The Wild West of Yester-Year

Tiburcio Vasquez
By Rachel Kovaciny

It’s fairly well known that the book The Scarlet Pimpernel and its sequels by Baroness Orczy inspired Johnston McCulley to create the character of Zorro and his alter ego, Diego de la Vega. Both books feature a daring hero who champions the oppressed and uses disguise to elude authorities. They both affect a foppish, weak, foolish demeanor when not in disguise, letting them throw off all suspicion that they might be champions of justice. What’s less well known is McCulley also drew on the lives and exploits of three Mexican outlaws for inspiration. Joaquin Murrieta, Juan Cortina, and Tiburcio Vasquez all became folk heroes during the 1800s, and all were at various times referred to by nicknames such as “the Robin Hood of Mexico” or “the Rio Grande Robin Hood.” McCulley found inspiration in their adventures while creating his fiction. I’ll write about Murrieta and Cortina another day, but for now, let’s focus on Vasquez.

Tiburcio Vasquez was born in Monterey on April 11, 1835. Monterey was part of Alta, California, a possession of Mexico. His family was reasonably well-to-do, able to afford a good education for Tiburcio, who learned to read and write Spanish and English. When he was seventeen, Vasquez attended a party with an older cousin, Anastacio Garcia. During the festivities, a fight broke out that ended in a killing. Although they were probably not involved in the killing, Vasquez and Garcia fled the scene. This was wise, as a friend of theirs got blamed for the incident and lynched without trial the next day.

Hiding in the California hills with his cousin Garcia, a minor bandit, Vasquez fell into a life of crime. He quickly went from helping his cousin’s friends to heading up his own gang of outlaws. For five years, he stole horses throughout central and southern California. The law eventually caught him and sentenced him to the prison at San Quentin. Although he briefly escaped, they soon recaptured him while stealing more horses and he returned to finish serving his sentence. When they released Vasquez in 1863, it wasn’t long before he returned to his desperado ways, adding armed robbery to his list of crimes. He claimed he was robbing only the Americanos who were moving into California. Vasquez told people his crimes were an act of retribution for the way these newcomers treated the native-born, Spanish-speaking Californios. This led to the rise of the myth that he was a Mexican Robin Hood.

Tiburcio Vasquez’s most famous exploit occurred the day after Christmas in 1873. Vasquez and his gang descended on the town of Kingston and robbed the entire town! They tied up the townsfolk, killing several who did not submit peaceably, and made off with more than $2,500.

Vasquez was a charming, debonair man with a penchant for fine clothes and beautiful women. He played the guitar, wrote love poetry, and was renowned for his fine dancing. Vasquez considered himself a gentleman-bandit, not a common outlaw. He was notorious for carrying on affairs with married women, at different times even inducing them to run away with him to his outlaw hideout. Once, when one of his outlaw band discovered his wife in Vasquez’s arms, he shot Vasquez in the chest, a serious wound that took a long time to heal. But, recover he did, and went right back to robbing stagecoaches, rustling cattle, and burgling stores. In the end, it was this affinity for love affairs that led to his downfall. He seduced a young woman whose family lived near one of his favorite hiding places. They retaliated by informing law officers where Vasquez was hiding. He was captured in the Los Angeles area on May 13, 1874.

While in prison awaiting trail, Vasquez received visitors from the press and the general public. He sold photographs and autographs to help pay for his legal defense. The stories he told helped build up his myth as a misunderstood defender of Mexican-Californian rights. Throughout his trial, he insisted he had killed no one during his many robberies, but eyewitnesses gave testimony to his killing two innocent bystanders during a store robbery in Tres Pinos, California. The court found him guilty and sentenced him to hang. Mexican authorities executed Vasquez in San Jose on March 19, 1875. His last word was pronto, telling the executioner to hurry. After his death, his legend grew, and it caught the attention of Johnston McCulley, who gave Vasquez’s love for music and poetry to his fictional hero, Diego de la Vega.

There’s a rock formation north of Los Angeles named the Vasquez Rocks after Tiburcio Vasquez because he hid in and around them frequently. You might recognize them because Hollywood filmed quite a few movies and TV shows near them. In fact, the Disney TV series Zorro filmed several episodes there in the 1950s. I wonder if the show runners were aware of just how appropriate that shooting location was!