Column No. 22

The Pearson Murderers Fate

Bob Ring, Al Ring, Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon

Manuel Martinez and Placido Silvas, having been tried and convicted for the August 26th 1921 murder of Frank Pearson at the Ruby mercantile, appealed their convictions and sentences (Martinez – death by hanging, Silvas – life imprisonment) while being held at the state prison in Florence.

Martinez’ Fate

Arizona’s Attorney General W. J. Galbrith granted Martinez a stay of his execution, scheduled for August 18, 1922, for a State Supreme court review of the case.

On March 16, 1923, the Arizona Supreme Court dismissed Martinez’ appeal without review because the appeal hadn’t been filed within 60 days after judgment, as required by Arizona law.

The Santa Cruz County Superior Court reset Martinez’ hanging for May 25, 1923.

However, the battle to save Manuel Martinez from the gallows was not over. The Arizona Republican reported that the fight “was one of the most bitter and determined ever waged in Arizona and assumed an international aspect as a result of formal intervention of the Mexican government.”

Mexican President Obregon made a plea for a commutation of Martinez’ sentence to life imprisonment. However, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles refused to recommend executive clemency.

The Arizona Republican reported a ‘last ditch” effort to save Martinez:

“Twelve hours before the time set for execution, attorneys representing the Mexican consul appeared before Judge Stephen H. Abbey in Pinal County Superior Court, who granted a writ of habeas corpus on legal technicalities on the allegation that Martinez was to be executed without due process of law. Before the hour when the writ was made returnable, the Supreme Court intervened, quashed the writ, and declared that Pinal County was in error. Meanwhile the date set for the execution had passed and the Santa Cruz court, again taking jurisdiction, set the date for the hanging a third time for August 10.”

In a final effort, Florence State Prison warden R. B. Sims, an avowed opponent of capital punishment, who had succeeded Thomas Rynning and under whose orders the execution was to be carried out, got into the act. Warden Sims had somehow become convinced that Martinez was innocent and on August 8th, “submitted what he termed new evidence to the paroles board.” But nothing came from the mysterious new evidence.

So on August 10, 1923, after so many efforts to save his life, the state of Arizona hanged Manuel Martinez at the Florence Penitentiary for the murder of Frank Pearson.

The Arizona Republican described the scene and Martinez’ final minutes:

“Shortly after 5 o’clock, Warden Sims led those who were to be spectators to the death house, where 16 men previous to Martinez have been executed. The small room was crowded by the circle of men which formed about the trap door . . . The hangman’s rope, with the noose already tied swung in its wrapping paper from the low ceiling.”

Martinez then entered the death house:

“Those in the crowded room made way for the prisoner, who glanced around the room . . . spied the rope which was suspended from the ceiling, and took his position immediately beneath it. Then he glanced downward to his feet, noticed that they were not in the exact center of the trap door, and then shifted his position.”

In his final remarks, just before the hangman placed a black cap over his head, Martinez calmly and clearly denied participating in the murdering or in the looting, declaring that he accompanied the bandit gang on the raid because they threatened him with death if he refused.

“I am dying with a clear conscience. I am not afraid to go. But Placido Silvas has no right to be in this prison. I once said he was one of those who made the raid. He was not. He knew nothing about it.”

Then, with everything in readiness:

“Suddenly, at 5:24 a.m., the signal came. The trap door dropped with a loud clatter, and Martinez dangles, unconscious, with neck broken and without a struggle. Eleven minutes later he was cut down and his body carried to a pine board coffin which waited in a prison passageway not more than 15 feet from where he had died.”

Martinez’ family did not claim his body. His wife and three children lived in poverty in a small Mexican agricultural community below Nogales. So prison officials buried Martinez in the prison cemetery.

Silvas’ Fate

On May 1, 1924, the Arizona Supreme Court “affirmed the lower court’s judgment,” without additional comment in the appeal of Placido Silvas. So Silvas continued his life sentence in the Florence prison.

According to prison records, by February 10, 1926, Silvas had earned a position of “trusty” (a convict considered trustworthy and allowed special privileges) at the prison. On December 13, 1927, as noted on his record, he was “Returned to yard, off Trusty List.” But on January 3, 1928, his record noted that Silvas was an “Outside Trusty.” And on April 27, 1928, a note on his record reads, “Trusty to New Ranch.” The final note on Silvas’ prison record reads: December 3, 1928, “Escaped from Ranch.”

The escape of a prisoner from the state penitentiary was unfortunately not unusual during that period of Arizona history. The year 1928 was a particularly bad year and December of that year was horrible. According to Arizona State Prison records, 19 prisoners, serving time for such crimes as robbery, rape, and murder, were “DISCHARGED BY ESCAPE” for the month.

Placido Silvas remained at large and law enforcement never saw him again. Also, the “law” never apprehended the other five members of the gang that robbed the Ruby mercantile and killed Frank and Myrtle Pearson.

(Sources: Arizona Board of Pardons and Paroles, Arizona Republican, Tucson Citizen, Arizona Supreme Court Criminal Case 550, Florence State Prison Records)

Martinez prison photo

On August 10, 1923, the state of Arizona hanged Manuel Martinez for the murder of Frank Pearson. (Photo courtesy Arizona State Department of Corrections, 1922)

Silvas prison photo

Placido Silvas escaped from a State Penitentiary work ranch on December 3, 1928. Law enforcement officers never recaptured him. (Photo courtesy Arizona State Department of Corrections, 1922)

Next time: The Eagle-Picher Lead Company Takes Over the Montana Mine

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