Legends of the City of Mexico | Annotated Tale

COMPLETE! Entered into SurLaLune Database in July 2019 with all known ATU Classifications. Further study of ML Types is recommended.

Legend of Don Juan Manuel

THIS Don Juan Manuel, Señor, was a rich and worthy gentleman who had the bad vice of killing people. Every night at eleven o'clock, when the Palace clock was striking, he went out from his magnificent house--as you know, Señor, it still is standing in the street that has been named after him--all muffled in his cloak, and under it his dagger in his hand.

                Then he would meet one, in the dark street, and would ask him politely: "What is the hour of the night?" And that person, having heard the striking of the clock, would answer: "It is eleven hours of the night." And Don Juan Manuel would say to him: "Señor, you are fortunate above all men, because you know precisely the hour at which you die!" Then he would thrust with his dagger--and then, leaving the dead gentleman lying in the street, he would come back again into his own home. And this bad vice of Don Juan Manuel's of killing people went on, Señor, for a great many years.

                Living with Don Juan Manuel was a nephew whom he dearly loved. Every night they supped together. Later, the nephew would go forth to see one or another of his friends; and, still later, Don Juan Manuel would go forth to kill some man. One night the nephew did not come home. Don Juan Manuel was uneasy because of his not coming, fearing for him. In the early morning the city watch knocked at Don Juan Manuel's door, bringing there the dead body of the nephew--with a wound in the heart of him that had killed him. And when they told where his body had been found, Don Juan Manuel knew that he himself--not knowing him in the darkness--had killed his own nephew whom he so loved.

                Then Don Juan Manuel saw that he had been leading a bad life: and he went to the Father to whom he confessed and confessed all the killings that he had done. Then the Father put a penance upon him: That at midnight he should go alone through the streets until he was come to the chapel of the Espiración (it faces upon the Plazuela de Santo Domingo, Señor; and, in those days, before it was a gallows); and that he should kneel in front of that chapel, beneath the gallows; and that, so kneeling, he should tell his rosary through. And Don Juan Manuel was pleased because so light a penance had been put upon him, and thought soon to have peace again in his soul.

                But that night, at midnight, when he set forth to do his penance, no sooner was he come out from his own door than voices sounded in his ears, and near him was the terrible ringing of a little bell. And he knew that the voices which troubled him were those of the ones whom he had killed. And the voices sounded in his ears so wofully, and the ringing of the little bell was so terrible, that he could not keep onward. Having gone a little way, his stomach was tormented by the fear that was upon him and he came back again to his own home.

                Then, the next day, he told the Father what had happened, and that he could not do that penance, and asked that another be put upon him. But the Father denied him any other penance; and bade him do that which was set for him--or die in his sin and go forever to hell! Then Don Juan Manuel again tried to do his penance, and that time got a half of the way to the chapel of the Espiración; and then again turned backward to his home, because of those woful voices and the terrible ringing of that little bell. And so again he asked that he be given another penance; and again it was denied to him; and again--getting that night three-quarters of the way to the chapel--he tried to do what he was bidden to do. But he could not do it, because of the woful voices and the terrible ringing of the little bell.

                Then went he for the last time to the Father to beg for another penance; and for the last time it was denied to him; and for the last time he set forth from his house at midnight to go to the chapel of the Espiración, and in front of it, kneeling beneath the gallows, to tell his rosary through. And that night, Señor, was the very worst night of all! The voices were so loud and so very woful that he was in weak dread of them, and he shook with fear, and his stomach was tormented because of the terrible ringing of the little bell. But he pressed on--you see, Señor, it was the only way to save his soul from blistering in hell through all eternity--until he was come to the Plazuela de Santo Domingo; and there, in front of the chapel of the Espiración, beneath the gallows, he knelt down upon his knees and told his rosary through.

                And in the morning, Señor, all the city was astonished, and everybody--from the Viceroy down to the cargadores--came running to the Plazuela de Santo Domingo, where was a sight to see! And the sight was Don Juan Manuel hanging dead on the gallows--where the angels themselves had hung him, Señor, because of his sins!


Don Juan Manuel was a real person: who lived stately in a great house, still standing, in the street that in his time was called the Calle Nueva, and that since his time has borne his name; who certainly did murder one man--in that house, not in the street--at about, probably, eleven o'clock at night; and who certainly was found hanging dead on the gallows in front of the Capilla de la Espiración, of an October morning in the year 1641, without any explanation ever being forthcoming of how he got there. What survive of the tangled curious facts on which the fancies of this legend rest have been collected by Señor Obregón, and here are summarized.

                Don Juan Manuel de Solórzano, a native of Burgos, a man of rank and wealth, in the year 1623 came in the train of the Viceroy the Marqués de Guadalcázar to Mexico; where for a long while he seems to have led a life prosperous and respectable. In the year 1636 he increased his fortune by making an excellent marriage--with Doña Mariana de Laguna, the daughter of a rich mine-owner of Zacatecas. His troubles had their beginning in an intimate friendship that he formed with the Viceroy (1635-1640) the Marqués de Cadereita; a friendship of so practical a sort on the side of the Viceroy as to cause remonstrance to be made in Spain against his excessive bestowal of official favors on his favorite. Moreover, "the evil speaking of the curious" was excited by the fact that Don Juan and his wife spent a great part of their time at the Palace in the Viceroy's company.

                Matters were brought to a crisis by Don Juan's appointment as Administrator of the Royal Hacienda; an office that gave him control of the great revenues derived from the fleets which plied annually between Mexico and Spain. The conduct of this very lucrative administration previously had been with the Audiencia; and by the members of that body vigorous protest was made against the Viceroy's action in enriching his favorite at their cost. "Odious gossip" was aroused; threats were made of a popular uprising; an appeal--duly freighted with bribes to assure its arrival at the throne--was made to the King. "But the springs put in force by the Viceroy must have been very powerful--more powerful than the money sent by the Audiencia--since Philip IV. confirmed Don Juan in the enjoyment of his concession."

                While the case thus rested, an incidental scandal was introduced into it. By the fleet from Spain came one Doña Ana Porcel de Velasco: a lady of good birth, very beautiful, the widow of a naval officer, reduced by her widowhood and by other misfortunes to poverty. In her happier days she had been a beauty at Court, and there the Marqués de Cadereita had known her and had made suit to her, wherefore she had come to Mexico to seek his Viceregal protection. Housing her in the Palace being out of the question, the Viceroy begged that Don Juan would take her into his own home: and that disposition of her, accordingly, was made--with the result that more "odious gossip" was aroused. What became of the beautiful Doña Ana is unrecorded. Her episodic existence in the story seems to be due to the fact that because of her the popular ill-will against Don Juan and against the Viceroy was increased.

                A far-reaching ripple from the wave of the Portuguese and Catalonian revolt of the year 1640, influencing affairs in Mexico, gave opportunity for this ill-will to crystallize into action of so effective a sort that the Viceroy was recalled, and his favorite--no longer under protection--was cast into prison. Don Juan's commitment--the specific charge against him is not recorded--was signed by one Don Francisco Vélez de Pereira: who, as Señor Obregón puts it, "was not only a Judge of the criminal court but a criminal Judge" (no era solamente un Alcalde del crímen sino un Alcalde criminal) because he made dishonest proposals to Doña Mariana as the price of her husband's liberation. It would seem that Doña Mariana accepted the offered terms; and in so grateful a spirit that she was content to wait upon the Alcalde's pleasure for their complete ratification by Don Juan's deliverance. Pending such liquidation of the contract, news was carried to Don Juan in prison of the irregular negotiations in progress to procure his freedom: whereupon he procured it for himself, one night, by breaking jail. Going straight to his own home, he found there the Alcalde--and incontinently killed him.

                That one killing that Don Juan Manuel certainly did commit--out of which, probably, has come the legend of his many murders--created, because of the high estate of all concerned in it, a deplorable scandal: that the Audiencia--while resolved to bring Don Juan to justice--sought to allay by hushing up, so far as was possible, the whole affair. The Duque de Escalona, the new Viceroy (1640-1642), was at one with the Audiencia in its hushing-up policy; but was determined--for reasons of his own which are unrecorded--that Don Juan should not be executed. So, for a considerable period of time, during which Don Juan remained in prison, the matter rested. The event seems to imply that the Audiencia accomplished its stern purpose, as opposed to the lenient purpose of the Viceroy, by means as informal as they were effective. Certainly, on a morning in October, 1641, precisely as described in the legend, Don Juan Manuel was found hanging dead on the gallows in front of the Capilla de la Espiración. Señor Obregón concludes the historical portion of his narrative in these words: "The Oidores, whose orders it is reasonable to suppose brought about that dark deed, attributed it to the angels--but there history ends and legend begins."

                Somewhere in the course of my readings--I cannot remember where--I have come upon the seriously made suggestion that Don Juan Manuel practically was a bravo: that the favors which he received from the Viceroy were his payment for putting politically obnoxious persons out of the way. This specious explanation does account for his traditional many murders, but is not in accord with probability. Aside from the fact that bravos rarely are men of rank and wealth, a series of murders traceable to political motives during the Viceregal term of the Marqués de Cadereita--whose many enemies keenly were alive to his misdoings--almost certainly would be found, but is not found, recorded in the chronicles of his time. Such omission effectively puts this picturesque explanation of Don Juan's doings out of court.

Bibliographic Information

Tale Title: Legend of Don Juan Manuel
Tale Author/Editor: Janvier, Thomas A.
Book Title: Legends of the City of Mexico
Book Author/Editor: Janvier, Thomas A.
Publisher: Harper & Brothers
Publication City: New York
Year of Publication: 1910
Country of Origin: Mexico
Classification: unclassified

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