with the Penitentes
Lummis had been in San Mateo, New Mexico -- living at the home of his
friend Amado Chaves, recuperating from an apparent stroke he had
suffered in Los Angeles -- for less than two months when he got a
lucky break in his budding career as a freelance writer. A grisly
event seldom seen by outsiders took place in a canyon near the
village, which he managed to capture in words and pictures. His story
and photographs were eventually picked up by newspapers and magazines
across the country. These excerpts from American Character,
a new biography of Lummis,
recount how Lummis got the story that he always considered one of the
proudest achievements of his journalism career.
Lummis's photograph of a Penitente crucifixion ritual near San Mateo, New
Courtesy of the
Los Angeles (N.22541)
||On one of his
visits to the village of San Mateo in early March, Lummisís
curiosity was piqued by an eerie shriek drifting down from one
of the side canyons in the foothills flanking the village.
When he asked the townspeople about the noise, they tried to
discourage his curiosity, but he soon coaxed an explanation
out of them. The sound was that of a fife-like reed instrument
called a pito, which was used in the religious rituals of the
A Catholic cult with mysterious roots,
possibly reaching back to Spain in the Dark Ages, the Penitente
Brotherhood had been entrenched among the peons of the Rio
Grande Valley for more than 200 years.
'was assured of
death in various unattractive forms,' if he attempted to
photograph the Penitentes
about Charles Lummis...
American Character: The Curious
Life of Charles Fletcher Lummis
and the Rediscovery of the Southwest
By Mark Thompson
"... a compulsively engaging and spirited
biography of a man as colorful as he was influential."
Reviews of American Character
More than two
dozen recipes from Lummis's Landmarks Club Cookbook, along
with more than 250 recipes from 12 other early California
cookbooks, are reprinted in Vintage
152 pages; 300 recipes;
early California recipes at VintageCaliforniaCuisine.com
The group met a broad
range of educational, social aid, and political organizing needs
of its members, but the Penitentes were best known as devotees
of self-flagellation. Designated members of the group whipped
themselves bloody in private ceremonies every Friday night from
Lent until Palm Sunday and then every day until Holy Thursday,
when they began a round of public processions that ended with
the reenactment of a crucifixion on Good Friday.
When Lummis heard about this, Good Friday was
three weeks away. Itís not hard to guess what immediately
crossed his mind. He knew he had in his grasp a shocking scoop
that could ignite his freelance writing career: a first-hand
account -- accompanied by the first photographs -- of a
crucifixion on American soil.
As soon as the Chaveses got wind of Lummisís
plan, they tried to talk him out of it. The Penitentes were
notoriously secretive, having been suppressed -- sometimes
violently -- for hundreds of years. The Chaveses werenít
certain they would tolerate an unobtrusive gringo observer, not
to mention a gringo pointing a large camera at them. The
Brothers might well try to kill him if he tried to do that, the
Lummis heard them out. He was aware of the
risks. But that only steeled his resolve to get the story.
Besides, the danger of it all would give him a better story to
tell, a new episode in the legend of the intrepid Charlie
As Lummis told it in one of his half dozen or
so published accounts of his scoop, "As the midnight wind
sweeps down the lonely canon, the wild shriek can be heard for
miles. It carries an indescribable and uncanny terror with it.
That weird sound seems the wail of a tortured soul. I have known
men of approved bravery to flee from that noise when they heard
it for the first time. The oldest inhabitant crosses himself and
looks askance when that sound floats out to him from the
mountain gorges." But not Lummis.
"I had been watching feverishly for Holy
Week to come," he continued. "No photographer had ever
caught the Penitentes with his sun-lasso, and I was assured of
death in various unattractive forms at the first hint of an
attempt. But when the ululation of the pito filled the ear at
night, enthusiasm crowded prudence to wall."
The reception Lummis got from
villagers when he attempted to photograph a procession of flagellants
on Holy Thursday didnít bode well for his plan to shoot the
crucifixion the next day. The sight of his camera "provoked
ominous scowls and mutterings on every hand." But Lummis sent a
clear signal that he wasnít going to be intimidated. He placed his
pistol on top of the camera. That night, Lummis got a chance to employ
diplomacy to woo the Penitente leaders when they dropped by the Chaves
hacienda for dinner. "Metaphorically collaring the Hermano Mayor,
the Hermanos de Luz, and the pitero, I dragged them to my room,
overwhelmed them with cigars and others attentions, showed and gave
them pictures of familiar scenes Ė a Mexican finds it hard to resist
a picture Ė and cultivated their good graces in all conceivable
ways" Lummis wrote. "And when the Brothers of the Whip had
supped, re-masked themselves and emerged, the Chief Brother and
Brothers of Light were mine."
The next day,
the entire village was on hand for the climactic rite. In the
procession this time only one hooded man carried a cross, the
one of the five cross-bearers from the day before who had the
honor of being chosen for crucifixion. Several other men
followed behind him, beating themselves with scourges, while
another brought up the rear with a bundle of buckthorn cactus
bound tightly to his back with the vicious inch-long needles,
tough enough to penetrate shoe leather, piercing his back in
hundreds of places. Lummis fell in behind with his camera.
When the procession reached the crucifixion spot, Lummisís
diplomacy the evening before began to pay off. Many in the
crowd still glowered at him. But the Hermanos Mayor was moved
to return Lummisís hospitality from the previous evening. He
walked 100 paces away from the hole in the ground where the
cross would be planted, drew a line in the dirt with his shoe
and said Lummis could stand behind it to photograph the event.
The man who had been chosen for crucifixion
had a four-inch gash in his side. When he reached the spot
chosen for the ritual on a hillside in one of the canyons back
of town, several of the Penitentes lifted the cross from his
shoulder and laid it on the ground. He lay back on it and his
attendants cinched him to it with rough ropes around his legs
and arms pulled as tightly as the bindings on a mule. As they
tightened the ropes, the man on the cross "sobbed like a
child," Lummis reported, not because of the pain but
because he was ashamed that they were not using nails instead.
"Hay! Que estoy deshonrado! Not with a rope! Not with
rope! Nail me! Nail me!" he cried. Up until that year,
the victims had been spiked to the cross. But that grisly
practice was in decline as a result of the bad publicity from
the rising death toll. The year before, four men had perished
while nailed to crosses in Penitente communities in southern
Colorado, Lummis claimed.
The ropes were brutal enough. As Lummis
watched and the minutes passed, the victimís arms swelled
and turned purple and he groaned with pain. Meanwhile the
Penitente with the load of cactus lay on his back at the foot
of the cross with his head on a stone and another larger stone
placed on his stomach, pressing him more firmly into the
backpack of cactus.
At 100 paces, Lummis was too far away from
the scene to get the shot he wanted. So he decided to press
his luck by asking permission to move closer. "In
gracious response to my request, the Hermano Mayor paced off
thirty feet from the foot of the cross and marked a spot to
which I might advance in order to get a larger picture,"
Lummis wrote. "And there we stood facing each other, the
crucified and I Ė the one playing with the most wonderful
toy of modern progress, the other racked by the most barbarous
device of nineteen hundred years ago. What ambitious amateur
ever dreamed of focusing on such a sight?"
the ropes, the
man on the cross
'sobbed like a
child,' Lummis reported.
about the Penitentes...
of the Light:
The Penitentes and Crypto-Jews
of New Mexico
By Michael Ray Baca
Lummis got started that night writing his
magnum opus about the Penitente ritual. While many newspapers ran
shorter versions of it over the next couple of months, the longer
article was rejected by more than a dozen magazines over the next
year. Lummis was convinced many editors simply didnít believe the
macabre tale he told, even though he supplied photographs to prove it.
It was finally picked up by Cosmopolitan which published his
story along with a dozen engravings based on his photographs in May