Monday, November 30, 2015

The Last Execution in Tenerife

     The wooden cart rocked slowly over the cobblestones down from the chapel in Our Lady of the Snows Convent and out between the fishermen's cottages before making its way towards a dusty plain to the east of Puerto de la Cruz. Two men, guarded by four members of the Provincial Guard, were seated at the rear together with the bailiff, a judicial clerk and two priests. The prisoners' hands were shackled behind their backs and their foreheads dripped beads of dirty sweat. 

The Lady of the Snows Convent was destroyed by fire in 1925

     It was 2nd June, 1881 and a typically humid morning in the Orotava valley, with that familiar low cloud hanging against the sloping hills. But their sweat was caused, not by the sticky warmth of early summer but by sheer terror. The Supreme Court had sentenced them to die by the dreaded garrote vil

     Shortly afterwards almost the entire population of Puerto de la Cruz, summoned to witness the execution as an example, held its breath. They watched as Manuel Brito and Pedro Armas were seated and tied, almost with compassion, to the two wooden posts which had been erected specially for them the previous evening. To begin with the silence was broken only by the sea punishing the nearby rocks just beyond the flat piece of land which separated the town from San Carlos cemetery and the San Felipe fortress.
The last execution in a sketch by Marcos Baeza Carrillo

     The officiating priest was thankfully brief. The authorities also stood in respectful silence. But there was horror in their eyes as the executioner, who had been brought out from Seville specially for the occasion, began to turn the wooden handles of the garrote at the back of the condemned men’s necks one by one and their imploring cries drowned the waves on the rocks. The fearful screams were the consequence of their crime. Their gradually reddening faces and desperate choking gasps was their cruel penalty. As the screws twisted behind the wooden posts the ropes pulled on the metal bands, tightenening gradually and with torturous agony around the men’s necks until they suffocated.

     Theirs was the last public execution in the Canary Islands and historians remember it as a horrible event. They had been accused of murdering James William Crighton Morris, a British resident who had arrived in Puerto de la Cruz in 1873. He was only 24 and had been sent to Puerto a year after joining his uncle Thomas Miller's firm in Grand Canary to be a part of the Miller's subsidiary in Tenerife, known as Miller and Son. 

     Peter Spence Reid managed the firm in Puerto de la Cruz but later broke away from Thomas Miller to found his own enterprise which became known as Thomas Miller Reid and Company. Young Morris was chief cashier. That may well have been his downfall. He is thought to have been a bit of a loner and historians suggest he had a weakness for women and possibly for wine. He also hung keys from his pocket watch chain. They were the keys to the company offices and safe.

Peter S Reid in his latter days

     Manuel Brito and Pedro Armas each had ambitions. Brito was 36. He was married with two children but apparently had a lover in Santa Cruz with whom he wanted to disappear to South America. His friend, 44 year old Armas also had a family but just hungered for money. They worked out a plot to rob James Morris of the company takings. Having studied the foreigner's liking for women and wine, they persuaded him that a local girl was interested in meeting him close to the San Felipe fortress.

The San Felipe fortress by Alfred Diston (belongs to a private collection in Madrid)

     The murder took place was on Sunday, 25th November, 1878. It was an overcast, dark and chilly evening. The younger of the two local men dressed up as a woman and hid while Armas led the victim to the chosen rendezvous. When Morris was close enough Brito threw a handful of clay into his eyes before they both beat him up and stabbed him several times. They took whatever possessions he carried on him, his gold pocket watch, a gold locket, a small revolver and the safe keys which dangled enticingly from his watch chain. 

The same dusty, executioner's plain became the town's football pitch many years later

     Brito and Armas had a risky plan worked out. First they returned in the dark to Peter Reid's offices in what was then known as Calle del Sol where they removed the contents from the safe. In total they stole over 20,000 Reals, the silver and copper coins of the period which they shared out and hid. To this day the coins have not been recovered. 

     Getting rid of the body was only their second priority. This they did in the early hours of the following morning when in those days nobody would be about. They carried the unfortunate Morris to the nearby San Carlos cemetery and placed his body in an existing tomb belonging to an aristocratic lady, the Marchioness of San Andrés and Viscountess of Buen Paso who died in 1853. In their haste to replace her tombstone, it cracked. That was to be their undoing.

The San Carlos Cemetery with Mt Teide in the background

     When company employees opened up the offices on the following Tuesday morning nobody suspected James Morris of going off with the cash even when he failed to turn up to work as punctually as always. Although they had apparently locked the safe again after removing the money, the thieves, in their eagerness to find more money, had left the offices in considerable disarray, with documents and other items strewn all over the wooden floor. On the contrary, whilst investigations were kept very discrete, there was immediately grave concern for the fate of young Mr James Morris.

     Three days after the crime there was a funeral for a child who had died of pneumonia. The burial ceremony at the cemetery was delayed because the gravedigger refused to do his job until the required official permit had been issued by the municipal judge. Mourners were forced to stand around waiting for the document to arrive. As fate would have it a local blind man, Juan García Olivera, sensed something strange in the air. He told the gravedigger there was a bad smell somewhere in the cemetery and pointed to where he thought it was coming from. It was rotting flesh and it was coming from a cracked tombstone. It had attracted the attention of greenbottle flies. They have a habit of laying their eggs in cadaver tissue within hours of death. When the tombstone was removed they found a decomposing body. Of course it was poor James Morris. An autopsy revealed he had been severely beaten and then stabbed. 

The trial of Brito and Armas is classified as a "celebrated legal case"

     Investigators discovered that Brito and Armas had befriended el inglés in a local tavern and they were arrested and taken, first to the jail in La Orotava and then to the prison in Santa Cruz where they admitted the crime. Three years later they met their own death, horribly garrotted, close to the very spot where they had murdered the accountant, James Morris.    

(Certain images have been reproduced from internet with no personal financial gain intended.)

By John Reid Young
Author of The Skipping Verger and Other Tales, a collection of short stories set in Tenerife.



  1. I have been reading this story in Spanish... very interesting..

  2. Yes, it is a fascinating story, and especially for me as as Peter S Reid was my great grandfather.