Time before now, March 1875 – Civil War hero, Ulysses S. Grant was serving as the nation’s 18th president. A champion of civil rights, his administration, however, was wracked with scandals. Leader of the last militant Kiowa faction, Chief Lone Wolf, surrendered his defeated band in February at Fort Sill. Inventor Joseph Glidden patent for barbed wire was creating an uproar in Texas and cartoonist Thomas Nast first portrayed the Republican Party with an elephant. (Right)
March 19, 1875
On this day the lover boy bandit, Tiburcio Vasquez, went to the gallows swearing he was an innocent man and hoping to be reunited with his numerous lovers in the hereafter.
A wealth of evidence disputed his claim of innocence as a killer but confirmed he had a sizable following among the ladies. He was found guilty of a string of murders committed during robberies.
Sometimes portrayed as a “Zorro-esk” character, Vasquez (right) insisted he was merely righting wrongs in the name of California’s Mexican Americans, Despite attempts to brand him a folk hero, he appeared to merely be an equal opportunity bandit.
His descent into crime started early with a dispute at a hometown fandango when a local constable was stabbed to death during a fight between Tiburcio and second young man. Another participant in the incident was hanged for the crime, but Vasquez escaped into the mountains.
By age 21, he’d become a successful horse thief. Eventually captured at Newhall, he served five years at San Quentin, taking part in four unsuccessful jail breaks that left nearly two dozen inmates dead.
San Quentin at the time of Vasquez
He returned to his outlaw ways the minute he was released. Not a lesson-learner, he was again captured and spent three more years behind bars.
By 1870, Vasquez retired his solo crime spree, organizing his own gang of bandits, rustling, holding up stages and robbing businesses. An armed robbery at Snyder’s Store in Tres Pinos, San Benito County, left three bystanders dead, netting the Vasquez gang $2,200, about $40,000 today. It prompted the first in a series of rewards for the bandit’s capture.
Los Angeles Plaza circa 1869
Escaping south to the Los Angeles area, Vasquez managed to evade the law owing largely to his popularity among the Hispanic population and his Robin Hood reputation. Charming, well-educated and an accomplished ladies man, he was a fan of romantic novels, often writing poetry for female fans and lovers, including a number of other men’s wives.
It wasn’t long before the Vasquez gang was robbing and rustling its way through the San Juaquin Valley, holding up stages, lone travelers and shop keepers. At one point they ransacked the entire town of Kingston in Fresno County.
A pair of missteps led to the lover boy bandit’s undoing. With the law hot on his trail, he took refuge with Greek immigrant George Caralambo (right) at his ranch located just steps from the present-day Sunset Strip. The colorful Caralambo was reportedly one of the U. S. Army’s camel drivers with the government’s experimental Southwest camel corps in the 1860’s.
Members of U.S. Army’s Camel Corps
When Vasquez’s own niece turned up pregnant, however, it was apparently a bridge too far for Caralambo’s wife and she or the girl’s mother turned him in.
The kidnapping and robbery of a prominent sheep rancher, Alessandro Repetto, however, say some sources, actually precipitated his fall from grace. Attempting to ransom Repetto, his banker got wise and summoned the cops.
Los Angeles County sheriff William Rowland dispatched a posse to rescue Repetto. Whether he was finally captured there or at the Caralambo ranch, it marked the end of his criminal career.
It didn’t seem to herald the end of his time as a ladies man, however. Held in the Los Angeles jail for more than a week, Vasquez was besieged with requests for newspaper interviews and messages from his female fans. Two reporters from the San Francisco Chronicle and another from the Los Angeles Star were finally granted audiences. Taking advantage of his folk hero status, he insisted he was “an honorable man” simply seeking the return of California to Mexico.
Sent by steamship to San Francisco to stand trial in San Jose, Vasquez was still admired by the local Hispanic population. After a four-day trial, however, a jury took less than three hours to find him guilty.
While awaiting the hangman, Vasquez posed for photos, mostly with women, signed autographs and proclaimed that he was not a killer.
He’d been swept up in a “spirit of revenge” for the injustices he and his fellow countrymen had suffered and turned to his outlaw ways only to seek satisfaction for them. He hoped there was indeed an afterlife, he said, where he might see all his former lovers together. Newspaper accounts reported his final word from the gallows was “pronto.”
Laid to rest, age 39, at the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery he remains to this day a controversial figure. When a new elementary school in the Alisal Union District was named for Vasquez in 2012, a number of law enforcement figures and educators protested, saying it was inappropriate for a school to bear the name of a man, guilty or innocent, with such an unsavory reputation. Many latter-day supporters countered that he was instead, a revolutionary and reformer. Despite the controversy, in 2016, the school was renamed Monte Bella Elementary.
Tiburcio Vasquez hasn’t received the posthumous notoriety of some other Old West villains like Billy the Kid and Jessie James. His checkered past and bad end was featured in “The Last Bad Man” on the syndicated “Death Valley Days” Armand Alzamora, (left) a veteran of Disney’s “Zorro,” TV series, played Vasquez in the 1957 episode.
Vasquez Rocks Natural Area and Nature Center, 10700 W. Escondido Canyon Road, Santa Clarita, still bears his name. About 45 miles north of Los Angeles, the area was a frequent hideout for the outlaw. More than 900 acres of “spectacular” sandstone rock formations and ruins of the early Tataviam Indian civilization. A popular spot for hiking, picnicking and horseback riding it is perhaps best known as a Hollywood location for films such as “The Flintstones,” Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” and a memorable 1967 “Star Trek” episode, “Arena.”
A part of the park familiar to Star Trek fans
The Nature Center is open summer hours Tuesday through Sunday, 8 to 7:30, closed Mondays, and winter hours from 8 to 5. Visitors should note that restrooms and water fountains are open during the park’s business hours only. For information go to parks.lacounty.gov/vasquez-rocks-natural-area-and-nature-center or call (661) 268-0840.
© Text Only – 2023 – Headin’ West LLC – All photos – public domain or fair use.
*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable. When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.