‘Doomed to an eternity of anonymity’

The graves of the "three brujas" as they look today in Kit Carson Memorial Cemetery. Scott Gerdes

If only the tombstones at Kit Carson Cemetery could talk, Taos area residents might be able to solve a mystery that has contributed to the collection of local folklore.

Many grandmas and great grandmas in the community say that a final burial place for three unknown Taos brujas (witches) exists in the historic cemetery. For decades, elders have shared the story with their younger family members and those who care to listen.The fabled remains occupy a final resting place beneath adjoining asphalt/concrete-mix blocks of equal size, viewed as a symbolic sealing-off between the women and the physical realm. No one wants the spirits to escape, so part of their punishment for a bad life keeps the community protected.

The fabled remains occupy a final resting place beneath adjoining asphalt/concrete-mix blocks of equal size, viewed as a symbolic sealing-off between the women and the physical realm. No one wants the spirits to escape, so part of their punishment for a bad life keeps the community protected. The space is located at the entrance near the wrought iron gate on Dragoon Lane. Three large rock fragments at the head of each grave have been reduced to blown-up rock, minus any text. These jagged, partial blocks offer a semblance of tombstones. The middle mound’s marker includes a rusted, broken metal stake.

Legend says that the women performed such deliberate, horrific acts against the residents that they are doomed to an eternity of anonymity and eradication of their memory. The exact acts performed by the brujas remain vague (as do the number of people they allegedly affected), but elder sources list the reasons one would suspect from a “witch.” Did someone become very ill after eating food prepared by the suspect(s)? Witches can spread evil through the preparation of a bowl of chile, you know. Another action told refers to the possession of an article of clothing or other item owned by the target of witchcraft. Even sending bad wishes to a victim without the need to touch or physically see the person could sometimes produce deadly or dreadful results. Like the Salem Witch Trials, women suspected of witchcraft remained in a difficult spot to prove their innocence.

Although witch trials subsided on the East Coast, they became more common here. John H. Vaughan notes in his 1921 book, “History and Government of New Mexico,” that “Pagan rites flourished as before the Pueblo Rebellion. Medicine men claiming supernatural powers were able to appeal to the fears of the superstitious pueblos. In the effort to deal with these ‘witches’ in the early 18th century, witchcraft trials become somewhat frequent in New Mexico soon after they died out in New England. A favorite punishment for the witches was to make them servants in Spanish families.”

The historic cemetery, located in what is now Kit Carson Park, opened in 1847 with “modern” burials beginning in 1957. Originally, the land was donated by Doña Teodora Martínez-Romero as a final resting place for the soldiers killed in the Taos Rebellion of 1847. Locals knew the cemetery as El Cemeterio Militar. In 1852, the cemetery changed names and focus. The American Cemetery allowed non-Catholics burial privileges; a difference in the faith of the departed ones buried on the grounds. May 1969 marked the date of yet another change. With the addition of the burial plots for Kit and Josephine Carson, civic leaders renamed the cemetery Kit Carson Memorial Cemetery. The remains of mainly traders, merchants and members of old Spanish, French and American families were buried on the premises. The cemetery was acquired by the town of Taos from the state in 1988. Today, cemetery officials do not allow burials in an effort to keep the cemetery historical.

The legend captured the attention of the Taos High School Cultural Reporter Language Arts class in 1994. Students in the class used the skills learned during a stint as one of two pilot schools in the nation to use investigative techniques under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History. One of the investigations the class headed was titled “ Descansos — Final Resting Places.” The study examined the burial places and various cemeteries in the Taos area, including the Kit Carson Cemetery. The students’ work resulted in a museum exhibit at the Martínez Hacienda and an accompanying manual for the Taos Public Library.

Besides interviews with their elders, the students attempted to learn as much as possible about the cemetery and its occupants. The text of the manual reads as follows: “Kit Carson Park is located on Paseo del Pueblo Norte, about two blocks from the Historic Taos Plaza. The land on which the people were buried was sold in plots to the various families. When one of the family members would pass away, the family was required to produce a proof of purchase for the plot. The land on which the people were buried was sold for $5,000 and a legislative act made the land an official cemetery.”

The designation of “official cemetery” automatically creates the expectation of the existence of records. At the time, students attempted to find a list of those buried in the cemetery. Unfortunately, the available information could not leave the premises of Taos Town Hall, but the students read a citation called “Three Taos Women.” The citation did not include names of the graves’ occupants. The young investigators assumed the women to be “the three brujas or La Lloronas” of whom the elders referred because other names on the list appeared familiar to them.

In 2018, further attempts to discover the identities of the side-by-side occupants of the graves yielded no results. The town of Taos cemetery list — which was not allowed to be copied, was accompanied by an identical handwritten list on legal pad paper and two maps of the Carson family plots — compared with surveys done in the 1960s by the New Mexico Genealogical Society and by Bill Phillips in 1996-1997 for Kit Carson Historic Museums resulted in no new information for the graves in question. All the lists noted the conjoined plots with “No Names” or “Unknown.” There was no author given on the town’s two lists, although the oldest one was speculated by town of Taos Executive Secretary Cathy Romero to be from the 1950s. Websites offered information on cemetery burials but, required names and date(s) of burial for a search.In the end, attempts to discover the women’s identities was a wash. It is a little curious that the only records handed over to the town from the state were so limited. “There is no documentation in our possession regarding ‘El Cemetery Militar’ or ‘The American Cemetery,’ though these designations may have preceded the ownership by the town and previously by the state of New Mexico,” expressed Romero via email. She added that the town “has no way to verify the source or accuracy” of the records or maps.

Only one explanation remains plausible — the three women buried in Kit Carson Cemetery are an important part of Taos lore, and maybe that’s where their story belongs. The ideas of the three brujas stir the imagination and fit the description of the word “folklore.” Maybe not every mystery should be solved, because many people enjoy a tantalizing tale of “double, double toil and trouble, fire burn and cauldron bubble.”

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