The Hernandez-Chaves Murders

During the course of excavation at the Alameda-Stone cemetery, archaeologists removed the remains of two individuals- a male and a female- who appeared to have suffered violent trauma. They were buried together on top of each other in a single grave. Each had a hexagonal “pinch-toe” coffin with white metal plain oval handles. The lower coffin was decorated with iron straps, possibly hardware to bind the corners or sides together. The archaeologists knew immediately that these two burials were unusual. Could these two individuals be the Hernandez couple?

In one of the most notorious crimes in Tucson history, a married couple, Vicente Hernandez (35) and Librada Chaves (28) were bludgeoned to death with a piece of firewood during what today we would call  a “home invasion” robbery.

The popular couple lived at 451 Convent Street, an adobe building where Vicente aka “Piedras Negras” ran a business as a pawnbroker. Their bodies were discovered  when they failed to answer the door.

The following article was written for the Presidio Trust Newsletter by Homer Thiel, Principle Investigator for Desert Archaeology, Tucson, AZ. I provided the illustrations from Volume IV of the Alameda-Stone cemetery final report.

Presidio Trust Newsletter

-Homer Thiel, Center for Desert Archaeology (posted with permission)

One of Tucson’s most notorious crimes took place in August 1873, when a married couple were found murdered in their beds. Tucson’s only lynching took place after the murderers were tracked down.

Vicente Hernandez was born about 1830 in the Mexican state of Zacatecas. Vicente was apparently living in Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory on 18 January 1867, when he paid $8.33 taxes for a business license. Somehow the original payment was lost and he made a duplicate payment on 11 February 1867.[1]

On 26 August 1870, Vicente was living in Albuquerque, Bernalillo County, New Mexico Territory with his wife Librada Chaves. Librada was born circa 1845/1846 in New Mexico. Vicente was working as a school teacher while Librada kept house. A 23-year-old woman, Andrea Perea, was employed by the couple as a servant.[2]

The couple moved to Tucson, Arizona Territory by September 1872. On 10 September 1872, Vicente purchased Lot 3 of Block 240 for $10.84 from the Village of Tucson.[3] The lot was located at the northwest corner of Kennedy Street and Convent Street and may have been undeveloped at the time of purchase.

On 17 February 1873, Vicente served as a witness when Francisco Rodrigues claimed a quarter section of land five miles south of Tucson.[4]

On the night of August 6th, 1873, Vicente and Librada had gone to sleep inside their house. It was reported that: It seems both had their skulls broken with a club, and, to make sure of death, the jugular veins were severed with a knife. The floor was covered with blood and barefoot tracks were made in it. The bodies were kept till yesterday morning at eight o’clock, when the funeral came off under the auspices of the Catholic Church- Father Jouvenceau officiating. The funeral was the largest we ever witnessed in Tucson, and showed in what high esteem the parties were held. The family was always spoken of with great respect, and the horror which prevailed over the murder was intensified because Mrs. Hernandez was some months advanced in pregnancy.[5]

The following day, Leocardo Cordova, Clemente Lopez, and Jesus Saguaripa were arrested on suspicion of murder. Cordova confessed to the crime. Blood was found on the foot of one of the men. They were compelled to tell where items they had stolen from the house were, and when found, Mr. Hernandez’ pocket watch was still ticking.

On Friday:  Early next morning two posts forked at the top were planted in the ground near the jail door, and upon them was placed a stiff pole about twelve feet in length. To this pole four ropes were fastened with nooses to each, and two wagons were drawn beneath. A Catholic priest desiring to give such consolation as he could to the doomed men, he was given all the time he desired. When through with his ministrations, it was after eleven o’clock. Very soon thereafter, the four men above named, were brought out of jail, with small black bandages over their eyes, put in the wagons, ropes adjusted to their necks, and the wagons drawn out and all four hung side by side. The fourth man, John Willis, was awaiting trial for the murder of Robert Swope. A coroner’s jury was impaneled and their verdict was that justice had been meted out.[6]

On 15 December 1873, William Zeckendorff, as administrator of the estate, sold the lot on Block 240 at auction to Miguel Gonzales Rosa for $419. Two other lots were included in the sale. Lot 7 of Block 202 was located in what was later called “The Wedge”, at the northeast corner of Main Street and Congress Street. Lot 11 of Block 242 was located on Main Street, and would later disappear when 17th Street was run through the middle of the block.[7]

Hernandez-Chaves possible burial location at the Alameda-Stone cemetery

It is likely that the remains of Vicente Hernandez and Librada Chaves were located during the Joint Courts [Archaeological] Project. Two burials were located in a single pit (Grave Pit 22157, Burial Feature 21848). The top coffin contained a female aged 28 to 35 years at death (Librada was about 28-years-old). The bottom coffin contained a male aged 35-45 years at death (Vicente was about 43-years-old). The male had bridgework with a false front incisor, the only case in the excavated burials. Both coffins had coffin handles and were covered with a fine, white-ribbed fabric (perhaps velvet). The two were elaborately dressed, more so than most other people in the cemetery.

Possible burial of Librada Chaves

The male had blunt-force trauma injuries to his skull and mandible. These included broken facial bones and teeth. He also had a cut mark from a knife on his mandible, possibly from being stabbed or having his throat cut. The woman had broken ribs, a cut mark on a rib, and the small hyoid bone, located in the throat, was broken, suggesting she was choked.[8] The ages at death and the visible trauma strongly suggests that these were the remains of Vicente Hernandez and Librada Chaves. The remains have now been re-buried in the All Faiths Cemetery in Tucson with most of the other individuals excavated from the cemetery.

Possible burial of Vicente Hernandez


[1]See Vicente Hernandez entries, New Mexico Record of Licenses, 1863-1868, RHUSA1862_101944_00407-00408; scanned images available at http://www.ancestry.com.

[2]Vicente Hernandez household, 1870 US census, Bernalillo County, New Mexico Territory, population schedule, Albuquerque, page 22A, dwelling 223, family 218; NARA microfilm M593, roll 893.

[3]Pima County Deed Record Entry Volume 1:700-701.

[4]Pima County Land Claims, Volume 1:233.

[5]Murder and Retribution, Arizona Citizen, 9 August 1873, page 3, columns 3-4.

[6]Murder and Retribution, Arizona Citizen, 9 August 1873, page 3, columns 3-4.

[7]Pima County Deed Record Entry, Volume 2:281-285.

[8]See pages 690-691, 720-723 in Case Studies of Selected Individuals, Chapter 14 in Deathways and Lifeways in the American Southwest: Volume 2, The History, Archaeology, and Skeletal Biology of the Alameda-Stone Cemetery, by Mitchell A. Kerr, John McClelland, Patrick B. Stanton, Michael Heilin, and John D. Hall, Statistical Research, Tucson, Arizona.

For more about the crime and the lynchings that followed see

http://tucsoncitizen.com/morgue/2006/08/05/21549-four-lynchings-part-of-tucson-s-1873-history/

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