In the summer of 1853 most of San Francisco was closely following the adventures of Captain Harry Love. A former Texas Ranger, Love had been appointed by the legislature to head a mounted troop of twenty rangers assigned to capture or kill "the five Joaquins," all Mexican outlaws of the same first name, who had been terrorizing the ranches and gold camps. Love and his men were to be paid a thousand dollars for each Joaquin.
Love's rangers were not all pure knights: one had murdered the leader of the expedition that had discovered Yosemite Valley; another, to show his contempt for poor dining room service, had killed his waiter. For two months the residents of San Francisco avidly read the "letters" sent in by correspondents following Love's manhunt. But both the legislature and citizens grew restless when Love and his band failed to find even one Joaquin.
Then in July, Love's troopers came upon a band of Mexicans. There was a shootout and Manuel Garcia, alias "Three-Fingered Jack," was killed. As proof, a finger was cut off and preserved in alcohol. The head of another, said to be a leader, was also preserved in an alcohol-filled jar. Prisoners were turned over to the Sheriff of Mariposa and the victorious band returned to Sacramento with the head of the bandit chief and finger of his follower.
San Francisco newspapers hailed Love for killing "the notorious bandit chief, Joaquin," but nowhere in those early accounts does the bandit's last name appear. Evidently no one cared; rustling and highway robbery stopped and that was what was important.
The delighted legislature not only paid Love and his men the thousand-dollar reward, but gave them a four-thousand-dollar bonus. The editor of the San Francisco Alta was not satisfied, however; his investigative reporting and subsequent stories amused the city and angered the legislature.
Whose Head Is It? Joaquin Murieta's?
It affords amusement to our citizens to read the various accounts of the capture and decapitation of "the notorious Joaquin Murietta." The humbug is so transparent that it is surprising any sensible person can be imposed upon by the statements of the affairs which have appeared in the prints.
Despite the Alta's skepticism, the preserved "head of Joaquin Murietta" made the rounds of saloons, bars, gambling halls, and museums. At about the same time, Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, wife of a physician stationed at the Rich and Indian bars of the Feather River's gold camps, had submitted the first of twenty-three letters written from the camps to Pioneer Magazine in San Francisco. The editor, Steven Massett, one of California's great journalists, sensed immediately that he had a literary find. The letters would become a famous source describing life in the gold camps.
In letter nineteen, Mrs. Clappe describes how the camp's Vigilante Committee convicted "five or six Spaniards" on charges of starting a riot in the camps and sentenced them to be whipped. In a strange way Mrs. Knapp's letter helped to launch the saga of Joaquin Murieta ...
The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, Celebrated California Bandit
Seven thousand copies of the book were sold, but all John Rollin Ridge had left were his old debts and poor credit; the publisher slipped out of San Francisco with the profits, leaving Ridge, as he wrote to a friend, "to whistle for our money." He added that he was planning to have the book republished in "the Atlantic States," but apparently he became so disgusted that he abandoned the project.
Five years passed. During that period Ridge's Murieta became California's Robin Hood. Then, in the autumn of 1859, the editor of the California Police Gazette decided to resurrect the bandit for his readers. He assigned someone to rewrite Ridge's slim paperback, altering a few fictional "facts" such as changing the name of Ridge's Rosita, wife of the outlaw, to Carmela. The serial ran for ten issues with illustrations by the noted California artist Charles Christian Nahl. From the serial came another paperback, and sales soared.
During the Civil War years Ridge's "life story" of Murieta was lifted by writers and publishers in many countries; in Spain he became as legendary as in California. Charles E. B. Howe of San Francisco wrote a five-act play, Joaquin Murieta de Castille. Now Ridge's original Rosita became Belloro, which the author explained meant "Golden Bell." Although the play was published, there is no evidence that it was ever produced.
Ridge, meanwhile, was understandably bitter. He constantly complained of the literary piracy but apparently didn't take any legal moves to collect damages. But he did bring out a new edition with an angry foreword, denouncing the "spurious edition" of his work which had been published and complaining that his authorship had been damaged by the "crude interpolations."
However, as Joseph Henry Jackson points out in his excellent Bad Company, the other writers had actually improved Ridge's fiction; purple passages were trimmed, Three-Fingered Jack's passionate orations were cut to the bone, and the entire narrative was tightened. Ridge never lived to see his new version of Murieta; he died in 1871 in San Francisco shortly before the book was published.
The poets next digcovered Ridge's tale. Cincinnatus Hiner Miller composed an atrociously bad poem called "California," which was published in the Northwest and later in England; Miller made Rosita a descendant of Montezuma. Next came the Beadle Dime Library. That firm's prolific Joseph E. Badger wrote Joaquin, the Saddle King, and this one was pirated by another paperback firm as Joaquin: The Claude Duval of California: A Romance Based on Truth.
By the 1870s Ridge's original and plagiarized versions of Murieta had made the fictitious outlaw a popular folklore figure in the United States and throughout Europe.Finally the outlaw's story became history. In 1888, Hubert Howe Bancroft, whose California histories are still reference sources, incorporated Murieta into his California Pastoral: 1769-1848. Bancroft took his version from Ridge, adding some fictitious dialogue when needed.
Another California historian, Theodore Hittell, also gave Murieta's story the stamp of truth when he included the tale of the outlaw in his works. However, he was more cautious than Bancroft, pointing out that while he quoted Ridge, the sources on Murieta were "unreliable." The majority of California's county historians also accepted Ridge's version, with the usual "pioneers" contributing "eyewitness accounts" of the outlaw's robberies and Robin Hood deeds.
Illustrations for all the works were difficult; the early Police Gazette used Nahl's drawings, but there were no daguerreotypes or photographs. As Murieta "biographies" increased, so did the versions of his likeness; they ranged from crude woodcuts to Nahl's classical painting of the outlaw: handsome, daring, black eyes flashing fire as he thunders across some unknown landscape. Curiously, no one had photographed "Murieta's head" while it was exhibited in side shows or museums, although ads show that it was still being exhibited as late as the time of San Francisco's earthquake in 1906.
Ridge's fictionalized hero, plagiarized, rewritten, and distorted, went from the printing presses to the stage and finally into films. After the early moviemakers graduated from the Coney Island "peep show" era and moved to a quiet California suburb named Hollywood, writers began hunting for romantic heroes. Murieta, of course, fitted every specification; he was not only a handsome, brave cavalier who had conquered evil in the Wild West, but the motivation that had driven him into a life of outlawry-the rape of his beautiful bride, and so forth - was superb.
The scriptwriters blew the dust from Ridge's books, the Police Gazette serials, and the many volumes which followed, then typewriters began clicking. When they finished, Ridge and his imitators would never have recognized their originals: Joaquin Murieta - the Napoleon of Banditry, Marauder of the Mines, the Saddle King, the Claude Duval of California - was now embroidered beyond belief. The script was based on Walter Noble Burns's "biography," The Robin Hood of El Dorado. Burns had written other popular books on western figures such as Billy the Kid, and his book on Murieta became a best seller. It was quickly sold to Hollywood and four years later it reached the screen.
In 1936 Warner Baxter, playing the bandit's role, rode across a thousand movie screens to thrill and entertain a weary nation slowly emerging from the Depression. It was a highly improbable tale filled with villains, heroines, and thrilling chases all surrounding the dashing, handsome Baxter.
The saga of Murieta has continued with novels, newspaper series, and books perpetuating the fiction of the harassed Cherokee writer, John Rollin Ridge. He was the West's first outlaw image maker, who turned legend into history. Many followed his example.
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