In a macabre instance of rough frontier justice, California Rangers claim a $6,000 award by bringing in the severed head—preserved in whiskey—of outlaw Joaquin Murrieta.
In the early months of 1853, a wild band of desperadoes began terrorizing Calaveras County in central California. Law officers believed a shadowy character named Joaquin Murrieta led the outlaws, although confusion abounded since there were at least four other desperadoes named “Joaquin” in the territory.
Whatever the identity of the leader, the California legislature resolved to stop the outlaws. In the spring of 1853, the government created a special force of California Rangers led by a Los Angeles Deputy Sheriff named Harry Love. The state also offered a $6,000 award to anyone who brought in Murrieta—dead or alive. For several weeks, Love and his team of 20 rangers scoured the Calaveras countryside without success. The rangers got a lucky break, however, when they captured Murrieta’s brother-in-law and forced him to lead them to the outlaw’s camp on Cantua Creek.
Early on the morning of this day in 1853, Love and his rangers attacked the outlaw camp. Caught by surprise and badly outnumbered, eight of the bandits were killed, including Murrieta and his right hand man, Tres Dedos (also known as Three Fingered Jack). To prove they had indeed killed Murrieta and deserved their award, the rangers cut off the head of the outlaw. They also took the distinctive hand that gave Three Fingered Jack his nickname. The rangers preserved the gory body parts in whiskey-filled vats until they could exhibit them to the authorities in Stockton.
Later, some claimed that the severed head was not Murrieta’s. Love, however, gathered 17 affidavits from people who had known the outlaw and were willing to swear it was Murrieta’s head. The state agreed and gave the $6,000 award to Love and his rangers. Love further profited from the deal by taking Murrieta’s head on a tour of California mining camps, charging $1 to see it. Eventually, the head ended up in San Francisco Museum, where it was destroyed in the great earthquake of 1906.
READ MORE: Untangling the Legend of Joaquín Murrieta, One of California’s Most Storied Outlaws