Alarm reached a fever pitch in the mining towns and camps along the Sierra Nevada. In early 1853, A marauding gang of horsemen led by the enigmatic leader known as “Joaquín” terrorized the Mother Lode communities—Hornitos, Murphys, Sonora, Mariposa—plundering gold, stealing horses, and killing anyone who dared resist.
Newspaperman Andrew Joshua Bell followed the events concerning the dreaded Joaquín, writing notices for The Republican concerning the murders committed in the lonely gulches and solitary outposts of Calaveras County.
Then on August 19, 1853, the reign of terror appeared to come to an end. Willing spectators lined up around the Stockton House, paying a dollar apiece to view the severed head of Joaquín Murrieta Carrillo displayed inside a jar of whiskey. Seventeen people, including a Catholic priest, identified the pickled head as belonging to the notorious Bandido with signed affidavits.
In the six preceding months, newspapers had reported five Joaquíns on the loose: Joaquín Botellier, Joaquín Carrillo, Joaquín Ocomorenia, Joaquín Murrieta and Joaquín Valenzuela. In Benicia, the state legislature passed a bill to hunt down all five men, and Governor John Bigler wasted no time signing the act into law. He was counting on the votes of frightened miners to win re-election. A company of twenty California Rangers was formed with a monthly expense account and the promise of a handsome reward of $1,000 if the job was done before election day.
Under the command of Harry Love, the Rangers followed up rumors of the outlaw’s whereabouts but failed to locate any of the Joaquíns. Finally, in July, with time running out, they came upon a Mexican encampment on the edge of the Tulare plains. There was a fierce fight, and one of the men, who tried to escape, had his horse shot out from beneath him. Captain Love had the desperado beheaded and ordered it be taken to Fort Miller to be preserved as evidence.
The word around the state was that Love could not prove it was one of the infamous Joaquíns and resorted to bribing witnesses. A.J. Bell was skeptical that Capt. Love had hunted down the right man.
The San Francisco Herald published an article stating: “Before the gunfight, descriptions of Joaquín gave him black hair and black eyes, yet the head Love presented to the public was blue-eyed with brown hair with a golden tint.”
In pursuit of the truth, A.J. Bell decided to investigate for himself and his readers. He traveled to an area called Arroyo Cantua, southwest of Fresno. Mexican old-timers told him he would find an adobe built by Joaquín Murrieta. For a price, the dwelling’s current inhabitant would tell the truth about Joaquín’s fate.
Mariana was her name, and she insisted that she was Mrs. Murrieta, Joaquín’s second wife and widow (not his mistress).
The sprightly woman, still pretty in the face, showed Bell the scars where she claimed her jealous lover beat her for flirting with another man.
Mariana recounted how her amor begun his life of crime. White men unfairly fleeced Joaquín of his prospecting stake at Saw Flat Mills. His brother, falsely accused of stealing a horse, was hanged. When Joaquín tried to intercede, he was beaten by the lynch mob, and his first wife was raped. Transformed by hatred, Murrieta went on a three-year spree of raids to avenge the transgressions against his family. Many Californios, who lost property rights to the gringo interlopers, regarded Joaquín as a nineteenth-century “Robin Hood.”
A.J. Bell was disappointed to hear Mariana repeat the implausible version of events leading to Joaquín’s capture. It was an account similar to the one Capt. Love had previously reported. Notices in the Los Angeles Star questioned Harry Love’s claims and declared: “Joaquín Valenzuela was the one killed endeavoring to escape … his head cut off as a trophy.”
It was not until after Bell produced a bottle of “48 Proof Aguardiente” that Mariana told the journalist the truth about Murrieta’s death.
There had been rumblings of a traitorous double-cross. In a struggle for control, Joaquín was overpowered and tortured by members of his gang one night in camp. Mariana later found his mutilated dead body. She buried Joaquín Murrieta Carrillo by a tree, near the adobe in Arroyo Cantua—his head still attached. Mariana said to avenge her husband killers, and she led Capt. Love to the renegade’s camp so that they could be apprehended.
Bell found Mrs. Murrieta’s story credible, and before returning to Stockton to do the write-up, he inspected the gravesite she showed him near a tree with a cross scratched into the bark.
Unfortunately, Andrew Joshua Bell’s notice would never be published in the San Joaquín Republican. Bell’s editor felt the Mariana’s account was too farfetched.
That September, the governor won re-election with the help of votes from the mining community. And, Capt. Harry Love and his Rangers—the manhunt now officially ended—received the augmented reward of $5,000 for the capture of Joaquín Murrieta.
After receiving his share, Ranger Burns reportedly said: “One pickled head is as good as any if no one knows the difference.”
But alas, in the vast goldfields of El Dorado, tales of a horseman mounted on a midnight black stallion, riding through the countryside reeks terror in Anglo Americans’ minds.
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