicue statue. The emergence of the artifacts took place over the course of sixteenth months, from mid-August of 1790 to mid-December of 1791.
The day after the massacre, the judicial authorities in charge canvas Dongo’s neighbors, seeking information about any strange sounds or other unusual events that they observed the day before. Although Dongo paid a hefty sum to rent his spacious home and warehouse, he shared the neighborhood with a diverse group of small businessmen and their families. Some rent rooms, and others maintain large households in two-story buildings. The local residents have a good reputation. All are known as honorable men, however humble. Some of these witnesses were lucky to have one last quiet night before awakening to the shocking massacre which took place just steps away from their doorways. But others experience strange sightings and sounds which disrupt their rest and foreshadow the terrible discovery made the following morning of October 24.
All three of the prime suspects in the Dongo investigation have previous experience with serious accusations. They show their understanding of the justice system with different levels of sophistication and with their aggressive or evasive responses to Emparan’s questions. Finally, faced with bloodstains on each of their belongings and the pressure of face-to-face confrontations, Quintero, Blanco, and Aldama can no longer avoid the truth. They admit that they all killed on the night of October 23, 1789, but not before Emparan’s court collects more evidence and the judge calls them in for several sessions of questioning.
Palace guardsman José Gómez Moreno started his diary with anecdotes relating to the strange occurrences which seemed to happen so frequently in late eighteenth-century Mexico City. Freak accidents, fires, murders, kidnappings, and assaults were not uncommon. While he certainly showed a fascination for the oddities of the day – from balloons to the viceroy’s wig – the halberdier paid special attention to the 246 executions that he witnessed over the course of twenty-two years, an average of just over eleven per year. Some years saw more hangings, garrotings, and burnings than others. Annual executions peaked in 1790, with a total of thirty-two in the first full year of Viceroy Revillagigedo’s reign.
Who wrote and circulated the first detailed account of the investigation? Depending entirely on this mysterious text, from the 1830s to the 1890s, Mexico’s most influential writers, thinkers, and political commentators retold the story of the deaths of Dongo and his servants, Emparan’s investigations, and the rapid resolution of the crime. These nineteenth-century retellings appeared in various kinds of publications, from periodicals to multi-volume novels. Each of these versions had its own interpretative angle, but all of the nineteenth-century authors contextualized the massacre as an important symbol of the legacy of the Spanish empire. The case also provided Mexican intellectuals with a starting point for discussions about morality and free will, the continuing influence of the Catholic Church, and, above all, the effective Novohispanic judiciary in sharp contrast to the shortcomings of law enforcement in their new nation. This text provided fuel for political critique and its insider legal perspective strengthened the points of anyone who deployed it to argue their own views about the independent nation of nineteenth-century Mexico.
Some of the key themes in this book – reforms of the judiciary, the planned and gruesome spectacles of late eighteenth-century justice in the viceregal capital, and the monopoly that the government asserted over violence – rest upon the decisions made by the viceroys who ruled New Spain in the 1770s and 1780s. These men combined a huge number of tasks in their daily routine including ceremonies showing respect to the king and the Catholic Church, commanding the military, collecting taxes, supervising crown monopolies, ensuring an adequate food supply, managing the budget, overseeing mining, and increasing the revenues sent back to Spain. In this era, public health and urban beautification rose to the top of their lists of responsibilities. This chapter very briefly introduces the six viceroys who either feature as main characters or who just have bit parts throughout this book.
By 10.00 p.m. on October 23, 1789, the three killers’ machetes had finished their brutal work. Even before the sun had risen the next morning, information about the Dongo massacre had begun to spread quickly throughout Mexico City. On street corners, in taverns, and over breakfast in private residences, no one could resist talking about this shocking event. We cannot accurately recreate the path of the oral gossip after two centuries. However, a paper trail started to memorialize the events soon after Aldama, Quintero, and Blanco put down their weapons. Mexico’s most important nineteenth-century writers and intellects began to publish accounts of the murders and the investigation in the 1830s. These printed texts eventually led to a small boom in fictional reinterpretations of the crime and its aftermath in the 1860s. For the new nation, the murder and its rapid resolution symbolized the extremes of Spanish rule. Mexicans pondered how to deal with a continuing perception of excessive criminality in their society, an issue that independence from Spain had not resolved.
This introduction frames the crime at the heart of the book with vignettes of historical and textual background, adding a few additional fragments to the kaleidoscope of murder and its aftermath in late-eighteenth-century Mexico City. It proposes the 1789 murders, which are the topic of this book, as early examples of Mexican True Crime. The introduction also includes select critiques regarding this genre and other comments on the different genres of literature depicting murder in Mexico. This book recreates a paper trail of Enlightenment-era greed and savagery which began with a brutal massacre. The events which took place on the night of October 23, 1789, led to politicized depictions in different fiction and nonfiction writings for the next century.