by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Journalist Anissa Rivera contacted us late last week, asking for information on famed Californio bandido Tiburcio Vásquez for this preview feature for the San Gabriel Valley Tribune and its sister papers, the Pasadena Star-News and Whittier Daily News on the Homestead’s upcoming Curious Cases presentation on the man who is acclaimed by some as a hero fighting against Anglo racism and decried as a common criminal by others.
Because I dedicated three chapters of my master’s thesis on criminal justice in 1870s Los Angeles and have often written or spoke about Vásquez over the nearly two decades since, I provided answers to Anissa’s questions about the bandido‘s legendary status. That will be explored in greater detail at the presentation on 22 October, but this post focuses on an important thread to the Vásquez story: his last ride through greater Los Angeles prior to his capture in spring 1875.
Vásquez, born in 1835 to a well-known family in Monterey, claimed in interviews that he decided upon a career as a criminal while in his late teens because of racist treatment he received at the hands of Anglos. Whether this was the case, or provided a compelling rationale, the bandit embarked on a twenty-plus year vocation, punctuated by a few stints at San Quentin State Prison.
The first criminal conviction in his career was in Los Angeles County for the 1857 robbery of Juan Francisco in the northern reaches of the region. Note that his victim was not an Anglo, but a fellow Latino, so the bandit’s later explanation of why he launched his criminal vocation doesn’t square with this assertion. Vásquez then returned to the area again some fifteen years later.
The reason was that he and his gang were fleeing the scene of a crime that eventually brought Vásquez’ downfall: the late August 1873 killing of three men (two Anglos, including a deaf man, and a native of Portugal) in a botched robbery at the small San Benito County town of Tres Piños in the Coast Range of central California. According to a later interview in a Los Angeles newspaper, the bandit decided to head for Elizabeth Lake in northern Los Angeles County, where a brother of Vásquez lived, and then settled in at a camp on a creek at the base of the northern end of the San Gabriel Mountains.
While there, the bandit took up with the wife of one of his henchmen and was disovered, as expressed by Vásquez in another Los Angeles interview, in “fragrante delicto.” In my thesis, I couldn’t help adding a little parenthetical aside that this was “an olfactory Freudian slip if there ever was one.” Enraged at his cuckolding (now there’s a word not often used these days!), Leiva promptly rode south to modern Santa Clarita and turned himself in to rancher William W. Jenkins, a long-time associate of the Temple and Workman families who’s been mentioned in this blog before (and will again).
Meantime, word arrived in Los Angeles by telegraph of Vasquez’ goal of fleeing into Mexico and the county sheriff, William R. Rowland (son of Rancho La Puente co-owner, with William Workman, John Rowland) was contacted by his Santa Clara County counterpart, J.H. Adams and asked to help track down the bandit and his men. However, when the two posses headed to Vasquez’ campsite at Big Rock Creek, they were outwitted and the bandit escaped, though they had to leave behind horses, clothing, and other items in their haste, and headed north, as Mexico was clearly not an option.
After criminal activities were carried out in Fresno and Inyo counties and rewards offered by the state for the capture of Vásquez grew from $1,000 to $8,000 ($6,000 if he was captured after being killed), Harry Morse, sheriff of Alameda County embarked on a two month, 2,700-plus mile manhunt searching for his prey. By April 1874, the bandit and his men headed south being chased by more posses of men from the north and entered Los Angeles County.
Vásquez told a Los Angeles interviewer that he rode through the San Gabriel Mountains to the Arroyo Seco and entered the San Gabriel Valley, camping near where the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is located. Another source stated that the bandit went to a ranch west of Los Angeles at the base of the Santa Monica Mountains, owned by “Greek George” Allen, a native of Syria, who’d lived in the area for some years, before going to the Arroyo Seco.
In any case, Vásquez decided it was time for a new score and told an interviewer, “I had selected [Alessandro] Repetto as a good subject.” Why almost certainly had nothing to do with the racism that purportedly drove him to his career, for Repetto did not know Vásquez and, if it was Anglo racism that led the bandit to outlawry, the Italian immigrant hardly fit a profile. Repetto, a sheep rancher on former public land in what is now Monterey Park southeast of Los Angeles, did have something that Vásquez needed more than retribution: money.
When the bandit and his men entered the hillside adobe house of Repetto, Vásquez used the ruse of applying for a job as a sheep shearer to subdue the rancher. After demanding money and finding, from well-kept books Repetto kept on hand, that there was little cash on site, he later told an interviewer that he arranged a loan, payable in a month at 1 1/2 per cent interest per month!
What actually happened is that Repetto’s son, Timoteo, whose mother was a Latina from the longstanding Alvitre family of nearby Old Mission (discussed in a recent post here on the Mission San Gabriel), was sent with a draft for $800 to Los Angeles to submit to the bank of Temple and Workman. When the frightened teen arrived at the institution, its president, F.P.F. Temple, a neighboring rancher at La Merced to Repetto, immediately became suspicious and summoned Sheriff Rowland’s deputy who then called for his boss.
A plan was hatched whereby a posse was to immediately ride out to the Repetto ranch and capture Vásquez, but it was reported that Temple, who’d locked Timoteo in his office, yielded to the young man’s pleas that the bandit would kill Repetto if the son did not return with the money. Timoteo then took a shortcut that enabled him to reach home before the posse’s arrival and alert Vásquez to the coming of Rowland’s men.
From there, the bandido and compatriots flew north to head for the mountain fastnesses that had provided so much shelter for past pursuits. It was reported that their speed was such that they had time to stop and relieve Los Angeles water collector Charles Miles of his watch while he headed back to the city after delivering water pipes to the proprietors of the Orange Grove Association at the new Indiana Colony, later renamed Pasadena. Vásquez and his men then hightailed it up the Arroyo Seco, using a toll road that took them to Soledad Canyon in their old haunts near Antelope Valley, leaving Rowland’s posse in the dust for a second time. Today, the Vasquez Rocks County Park is purportedly one of the bandit’s lairs in the area, though this Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society web article is well worth reading.
The young sheriff, who was still in his twenties, would not be fooled a third time. Having learned of Vásquez being sequestered in Greek George’s home near present Hollywood, Rowland carefully laid out a plan, carried out over many days, to finally get his man. Harry Morse, assured by Rowland that information received by the Alameda County sheriff as to the whereabouts of Vásquez was incorrect, headed home. Whether Rowland did this to secure the glory and reward money for himself or to assert his jurisdiction can, perhaps, be debated. On 14 May, having diligently prepared a trap, Rowland sprung it and captured Vásquez, who was seriously injured, though he recovered.
As Anissa’s article relays, Vásquez was jailed in Los Angeles awaiting extradition to the north to stand trial for the Tres Piños murders. While so housed, however, he became what can only be described as Los Angeles’ first criminal celebrity. The curious and the admirer came out in large numbers to visit the brave, if reckless, bandit cheiftain.
Photographs were taken and sold, evidently for his defense. Extensive jailhouse interviews were conducted, published, and eagerly devoured in the local press. Local newspaper publisher, Benjamin C. Truman, had 8,000 copies of his Life, Adventures and Capture of the Great California Bandit, Tiburcio Vasquez. Mendell Meyer, an enterprising Los Angeles merchant, advertised his store by saying “VASQUEZ SAYS THAT MENDELL MEYER Has the Finest and most Complete Stock of DRY GOODS AND CLOTHING IN THE CITY OF LOS ANGELES.
Finally, a short comedic play was hurriedly written and staged at the Merced Theater, the building of which still stands next to the Pico House on Main Steeet, on 24 May simply called “The Capture of Vasquez.” A local newspaper review favorably reported
it was immensely funny, and had just enough resemblance to the actual facts, which it so cleverly burlesques, to give it interest. It will prove an attractive card wherever it is presented.
It is not known if the farce was performed again.
As to Vásquez, within ten days he was extradited north, though not without advertising in Los Angeles for contributions by “the charitable among men” to a fund to assist “an unfortunate and sinful man” who was “wounded, a prisoner, and in the shadow of approaching death.” The bandit asked for money as he was “asserting his innocence of the higher crimes imputed to him, and his ability to establish the fact and a fair and impartial trial.”
The trial in San Jose came early in 1875 and Vásquez was duly convicted of capital murder and sentenced to hang (the Tribune article of yesterday said it was near Los Angeles). On 19 March, he ascended the scaffold with eyewitness accounts confirming that he did so fully self-posssessed, calm and cool. He implored other young men to “take warning then by my fall, and change your course of life while you may” and begged parents to shield their progeny from “the immoral and vicious.” Like Christ, he evidently stated “I commend my soul . . . to the keeping of the Maker’s” and then wept while looking at his sisters in the crowd.
He quickly recovered, inspected his coffin, had dinner, downed a glass of wine and smoked a cigar and then issued a last statement pinning the Tres Piños murders on others in his gang. After saying his last goodbyes, he showed a brief look that was “wild and startled” according to one account and then yelled out “Pronto!” as he was dropped and his neck instantly snapped. Twenty-five minutes later, he was dead and his body bried at the Santa Clara Catholic Cemetery, where it remains today, frequently adorned with flowers.
Vásquez, often written about in very romanticized and often factually creative ways over the decades, became a folk hero in the ferment of the Chicano movement from the late 1960s onward. British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm’s concept of the “social bandit” was applied to Vásquez and the shadowy Joaquín Murrieta, who was evidently killed by a posse in 1853 just as Tiburcio was launching his career. Tiburcio’s excuse of racism directed against him as forming the budding of his criminal vocation was taken up by many as an indication of resistance against Anglo oppression. Notably, there is a Tiburcio Vásquez High School in Salinas and a Tiburcio Vásquez Health Center near Oakland–each were created with the idea that the bandit was a hero to the Latino community.
Yet, others point out that there is no direct evidence that Vásquez did anything that could be thought of as resistance. While he may have had support by some in the Spanish-speaking community, these assertions are not usually accompanied with documentation. The bandit’s first conviction, as noted above, was for robbery against a fello Latino. He and his men killed a native of Portugal (a Latino?) in the Tres Piños fiasco. HIs last robbery was against an Italian, with a Latina wife and half-Latino son. How does this square with the “social bandit” label asigned to Vásquez?
Well, these issues and more of Vásquez’ life, legend, and myth will be discussed at the Curious Cases presentation on 22 October and subsequent posts will bring some of this out.
As for the accompanying images, they come from an article about the capture of Vásquez from an original 17 April 1874 edition of the Los Angeles Express newspaper, including details of the robbery of Repetto, the involvement of the Temple and Workman bank, and the dramatic escape to the San Gabriels that preceded his arrest.