This Day in Jewish History

1649: Violent Public Penance for Secret Spanish Jews

On this day in 1649, the Catholic Church staged a large, public event in Mexico in which those convicted of secretly practicing Judaism were burned.

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On April 11, 1649, the Catholic Church held an auto-da-fe in Mexico, the largest such event ever held in the New World, in which 13 people convicted of “Judaizing” were executed, their bodies then burned along with the remains of 57 others who had died awaiting trial. They were among 109 convicts punished in the day’s auto-da-fe, all but one of whom had been tried on grounds of secretly practicing Judaism. Those who were not executed received lesser sentences, including, in some cases, deportation from New Spain.

The term “auto-da-fe” is Spanish for “act of faith,” and refers to the process by which those convicted of crimes against the Catholic faith were brought before the public and punished. The most serious sentence was to be burned alive, but in most cases, those who were burned had already been strangled to death. 

Although the Spanish prohibited conversos – Jews who had publicly converted to Christianity -- from settling in their colonies in the Americas, down to their fourth-generation descendants, many Jews who had fled the Spanish and later the Portuguese Inquisitions did end up in the New World. Many worked as artisans and small merchants, but others played key roles in the international commerce that linked Europe and the Americas.

Many conversos, despite having nominally joined the church, continued to practice Judaism in one way or another and pass it on to their children. To ferret them out, the Spanish established an office of the Inquisition in Mexico in 1,572. Detailed records were kept of arrests and interrogations, including information about their secret beliefs and rituals – records that remain available to historians today.

Some 1,500 residents of New Spain were interrogated on charges of being crypto-Jews during the 16th and 17th centuries; ultimately, 100 of them were executed and another 200 died in prison.

The auto-da-fe ceremonies were grand public affairs, with some 30,000 spectators from as far away as Mexico City (80km away).

One of the defendants was Tomas Trevino de Sobremonte. Among other accusations against him was one from his 13-year-old son, who testified that his father had scolded him when he prayed to the Virgin Mary to make it stop raining. According to the records of the Inquisition, Tomas told his son: “Shut up, you horse, God has no mother; if He created us, how could He be born? … Everything the Church believes is nonsense.” Given the opportunity to repent before his execution, and to kiss the cross, Tomas refused, and so was not afforded the privilege of being strangulated before being set afire. He reportedly told his executioners, as the flames were being ignited, “Throw more wood on this fire, you wretched ones, because I am paying for this fire.”