By Dick Cox
A stage rumbled over the Hollister-New Ibria Mines Road in the late California afternoon. The shotgun guard dozed with the shiplike roll of the coach.
As the horses rounded a sharp turn, six armed riders blocked the way. One man grabbed the left lead horse’s rein. Another bandit aimed his heavy rifle at the driver’s head.
He was dark, handsome and slender.
“All right, señors, drop the express box.”
He gestured with the rifle.
“Then get your passengers out.”
A woman leaned from the carriage window. Her long blonde curls fell from beheath a plumed hat.
“Tiburcio, is that you?”
She shielded her eyes from the sun glare.
Tiburcio Vasquez, Central California’s most successful bandit of the 1870s, glanced from the guard to the handsome woman.
“Señora, I didn’t know you were traveling today.”
“Tiburcio, we have the miners’ payroll. Please don’t take it. Those poor men will not be paid if you do.”
Vasquez raised his sombrero and smiled. Then he turned to the driver.
“You are lucky to have such a passenger. Drive on!”
Vasquez’s companions swore silently as the coach rolled away.
“For why did you do that?” one demanded.
“Ah, amigo, who can resist a lady so lovely. Besides she saved me from a sheriff once. There will be another stage.”
That was the nature of Vasquez, the bandit and lover.
When he was hanged [March 20, 1875], it was almost a certainty that he left behind more sorrowing damsels than dead men and empty express boxes.
During his last trial women flocked to the courtroom. They begged the Sheriff for a chance to visit the famous bandit, killer and Casanova. The jailers daily were besieged with bribes and requests from some curious lovely to slip a note to Vasquez.
A woman was involved the first time Vasquez was in trouble with the law. This was at a Fandango, a Mexican dance, in Monterey, California, his hometown. Vasquez at 17 went to the dance with two older men, both rough hombres. One of them, Anastacia Garcia, is supposed to have been a survivor of the Joaquin Murietta gang.
The dance was a lovely affair with lots of pretty senoritas and much drinking.
About midnight an argument started with some “Americanos” over who would dance next with one of the girls. Garcia grabbed a heavy pitcher and bashed one of the other gang over the head. A friend of the victim called the constable.
The officer was William Hardmount, also an American or “gringo” to Garcia and Vasquez.
When Hardmount walked into the dance hall, Garcia backed against the wall and pulled a gun. Vasquez and two other Mexicans rushed to his side. Each of them had a pistol.
Hardmount asked them to lay down the weapons and step outside to talk over the trouble.
Suddenly one of the four Mexicans fired a shot, and Hardmount fell with a bullet through his brain. The crowd scattered, and Garcia and Vasquez fled to the hills.
* * *
A posse caught one of their friends, Jose Higuerra, an hour after the dance hall killing and lynched him.
Garcia was captured months later. While he was in jail, a mob broke in and hanged him. Vasquez, meanwhile, had drifted into the horse stealing business. He was caught with a stolen herd and sent to San Quentin Prison. In California, horse thieving seldom has held the fatal consequences of areas farther east.
Two years later when he was released, he tried highway robbery in California’s broad San Joaquin Valley. A posse chased him into the Mount Diablo hill country. He found shelter at the home of a Mexican rancher with a generous heart and a beautiful daughter. The girl, Anita, apparently was fascinated with the dashing, dark-haired youth.
One morning Poppa discovered they were gone, along with two of his horses. He promptly loaded his pistols, saddles his best mount and started after the young lovers.
He caught up with them in the Livermore Valley, where they stopped under a shady oak to “rest.” Poppa thought different. He fired one shot and hit the young bandit in the arm.
Anita jumped in front of Vasquez.
“If you kill him, you must also kill me,” she screamed.
The parent hadn’t expected this from his usually obedient daughter. He frowned, and probably swore. Vasquez smiled and waited. The rancher nodded. All right. He wouldn’t kill the useless rascal, he told the girl. The youth could go free if she would come home.
She kissed Vasquez, climbed on her horse and started home with Poppa. Vasquez shrugged, mounted the horse he had stolen from the rancher and headed south.
He drifted back to Monterey and then north to Sonoma County. He tried cattle rustling in that area, but a posse cornered him. Back to San Quentin he went. Vasquez probably obtained his “college education” in crime during that stay.
In 1870 he was out and back in Monterey. He struck up an acquaintance with a family named Salazar, especially the pretty young Mrs. Salazar.
Vasquez is supposed to have kidnapped her and carried her away to another town, but there is some evidence that the matron didn’t protest too much. However, after a week or so he became bored and deserted her.
Sometime later he had the bad luck to meet the husband on a street in San Juan Bautista. They traded insults and Vasquez went for his gun. His draw was faster but the weapon misfired.
The husband was slower but luckier. The slug from his gun hit Vasquez in the neck. The two fired several times more without doing any damage. Vasquez had two friends with him, and Salazar decided to run. Vasquez’s buddies helped him away from the scene.
Salazar filed a complaint, and the Grand Jury charged the young outlaw with attempted murder. By then he had fled eastward into the mountains.
From that time on the brazen bandit hovered in the hill country around San Juan and neighboring Hollister. The two towns are the main centers in San Benito Valley, a cattle range area separated from Monterey and the county sheriff’s office by the Gabilan Mountains.
He ranged through the valley and the nearby Santa Clara Valley robbing stages, stealing horses and looting stores. To the poor Mexican peons he appears to have been generous with his stolen gold and livestock. Throughout the Central California hills and valleys he was a welcome guest at their small ranches and cabins.
Their daughters and frequently the wives, when the husbands were away, always gave him a warm reception, quite warm. And why not? The life of a California Mexican woman or girl was one of drudgery, wood chopping, tending the corn patches, carrying water from distant springs and tending large families.
Vasquez undoubtedly was the one spark of romance and excitement in their drab lives. He would appear suddenly at night at their cabin doors, saddlebags and arms overloaded with gold, new clothing, wine and strange foods from the gringo stores. What mattered if he was always amorous, if he loved and left? He might not return, and if he left them a “souvenir” it might become a son like this man of fire.
His generosity and amours paid off in a string of “Sweethearts,” as he called them, who never failed to warn him if a posse or a sheriff was near.
Like the night he decided to attend a dance in Hollister. Earlier in the day he had pulled a stage robbery and his pockets were loaded. Vasquez heard that one of his girlfriends would be at the dance, and he wanted to see her.
Sure enough, in the middle of the evening he boldly walked into the hall. No one said a word to him. He decided he was safe and ordered a bottle of wine. The dance wore on into the morning hours.
When it broke up, Vasquez went to a bar next door and played cards with a woman he met.
Meanwhile, one of his countrymen had informed the lawmen that Vasquez was at the bar. They started assembling a posse.
Another woman slipped to the outlaw’s table and warned him of the danger. She led him into a back room and gave him her skirt and mantilla for a disguise. He dressed himself in them and walked out of the bar. The slender little bandit with mincing steps crossed the street in front of the posse, rounded a corner, boarded his horse and fled.
Not long afterwards he pulled his first really big raid. In those days Henry Miller, the cattle baron, was one of California’s richest men. Vasquez had heard that Miller had sent $30,000 to Firebaugh’s Ferry for a payroll. The outlaw chief recruited a band of six and carefully planned a raid with the intention of seizing the little town and systematically looting it, as well as stealing Miller’s gold.
* * *
The plan worked to perfection with one exception. The men moved into the town at night. They seized and tied up the 10 or 12 men they found. When the stage arrived, they grabbed the driver and the passengers and trussed them up also.
The hitch was that Miller hadn’t deposited the money.
However, stores were looted and safes were robbed.
In the course of this, a merchant called “the Captain” was robbed of a watch. Years later Vasquez loved to tell this story of how the man’s wife saw the theft and ran to him, pleading for the return of the watch.
“She threw her arms around my neck and begged me to return the watch to her husband,” the bandit said. “He had given it to her during their courtship. I gave it back and then she went into another room and from behind the chimney took out another watch. ‘Take it,’ she said.”
The only thing wrong with that story is that Vasquez sometimes told the ending one way and sometimes another. In one version he gallantly refused it, and in the other account he pocketed the watch with thanks.
But then with the way Vasquez had with women all his life he had to be a natural born liar.
Whichever version is correct, the truth is that Vasquez held full control of the little town for three to four hours. He had the opportunity to take anything he wanted or do anything he wanted to do. Before his career ended he seized two other towns in raids that were both deadly and profitable. His next escapade in fact was a rampage of murder and looting at Tres Pinos, a small San Benito Valley hamlet. This was situated on the Hollister-New Ibria Mines road.
Vasquez rarely traveled long with the same gang. For this enterprise he enlisted the aid of a countryman, Abdon Leiva. He owned a small ranch near the mines and lived there with his pretty wife and two children. Vasquez had stopped at the home many times to fill Leiva’s ears with stories of the riches to be obtained with a gun in one’s hand. The outlaw also had been eyeing Leiva’s voluptuous wife, Rosaria.
* * *
At Vasquez’s urging, Leiva sold his land, packed his family in a wagon and joined the band. Rosaria and the children were started southward on the escape route the gang would follow after the raid.
Then with a half-dozen armed men, Vasquez moved into the hills above the little village. The on-street community included a general store and a hotel for stagecoach travelers.
Leiva was known in the area and his presence wouldn’t cause an alarm. He was sent into the town first in the late afternoon with one other man. They were to have a drink, look around and wait for the rest of the gang.
The two men entered Snyder’s General Store about 5 p.m. on Aug. 26, 1873. They had just settled themselves with some drinks when a third member of the band, Teodoro Moreno, stomped inside. He had a blanket wrapped around part of his face and he held a pistol in his hand. He immediately ordered the seven or eight customers to lie on the floor.
Leiva and his partner, Romulo Gonzales, joined him and started disarming and tying the customers. A minute later Vasquez arrived. He ordered the men to hurry because he wanted help outside. Moreno went out.
Leiva said he stepped to the door and saw a teamster, George Redford, jump off his wagon and run for the stable. Vasquez and Moreno chased the man as far as the corral fence. As Redford topped the fence, Vasquez blasted him with a Henry rifle. The teamster tumbled to the ground, dead.
Bernal Berhuri, a Portuguese sheepherder who didn’t speak English, was shot in the street by Moreno when he failed to stop.
A butcher named Campbell bolted from the store and ran into the street. Vasquez saw him and ran to stop him.
Just at that moment Leander Davidson, proprietor of the hotel, pushed open his front door to see what was happening. The bandit let Campbell go for the moment. Davidson was more important. He should have money, and Vasquez didn’t want him to flee.
Davidson slammed his door and tried to lock it. Leiva said Vasquez fired the rifle through the door. The hotelman toppled backwards and died in his wife’s arms.
Vasquez turned to chase the butcher. By then Campbell had climbed to the stable loft and was hiding in a pile of hay. Vasquez searched the building and spotted the hay. He grabbed a pitchfork and stabbed at it four times. Once the prongs came within three inches of Campbell’s face, but Vasquez didn’t find him. The bandit gave up and returned to the looting.
The hotel safe was emptied. Snyder, the storekeeper, was captured in his home. His wife promised to get his money if he was not harmed. Vasquez nodded, and Mrs. Snyder produced a drawer containing $600. The outlaws took watches from the clerks and customers, clothing and merchandise from the store shelves and saddles and horses from the stables.
The loot was loaded, and the bandits mounted up. As they rode away, they left behind three dead men, a terrified town and a storm of indignation. One of the longest manhunts in California history was about to start.
* * *
The sheriffs of both Monterey and Santa Clara counties hurried to Tres Pinos to form a posse. While they were combing the hills, the state Legislature authorized $5,000 for the manhunters’ expenses.
Meanwhile the bandits had fled over the mountains into the San Joaquin Valley and southward to San Emilio. They met Leiva’s family there and together moved on to Rock Creek. Leiva had begun to notice Vasquez’s attentions to his wife. The husband was also starting to tire of the killing, the danger and the constant moving.
One day Vasquez sent him on an overnight trip for supplies. Leiva’s suspicions were fully aroused by this. He hurried away and found a nearby ranch where he could obtain the things Vasquez wanted. Then he rushed back to the camp.
He pushed open the cabin door and caught Rosaria and his leader in the same bed. Leiva pulled a gun and threatened to shoot.
Another of the gang, Clovaro Chavez, bounced out of a corner, gun in hand.
“If you fire, I’ll blow your brains out,” he yelled.
Leiva lowered his gun. Vasquez climbed from the bed somewhat red-faced. Rosaria covered her face with her hands and wept.
Leiva challenged Vasquez to step outside for a duel.
The bandit chief shook his head and said, “No, Leiva, I do not wish to add to the wrong I have done to you.”
The men argued for some time, and finally they agreed that Leiva would leave with his wife and children. After they separated, it would be “each man for himself” with no quarter to be expected.
Leiva did depart in the morning with his family. However, he took them only a few miles to a friendly rancher’s home and left them.
The he headed south into Los Angeles County. He surrendered to the first sheriff he met and gave a full statement of the Tres Pinos raid. Leiva said he would be happy to be a witness against Vasquez.
Vasquez learned that Rosaria had been deserted. He went to the ranch and carried her away. For three months they lived in the mountains, constantly on the move to avoid posses. The hills were alive with the manhunters, but Vasquez’s friends always kept him warned.
Later when Rosaria was sick and pregnant, he abandoned her.
For another two months he hid out, waiting for the hunt to quiet.
* * *
Then he struck the village of Kingston in Fresno County. At night he slipped into the town with a gang of nine. Each man had an assigned place to strike. Within five minutes, 30 men in the town had been captured and tied up. Then the bandits methodically robbed the victims of watches, money and any valuables. Strong-boxes were emptied and houses were searched for loot.
Vasquez walked into the town bar, leveled his rifle at the dozen customers and ordered them to lie down. They dropped to the floor without a murmur. He called one of his men to move around the room, taking watches and wallets. One man in the hotel lobby refused to lie down. Chavez pistol-whipped him to the floor.
In one of the stores a clerk bloke away from the robbers and ran the length of the street shouting the alarm.
Two merchants, James E. Flood and J.W. Sutherland, grabbed rifles and started down the wide, dusty street firing toward the marauders. This was the first time a Vasquez raiding party ever had been under a counterattack. They broke and ran for the edge of town. Chavez and one other bandit were wounded.
However, the gang escaped with most of the loot, including $2,500 in cash.
Soon the posses were combing the area once again. The Legislature voted $15,000 for expense money. Sheriff Harry Morse of Alameda County was commissioned by the governor to hunt down Vasquez. The officer set out with 15 men and two months’ supplies.
This didn’t especially worry Vasquez. He had been chased by Morse before. His “muchachas” (girls) would tell him if Morse got too close.
About this time Vasquez and Chavez pulled one of their most ambitious robberies.
This was the raid ion Coyote Holes, a stage station between Los Angeles and the Owens River. They rode their horses to a little hill in front of the state and started shooting into the building.
Vasquez handed his rifle to Chavez and rode to within 50 feet of the front door. He shouted for everyone to walk out with their hands up or he would burn the building. A woman stuck her head out of the door, and he repeated the order.
In a moment a file of men started coming through the doorway, hands over their heads. Chavez covered them with his rifle, and Vasquez searched all of them for valuables. The prisoners were ordered to move around behind the station. The men were forced to sit on the ground with their hands still up, and Chavez remained to guard them.
Vasquez went inside the station to wait for the stage. As the sweating teams pulled up at the door he stepped into the yard, rifle in hand.
He snapped at the driver, “Tell your passengers to get down. Be quick about it!”
The outlaw chief ordered the driver to unhitch the horses. He commanded one of the male passengers to “lend a hand.”
One at a time Vasquez searched the passengers with one hand as he gripped his pistol in the other hand. The victims yielded a good haul of watches and cash, but the Wells Fargo box was a disappointment.
It contained nothing but mining stock, $10,000 worth, but hardly a negotiable item for a wanted bandit and murderer.
The two desperadoes picked up the cash and watches and made their getaway with eight horses. They left behind 20 men with empty pockets. No one had resisted them.
For a time the pair hid in the Soledad Canyon, north of the San Fernando Valley. Then they moved to the home of George Allen, or “Greek George,” on the La Brea Rancho near Los Angeles. Allen was a friendly type. He didn’t mind having rough hombres around the place, especially if he had money in their pockets.
The cabin had a special inducement for Vasquez. There was a pretty girl in the house. Some historians say she was Allen’s wife. Some say she was his girlfriend. Others have suggested she divided her attentions between Vasquez and Allen while the Vasquez gang was in residence there.
Anyway, Vasquez hung around Allen’s cabin from mid-March until late May 1874. His men slept in the mustard fields around the cabin, but Vasquez always managed to bunk in the house.
Meanwhile Sheriff Morse wasn’t idle. Informers brought him the news that Vasquez was holed up at the Greek’s. Morse was an ethical officer, too much so for his own future fame. Morse had the governor’s commission to hunt Vasquez down anywhere in the state. However, he felt he should enlist the aid of Sheriff William Rowland of Los Angeles, because Vasquez was in Rowland’s county.
Rowland scoffed at Morse’s information and insisted the ranch had been checked. Morse too the other officer’s word and turned his posse northward. He was hardly out of sight before Rowland was organizing his own posse for a trip to Greek George’s.
For some reason George Beers, a special correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle who had been riding with Morse for months, decided to linger in Los Angeles. Something told him the “story” was still there.
The southern sheriff was clever enough to figure that he would be watched. So he instructed his undersheriff, Albert Johnson, to assemble the men at night. They gathered at midnight in the corral, loaded their horses, and slipped out in pairs. The next morning Vasquez’s friends saw Rowland walking around the Los Angeles streets, and no alarm was sent to the cabin.
The posse slipped close enough to the ranch house for a good view. However, the land was open, and there was no way to sneak up on the building. Then two young Mexicans left the cabin, climbed in a big wagon and drove down the road toward the hidden posse. The deputies stopped the wagon out of sight of the house.
The posse piled into the wagon bed. The sides were high enough to conceal them. Then they ordered the two Mexicans to drive back to the cabin. Rifles were kept trained on the pair all the way to be sure that no warning was given.
Thirty feet from the house Johnson stopped the wagon. The men jumped out and surrounded the building.
Inside Vasquez was sitting at the table eyeing the well-rounded woman as she moved about the kitchen fixing eggs, tortillas and fresh coffee. His pistols were lying on a bed in the next room. His Henry rifle was standing in a corner, eight feet away. It was a pleasant morning. The woman smiled and laughed at his jokes.
Outside the door there was a shout to “open up.” Constable Sam Bryant smashed an ax into the wood door. It flew open. The woman jumped toward it, shoving with all her strength to close it. Deputy Sheriff Emil Harris jerked his rifle to his shoulder and fired one round at the figure of Vasquez. The woman was so close the gunpowder scorched her cheek. The bullet slammed into Vasquez’s chest.
He spun on his heel and dived through a rear window. The outlaw landed on his feet and ran around the corner of the building.
Facing him with a cocked rifle was Beers, the Chronicle correspondent.
It was a reporter’s dream. The most wanted man in California was in his gun sights. Not only would Beers get the story; he might make the story. He snapped the trigger, but Vasquez kept running. Seconds later Police Chief B.F. Hartley stopped the bandit with a charge of buckshot. Vasquez threw up his hands.
Later the bullet from Beers’ rifle was found in the outlaw’s shoulder. The reporter had hit his man, but it was only a flesh wound. In fact none of the wounds were serious.
Vasquez was placed in the wagon and hauled to Los Angeles. A week later he was moved to Northern California for trial. Eventually, to prevent a lynching, the case was shifted from Hollister to San Jose in Santa Clara County.
The trial started Jan. 5, 1875. Nearly every day the courtroom gallery was crammed with women spectators. The prisoner occasionally would glance up at them and smile.
On the witness stand his former friend, Abdon Leiva, obtained a jealous man’s revenge. He swore that Vasquez had killed Leander Davidson, the Tres Pinos hotelman. Other witnesses backed up his testimony.
Vasquez insisted it was not true. He maintained that he had never killed anyone and that he had warned his men not to shoot.
District Attorney N.C. Briggs of San Benito County summed up the prosecution’s case. R.P. Lathrop, owner of a Tres Pinos and Hollister hay and grain business for many years, watched the last days of the trial while he was a college student in San Jose.
In 1932 Lathrop recalled for a newspaperman, “I heard Mr. Briggs’ address to the jury. It was able, fearless and eloquently delivered. Vasquez was in the criminal’s box with two deputies, one on each side of him and luckily also, for while Mr. Briggs was denouncing him as a villain, a heartless, cold-blooded murderer and saying it was the jury’s duty to find him guilty of first-degree murder and specify the death penalty without mercy–“
“Mr. Briggs shaking his pointed finger at him–although that was 57 years ago; my recollection was so vivid I never will forget that moment–Vasquez leaning well forward with a vicious, ugly glare, started to spring at Briggs who was within eight feet of him, and he hissed one word: ‘Carambo,’ but the two deputies forced him back into his seat.”
On Jan. 10 the case went to the jury. The jurors deliberated 3 1/2 hours and returned a verdict of guilty and called for the death penalty.
March 20 was set by Judge Thomas Belden as the execution date. Vasquez was to be hanged in the jail courtyard.
On that day the crowd began to gather at 8 a.m. outside the jail, which stood behind the county courthouse. Admission to the jail was limited to witnesses with special passes.
However, the rear windows of the court building on the second and third floor overlooked the jail. A crowd, including many women, thronged to the windows.
At 1:30 p.m. he walked out of the door from the jail to the courtyard with a jailer in front and a priest at his side. Behind followed a half-dozen sheriffs, several reporters and other witnesses.
Vasquez’s only sign of nerves was when he told the hangman, “Pronto” (be quick). The trap door dropped under his feet and his neck snapped. His death was instantaneous, three attending doctors stated later.
That was the end of Tiburcio Vasquez. Yet even in death he was idolized by women. After the execution he was taken to Santa Clara, a nearby town, where his body lay in state for several days in the home of his cousin, Mrs. Guadalupe Bee.
His sister, Maria, was obsessed with the fear that ghouls would cut off his head and use it for exhibitions the way Joaquin Murietta’s head had been used. She guarded the grave night and day for nearly a week. Finally public officials opened the grave to reassure her that the body was safe. Since then Vasquez’s corpse has been allowed to rest peacefully in the Catholic Cemetery at Santa Clara, Calif.
1. Greenwood, Robert, The California Outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez, Los Gatos, Calif., The Talisman Press, 1960.
2. Sawyer, Eugene T., Life and Career of Tiburcio Vasquez, San Jose, 1875.
3. Sawyer, Eugene T., History of Santa Clara County, Los Angeles, Historic Records Co., 1922.
4. Neider, Charles, The Great West, New York, Bonanza Books, 1958.
5. The San Francisco Chronicle, 1874-75.
6. The San Jose Mercury and San Jose News, 1930-64.
7. Los Angeles Times, July 24, 1949.
8. San Jose Statehouse Museum archives.
9. Guinn, J.M., History of the State of California, Chicago, Chapman Publishing Co., 1904.
10. Barrows, Henry D. and Ingersoll, Luther A., Memorial and Biographical History of the Coast Counties of Central California, Chicago, Lewis Publishing Co., 1893.
Republished from Real West, Vol. VII, No. 44, Nov. 1965