Tales from Basques in the United States: The Tragic Case of Txomin Malasechevarria

We at the Center are really proud to have published the monumental 2-volume work, Basques in the United States with principal research by Koldo San Sebastián, with the assistance of Argitxu Camus-Etxekopar, Joxe Mallea-Olaetxe, Jone Laka, and José Luis Madarieta and more. We intend for this to be more than just an encyclopedic reference; we’d like it to be a true forum for sharing stories and anecdotes about the thousands of Basque women and men who forged new lives for themselves in the US. Welcome, then, to an occasional series on some of those lives, with a special focus on more striking or offbeat stories.

If you’d like to share your own family stories with us, please click here at our dedicated Basques in the United States Project website.

Basques in the US vol 1

While we rightly seek to celebrate the success stories, it’s also worth recalling (at least from time to time) the less pleasant or unfortunate side of some of these individual tales, if only to emphasize just how hard it was for some folks to get ahead in their new lives. Here, then, is the tragic biography (abridged from the original entry in Basques in the United States, volume 1) of Domingo “Txomin” Malasechevarria:

At precisely 6 am on Nov. 13, 1952, the doors of the new gas chamber in the State Prison near Carson City, NV, were closed. Inside, tied to a chair was a 58-year-old Basque sheepherder, Domingo Malasechevarria (his last name had been changed to Echeverria). At 6:08 am gas fumes spread throughout the chamber and the culprit passed out immediately. At 6:20 am Doctor Richard Petty pronounced him dead.

Domingo Malasechevarria Yturraran was born on the “Erreka” baserri in Gizaburuaga, Bizkaia, on May 12, 1892, one of 7 brothers and sisters. Following a well-established tradition in the village, Domingo arrived in New York City on Mar. 7, 1912. He was 19 years old. With him traveled a large group of Basques (from Berriatua, Lekeitio, Deba, Amoroto, Markina, and also from Gizaburuaga). Domingo headed for Paradise Valley in Humboldt Co., NV, where two of his brothers, Antonio and José Mari, lived. In 1917 he worked as a sheepherder for Alfonso Pascuale, a major local stockman. According to his draft file he had no objections to being drafted into the US armed forces, and in 1930, according to the US Census, he continued living in Paradise Valley. During those years he also herded sheep in Douglas Co., NV. But things were not going well. His brothers had returned home, and had settled down more or less, while he was fighting loneliness in the Nevada desert. Domingo’s disposition was turning sour. He had become antisocial and a loner.

His ruin began at the famous Martin Hotel in Winnemucca in northern Nevada. One afternoon in Jul. 1947 he got into an argument with another Basque, Claudio Yturriaga. In a fit of madness, Domingo struck his countryman on the head with a garden hose. Later he told the police that he had hit his companion because “he had not passed him the bread.” Malasechevarria was at the time 52 years old and was by all accounts very strong. Yturriaga, meanwhile, born in Ereño, Bizkaia, was 63. He had to be taken to the Humboldt General Hospital and later moved to San Francisco for further specialized treatment. As a consequence of his injuries he ultimately had to give up his job with the Western Pacific Railroad (he had been a sheepherder before). He died of a heart attack a few years later on Nov. 6, 1956 and is buried in Winnemucca. Malasechevarria, meanwhile, was found guilty of assault and condemned to two years in prison. Further, he had to compensate Yturriaga with $5,000 plus he had to pay court costs.

Before his provisional release from jail two years later, he underwent psychiatric evaluation at the Nevada Mental Hospital in Sparks (Reno Evening Gazette, Oct. 10, 1947). Totally broke and with a reputation for violence, none of the stockmen wanted to hire him. Soon he had become a vagrant that wandered around Humboldt Co., living off charity and scrounging handouts from fellow Basques. In Sep. 1951 he was interned in the poor and destitute section of Humboldt Co. General Hospital.

That same month, on Sunday, Sep. 23, he locked himself in the bathroom and refused to come out. In turn, an orderly had the door opened but in doing so, Domingo struck him on the wrist with piece of piping that he had manged to unscrew from the plumbing, and ran away down the hallway. Still running, he entered one of the rooms hitting a patient (Tony Robinson) three or four times. At that moment nurse Elizabeth Catlett showed up and he struck her twice, killing her instantly. Doctor Hartoch, the superintendent of the hospital was the first to arrive on the crime scene. When he arrived Mrs. Catlett and Mr. Robinson were on the floor surrounded by a pool of blood.

Malasechevarria was with them, crouching like an animal. He was looking down at the floor with the bloody iron bar in his hands. He tried to attack the doctor, who defended himself with a chair. Finally, Doctor Hartoch, Peter Pedroli, a businessman from Winnemucca, and Phil Erringer, a hospital nurse, succeeded in restraining him. Police said that the Basque calmed down when he was locked up in a cell, acting as if nothing had happened (Nevada State Journal, Sep. 25, 1951).

malasechevarria

Domingo “Txomin” Malasechevarria

On Sep. 25 District Attorney Callahan formally charged Domingo Malasechevarria with the murder of Elisabeth Catlett, 59 years old, and of Thomas Robinson, 86 years old. In the official document of the charges the DA emphasized that during the crime, Echeverria, “a man of great strength, was not mad (criminally insane).” During the preliminary hearing of Oct. 1, the sheepherder explained to the judge the reasons for his behavior: “That morning I was laying in bed when Mrs. Catlet came in and closed the window. I got up and opened it. She returned and closed it. I told her that she had better not close my window again. Later Mrs. Catlett came with her husband [the orderly] to yell at me while I was in the bathroom.” The judge asked him if he had anything else to add. “They didn’t used to give me enough laxatives. They only gave it me once a week. If I asked for more and they used to scold me. I couldn’t sleep and they refused to give me sleeping pills. I asked the doctor four times for sleeping pills and the doctor told Mrs. Catlett to give me a pill to sleep. That night she gave me a sleeping pill that was not a sleeping pill. They didn’t give me a laxative or any medicine for my stomach. They were always after me, attacking me.” On Oct. 17 the Basque sheepherder appeared before the district judge Mervin Brown and he pleaded not guilty. The judge assigned him the lawyer Donald Leighton as the public defender. Domingo was charged only with the murder of Nurse Catlett, and the trial date was set for Nov. 5 (Nevada State Journal, Oct. 18, 1951).

From the very beginning Nieves Dufurrena was the Basque-English translator. She was a native Nevadan, married to a Basque, and her parents were from Ea, Bizkaia (her maiden names were Legarza Erquiaga). She was a well-known woman in Winnemucca, active in the (Catholic) parish and in many social events. A few years later she became the first secretary of the local Basque Club. Nieves was fluent in the Bizkaian dialect and didn’t have any problem communicating with Domingo. The county sheriff, Derbert Moore, was in charge of selecting the jury. Of the 60 men, 13 were Basque, namely: Peter Albisu Jr (McDermitt), Audrey Etchegoyen, Chas Ugalde, Sylvester Urigüen, Pete Etchart Jr. (Winnemucca), Frank Bidart (Leonard Creek), Peter Lecumberry, Frank P. Garteiz, Pete J. Laca (Winnemucca), Fermín Gavica (Paradise Valley), Domingo Arangüena, Frank Bengoechea, and A. P. Garteiz. The last one selected was Domingo Arangüena Bengoa, a Winnemucca barber. His father was from Munitibar and his mother from Ispaster. Moreover, Fermín Gavica was on stand-by.

After the selection of the jury, the trial began. The prosecutor called the witnesses, the most important being Dr. Hartoch, who explained how he was able to contain the Basque until help arrived. T. Critzer, another patient, said he saw the nurse fall down by his feet. Herb Daniels, a Winnemucca policeman, said that he asked the Basque why he had committed the deed. The answer was: “It doesn’t matter. Better that she is dead.” For his part, the defense lawyer claimed “madness” (Nevada State Journal, Nov. 6, 1951). Finally, on Nov. 10, 1951 the jury found Domingo Malasecheverria guilty of the murder of the nurse and sentenced him to die by gas chamber. The death sentence was handed down by the district judge, Mervin Brown, and the execution was to take place in Carson City’s state prison. He similarly decided to deny the possibility of a repeat trial.

According to one report of the trial, “Echevarria looked more calm during the reading of the sentence than at any other time during his arrest. For the first time he appeared in court without an interpreter, even though earlier he had said that he did not understand English.” After Judge Brown imposed the penalty, the Basque sheepherder turned to Leighton, the public defender, and with something that looked like a smile, told him: “Good, this means the gas chamber.” (Nevada State Journal, Nov. 11, 1951; The Salt Lake Tribune, Nov. 11, 1951). Leighton did hid his utmost to save the life of the defendant, submitting a clemency petition before the State Pardons Board, and at the same time an appeal to a higher court, which delayed the execution (Nevada State Journal, Jan. 19, 1952; Ogden Standard-Examiner, Jan. 26, 1952). Both petitions were turned down, setting the definite date of execution for Nov. 26. On the eve of the execution, according to the warden, the Basque rejected all the perks of people condemned to death, such as being able to talk to someone or any special wish. He did not have supper, although he did at all times have the company of two Catholic priests who were there until the last moment (Reno Evening Gazette, Nov. 13, 1952; Nevada State Journal, Nov. 14, 1952).

The execution was witnessed by Warden Art. E. Bernard and Doctor Richard A. Perry, as well as five upstanding citizens of the State of Nevada. One Basque was present, John Etchemendy, who at the time managed the Overland Hotel in Gardnerville. The doctor’s execution report is frightening:
NEVADA STATE PENITENTIARY (Carson City, Nevada, Nov. 13, 1952)
The prisoner enters the chamber: 6:00 AM.
He is tied to the chair: 6:02 AM.
Door is closed: 6:04 AM.
HCH gas hits him in the face: 6:08 AM.
Apparently unconscious: 6:08½ AM.
Definitely unconscious: 6:09 AM.
No longer breathing: 6:11 AM.
Heart stops: 6:20 AM.
Ventilator comes on: 6:25 AM.
Body taken out of the chamber and his death is certified: 6:51 AM.

Malasechevarria was the second oldest person to be executed in Nevada to that date. Warden Bernard declared to the press that “the gas chamber worked perfectly” (Nevada State Journal, Nov. 14, 1952).

Basques in the United States author Koldo San Sebastián also discusses this particular case (click here to read his post, in Spanish). For San Sebastián, the word that most summed up life for Basque sheepherders was solitude. Not for nothing, he notes, is the Basque Sheepherder Monument in Reno, a sculpture by Nestor Basterretxea, titled “Solitude/Bakardade,”  and that very loneliness was perhaps the greatest hurdle to surmount for Basque arrivals in the New World. He continues by quoting from a study of Robert Laxalt’s classic Sweet Promised Land by Gorka Aulestia: “feelings of solitude, melancholy, nostalgia, sadness, and notions of effort, struggle, danger, [and] work run through the book. The solitude of the sheepherder who lived, lost (in some cases going crazy), up in the mountains of Nevada.”

5 Comments

  1. Kent Mowry ( Echevarria)

    March 10, 2016 at 7:00 pm

    He was my Great Uncle. Died before I was born. Family did not speak too much about him or what happened, other than he was mentally sick and killed a person at the old hospital.
    I am 60 now. I’ve just learned more insight then before. Knew most of the people mentioned throughout this article. Thank you!

    • basquebookseditor

      March 11, 2016 at 2:09 pm

      Kent, thanks so much for writing. One of my coworkers pulled this out of the archive and posted it, but it was really strange to read about these events in Winnemucca. Frank Bidart was even on the jury so even my home (Leonard Creek) is mentioned in this one. It was a shock to read that. I know many of the names, but other than that don’t think I know anybody else. Again, thanks for letting us know you’re reading, it’s a pleasure to hear back on our efforts! Dan Montero

      • It was a very well written article. So glad to see that even the bad are not forgotten. It was hard on the Basque in this Country even though they had been here since the Coronado Expeditions. Just to let you know, that we do read and follow the articles, just don’t reply often enough. Thank you.

  2. Michelle Wilson

    March 15, 2016 at 8:34 pm

    This is a really sad story. He was obviously mentally ill. He finally get to rest in peace and welcomed his execution.

  3. Kevin Pasquale

    April 1, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    Well written and interesting. One minor mistake, Alfonso Pasquale was the Paradise Valley stockman (not Pascuale).

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