On July 25, 1853, bandito Joaquin Murrieta's head is placed on exhibit in the Northern Californian town of Stockton. Murrieta, who was known as the "Robin hood of El Dorado," had been disrupting the burgeoning gold trade and intimidating the public, along with his gang of thieves. The first celebrity outlaw in the new state of California, various legends sprung up about the bandito’s life.
On May 17, 1853, the state of California placed a $5,000 bounty for the capture of Murrieta and authorized Harry Love to lead a team of 20 rangers to bring him in, dead or alive. This elite law enforcement team caught up with a man they presumed to be Murrieta a month later near Arroyo de Cantua near the Coast Range Mountains on the Tulare plains and killed him, and brought his head back to display to the relieved public. (There was, and remains, some dispute over his identity.) Murrieta's henchman, Three-Fingered Jack, was also killed; his telltale hand was cut off and exhibited for public viewing. The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murrieta: The Celebrated California Bandit by John Rollin Ridge, gave rise to much of Murrieta's legend. According to this unsubstantiated story, he had come to the Stanislaus River near San Francisco to prospect for gold during the great gold rush. However, Murrieta's Mexican heritage caused him to be beaten and severely whipped, his wife raped, and his brother-in-law killed in an unprovoked attack by racist Americans working their own claims. Vowing revenge, Murrieta formed a gang of Mexicans who roamed the frontier towns and terrorized prospectors and new communities. Ridge's book was so successful that it inspired several copycat works. Murrieta was characterized as a Robin-hood type figure, a Mexican rebel leader, or a vicious outlaw, depending on the author's perspective.
Michael Thomas Barry is the author of Murder & Mayhem 52 Crimes that Shocked Early California 1849-1949. The book can be purchased from Amazon through the following link: