Sunday, July 1, 2012
For All Nails #310: Unknown History
By Johnny Pez
From Joan Kahn, The Unknown History of the Hermión Assassination: The Gilpin Connection (New York: Justice Press, 1968), pp. 257-260.
[Editor’s Note: At the decennial meeting of the North American Historical Association and the Mexican Historical Association in 1965, it was strongly recommended that a critique be appended to any work written by a scholar of one nation about the other. In this way, biases could be recognized and a healthy dialogue fostered between historians of the two nations. Miss Kahn has agreed to the selection of Professor Herman Muller of the State University of Jefferson at Henrytown as its writer, with the understanding that she would have no control over its editing and content.]
Miss Joan Kahn is a radical political activist from Brooklyn City, in the Northern Confederation. She is the heir to a libertarian political tradition in that confederation that goes back to Jeremy Slater, to Franz Freund, and to the Continental Congress itself. It is a tradition that views the institutions of government in the C.N.A. with deep suspicion, and it is this tradition that Miss Kahn brings to her examination of the Hermión assassination.
As Miss Kahn notes in her introductory chapter, the assassination of President Pedro Hermión on June 19, 1851 was one of the seminal events in Mexican history. It was a crucial moment for the U. S. M., and for President Hermión himself. The country was locked in a life-and-death struggle with the Confederation of North America under its bellicose Governor-General Henry Gilpin, and both sides had recently suffered terrible losses in the First Battle of Williams Pass. Hermión was in the midst of his re-election campaign, and had just finished a special address to Congress in which he defended his administration’s conduct of the war, and pledged to lead the U.S.M. to victory.
Much ink has been spilled debating the question of how, or whether, Hermión meant to carry on the war. Throughout his first term, Hermión had been content to remain on the defensive, allowing the North Americans to exhaust themselves in repeated invasion attempts. His special address seemed to promise a new offensive strategy designed to bring the war to a swift conclusion. Whether Hermión truly meant to pursue such a strategy in his second term, or whether he was simply making unrealistic promises as a campaign tactic, will never be known. Mere seconds after concluding his address with the words, “We shall never give up! Our Cause is just!”, Hermión was shot and killed by Emiliano Zangora, a former member of the Presidential Guard.
Zangora immediately fled towards the back of the Assembly Chamber, shouting, “Viva Huddleston y paz,” but was shot by members of the Congressional guard before he could escape. His words caused suspicion to immediately fall on former President Miguel Huddleston, leader of the Liberty Party. The Mexican Congress convened a special commission chaired by Justice Carlos Fuentes of the Mexico Tribunal to investigate the assassination, and in its report published the following year, the Fuentes Commission absolved Huddleston of any involvement, and concluded that Zangora had acted alone.
The conclusions reached by the Fuentes Commission were controversial when they were released in 1852, and they remain controversial now, over a century later. To the Continentalist stalwarts of Jefferson, Miguel Huddleston’s guilt in Hermión’s death was so obvious as to need no proof, and the Libertarian leader remained a pariah until his dying day.
Alongside those who pointed their fingers at Huddleston, however, there was a smaller but equally vocal group who were certain that Gilpin was the puppeteer pulling Zangora’s strings. Her own radical heritage leads Miss Kahn to align herself with this second group.
The Unknown History of the Hermión Assassination is presented to the reader as a fresh investigation into an old mystery, but the book suffers from its author’s preconceptions. Ideally, in a work of this nature, the author looks at the evidence, weighs its reliability, and then attempts to draw conclusions, like a Constabulary agent investigating a murder. However, reading The Unknown History, one cannot help but come to the conclusion that Miss Kahn went through the process backwards, beginning with her conclusion, and evaluating the evidence with an eye toward making it fit that conclusion.
Much of The Unknown History deals with events in Burgoyne rather than Mexico City, with a particular emphasis on Governor-General Gilpin. Miss Kahn devotes an entire chapter to the political maneuvers that resulted in the ouster of Gilpin’s predecessor, Governor-General Winfield Scott. This is meant to add detail to the portrait of Gilpin that Miss Kahn draws for the reader, depicting Gilpin as an amoral schemer with a penchant for behind-the-scenes chicanery. Having established this view of Gilpin as a unscrupulous criminal mastermind, Miss Kahn is ready to lead the reader to her contention that Zangora was acting as Gilpin's catspaw.
Miss Kahn then brings onstage the mysterious figure of Vicente Mendoza. Like Zangora, Mendoza was a former member of the Presidential Guard. Mendoza left the Guard in 1847 to join General Michael Doheny’s army at the siege of Tampico, and it was in the course of the siege that Mendoza was captured by the North Americans. Mendoza spent the next four years as a prisoner of war in Mobile, Georgia, before being transferred to Prison Camp Thirteen in Braddock Field, Penn., N.C. in February 1851. Mendoza remained in Prison Camp Thirteen for three months before taking part in an exchange of prisoners in May and returning to the U.S.M.
Mendoza is the key to Miss Kahn’s thesis, for he serves Miss Kahn as a link between Henry Gilpin and Emiliano Zangora. Miss Kahn goes to some pains to establish that Gilpin visited Prison Camp Thirteen in the spring of 1851, while Mendoza was being held there. She is even able to document the fact that Gilpin spoke with one or more of the inmates at Prison Camp Thirteen before returning to Burgoyne. However, she is never able to prove that there was any direct contact between Gilpin and Mendoza.
Mendoza was transferred to Port Ashley, Georgia, in May 1851, where he and 450 other Mexican prisoners-of-war were exchanged with an equal number of North American prisoners. As Mendoza’s unit had been destroyed in the First Battle of Williams Pass, along with most of the other men of General Doheny’s army, he was reassigned to a recently-formed brigade in Mexico City eleven days before the assassination.
It was established afterwards by the Fuentes Commission that Mendoza had been in contact with Zangora, as well as with other former and current members of the Presidential Guard, in the days leading up to Hermión’s assassination. The commission, however, did not discover any evidence of collusion between Zangora and Mendoza, or indeed between Zangora and any of the other people he had contact with at that time.
It is a tribute to Miss Kahn’s persistence that she was able to discover an individual who knew Zangora, and who was also in the same building as Henry Gilpin three months before Zangora shot Hermión. However, there is nothing more to Miss Kahn’s “Gilpin connection” than this coincidence. She has no evidence that Mendoza persuaded Zangora to assassinate Hermión, nor has she any evidence that Mendoza ever had contact with Gilpin, and perhaps most importantly, she has no evidence that Gilpin sought, even in a general way, to have Hermión assassinated.
It is important to emphasize the tenuous nature of Miss Kahn’s evidence. Mexican readers of this book, in particular, may regard Miss Kahn as being more authoritative than she actually is, due to the fact of her being North American. Many of the details she provides of the inner workings of the Gilpin government will be unfamiliar to Mexican readers, and they may be inclined as a result to conclude that she has, in fact, uncovered previously unknown information. Nothing could be further from the truth. Her picture of the Gilpin government is the standard one found among anti-Gilpin historians in the C.N.A., most notably William Cocke's Caesar in Broadcloth.
The Unknown History of the Hermión Assassination: The Gilpin Connection is, in the final analysis, nothing more than an elaborate conspiracy theory of the sort that has been all too common on the subject of Pedro Hermión’s death. Miss Kahn is unusual in having the records of two nations to draw upon in constructing her theory, but that has simply given her more coincidences to weave together. The result is no more convincing than that of any other conspiracy theorist.
August 21, 1967
Leslie Folger Professor
State University of Jefferson at Henrytown