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"Story of Maximilian's memorial at El Cerro de las Campanas"
Essay by Bob Mrotek


The first 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?

Cover of a children’s history book illustrated by artist Jose Guadalupe Posada
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 details.

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 or at

"Castle Guanajuato" essay >>

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