G.P. Thresher photograph that caught my eye went by several titles.
The first was "Unknown Tomb" which G.P. Thresher
had scribbled on the envelope containing the negative plate according
to Mr. Lubliner who originally rediscovered Thresher’s lost works.
Later the title was changed to "Monument at Queretaro".
Even though Mr. Thresher left no other clues I immediately recognized
the significance of his photograph. It is the spot where Archduke
Ferdinand Maximilian of the Hapsburg lineage and at the time the
presumed "Emperor of Mexico" was executed. The photograph
is fascinating in that the surrounding area has long since been overrun
with the trappings of humanity and today does not look anything like
the terrain in the photo above which was taken by Thresher approximately
thirty-five years after Emperor Maximilian died on that very spot
on June 19th, 1867.
|Wall against which Maximilian was
shot. Photo by Adrien Cordiglia 1867. Library of Congress Collection.
The three marker columns in the photograph
are located on a rise of ground leading up to a mound and outcropping
of rocks called "El
Cerro de las Campanas" or "The Hill of the Bells".
The three columns mark the spot where Maximilian and two of his generals,
Miguel Miramón, and Tomas Mejia were shot by a squad of seven fusiliers.
I would like to know who the people in the photo are. At about the
same time this photo was taken Porfirio Diaz, then President of Mexico,
was making attempts to restore diplomatic relations with Austria
because Mexico was seeking foreign investments and a reconciliation
with the Hapsburg family would make that a lot easier. He allowed
the Austrians to build a small mortuary chapel over the execution
site and the three columns are a precursor to that event. I like
to imagine that the two people in black on the left are relatives
of Maximilian, come to pay their respects, and the man with the roll
of documents could be an architect with plans for the new chapel.
Actually I have seen a rather poor photograph with tall pillars topped
by round finials at each corner of the perimeter blocks with wrought
iron work along the perimeter and between the posts. Perhaps they
were discussing the need for adding these features at some future
date in order to protect the monument. Maybe someday I will find
out. George P. Thresher perhaps knew but then why did he label the
envelope "Unknown Tomb"? It makes me wonder if he spoke
Spanish, or German, or French, or did he just have to guess at what
he was photographing?
a children’s history book illustrated by artist Jose Guadalupe
|The execution scene from the perspective
of the victims. Illustration from a history pamphlet in "comic
book" format entitled "Pasajes de la Historia de
Mexico", Cuaderno # 31, published in March of 1958
The city of Queretaro sits in a gentle bowl of
land surrounded by hills and more distant mountains and in the immediate
vicinity there aren’t many natural defenses. For this reason Cerro
de las Campanas was first and foremost a defensive position where
Maximilian and his troops fought off attacks by the forces of Benito
Juarez. It is called "Hill of the Bells" by
reason of a strange quality of certain local rocks that "ring" when
banged together on account of their iron and copper content. By looking
at Thresher’s photograph it is obvious that the photo was taken from
a small height above the participants. This elevated position was
a natural embankment about six to eight feet in height and in front
of this embankment stood an adobe wall which formed the backdrop
against which Maximilian and his generals were shot.
The earliest known photograph of the spot was taken in 1867, the
same year as the execution, by Adrien Cordiglia and is now part of
the library of Congress Collection. In the background you can see
the adobe wall and in the middle of the picture you can just barely
make out the three markers that at that time indicated exactly where
the victims were standing when they were shot. The cross on the left
is where Maximilian stood. He gave the place of honor in the middle
to General Miramón. It is interesting to note the cactus above and
beyond the top of the adobe wall. The cactus is on the rise of ground
and in about the same spot from which Thresher later took his photograph.
The Cordiglia photo is a prime illustration of how seemingly unimportant
details can be carried forward. Almost every illustration or painting
of that original scene faithfully reproduces an image of the cactus
in one form or another as if the cactus is important and is what
makes the scene legitimate.
in conjunction with the Secretary of Public Education
in Mexico and part of a series on Mexican History. Shown here is
an illustration for the cover of a children’s history book that artist
Jose Guadalupe Posada painted around the same time that Thresher
took his photograph. Except for a little problem with the soldiers’
uniforms and the fact that he reversed the positions of Maximilian
and Tomas Mejia, the painting remains quite faithful to the scene.
One must also remember that at that time there were still people
living who actually witnessed the execution and perhaps were even
available to Mr. Posada. They would also have been available to Mr.
Thresher but somehow I don’t think he would have gotten involved
that deeply in the past…or the future. I think that for him the present
but fleeting moment and the available light were the most important
As you can see in the next illustration which is part of a series
of pulp magazines on Mexican history and published in Spanish in
conjunction with the Mexican government, the ubiquitous cactus is
peeking out from behind the wall. This illustration is amazingly
true to the published eye witness accounts of the event except that
the bricks in the wall are a bit too well made and do not match the
adobe blocks seen in Cordiglia’s original photo shown ear the beginning
of this article.
The memorial chapel was finally built over
the spot around 1910. Seen below is an early Mexican postcard photo
by Union Postal Universal. A similar photo was taken by author
Harry A. Frank and included in his book "Tramping Through Mexico" published
in 1916 by The Century Company of New York. Here is an excerpt
from his book that describes the surrounding terrain as he saw
it at the time:
"It is a twenty minute walk from
the center of town across the flat, fertile vega, green with gardens,
to the Cerro de las Campanas, a bare, stern, stony hill, somewhat
grown with cactus bushes, maguey, and tough shrubs, rising perhaps
seventy feet above the level of the town. It runs up gently and
evenly from the south, but falls away abruptly in a cragged, rock
precipice on the side facing Queretato, providing the only place
in the vicinity where poorly aimed bullets cannot whistle away
across the plain."
|Early Mexican Postcard showing the
newly completed Memorial Chapel. Union Postal Universal
From the postcard view it is easy to get a sense of the layout.
It looks like the ground under the foundation was built up to accommodate
the length of the chapel and the floor of the chapel is probably
a few feet above the surface upon which Maximilian actually stood.
Future articles will be based upon other G.P.
Thresher photos including Castle Guanajuato, Theater at Guanajuato,
Church on the Hill, Capilla de Posito, Aqueduct, Church of La Cruz,
Door of the Convent, and perhaps several others. I am constantly
learning new things about the Thresher photos and I am indebted to
Mr. Thesher for leading me on such an interesting journey.
Bob Mrotek can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or at
"Castle Guanajuato" essay