The Queen of Brewer Hill
Remembering Madame Rebecca Brewer, healer, philanthropist, spiritualist, hill namesake and Silver City character.
by Twana Sparks
I'm convinced Silver City is a magnet for colorful characters. The diversity of this community is amazing. In line at a store, one may be behind a Hispanic grandmother whose ancestors were given land grants here 200 years ago, and in front of some burned-out hippie who hitchhiked here in the 1970s and makes a living as a rather amazing artist, and a ranching mom with her two little cowboy-booted, Wrangler-clad preschoolers. Rebecca A. Brewer, also known as Madame Brewer or La Negra Rebecca, was one of the most colorful residents of all.
Rebecca Brewer in her eighties. Used by permission of the Silver City Daily Press.
Most of what I have been able to learn about Rebecca Brewer came from newspaper references and the people who lived near her until her death in 1969 at age 101. If Joe Fierro or Marsha Lopez' great-grandmother Gutierrez said it, then it is good enough for me.
Rebecca Brewer was born in Macon, Georgia, in 1868. She was the daughter of freed slaves. Around age 32, as one story goes, she came alone to Silver City at the urging of her family, to seek a better climate for her tuberculosis woes. She was a big, striking woman, and a practitioner of natural healing, a curandera. Local children called her "La Negra (black) Rebecca" — not necessarily a term of endearment, as she was unusual enough to be frightening to some. No one recalls her ever returning to Georgia, nor seeing her family again.
If she had tuberculosis, she did recover her health. Another rumor is that she came here as the maid of a white family. They didn't like the area and returned to Georgia, but she chose to stay. Yet another tale tagged to her name says she wanted to live in a "boom town" in the West and this place qualified.
Whatever the real reason she came (and it could have been all three), the unconventional Rebecca Brewer managed to become quite wealthy. Though her unofficial title was "Madame Brewer" there is no belief among her acquaintances that she was involved in prostitution in any form. This title designated her as a medium or spiritualist. She initially made a living doing massage at what's now Faywood Hot Springs. She moved on to construction, and ultimately became the "boss" or foreman of the crew that built the Lincoln School, which now houses El Grito Head Start at 300 S. Cooper St.
She was deputized from time to time, to bring in female prisoners. She was on the job once, when a male fugitive tried to use her as a shield. The sheriff reached over her shoulder and shot the man dead. I wager that did not do her hearing any good.
If she was seeking adventures, there were plenty in her life. She told of a woman who was in a saloon on Broadway with a roll of "stage cash" surrounded by a single real bill. When she left, someone waylaid the woman for the money by hitting her on the head with a lead pipe. Madame Brewer found the lady in the Big Ditch bleeding and carried her on her own back to the victim's home. This involved going over a swinging bridge that crossed San Vicente Creek at the time. Brewer tended to her until she recovered.
Madame Brewer told others she had learned from her parents to diagnose illness and which herbs could heal. She was charged at one time with practicing medicine without a license and arrested, but paid the $1,000 cash bond, and the charges were dropped. Her Spanish was excellent. She arrived as a Roman Catholic, but rumor has it she was excommunicated from that group because of assisting with pregnancy terminations.
The area where she amassed considerable real estate in the southeast part of town, once called Sonora Hill, came to be known as Brewer Hill. The steep, irregular rocky terrain was relatively inexpensive, and she financed the resales herself, allowing Hispanic and black families to own land, paying whatever they could afford. She lived there as well, donating land and a building for the Brewer Hill Baptist Church, which was attended by the black people of the area, since they were not welcome in other congregations. Looking out my window east, I can see both her home site and that place of worship.
She also had boarding houses and a tenement, again rented primarily to black residents. The largest rental property burned in 1948, some say under suspicious circumstances. A contributing factor was that the nearest fire hydrant was a quarter-mile away.
She did tell fortunes and make potions and cast spells. My friend Ruth, two years older than I, went to have her palm read and fortune told. It cost $2. This was a rite of passage for local high school girls in the 1960s. This was just before Brewer's death that year at age 101. Ruth brought me the report that Madame Brewer seemed timeless in both body and spirit. She gave the much-anticipated information that romantic dreams would come true in "two, two, two for sure, two weeks or two months, but no more than two years." Just for the record, they did not.
I mentioned this adventure to my Spanish teacher at Cobre High School, Barbara Serna née Wray, who was then the wife of the district attorney. She recalled that the eccentric Brewer had employed her in the 1940s. Barbara was a six-year-old girl when she made a nickel a day packaging "polvos de amor" (love powders) for Madame Brewer to sell to the lonely-hearted. This work consisted of cutting three-inch-square pieces of wax paper, placing a half-teaspoon of baking soda in the middle, and folding the edges over tightly, securing them with a strand of cotton cord. Profits were pretty good, as each sold for around $2. Perhaps they worked in a self-fulfilling sort of way, a vicarious placebo.
A neighbor of Brewer's, Joe Fierro, was born in Fierro, NM, in 1931and worked laying railroad ties for both the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific lines. He and "the most beautiful woman in the world" — his wife, Seferina Leyba — moved to Brewer Hill in 1959. They later bought a house there, but he did not know Madame Brewer had likely made the purchase possible.
He recalls his wife and his mother-in-law taking him with them when the women needed a consultation from Madame Brewer. He never knew what the purpose of the visit was. Though the Brewer home was only 100 yards away, he had never been there. He had seen her on the street, but said she hunched over and did not give eye contact. He believes her eyes were red, and that she had powers — not only healing curandera powers, but magic witch or bruja powers.
Inside the house, he recalls, the rooms were packed with knick-knacks and oddities, the function of which he could not imagine. In jars were desiccated lizards, hummingbirds, horned toads and chapulines (grasshoppers). He envisions them being used as substitutes for those whom Madame Brewer was paid to cause suffering, as in the voodoo tradition. The strangest part of the visit, he says, was the live raven that kept circling in the living room.
Fierro does not believe the medium caused him any suffering. He also doubts that love powders were responsible for the great love he felt for his wife, who passed away in 2009.
It was probably her uniqueness in this remote area that caused many to believe in Madame Brewer's skills as a seer. They would take her out into the forest or wilderness or desert to hunt treasure, hoping she could direct the search. She never located any, nor promoted herself as able to, but get-rich-quick hope springs eternal.
On Memorial Day, 2013, a creative event was held in Memory Lane Cemetery. Actors from the area stood near the graves of departed memorable figures and told about the lives of those they were portraying.
Rebecca A. Brewer was played by Pat Ross, who attends Brewer Hill Baptist church and is married to Earseye, the minister there. The original headstone was homemade and well-tended, but "a grateful young man" donated a new stone and perpetual care because of a favor Brewer had done for his parents.
Pat Ross reported that Madame Brewer loved children and was very generous with them. She had a little store in her home where they could acquire sweets and some necessities. She gave them odd jobs for pay. She made sure they had shoes and no one went hungry.
She didn't trust banks so she kept her cash in her mattress. Her house burned once, and the kids in the neighborhood knew it and they dashed in and rescued her mattress. There were bills flying everywhere in the street.
When she celebrated her 100th birthday, many of those children, now grown, returned to celebrate.
At age 97, Brewer took a trip to the Bahamas. She said she met her first billionaire there. She was unimpressed, adding, "He looked like he wasn't worth a nickel." She hoped to go back to the Bahamas before her death, but never made it.
About two months before she departed this planet, she finally could not care for herself and that time was spent at Fort Bayard Medical Center. One of the nurses' aides found Madame Brewer to be very outspoken. The nurses' aide commented, "Your skin is so beautiful and young, despite your age. What do you do to keep it that way?" Madame Brewer not so delicately ended the conversation by answering, "I keep my skin young by minding my own business!"
Her obituary listed a sister, niece and nephew in Florida. She never married. She believed in the Good Lord, and was flattered and "blessed" to have a church named after her. At the end, she was heard to pray that she had done everything in her life that she could to help people.
Twana Sparks is a surgeon, humorist and the author of a new book,
Ping Pong Balls and Donkey's Milk: The treatment of tuberculosis at
Fort Bayard, New Mexico. The book is available at
www.createspace.com/4250883 and at Amazon.com.