California's gentleman bandit: The story of Tiburcio Vasquez

Cover of "Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez" by John E. Boessenecker

Every day we see parks, buildings and freeway bridges that have been named in honor of some upstanding citizen. Tiburcio Vasquez currently has a series of health care centers named for him in the East Bay, along with a county park and a high school in southern California.

And what civic achievements did Señor Vasquez accomplish to merit these honors? Well, let’s see: he stole horses, planned numerous prison breaks, broke the hearts of countless women, and was executed on a murder charge.

How can this be? The answers are in Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez, a book by San Francisco attorney and historian John E. Boessenecker. KALW’s Steven Short spoke with the author about this infamous bandit.

*    *    *

STEVEN SHORT: It’s mid-March, 1875 in the dusty town of Los Angeles, California. There’s quite a buzz down at the County Jail because they finally caught that notorious outlaw, Tiburcio Vasquez. His dastardly deeds are known from here to Santa Rosa.

News of his capture is in the papers, even in New York City. Oh, he’s been behind bars before, of course, but this looks like the end of the trail because this time they’ve got him for murder.

Hundreds of people are lined up outside the jail to get a chance to speak with the man. Many are even paying to have their picture taken with him. Author John Boessenecker picks up the scene from here:

JOHN BOESSENECKER (reading): Among the callers were quite a number of first class ladies, all of whom were evidently charmed with the prisoner’s excessive politeness. Some of the ladies went so far in their admiration of the famous bandit as to present him with rare bouquets and shower upon him their sweetest smiles.

Boessenecker is reading from his book, titled Bandido. Now, that word, bandido, brings to mind a Mexican outlaw, with a big straw sombrero, a thick mustache, and a couple of pistols at the ready. So, why were these “first class ladies” bringing flowers to this desperado?

BOESSENECKER: Well, Tiburcio Vasquez didn’t look anything like what you described. That’s what Pancho Villa looked like in 1915. Tiburcio Vasquez operated in California in the frontier, from the 1850s through the 1870s, and he would wear clothing that was the height of fashion – a fashionable coat with a beaver collar; he’d wear a California hat, which was what we’d consider today, a Stetson hat, with a flat brim; high-heel cowboy boots, and a pair of wool trousers. So, more or less what a business person would have worn during that era.

Clothes help make the man, but Vasquez was attractive on many fronts.

BOESSENECKER: He was handsome, charming. He was a famous dancer. He wrote poetry for his female admirers. He sang, played the guitar. He was the life of the party.

So who was this charming criminal?

BOESSENECKER: He was mixed-race. He grew up under the Mexican flag. His great-grandfather and grandfather were among the founders of the State of California. They came here in 1776 with the de Anza expedition.  His life mirrors the rise and fall of the Californios.

And by Californios, he means the original Spanish settlers. The Vasquez family wasn’t wealthy, despite their early arrival in Monterey. Like most Californios, they worked the land. And any family can have its black sheep. That was Tiburcio.

BOESSENECKER: He got mixed up in drinking, gambling, horse racing. He opened up a fandango hall, which would be a dance hall, and associated with the roughest element of Monterey.

These somewhat legitimate businesses didn’t work out, so Vasquez found other ways to “acquire funds.” He would gather some cowboys…

BOESSENECKER: …And they would go and commit a robbery: a stage coach robbery, a store robbery, maybe even a burglary. And they’d divide up the spoils. And then they’d split up and go their own separate ways.

Vasquez was an outlaw, but he had little else in common with the thugs of today. Gang members of the mid-1800s respected his organizational skills, as well as his refined ability to charm the ladies.

BOESSENECKER: Even today, many men admire men who get good lookin’ women, and that was Vasquez, he got good lookin’ women. And so he was admired for that, plus his intelligence. He was a natural leader of men. All of the bandit raids he was involved in, he planned them.

The stylish bandito was aware that he was becoming a legend, despite admitting that his was “a sad life.” Many remaining Californios began to see him as their avenger against the endless tide of miners and settlers arriving during the Gold Rush.

BOESSENECKER: They saw him as somebody who was striking out against the Anglos, who had stolen their land, and their heritage. Many Latinos today see him as a folk hero, as a Robin Hood character. Of course he wasn’t. But what’s important about him is that people think he was because when people are oppressed, as Latinos were in the 19th Century, they’ll grasp at anything that gives them hope – even if it’s a notorious outlaw.

Vasquez is supposed to have said that if he had enough money, he could head a revolution against the Americans. But none of his activities ever included such plans.

If he were here today, Bosenecker says, the bandido would be happy to see the growing influence of Hispanic culture in California....

BOESSENECKER: That would please Vasquez immensely.

...And the outlaw might also smile to find that his name lives on in many landmarks around the state – including Vasquez High School, where the mascot, appropriately enough, is a mustang: the handsome, untamed, mixed-breed horse of the American West.

In San Francisco, I’m Steven Short for Crosscurrents.

Bandido earned John Boessenecker the Best Nonfiction Writer award for 2010, from True West magazine.