Publish date:
Updated on
Year
1853

Head of frontier bandit placed on display

Frontier bandit Joaquin Murieta’s head is placed on exhibit in the Northern Californian town of Stockton. Murieta, who was known as the “Terror of the Stanislaus,” 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 Murieta’s life.

On May 17, 1853, the state of California placed a $5,000 bounty upon Murieta 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 Murieta a month later on the Tejon Pass, killed him, and brought his head back to display to the relieved public. (There was, and remains, some dispute over his identity.) Murieta’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 Murieta: The Celebrated California Bandit by San Francisco journalist John Rollin Ridge, gave rise to much of Murieta’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, Murieta’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, Murieta 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. Murieta was characterized as a Robin-hood type figure, a Mexican rebel leader, or a vicious outlaw, depending on the author’s perspective. In the 1997 film Mask of Zorro, Murieta appears as Zorro’s brother. In Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, he is a Chilean hero. Stories about Murieta have continued to this day.

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