by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This afternoon, we had about 80 persons here for a Curious Cases presentation and discussion about Tiburcio Vásquez, the bandit chieftain, whose criminal career spanned nearly a quarter century, from the early 1850s to the mid 1870s.
A post here in September gave a summary of the life of the notorious bandido, with a brief mention of the fact that he was Los Angeles’ first criminal celebrity. This was manifested in several ways after his May 1874 arrest at a home in what is now Hollywood.
First, Vásquez had a large crowd of curious onlookers at the county jail, situated behind the adobe house which once served as city hall and the courthouse on Spring Street between
2nd and 3rd streets Temple and 1st at the intersection of what was called Court or Jail Street and is no longer in existence. Some of these people were, it was reported, admirers, including women who brought flowers or men who took the bandido cigars. Nothing of the like had previously been recorded in the area.
Then, Vásquez was the subject of a comedic farce offered for two days as part of a varied program of entertainment at the recently opened Merced Theater, located in a building that still stands on the east side of Main Street adjacent to the Pico House hotel just off the historic Plaza. Titled “The Capture of Vasquez,” the performance received a very positive review in the Los Angeles Star newspaper which enthused:
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 will be repeated to-night with an entire change of programme in the other parts of the entertainment.
On one hand, it seems a little strange to make light of someone who instilled so much fear in people throughout much of California and was to stand trial and then be executed for murder, but, then again, blowing off steam through humor is, perhaps, not surprising.
When advertisers name drop someone famous, that’s another sign of celebrity status and the accompanying image of an ad by Los Angeles merchant Mendell Meyer is just one example. When someone has big-time name recognition, even a criminal, drawing attention to an ad with that name is part of a kind of marketing strategy!
Another example is the fact that local photographer, Valentine Wolfenstein snapped one of the few professional views of Vásquez and then made a deal to remit some of the proceeds to the jailed bandit. A San Francisco paper, however, later observed that Vásquez complained of not receiving a dime from Wolfenstein and then, to add insult to injury, didn’t like the rendering either!
Vásquez also took out a card in the Star, in which he used impressive, if lengthy, verbiage to do what, in effect, we would call “crowd sourcing” today:
Wounded, a prisoner, and in the shadow of approaching death, as a more to be dreaded incarceration, an unfortunate and sinful man appeals to the charitable among men, of whatever nation, to contribute to a fund sufficient to enable him to place his case fairly before the world, and the jury soon to sit in judgment upon him; hereby asserting his innocence of the higher crimes imputed to him, and his ability to establish the fact at a fair and impartial trial.
Certainly a mouthful, the statement is remarkable for its style and tone, much less his admission as a “sinful man” and his call for financial assistance from people “of whatever nation” to help in his defense. Again, this was never seen in Los Angeles before.
Finally, there were the efforts of journalists to capitalize on Vásquez and his fame, including George Beers of San Francisco, who was among the eight men sent by Sheriff William R. Rowland to apprehend Vásquez at the home of “Greek George” Caralambo. Beers went on to write extensively about Vásquez, but so did local journalist Benjamin C. Truman.
Truman, the proprietor of the Star, recognized the value of Vásquez as a subject of intense interest and first tried producing extra copies of the issue of his paper that featured an extensive jailhouse interview with the bandit and then the weekly edition that followed. Demand was such, though, that Truman produced a 44-page booklet titled “Life, Adventures and Capture of the Great California Bandit, Tiburcio Vásquez,” and then had 8,000 copies sold wholesale to agents in San Francisco.
For a small-town newspaperman this was truly a bonanza. Truman went on later in 1874 to write Semi-Tropical California, which was a booster book about greater Los Angeles and followed that with some other works, one of which included his Vásquez sketch in its entirety.
These days, criminal celebrities are almost commonplace, but 140 years ago, there was no such creature until Tiburcio Vásquez, with his combination of charm, machismo, deportment and manners, and history as a violent criminal attracted people for all kinds of reasons. These include those who saw him as reacting to Anglo racism, those who admired his masculinity, those who were drawn to his status as a lawbreaker with a certain style and compelling personality, and more.
His status as a hero reacting to Anglo racism and mistreatment to some and a common criminal given far too much credit than he deserves than others will continue to be debated, but what seems beyond question is that he truly was Los Angeles’ first criminal celebrity.