6 Famous Outlaws of the Wild, Wild West


Joaquin Murieta

Joaquin Murieta
Joaquin Murieta is shown on his horse in an oil painting titled "The Vaquero" by Charles Christian Nahl, painted in 1875. Wikimedia Commons

Before there was Zorro, there was Murieta. Joaquin Murieta. The legend says that Murieta was a successful Mexican (or maybe Chilean) gold miner in 1850s California when jealous Anglos beat him, killed his brother and raped and killed his wife. Enraged, Murieta turned to crime, becoming a Mexican Robin Hood who held up trains and avenged racial injustice. It all came to a lurid end when California Rangers hunted him down, cut off his head and preserved it in a jar of brandy. Apparently, they felt they needed the body part to collect the $1,000 reward offered for eliminating the bandit. Many have disputed that the head really belonged to Murieta, but one way or another, the jar and its contents disappeared, possibly in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

This was the story popularized by Cherokee author, John Rollin Ridge in his book, "The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta." And that story, in turn, ended up being one of the inspirations for the fictional character of Zorro. Nobody has been able to confirm Ridge's version of Murieta's backstory, but it does seem that he led a gang on a murderous crime spree in which they ruthlessly slaughtered dozens of people with no regard to their ethnic origins.

So where did the legend come from? Murieta's nephew, a fellow named Procopio, was only 12 when his uncle died. But he burnished Joaquin's story and made himself its heir as he grew up to be one of California's most infamous outlaws in his own right.