Biographer John Boessenecker described California outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez as “handsome, literate, charming, played guitar, and was a skillful dancer. Women were attracted to him and he had many love affairs. He enjoyed reading romantic novels and writing poetry for his female admirers.”
Others call him “the gentleman bandit,” and he saw himself as a Robin Hood of his times.
He claimed to be fighting for Mexican-American rights, but also stole horses and cattle, robbed businesses and stagecoaches, was a kidnapper and killer and spent five years locked up in San Quentin, where he learned criminal ways.
There he organized four prison breaks that cost the lives of 20 inmates.
He shot people who disobeyed him, and was known for tying his victims up with their hands behind their backs and faces pushed into the dirt.
Yet today, admirers visit his grave at a California mission and bring flowers; a high school is named after him, and movies are made at his old hideout at Vasquez Rocks in northern Los Angeles County.
Vasquez was of Spanish Basque descent, born in Monterey, Calif., in 1835. He stood about 5-foot-7, was well educated and spoke English and Spanish fluently.
His grandfather was a member of the historic 1776 De Anza Expedition to Alta, Calif., sanctioned by the Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico) and the King of Spain to counter the increasing colonization of Northern California by the Russians.
At age 17, Tiburcio attended a fandango with his older cousin, Anastacio Garcia, one of California’s most dangerous banditos.
While guitar and castanets played the fast-paced dance music, a fight broke out and lawman William Hardmount was killed. Neither Vasquez nor Garcia were directly involved with the killing and quickly fled the scene.
They were never caught for the killing; but their friend Jose Higuera who didn’t flee was lynched by vigilantes the following day.
It didn’t take long for young Tiburcio to learn outlaw ways, and he soon became leader of his own band of desperados.
One account said he was a young man “plying California’s ill-policed byways with the whole litany of depredations characteristic of the frontier outlaw — livestock rustling, highway robbing, shopkeeper stickups.”
He was accompanied by violent and bloodthirsty outlaws like Procopio Bustamante and Juan Bautista Solo, the ferocious “Human Wildcat” with crossed eyes who hated Anglos.
Out of jail, women trouble was a hallmark of his career:
One of Vasquez’s favorite hangouts was San Juan Bautista, site of the Santa Clara Mission, where he went after being released from San Quentin. Abelardo Salazar, one of his former gang members who decided to go straight, was living there and married a beautiful 15-year-old named Pepita.
Vasquez and another gang member talked her into running off with them, and Salazar came gunning.
A gunfight erupted in front of the Mission and Salazar shot Vasquez in the chest. He survived and later had an affair with Pepita. She became pregnant and did not survive — dying from a botched abortion.
Vasquez was engaged to Garcia’s 17-year-old sister until she broke it off. That embittered him and he never again had a serious relationship with a woman.
But he had no qualms about taking off with other people’s wives, frequently resulting in shootouts.
One irate husband was gang member Abdon Leiva, a 28-year-old Chilean who caught his wife, Rosaria, and Vasquez together. Leiva would have shot the gang leader but was stopped by fellow outlaw Clodoveo Chavez.
Leiva got his revenge later at the murder trial when his testimony helped put Vasquez one step closer to the noose.
Next, Vasquez headed for the San Joaquin Valley where the gang robbed the entire town of Kingston on the day after Christmas.
The beginning of the end for Tiburcio Vasquez was on Aug. 26, 1873, at Andrew Snyder’s store and hotel in the isolated settlement of Tres Pinos (Three Pines) east of San Juan Bautista in central California.
In what is now called the Tres Pinos Tragedy, the gang robbed both the store and hotel, and their customers. They forced everyone onto the floor and pistol-whipped anyone who wouldn’t comply.
Then they collected their money, watches and jewelry.
During their violent robbery, three people were killed.
Portuguese sheepherder Bernard Bahury, who was passing by and didn’t speak English, tried to run away and was shot and killed.
Meeting the same fate were teamster George Redford, who was deaf and couldn’t hear their commands but saw the guns and ran; and Ebenezer Burton, shot in the heart with a bullet from Vasquez’s Henry rifle.
Two and a half hours later, the gang left town with $2,200 loot and eight horses.
The store’s young clerk, John Utzerath, jumped on a horse and raced 12 miles to notify the sheriff.
The gang returned to Southern California where posses everywhere started looking for them.
During their final run from the law, the Vasquez gang roamed from Pasadena and Eagle Rock to the East San Fernando Valley and West Hollywood.
Vasquez had several hideouts — his favorites being today’s Vasquez Rocks 40 miles north of L.A., and the adobe house of his friend “Greek George” Caralambo, a camel wrangler from Syria, who was brought to America with a herd of camels by the U.S. Army to test if they were better for desert work than horses and mules.
They weren’t and the camels were eventually turned loose in the wilderness to fend for themselves.
Vasquez spent his last days of freedom at Greek George’s house — believed to have been near the corner of Kings Road and Fountain Avenue below today’s Sunset Strip in West Hollywood.
While enjoying George’s hospitality and plotting his next heist, Vasquez couldn’t resist romancing his host’s sister-in-law Modesta Lopez.
That upset Greek George and he called the law. Soon, a posse surrounded the house. Guns blazed and Vasquez suffered six wounds — none serious — before being arrested.
After a short lockup in L.A., he was taken aboard the steamship “Senator” to San Francisco, and then by train to Salinas and then a murder trial in San Jose.
Adoring supporters — including many women — brought gifts, flowers and photos of him to be autographed while he waited in jail.
The trial lasted four days, and jury deliberation two hours.
He was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Some outlaws become folk heroes over time. Books and movies extoll their exploits, and bad guys become legends.
Vasquez was one of them.
He became the real-life inspiration for writer John McCulley’s 1919 fictional character Zorro, “the dashing masked vigilante who defends the commoners and indigenous peoples of California against corrupt and tyrannical officials and other villains.”
Vasquez saw himself in that light during those times when Los Angeles was evolving from a quiet Mexican village with the long name — “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Angeles del Río Porciúncula” (Town of our lady the Queen of Angels of the River Porciúncula) — into a bustling American city.
He would avenge the downtrodden Mexican Californios being bullied by the newcomer Americans flooding in around the time of the big 1849 Gold Rush.
Vasquez always claimed he never killed anyone, but admitted leading a bandit gang. He pleaded for mercy, but Gov. José Antonio Romualdo Pacheco Jr., a Mexican Californio — and so far the only Hispanic governor of California — ignored the request.
“On March 19, 1875 at 1:35 p.m., Tiburcio Vasquez died without a struggle at the end of the hangman’s noose,” the New York Tribune wrote. “The bandit Vasquez was executed to-day at San José. No attempt was made at a rescue, though one was feared a day or two ago.
“Everything passed off quietly. Vasquez asserted to the last his innocence of the crime of murder at any time during his career, but acknowledged the justice of his fate, having been the leader of a murderous band…
“The body was given to his friends for interment.”
His last word to the executioner was “Pronto” — meaning hurry up. Then his longtime unrelenting pursuer, Santa Clara Sheriff John H. Adams released the trapdoor.
Vasquez’s 23-year reign of terror in California was over.
California today doesn’t need any more Tiburcio Vasquez wannabees, whether legend, hero or villain.
But maybe they could use a Zorro.
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
Tiburcio Vasquez was riding his horse while running from the law in La Crescenta, north of Glendale, Calif., when it stumbled and broke a leg. He leaped out of the saddle just in time to avoid injury, but the horse couldn’t continue, so Vasquez shot him with his pistol. In 1883, that pistol with the initials “T V” carved on the barrel was found by 16-year-old Phil Begue of La Crescenta.
Vasquez “became a folk hero in his own lifetime to disadvantaged Hispanics. He was personally very well-liked; as a general rule, he didn’t rob Hispanics (although he did from time to time); he paid for safe harbor and food; he was a terrific dancer; he wrote poetry to his female admirers. He was a bigger-than-life personality — sort of the life of the party. Among the larger Hispanic community as he became more notorious in the 1870s, he became a folk hero.”
Alameda County Sheriff Harry N. Morse tracked Tiburcio Vasquez for two months over 2,700 miles. He finally located him at Greek George’s house in West Hollywood, and tipped off Los Angeles County Sheriff Billy Rowland, and then returned north. Rowland captured Vasquez and also collected an $8,000 reward from the state. He never shared any of the money or glory with fellow officer Harry Morse.
What happened to Rosaria?
Sometime after the blow-up with gang member Abdon Leiva over Vasquez’s illicit relationship with his wife Rosaria, Vasquez abducted her — maybe not against her will — and continued their affair hiding out in the San Gabriel Mountains. She became pregnant, which he soon found to be an obstacle to leaving his haunt and getting back into action with a new gang, so he abandoned her. She eventually made it out of the mountains and reached her home in San Jose.
Outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez…
“Vasquez was a man of considerable Intelligence. Of an ordinary stature, his weight was between 145 and 160 pounds. With a complexion lighter than the ordinary Mexican, he possessed clear-cut features and a wiry, well-knit frame. In manner he was frank and, his general demeanor that of a quiet, inoffensive man; but for his calm, steely eye, which stamped him. as a man of great firmness and determination, there was nothing about his appearance to indicate the terrible personage who had bid defiance to authority so long and so successfully.”
— Los Angeles Herald, June 11, 1900
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