Tales of Death and Witchcraft in San Miguel

By Jesús Ibarra

According to a legend, on nights with a full moon a headless horseman used to ride a black stallion through the streets of San Miguel at midnight. He appeared on Calzada de la Presa, coming from El Charco del Ingenio. He rode into calle Colegio, advanced forward to La Salud Church and continued to the Oratorio, then disappeared in Calle Santa Ana—today Insurgentes.

He was supposed to be a nobleman who had been cruel and despotic with his slaves and workers at his obraje (wool mill), located in what we know now as El Obraje. Because of his crimes, he was condemned to ride, without his head, through the streets of San Miguel. Local historian Graciela Cruz said that this story is a myth that people should stop spreading in respect for the memory of Baltasar de Sauto, who was a very important character in the history of San Miguel during the 18th century and who is buried in San Francisco Church under the floor beside the presbytery.


Baltasar de Sauto

Baltasar de Sauto was born in 1710 at Oquendo Valley, Alava, in the Basque country. He arrived in San Miguel in 1725 when he was only 15 and almost immediately became involved in the economic and political processes of the village. Seven years after his arrival, he became the executor for María Antonia de Urtusuástegui y Sarabia, a lady from one of the wealthiest families in town and the wife of don Severino de Jáuregui. He soon started managing all the family businesses, including the wool mill. He married Juana de Jáuregui, Antonia’s adopted daughter.

This wool mill, located at the western part of El Charco del Ingenio, in the place we currently known as El Obraje, was the most productive in the whole area. It earned 70,000 gold pesos a year, equivalent to the production of all the other mills in the region put together. According to researcher Richard J. Salvucci, Sauto’s cotton mill controlled about one third of the looms in the village; the other two thirds were divided among the four other wool mills. Sauto also employed members of about 400 families. According to Cruz, Sauto owned several haciendas in the area between San Miguel, Dolores and San Felipe. He was a city councilor and had occupied other positions in the village as well. He was also one of the most important benefactors of the population in times of crisis, drought and hunger.

Cornelia, the witch

In the 1750s, Juana, Sauto’s wife, was accused of witchcraft before the Inquisition by a mulatto female slave. She argued that Juana, with the help of an Indian witch named Cornelia—who was famous for the effectiveness of her magic—had tried to poison her husband. Cruz confirmed that the inquisitorial trial of Juana is documented in the Historical Archive of the Bishopric of Michoacán. The document explains that the witch Cornelia helped Juana prepare a series of potions containing mercury to poison the chocolate Baltasar used to drink every evening. The potions had to do with witchcraft, both white and red magic (magic regarding sex), and Juana was also accused of having illicit relations with the administrator of the mill –who, according to Salvucci, was Domingo  de Aldama, the father of Ignacio and Juan Aldama, Mexican Independence heroes. According to Cruz, there was a conflict of authority between the mistress and her servants, who used all sort of arguments to accuse her so that she could be punished for having treated them so badly over the years. It was said that she drank mescal or aguardiente, and this increased her bad humor and mistreatment of her servants. Sauto accepted that his wife was behaving badly and sent a letter to the bishop promising to correct her attitude.

The white mulatto

Salvucci said that between 1756 and 1758 there were five murders among Baltasar de Sauto’s workers. One of these cases was that of the mulatto slave Marcial de Nava, whose trial is documented also in the Bishopric of Michoacán. Marcial de Nava was a tall, strong, light-skinned young man of black ancestry originally from Oaxaca. While he was Sauto’s slave, he killed two Indians by beating them with sticks. He was captured and locked up in the local jail during his trial. Marcial was facing two trials: a civil one because of the homicide and an inquisitorial one because, in order to escape, first from the mill and then from jail, he had written four letters—of which only one was found—in which he claimed he sold his soul to the devil. Sauto asked the Real Sala del Crimen (Royal Room of Crime, a kind of attorney general’s office in colonial times) to return his slave since “he was only idling in jail, at the expense of the public treasury;” furthermore, he complained that his investment in Baltasar was not paying off while he was not working. The Real Sala del Crimen rejected Baltasar’s petition.

The trial

Baltasar de Sauto had a lot of enemies in the village because of his money and power. Among them were don Francisco José de Landeta, Count of Casa de Loja, and José Mariano de la Canal y Hervás, a young man who was the son of don Manuel Tomás de la Canal. Both men owned cotton mills that were less productive than Sauto’s. According to Salvucci, Sauto also had the exclusive concession for using alum, an expensive ingredient used for dyeing textiles, which gave him great power over his competitors. His political influences and his economic power awakened the envy of these men, who instigated an inspection by an agent of the Real Audiencia (congress of the colonial period). The agent was Diego Antonio Fernández de la Madrid, who was the husband of Mariano de la Canal’s sister. This resulted in strong accusations against Baltasar, who was said to mistreat and lock up his workers, as well as to perpetuate their indebtedness. The cases of his wife’s witchcraft and of the homicide committed by his slave were brought up at his trial. Sauto was exiled to Puebla and then incarcerated in Mexico City. Salvucci said all the workers in the cotton mills of the time suffered under the same conditions, and Sauto’s enemies wanted to throw him out of San Miguel to stop his success. The investigation lasted 12 years and, after several tribulations and struggles, Baltasar de Sauto was allowed to keep his cotton mill running.

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