Murder on Fuencarral street

Exhibitor : Jesús María Bollo García

Click here for Spanish language version

 

All-round-the-box label from Garay y Arregui, 1889 (note: not depicting the crime) 116 x 45 mm
All-round-the-box label from Garay y Arregui, 1889 (note: not depicting the crime) 116 x 45 mm

This is the story of an horrific murder which was committed in Madrid in 1888, and the famous trial which followed, as shown on contemporary matchboxes manufactured by Garay and Arregui who quickly spotted an opportunity to boost sales by using images of the protagonists on their boxes.

Note : single labels are shown below but unfortunately I do not have a complete box from this series. However, on the right is an all-round-the-box label from a different series produced by Garay y Arregui.

The Crime

Doña Luciana Borcino de Varela
Doña Luciana Borcino de Varela

It was 2:30 in the morning on the 2nd of July 1888 when the residents of 109 Calle de Fuencarral raised the alarm, after they heard shouting from the second floor flat followed by thick black smoke coming from a window. The police broke down the door and discovered the body of Doña Luciana Borcino de Varela lying dead in her bed, face up. She had been stabbed three times in the chest, and her body was wrapped in wet oily rags which had been set alight.

In the room next door they found her new maid servant, Higinia Balaguer Ostalé, lying unconscious on the floor lying next to a sedated bulldog.

José Vázquez-Varela
José Vázquez-Varela

 

Doña Luciana Borcino de Varela was a wealthy widow, 50 years old, who lived in the flat with her feckless son José Vázquez-Varela, 23 years old, who was always asking his mother for money. He was currently in the Cárcel Modelo prison for the third time after committing another misdemeanor. He had previously been in jail for hitting his own mother and on another occasion for slashing his girlfriend Dolores Gutiérrez with a razor. Doña Luciana was known as a strong, severe woman who had difficulty retaining servants – Higinia had only been with her for six days. The autopsy showed that one of the stab wounds had been fatal, and that she had been burned after she was dead.

Higinia Balaguer Ostalé
Higinia Balaguer Ostalé

The police arrested Higinia as the prime suspect and sent her to the Women’s Prison, although the motive for the crime was unclear. Higinia said that when she returned to the flat on the evening of 1st July Doña Luciana was with a man and they told her to go to bed, then when she woke up the flat was full of dense acrid smoke. In one of four different confessions she made Higinia accused José of committing the murder, saying that he had threatened her with violence and offered her money telling her to buy the petrol, clean up the blood and burn the body. But how could he have committed the murder when he was in prison ?

 

Sr. Millán Astray
Sr. Millán Astray

Higinia had arrived at Calle Fuencarral recommended by Sr. Millán Astray. He was the interim director of the Cárcel Modelo and had previously employed Higinia as his maid. It was also common knowledge that prisoners were able to leave the prison whenever they wanted to, and José had often been seen in the streets.

The Trial

The Trial commenced on 26th March 1889, and was notable because it was the first time that “Acción Popular” was used in a Spanish court, allowing any Spanish citizen to appear as a witness even if they were not directly involved in the crime. The Newspaper Editors enthusiastically exercised this right, because they considered that the Trial was full of irregularities and suspected political motives in the background. The Newspapers started reporting court proceedings for the first time and this Trial was big news.

Higinia was the central character in the Trial, a good-looking illiterate girl of 28 years, who achieved a certain notoriety not only because of her ‘star performances’ in the dock but also because she changed her statement four times – from accepting sole responsibility for the murder to accusing others.

Dolores Ávila (“Lola la Billetera”)
Dolores Ávila (“Lola la Billetera”)

The prosecution decided that Higenia must have had help to commit the crime, and that her motive was robbery. She identified her friend Dolores Ávila (“Lola la Billetera”) as a collaborator and the actual murderer, but in her final testimony Higinia stated that José killed his mother, and that Sr. Millán had planned the crime, and they paid her generously for letting them into the flat. Also, records show that Sr. Millán spoke privately with Higinia in prison and also with Dolores after she had been incarcerated, both of which were highly irregular.

Many aspects of the case remained unexplained – where was the murder weapon, how was the dog tranquilized, and whose were the five cigarette butts on the floor near the body (Higinia didn’t smoke) ?

The Verdict

The Trial concluded on 29th May 1889, with a verdict of Guilty of Murder and Robbery. The judge sentenced Higinia to death by Garrote Vil, Dolores to 18 years in prison as accomplice and absolved José and Sr Millán of any blame. There was a massive public outcry at the verdict, but it was upheld.

Higinia was executed on 19th June in front of 20,000 people – this was the last public execution to be held in Spain. Just before the executioner applied the garrote Higinia cried out “¡Dolores, 14000 duros!” Soon after, Sr. Millán stepped down from his post, as did the President of the Supreme Court.

This famous case has been made into a film and a TV series, a play, many books and articles have been written about it, and it continues to intrigue criminology students many of whom see it as a huge miscarriage of justice where the rich get away with the crime and the servants take the blame.

Here are more labels with images of other actors in the Trial, click on an image to enlarge it.

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