There was no John Rollin Ridge to romanticize Tiburcio Vasquez. He was as deadly as a knife blade and his story is as grim as a lynching. For more than twenty years he killed, robbed, and plundered in California, escaped numerous posses, and left behind him a trail of dead men - most of them gunned down without a chance to defend themselves.
In the 1870s he was an anachronism, a throwback to the California gold rush frontier when outlaws robbed stagecoaches and mining camps. The state's era of lawlessness ended when he was finally captured and executed, and his band dispersed.
In an interview Vasquez said he was born on August 11, 1835, in Monterey. At fifteen, when the police came to question him as one of three suspects in the dance hall stabbing death of Constable William Hardimount, Vasquez fled to the interior of Monterey. It was the time when "the five Joaquins" were terrorizing the towns and gold camps and Mexicans, who watched helplessly as their land was stolen by invading hordes of American miners.
The morning after Hardimount's death vigilantes lynched the owner of the dance hall. Young Vasquez knew that he could expect little justice in the gringo's court, so he hid out until friends advised him that the incident had been forgotten. He came home only to find the police waiting.
There was a gunfight and Vasquez escaped. As he later told his interviewer: "I went to my mother and told her I intended to commence a different life. I asked for and obtained her blessing and at once I commenced the career of a robber."
Vasquez's claim that "from the beginning I had confederates with me but I was always recognized as the leader" appears to be mere boasting; there is evidence, instead, that he served his apprenticeship in the outlaw bands of Juan Soto and Tomaso Rodundo, alias "Procopio."
In addition to riding in the large, organized bands he also became an expert horse thief and rustler. Extant records disclose that he was twenty when he was sent to prison for horse stealing. In the celebrated San Quentin prison riot of 1859 he made his escape, returned to stealing horses, and within a few months was back in the state penitentiary. This time he served four years and was released in the summer of 1863. He next appears as a suspect in the murder of a miner in the quicksilver camps of New Almaden near San Jose, but the case was dropped because of flimsy evidence.
Although Vasquez was a small, slender man with a dark, sullen face, he gained a reputation as a frontier Don Juan, surrounded by an air of danger that captivated the wives, daughters, and sisters of miners and ranchers. One story has him running away with the daughter of a rich rancher near Mount Diablo. The father chased and shot Vasquez, then brought his daughter back home. There are several versions of this incident, but apparently it has some basis in fact, as evidenced by newspaper articles of the time.
Between his romances Vasquez increased his rustling. Near Sonoma, in the area of San Francisco Bay, he ran off a large herd of cattle but was captured by a posse and returned to San Quentin, this time for three years. Shortly after his release Vasquez formed a band of rustlers and stagecoach robbers. They made their first strike near Soap Lake when they held up the Hollister stage. The driver threw down the box and the passengers yielded a hatful of cash and jewelry. On the way back to their hideout the bandits met Thomas McMahon, who unfortunately was carrying the weekly proceeds of his store, and Vasquez took that. But McMahon recognized him and alerted Sheriff Harry N. Morse of Alameda County, one of the finest, if little known, lawmen of the West.
Morse set out after Vasquez, but in the meantime the constable of Santa Cruz had a confrontation with the gang, killing two and seriously wounding Vasquez. Weak from loss of blood, and clinging to his saddlehorn, he managed to make his way to the hills, where he was hidden by friends. During his recovery Vasquez staged raids on stagecoaches and ranches. Once, when he was advised that a sheriff's posse was staying at the New Idria mines, Vasquez slipped into the camp at night and stole the posse's horses.
His braggadocio and triumphs over the hated gringos caught the imagination of the Mexicans. In the spring of 1873 he formed a new gang and started a series of robberies. This time he had a first-rate lieutenant, Cleo Vara Chavez, a small, dark-skinned, violent man who dismissed Vasquez's former casual planning: now every strike had to be exact to the smallest detail.
Their first successful raid - on the large general store at Firebaugh's Ferry - was followed by a number of robberies of stagecoaches, inns, stores, and cattle camps from San Jose to Gilroy. Success bred recklessness; despite the warnings of Chavez, Vasquez swaggered down the muddy streets of New Idria, confident that his countrymen would not betray him.
In 1873 the gang turned to train robbery, but the episode became a farce. Without stopping, the fast Southern Pacific ploughed through the gang's obstacles of logs laid across the tracks, leaving the bandits - mouths open, sixshooters in hand - sprawled in the brush. Chavez, for all his cunning, should have served an apprenticeship with the James-Younger gang or the Wild Bunch.
That summer the gang returned to robbing general stores. On August 28 they rode into Tres Pines, Monterey County, to conduct what they thought would be a leisurely robbery of Andrew Snyder's general store. The five outlaws tied their horses outside and, guns drawn, walked in as Snyder was talking to a customer.
Vasquez, after being assured by Chavez that all was going well, joined his horse holder. Inside the store his gang quickly filled grain sacks with cash, food, and jewelry of the customers. The town lay quiet in the heat; nearby two teamsters, unaware that a robbery was taking place, prepared to hitch up their horses.
Suddenly a sheepherder appeared, walking toward the store. As he came closer, Vasquez barked a command to halt. The sheepman, either confused or not understanding, kept walking and Vasquez killed him. The shot alerted the teamsters, who started to run. When they ignored Vasquez's order to halt, he clubbed one into unconsciousness with his sixshooter and killed the other. A. M. Davidson, owner of a boardinghouse, saw the shooting and started down the street, calling out a warning to his wife as she opened their front door. When he refused to halt, Vasquez killed him with a rifle shot.
A small boy darted out the rear door of the store only to be tripped by Chavez, who then cold-bloodedly clubbed the child into unconsciousness with the butt of his gun. The gang rode out of town, grain sacks bulging with loot, leaving behind them three dead men and the unconscious teamster and child lying in the dusty street. The "Tres Penes Massacre" horrified California's frontier. Posses combed the hills and valleys without finding any sign of Vasquez and his men.
Then, in December, Vasquez led his band, now numbering eleven riders, into Kingston, a small town in Fresno County. He took over the entire community, keeping thirty-five men tied hand and foot while the gang plundered two stores and the hotel, escaping with two thousand dollars in cash and jewelry.
For the first time, reward posters appeared; within a few months Governor Newton Booth offered eight thousand dollars for the capture of the bandit leader. But Vasquez, Chavez, and their men were elusive as shadows in a forest. In February 1874 they surrounded the Coyote Hole Station and held up the Los Angeles and Owens stagecoach. The following day, in a countryside alive with posses, they robbed another line.
Meanwhile, Sheriff Morse of Alameda County was quietly gathering dossiers of information on every Mexican bandit in the territory. Unlike many sheriffs, who staged flamboyant but unsuccessful raids, Morse would ride alone into the hills, studying the haunts of the outlaws and the general topography of the area. Along the way he would make friends among the Yankee ranchers and the terrorized Mexican farmers. He also corresponded with other sheriffs and wardens of jails to learn the habits and weaknesses of the territory's more notorious outlaws.
The clannish Mexicans were not suspicious; they saw only a beardless young gringo riding about the foothills seeking range for his stock. Finally Morse would move, obtaining warrants and arresting the wanted men and outlaw leaders, most often going alone and handcuffing them at gunpoint in dance halls, backwoods saloons, and fandangos.
As a magazine writer described him: "The audacity of the man and the rapidity of his movements bewildered the outlaws. No one could tell when he was safe or when he might be free of the searching eye of the tireless official. Little by little the beardless boy assumed the proportions of a relentless terror to the criminal community, and outlawry no longer stalked defiantly through its old haunts ..."
In March 1874, Governor Booth appointed Morse to form a company of eight expert manhunters to hunt down Vasquez, and persuaded the legislature to appropriate five thousand dollars for his expenses. As soon as the winter rains were over, Morse led his band into the mountains. A precise man, Morse logged the miles they traveled: from March 12 to May 12 they rode 2,700 miles, making a daily average of over 45 miles through some of the wildest country in the West.
While Morse and his deputies fought their way through the brush of southern California, Vasquez's band raided the Repetto sheep ranch near the San Gabriel Mission. In what must be one of the extraordinary scenes in western outlawry, Repetto argued with the outlaw chieftain that while it was true he had received ten thousand dollars for a recent sale of sheep, he had used the money to buy land. "Very well," Vasquez told him, "if you can prove it by your books and statements I will excuse you." Repetto then produced his ledgers. While the gang waited outside, Vasquez and Repetto went over the entries. It took hours but finally Vasquez was satisfied; Repetto had proven that he had used the ten thousand dollars to buy land.
Vasquez congratulated Repetto on his honesty, then asked for a loan! Repetto agreed to let him have a few hundred dollars. He wrote out a check and gave it to a member of his family, who was to bring it to the bank and return with the cash. However, the bank's officer became suspicious and alerted the sheriff. A posse rode up to the house but was spotted by Vasquez's lookouts. The outlaws were trailed to Arroyo Seco but escaped the posses.
There are two versions of the capture of Vasquez in May 1874; one by Morse, the other by Sheriff William Rowland of Los Angeles. Morse claimed that by paying what he called "a consideration" to a Mexican in Los Angeles, he located Vasquez's hiding place in Alison Canyon; the bandit leader was staying at the home of a wealthy rancher, "Greek George" Allen. Out of courtesy, Morse says, he met with Sheriff Rowland and told him that he planned to raid Allen's adobe house with his posse. The Los Angeles sheriff insisted that there was nothing "in the clue" and suggested that Morse return to searching the hills northward from Tejon. As soon as Morse left, Rowland gathered a posse and captured Vasquez.
Rowland's version is that after the Repetto robbery he ordered his men to stop searching the hills with posses "as it was a waste of time and energy ... Loud were the protests." He kept on his "own even tenor," gathering information on Vasquez from friendly Mexicans until he pinpointed where Vasquez was hiding in Alison Canyon.
A century later it is difficult to determine which story is true. However, it must be pointed out that Morse was a man of great integrity and modesty, and it is difficult to question his veracity; Rowland, on the other hand, had no previous reputation as a manhunter, although the outlaw bands had committed a number of holdups in his county. Yet, whether he acted on his own information or had simply accepted what Morse had to offer, Rowland's carefully planned strategy worked, and the elusive Vasquez was finally captured after years of freebooting and murder.
Beers, the correspondent of the San Francisco Chronicle, was a member of the posse, but the anonymous reporter for the Los Angeles Star wrote the most detailed and accurate account of the planning, storming of the ranch house where Vasquez was hiding, and the gunfight which took place on that wild morning.
Beers, the shotgun-equipped correspondent for the Chronicle, had been following the trail of Vaszquez for months, joining posses, interviewing lawmen, and promising his readers that one day he would be present when the outlaw was taken. Sheriff Rowland had undoubtedly included Beers in his posse not only because of the newspaperman's seniority, but also because of his knowledge of Vasquez's habits.
But Rowland also realized that he would have to live with the Los Angeles Star long after Beers had departed; he hoped to run for reelection and he knew that an angry reporter assigned daily to cover him and his office could do irrefutable damage.
On the day following Vasquez's capture, in what may have been a peace offering, Rowland gave permission to the Star's reporter to obtain an exclusive interview with the outlaw in his cell. The newsman found Vasquez "as communicative as one would wish." The outlaw, the Star's man observed, had been equipped with "a comfortable spring mattress, and the dinner which was brought to him in the cell during our stay was good enough for anybody."
Vasquez, who "seemed but little the worse for his wounds," spoke freely and at times during the interview "laughed and talked as gaily and unconstrained as though he was in his own parlor." Fortunately, the Star's man let the outlaw chieftain talk. The result is a fascinating autobiography of California's legendary bandit.
Vasquez was charged with the murder of the two men in Tres Pinos and remanded to the San Jose jail. He issued an appeal to his countrymen and enough money was collected to hire two attorneys. Vasquez, fast becoming a legend, attracted lines of the curious, including "many adoring women" who filed into the jail to see and talk to the bandit leader. His cell was filled with food, flowers, and jugs of fine wine.
Vasquez's trial began on January 5, 1875, with the local newspaper indignantly reporting that the gallery was "filled with ladies representing the elite and respectability of the city ... Vasquez unblushingly directed his glances upon them ..." Two weeks later the packed courtroom heard the jury return a guilty verdict after a brief deliberation. The judge sentenced the outlaw chief to the gallows remarking, "Your life has been one unbroken record of lawlessness and outrage, pillage and murder ..."
An appeal was entered, and while it was being considered a letter supposedly written by Chavez was found in the Wells Fargo Express Company's mailbox. It was rambling and bombastic, threatening the people of San Jose that if "my captain" died on the gallows, "you will have to suffer as in the time of Joaquin Murieta ..." Once again John Rollin Ridge's fictional hero was riding to avenge his countrymen. The letter, which created a sensation in the city, undoubtedly was spurious; there is no evidence that Chavez could read or write.
On March 12, Vasquez's final appeal was denied and Santa Clara County Sheriff Adams began making preparations for the execution on March 19. San Jose did not have a gallows, so Adams borrowed one from Sacramento. He also sent out formal invitations ("Not Transferable") and wrote the bandit's last two messages. One asked pardon "from each and every one I have in any way injured" and expressed gratitude to Adams, his staff, and the defense lawyers. The second was to his riders, proudly pointing out that at no time had he weakened and betrayed them, and urging them to mend their ways or they, too, could be walking up the gallows' steps. His last request was to see his coffin. It was brought to his cell. He admired the satin lining, then exclaimed: "I can sleep here forever very well!"
On the morning of his execution he awoke at 2 A.M., drank a glass of wine, smoked a cigar, and talked for a few minutes to the son of Sheriff Adams, who was on guard. When Adams asked him if he believed in life after death, Vasquez nodded and said fervently: "I hope so, for in that case by tomorrow I will see all my old sweethearts together!"
He finished his cigar, said goodnight, and in a moment was sound asleep. The execution was scheduled for 1:30 P.m., but crowds gathered at dawn. Shortly after 1 P.m., Sheriff Adams read Vasquez the death warrant, then solemnly announced: "Vasquez, the time has come!"
Vasquez calmly put out the cigar he was smoking and they left the cell - the deputies leading, Vasquez between Father Sorda, the local priest, and Sheriff Adams. On the scaffold his knees and arms were strapped and the noose was adjusted. "Pronto!" Vasquez snapped, and the trap was sprung. He was pronounced dead at 1:47 P.M.
Vasquez was quietly buried by his family, with one San Francisco reporter pointing out in his story the final irony: for twenty years Vasquez's name had been in the newspapers across the state as he plundered and killed, but now in death he was treated with "utter indifference."
The mythmakers would soon arrange for Vasquez to join the company of legendary outlaws of the American West; within a year the Police Gazette and job printers were picturing the squat, unattractive man as a handsome, gallant Lochinvar who had ridden out of the hills to avenge the wrongs of his people ...