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"Disgusting and Horrible:" The Mexican Imprisonment of George Kendall

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January 15, 2011 - Captured with his half-starved colleagues as they approached Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1841, George Kendall survived a brutal forced march across hundreds of miles of scorching desert, rugged mountains, and freezing plains to reach Mexico City.  Several members of Mirabeau Lamar's disastrous Santa Fe Expedition did not.  Within days of his imprisonment Kendall witnessed the executions of two men; others who could not keep up the demanding pace of the march were summarily shot, their ears cut off and saved as proof that the men had not escaped.  Smallpox infiltrated the Texans as they approached the Mexican capital.  Mexican physicians provided what care they could but the disease claimed several lives.  Hopelessness seemed to afflict some of the doomed.  Men who appeared fit enough one day lay dead under their blankets the next.  Their ears nevertheless completed the journey that their bodies could not.
George Wilkins Kendall (1809-1867), co-founder of the New Orleans Picayune and follower of the Texan Santa Fe Expedition of 1841.Newspaperman George Kendall thought that his status as an American citizen would shield him from such treatment.  Armed with a passport from the Mexican consul in New Orleans and a letter from Texas President Mirabeau Lamar stating that Kendall had no official connection with the Republic of Texas, the founder and editor of the New Orleans Picayune left Austin with the Texan Santa Fe Expedition and its leader Hugh McLeod in June 1841.  He looked forward to exploring the wilds of west Texas before arriving at Santa Fe.  From there he planned a southerly journey through El Paso to Mexico City.  He expected the entire trip to last about four months.  Instead, New Mexican Governor Maneul Armijo confiscated Kendall's papers after arresting the entire expedition, consigned him to prison, and packed him off to Mexico under armed guard with the rest of the Texans.  Kendall thus saw Mexico not as a tourist, but as a prisoner of war.


Hugh McLeod, Texan leader of the Santa Fe ExpeditionNew Mexican Governor Manuel Armijo viewed the Texan Santa Fe Expedition not a trading party but as an armed invasion force.Neither Kendall nor his comrades knew what fate awaited them in Mexico City but most of the men believed they would be shot.  When Kendall came down with a fever his guards pulled him from the main body to travel with the sick, most of whom had smallpox.  As this bedraggled group entered Mexico City one elderly prisoner, expedition quartermaster Major Bennett, eyed a group of women that had rushed from a house to watch the parade.  According to Kendall, "the kind-hearted creatures clasped their hands with pity" and began crying.  Bennett "saw the effect his wobegone aspect had created, and instantly resolved upon a speech."  Halting the donkey upon which he rode, he acknowledged the women's gazes, raised one hand, and cried, "Weep not, daughters of Mexico, your rulers are coming, seated upon asses!"  Kendall's amusement gave way to dread, though, minutes later as the group halted before the walled church of San Lazaro.  "We were still at a loss as to what manner of place had been selected for our new prison," he recalled, "[but] that it was disgusting and horrible was evident enough."

The San Lazaro Church and Hospital of Mexico City rises in the background in this painting by Jose Calderon.  The leper's ward of the hospital served as a prison for George Kendall and several other members of the Texan Santa Fe Expedition in 1842.Kendall's worst fears seemed confirmed with the realization that the prison was also home to Mexico City's unfortunate lazarinos, or lepers.  "Within the hall, though it was now nearly dark, we could plainly see wretched figures hobbling about, many of them upon crutches, and several of the unfortunate creatures who came and looked at us were entirely bereft of noses, and their faces otherwise horribly disfigured with sores."  Kendall's new home stretched 300 feet in length, spanned 35 feet, and was lined with spacious windows.  The Texans puzzled at the presence of grates over the windows of a hospital until realizing that the lepers were not free to leave San Lazaro.

Adding to George Kendall's horror was his ignorance of the mode of transmission of leprosy.  Living among men whose appearance he described as "loathsome and hideous," Kendall had no way of knowing that he was unlikely to contract the illness himself.  "On many occasions I saw parties of four engaged at cards who had not a single nose or entire finger among them," he wrote.  He could only hope that he would not one day share their afflictions.

Kendall expreassed pleasant surprise at the abundance and quality of the food at San Lazaro.  But, noticing that the numbers marked on the food containers matched the numbers on the cots of the lepers "my appetite for the contents was gone at once."  The Texans complained and thereafter were given dishes with numbers that matched their own cots. 

Once Kendall's fever had abated he was transferred from San Lazaro to a building a few blocks away.  At first he rejoiced, but his happiness dissolved with the discovery of bug-infested mattresses in his new abode.  "From every crevice and cranny of the walls they poured in thousands, the cracks of the floor appeared to send forth their legions to the onslaught."  He and his mates requested new quarters, even a move back to San Lazaro, but the request was denied.  Nevertheless, when Kendall developed symptoms of smallpox, he was shipped back to San Lazaro.  Kendall feared this often fatal disease less than he might have if he hadn't been previously vaccinated.  After a week of severe headaches and fever he recovered completely.  Several of his fellow prisoners died.

George Wilkins in later years with his wife Adeline and two of their four daughtersMarch 11, 1842, which was the day of Saint Lazarus, for whom the hospital was named, marked one of the few bright spots in George Kendall's lengthy imprisonment.  On March 10th, after thoroughly cleaning the hospital, the Mexican inmates hung flags, lamps, and paper decorations throughout the hall.  Paper cutouts of the word caridad, or "charity" were pasted in prominent positions to "readily strike the eye of visitors."  The floor was stained yellow, the ceiling hung with bows and other "fanciful forms," and the cots decorated with flowers.  The inmates' efforts stunned Kendall.  "I doubt whether any other people under the sun could have given the room an appearance as beautiful as ours presented."

As the big day dawned the lazarinos arrayed themselves in their best clothes.  "It was most wondrous strange to see them equipped in their glaring holyday finery," Kendall wrote, "apparently as vain as giddy drawing-room belles, their self-esteem leading them into an extravagance of display that would have been irresistbly comic had not the circumstances of their position been otherwise so melancholy and deplorable."  At nine o'clock the doors were opened and visitors streamed in.  Entering via a side door, they slowly made a circuit around the room, examining the inmates and their decorations while bestowing small presents of food, money, or other items upon those that found their favor.  By noon "the throng was immense."  Rich, poor, men, women, priests, monks, gamblers, beggars, refined ladies, and the lowest vagabond all made their appearance.  The cots of Kendall and his fellow Texans sat near the entrance.  "All stopped to gaze at us with intense curiosity."  Embarrassed to be viewed as an object of pity, Kendall storve to "assume as independent an air as possible, and let them know that I did not in any way stand in need of their charity."  Realizing, though, that to refuse the gifts would provide offense, he "took everything that was offered-loaves of bread, cakes, oranges, flowers, fruits, puros [a type of cigar], cigarritos, money, and all."  One group of particularly refined ladies scrutinized Kendall and his friends especially closely.  Seemingly puzzled to find them imprisoned with the lepers, the ladies ordered two servants to fetch a "sumptuous dinner," which the ladies then served themselves.  "Who they were I was unable to ascertain-I never saw one of them afterward."

Illustration from George Kendall's Narrative of the Texan Santa Fe Expedition.The crowd dissipated only with nightfall.  Kendall noted that he had accumulated enough swag "to load a hand-cart."  Much of this treasure he later distributed among other Texans "as really stood in need."  Among all the days of his bleak seven-month captivity, March 11, 1842, stood out in George Kendall's memory as a rare bright spot.  Kendall arrived in New Orleans by ship from Vera Cruz May 18, 1842, exactly one year after leaving the Crescent City.  He recorded his ordeal in his 1844 work Narrative of the Texan Santa Fe Expedition, comprising a description of a tour through Texas, and across the great southwestern prairies, the Camanche and Caygua hunting-grounds, with an account of the sufferings from want of food, losses from hostile Indians, and final capture of the Texans, and their march, as prisoners, to the City of Mexico.  As you read it, and if you're into Texas history you should, ask yourself how you would have fared in Kendall's place.  And be thankful that you don't have to find out.

Jeffrey Kerr
Written on Sunday, 15 January 2012 16:18 by Jeffrey Kerr

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