Joyce Jenkins brought me New Mexico Magazine from May 2001. It contains New Mexico’s version of our hermit. Although it has been told many times, it never hurts to tell it once more.
The hermit has been called many names by many people. While he was in the Grove he was known as Matteo Boccalini, Father Matteo or Father Francesco. In New Mexico he was known as Juan Maria Augustini, ‘El Solitario’ the solitary one, ‘El Curandero’ the healer, or ‘El Ermitano’ the hermit. His birth name was Giovanni Maria Agostini, son of Mattias Agostini.
Some sources say he was born in 1799 (which is most likely accurate) others say 1801 in Italy. There is a bit of debate as to what town in Italy; the isle of Capri or Sizzano, but Novaro seems more likely. He was born to a noble family and was educated in the best of schools; he studied theology, and languages of which it has been said he could fluently speak nine. The Pope named the hermit as one of his secretaries, however the college of propagandists (as Malloy puts it) denounced him and instead he was placed under interrogation and discipline.
He also had what were considered bold political ideas as well as his spiritual ideas; this seemed to create some difficulties for him. The thing that brought his earthly downfall, so legend has it, is a beautiful woman he fell in love with and had her in a most fleshly way. Of course the Catholic Church had fits over this and the hermit was prosecuted and denounced and henceforth and forever more persecuted by the church, but particularly by the Jesuits whom he had given insult to. Other stories claim that he shot his own cousin in a duel.
We are told that the hermit joined the ranks of Giuseppe Garibaldi the Italian military hero. Garibaldi took part in the revolution but it flopped so he had to flee the country as well. With little need to remain in his home country our hermit leaves to become a wanderer through the earth.
He left Italy in 1827 and took a ship to Venezuela and spent nearly twenty years in South America. Later on he was arrested in Mexico and exiled to Cuba. From Cuba he sailed to Canada and lived a brief time before coming to the States. In 1859 he had his picture taken in New York City which is supposedly the same picture that you can see on the plaque at the hermits cave in Council Grove.
It was sometime in the early 1860s when the hermit arrived in Council Grove. Supposedly he lived with the Kaw Indians for a time, the Kaw considered him ‘bad medicine’ so the hermit found a cleft in the rock to live in. He kept to himself and didn’t talk easily. A very few of the towns folk were able to learn a bit about him and converse with him. He was not a mean or hateful man, on the contrary he was caring and loving to all; he just feared the Jesuits would find him and kill him; for this reason he mostly kept to himself.
He had very few possessions as he walked nearly everywhere he went. He owned about half a dozen small volumes, a crucifix, and a mandolin which he could be heard playing vesper hymns on in the evening.
One day the hermit saw a man that he suspected of being a Jesuit emissary and decided it was time to move on. He approached Don Miguel Romero the Capitan of a wagon train that was camped in the Grove preparing to head back to New Mexico. He asked if he could join Romero’s wagon train and then handed him a paper which read,” To whom it may concern: This paper certifies that the bearer, Juan Maria Agostiniani, is a missionary who has lived in this area for 45 days. He has lived in a cave and has been in the St. Louis district for several years where he lived in caves, dugouts and in the open subsisting only on vegetables and corn meal mush. He has befriended the poor and helped the ill. He meditates constantly; indeed, he must be a holy man.”
Romero invited the hermit to join them on the trip home as well as to partake of their supper. The hermit ate very little, only drank water and abstained from meat. The next day the wagon train headed out. The hermit was asked to ride on one of the wagons but he replied, “I’m afraid the mules cannot carry me and the load I have to carry.” Everyone was surprised as he only carried one bag, but to prove his point he sat on a wagon and the mules wouldn’t budge. He said he preferred to walk anyway and so he did, 550 miles to Las Vegas. That was in 1863, the hermit would no more return to the Grove.
When the wagon train reached home, Romero invited the hermit to stay with him and he did so for a few days. He wanted to find a cave to live in and so Romero’s son accompanied the hermit to Romeroville where they found a cave near a creek. He lived in this cave for about five months. After that he went back to Wagon Mound where he was impressed with a majestic peak, later named after him, and lived there from 1863 to 1868.
There are a couple different versions as to how the hermit met his end. One story says that he intended to return to Italy. Before leaving he brought his books and possessions down from the Organ Mountains and left them with a fellow priest named Jose de Jesus Cabez de Baca. The hermit said he would light a fire on the mountain before he left for Mexico the next day and that he wanted the priest to pray with him. On the night of April 16th, 1869 the fire failed to appear as promised. The next day a few men from Mesilla went to search for the hermit. They found him in front of his cave laying face down with a dagger in his back. He was about 70 years old.
They carried the body back to town to prepare for burial and beneath his coarse clothing they found an iron girdle four inches wide with inch long spikes inside. Evidence of a long and brutal penance.
Another version of the hermit’s death is told in the Santa Fe New Mexican of July 22nd, 1899. “His familiar and beloved form had been missed from its usual haunts for a week or ten days when a party of miners found his lifeless body lying on the rugged trail that led to his cave. A poisoned dagger of unusual design and evidently of Italian manufacture had been driven between his shoulders into his heart. The assassin had attacked him from behind, and had apparently escaped without meeting his eyes. His rosary; that always hung about his neck, was firmly clasped in his fingers, and the expression upon his face was one of holy resignation. No trace of the assassin was every found, but it was the general impression that the murder was committed by one of a large gang of Italian railroad hands, and was the result of a vendetta.”
I don’t know which story is true, I leave it to the reader to decide, however I have always been suspect of poisoned daggers. Anyone who knows how to use a dagger will find it superfluous to poison it.