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Bring Me the Head of Clodoveo Chávez

By John Boessenecker
10/11/2017 • Wild West Magazine

After the hanging of his bandido mentor Tiburcio Vásquez, Chávez continued to terrorize Californians.

On a warm spring day in 1876 an Arizonan named Harry Roberts climbed down from a stagecoach in the central California adobe village of San Juan Bautista. Hefting a square, 5-gallon coal oil can, he strode across the plaza, passing the ancient mission, and walked into the Plaza Hotel. Entering the office of Judge James F. Breen, Roberts set the heavy can on a table and opened the lid. Inside was a gruesome sight Breen and gaping spectators would never forget—the severed head of bandido Clodoveo Chávez, floating lazily in a pool of pure alcohol.

Roberts wanted to know if San Juan’s citizens recognized the head, and identify it they did. For two days the curious filed in to view the grisly relic, and Roberts collected affidavits from those who had known Chávez in life, for he was San Juan’s most notorious native son. Chávez had long ridden with the infamous bandit leader Tiburcio Vásquez and, after the latter’s hanging a year earlier, led the remnants of the Vásquez gang on a series of raids that terrorized California. He had followed so well in his idol’s footsteps that Californians had little time to breathe after Vásquez’s death…at least not until Chávez left the state and then lost his head in Arizona Territory. The future bandido was born Luis Clodoveo de la Trinidad Chávez on August 4, 1849, in San Juan Bautista. Clodoveo is Spanish for Clovis, the first Frankish king (466–511). His parents, Francisco Chávez and Dolores Espinosa, were married in Monterey in an 1845 triple wedding that included the marriage of Tiburcio Vásquez’s older sister, Maria Concepcíon. Francisco and Dolores settled in San Juan Bautista, where they raised four sons and one daughter, Clodoveo being the second oldest. Francisco was a sheepherder from New Mexico, and Dolores was half California Indian. Prior to her marriage, Dolores had an illegitimate daughter by Tiburcio’s older brother, Claudio Vásquez. Tiburcio’s mother raised the child, who was like a sister to the younger Vásquez children. Although no blood relationship existed between Clodoveo and Tiburcio, young Chávez grew up idolizing Vásquez and called him tío (“uncle”).

The Chávez family adobe was on the southern out skirts of San Juan, at the southeast corner of the Alameda and San Juan–Hollister road crossing. Today an abandoned gas station marks the spot. The Chávez children grew to adulthood during the American period and attended school, where each learned to read, write and speak English. Isaac Mylar, a year older than Chávez, was a boyhood friend and schoolmate of the future outlaw. He recalled of his friend: “I knew him well and played marbles with him many times. He was a hard-looking boy, almost like an Indian, not a bad boy but rough, thicknecked, dark and heavy set.”

Luis Raggio, another local youth, did not have such a pleasant recollection of Chávez. Raggio, who would later play an important role in Clodoveo’s story, was born in San Luis Obispo in 1853, one of 11 children of an Italian butcher and his Californio wife. He recalled: “Clodoveo Chávez was a bad boy from the time he was a few years of age and was the leader of a gang around San Juan Bautista for a number of years before he joined Vásquez. I was a few years younger than Chávez and, together with other boys about San Juan Bautista, was attacked and mistreated many times by the Chávez gang.” Yet young Raggio was unafraid of Chávez, for he was quite pugnacious himself and in adulthood would participate in a number of brawls and shooting scrapes.

Chávez grew into a big, muscular youth, standing 6 feet and weighing 200 pounds. One day the teenage Raggio was riding his pony along Second Street, near the Castro-Breen Adobe, when Chávez and his fellow hoodlums threw rocks at him. Raggio dug spurs into his horse and escaped. On his return, instead of taking another street to avoid trouble, he rode toward Chávez and his gang near the west end of the mission. As Chávez approached him with a handful of rocks, Raggio uncoiled his lariat and threw it around his enemy’s neck. Raggio later said he “intended to let it go, but the reata got tangled with [the] saddle pommel.” He dragged Chávez a full block before Clodoveo worked the rope loose. The would-be outlaw jumped onto his own horse and pursued Raggio, who managed to escape a second time. In later years Chávez bore an unmistakable triangular scar on one cheek, caused by a horse’s kick; he may have received it in this incident.

By now Clodoveo’s father was suffering from serious mental illness. On the complaint of friends and family, a Monterey judge committed the elder Chávez to the state insane asylum in Stockton. He was released in less than two months and returned home. But his condition had not improved, and a month later the same judge returned him to the asylum. He was committed several more times during the 1870s. His insanity, his absence from the family home and his resulting inability to raise his children prompted Clodoveo to turn to Vásquez as a father figure. Perhaps this also explains why, as Raggio said, “Chávez had one sister and two brothers who all went bad.”

In 1872 Clodoveo was working as a vaquero for Estanislao Hernandez, wealthy owner of the huge Rancho Santa Ana y Quién Sabe in the mountains east of San Juan Bautista. Hernandez, a highly respected ranchero, heard rumors young Chávez was associating with Vásquez and tried vainly to persuade him to shun the bandit chief. But Clodoveo still idolized Tiburcio and was eager to accompany him on a robbing expedition. Vásquez sent him to San Francisco, where the young vaquero bought a saddle, bridle and a twin six-shooters. Within a few days he was in Hollister, east of San Juan, ready to ride with Vásquez.

They planned to rob the Visalia stage on the isolated plains of the San Joaquin Valley, but their timing was bad, and they missed the coach. Instead, on April 15, 1872, Chávez and Vásquez stopped and robbed two travelers on the stage road. Five days later, after riding back across the Coast Range to the mountainous country south of Hollister, they lay in wait for the Hollister–New Idria stage. Tiburcio picked a spot seven miles north of the village of San Benito, where the stage road crossed the shallow San Benito River—known ever after as Robbers Roost. One of his gang, José Castro, had tipped him off that wealthy cattleman Upton Matthis would be riding up the road about the time the stage passed.

The masked Vásquez and Chávez first stopped a passing teamster and tied him up. When the stagecoach slowed to cross the streambed, they halted it and robbed the driver and passengers, including a young couple on their honeymoon. Leaving them bound on the roadside, the two bandidos galloped down the trail, robbing several more travelers along the way. Their pickings were slim. Finally they encountered Upton Matthis, from whom they took $784. Tiburcio’s mask slipped, and Matthis immediately recognized him. Unconcerned, Vásquez boasted to Matthis, “I could easily escape capture.” The two highwaymen then remounted and raced off. Suspecting that Castro had tipped off Vásquez, authorities arrested him the next day, keeping him under guard in a local ranch house. But the following night a lynch mob seized Castro and hanged him from a nearby tree.

Unfazed by Castro’s fate, Chávez became Tiburcio’s lieutenant and most loyal follower. Over the next two years he took part in each of the gang’s infamous exploits: the Firebaugh’s Ferry raid of February 26, 1873; the Twenty-one Mile House robbery of July 30, 1873; and the Tres Pinos tragedy a few weeks later, which left three innocent bystanders dead. Chávez stayed by Tiburcio’s side throughout the long manhunt that followed, narrowly escaping death in a gunfight with a pursuing posse in Little Rock Creek Canyon, east of Los Angeles, on September 7, 1873. In early November, Chávez and gang member Anastacio Androtio robbed and murdered a sheepherder in the Cholame Valley. Chávez escaped, but a posse captured and strung up his compadre. A week later Chávez rode with the gang when they robbed Jones’ store on the San Joaquin River. Just after Christmas he took part in the Kingston raid, one of the few times an outlaw gang sacked an entire town.

On February 24, 1874, Vásquez and Chávez shot up the Coyote Holes Station in the Mojave Desert and escaped after looting an incoming coach. Next, the two robbed a stagecoach in Soledad Canyon, north of Los Angeles, then holed up at the adobe of friend “Greek George” Caralambo, in what is now West Hollywood. At the head of a large band, they held wealthy sheepman Alessandro Repetto for ransom, then escaped into the nearby San Gabriel Mountains. Los Angeles lawmen finally captured Tiburcio Vásquez at Greek George’s adobe on May 14, 1874. Chávez was in luck: He was in Los Angeles at the time and slipped out of town unnoticed. He later claimed to have visited the Los Angeles jail in disguise, hoping to free his chief, but it was too well guarded. Eventually he returned to his old haunts in the mountains near Hollister, dreaming of ways to help Vásquez.

Despite his fearsome reputation, Chávez remained particularly friendly with Henry Melendy and family, who owned a ranch not far from present-day Pinnacles National Monument. Chávez was a frequent visitor to the Melendy homestead, often when Henry’s young wife, Deborah Shell Melendy, was home alone with her three small children. No doubt the friendship had begun before he had turned outlaw. Chávez seemed to enjoy entertaining their children. On one occasion Deborah was hanging out the laundry when a hungry Chávez rode up in time for the midday meal. Deborah asked Chávez to watch her baby while she went inside and prepared lunch. Clodoveo did as she asked. She and her family considered Vásquez and his men “kindhearted, genial fellows, never giving them trouble. Especially is this true of Chávez, who was…always gentlemanly and courteous, kind and sociable.” For more than a century the Melendy family would consistently recall the jarring image of the cold-blooded outlaw cradling Deborah’s infant.

Chávez now formed his own gang and began raiding the Cerro Gordo mining country, near Death Valley. The so-called Inyo Road, which ran south from Owens Valley through the Mojave Desert to Los Angeles, was dotted with small stagecoach stops and watering stations. Here Chávez and his men robbed isolated stage stops and lone travelers. When Chávez learned that Vásquez had been convicted of murder and sentenced to hang, he returned to the mountains near Hollister. Perhaps he had some vague notion of rescuing his chief. On the day Tiburcio was hanged, March 19, 1875, the grief-stricken outlaw made a reckless visit to Hollister. He entered town at 10 o’clock that night. Both the sheriff and the city marshal were in San Jose, attending the hanging. A full moon lit the sky, and Chávez walked boldly down San Benito Street and was recognized by several townsfolk. He stepped into a couple of saloons and had drinks with some old friends from San Juan Bautista. Then he entered a Mexican restaurant, listened to the owner play guitar and greeted an acquaintance, cautioning him, “Don’t call me by name.” With tears in his eyes, Chávez spoke of Vásquez on the gallows and openly mourned the loss of his chief.

Chávez’s friend, spotting a small seven-shooter in his pocket, asked, “Is that all the arms you have?” The bandit pulled back his coat, showing two large navy revolvers, and replied, “This is my shooting force.” By this time other paisanos had summoned his mother, then living in Hollister, and she and her son held a tearful reunion in the back room of the café. But someone had raised the alarm, and a band of Anglo citizens gathered to hunt the fugitive. They soon spied him and several hombres on horseback, riding toward a nearby bordello. The gang extinguished the brothel lights, and by the time the citizens could search it, Chávez had vanished. His visit to Hollister had lasted an hour and caused intense excitement among the townsfolk.

Chávez’s grief soon turned to rage. He was determined to carry on in Tiburcio’s footsteps. Riding hard, he and his band headed back to the Inyo Road, where they robbed the Little Lake Station on the night of March 24. Within the next few days Chávez and his gang also held up the Granite Springs and Borax Lake (now Searles Lake) stage stations. At one station Chávez showed off his marksmanship by shooting the head off a chicken. As they left another station, Chávez called to the hostler: “Adios! You catch me, maybe.” These raids caused great excitement in the mining camps. Guards took up positions at the mines and in the camps. As a 50-man posse from Cerro Gordo scoured the hills, the editor of The Inyo Independent reported, “The whole country is alarmed at this sudden invasion of this modern Joaquin.”

After robbing and murdering an Indian, the gang pulled one of its boldest raids. On the night of April 15 they held up the tollhouse on the Yellow Grade road only a mile below Cerro Gordo. Five days later a detachment of soldiers from Camp Independence under Captain Alexander MacGowan encountered Chávez and several of his gang members at Owens Lake. There was a running gunfight, and the soldiers badly wounded one of the bandidos. The rest escaped south to a hideout near Coyote Holes, where their compadre died of his wounds. The outlaws hastily buried him amid the rocks at the base of the huge monolith later known as Robbers Roost. They were carrying a stolen express box, heavy with silver bullion and silver and gold coins. It was too heavy to carry any farther, so the band hurriedly buried it in the sand and covered it with large rock slabs. To lighten their horses, they also concealed their extra revolvers and a rifle in the rocks. Then the bandidos mounted their horses and fled. Captain MacGowan and his men hunted them for almost a month, without success.

On the evening of April 28 the Cerro Gordo–bound stage was slowly making its way up the treacherous Yellow Grade Road about two miles below the camp. Suddenly the gang materialized on horseback and, with shotguns aimed at the driver, robbed the stage and escaped with the U.S. mailbag and Wells Fargo express box. The repeated raids made headlines in newspapers throughout the state, and the governor offered a $2,000 reward for Chávez. The bandit leader decided it was time to escape across the border to Baja California. On May 11, while riding south through the Mojave Desert, he and his men stopped long enough to rob the Cottonwood Station on the Mojave River.

From Baja California, Chávez rode east alone, crossing the Colorado River into Arizona Territory. There he was a complete stranger, and using his mother’s maiden name as an alias, he took to calling himself José Espinosa. In September 1875 Chávez hired on at the ranch of N.G. Baker on the Gila River, near present-day Tacna. He might have stayed there undetected except for an extraordinary coincidence.

Luis Raggio, his 15-year-old brother, Vicente, and three brothers surnamed Slankard had brought a herd of 300 horses and 200 cattle from San Benito overland to the Gila River valley. Vicente was a rebellious, troublesome youth who had run away from home, and Luis thought the trip would do him good. Much of their stock died en route, and the Raggio brothers landed in Arizona flat broke. On October 1 they rode to Stanwix Station, once a stop on the Butterfield Overland Stage line, on the Gila River about eight miles east of Yuma. Here they sought work as drovers on the Agua Caliente Ranch of King S. Woolsey, Arizona pioneer, cattleman and Indian fighter.

In mid-October Woolsey instructed the Raggio boys to drive a herd of mules to the Castle Domes Mines northeast of Yuma. Luis Raggio felt the trip would be too long and too hard on his younger brother, so he left him behind. On his return Raggio learned that Vicente had met a compadre from California, and the two had gone to Baker’s spread on the Gila. Raggio was surprised, for he and his brother knew no one in Arizona Territory. Raggio headed for the Baker ranch, and as he later recalled: “When I rode up to the bunkhouse, I heard a familiar voice, and the first person I met was Chávez. He told me that he had taken a bunch of stolen horses into Mexico, but that he had met better horse thieves down there than he was and had lost all of them. He said that he was going back to San Juan in a few months and kill Judge [David] Belden, who had sentenced Vásquez to be hung, and several other persons who had given testimony against them. I listened to all of this without saying very much, as the last time I had seen Chávez, he and his gang had thrown rocks at me, and I had roped and dragged him.”

When Chávez warned him to keep quiet, explained Raggio, “I…told him that I had no intention of giving him away, and that if he would let me alone, I would let him alone.” Raggio, however, promptly wrote a letter to Judge Breen in San Juan, asking if Chávez was still wanted. He then spent the next two weeks rounding up Woolsey’s cattle, which had strayed widely on Baker’s ranch. When Raggio returned, he was chagrined to learn from Baker that Vicente was suspected of stealing some of the rancher’s money, revolvers and ammunition. Recalled Raggio: “Someone told me that the boy was at Chávez’s cabin. I rode over to the cabin and came upon both of them seated under the tree on a blanket. Chávez had taken apart one of the stolen pistols and was cleaning and oiling it. It immediately occurred to me that Chávez was at the bottom of all of this, and that the boy had stolen the things for him, because Chávez was the man who had told Baker that the boy had stolen the things. I quickly made up my mind not to let Chávez suspicion this. I gave the boy a hard scolding and made him roll the parts of the pistol up in a handkerchief and come with me. I told him that I would whip him if I ever heard of him doing such a thing again.”

A few days later, when Raggio had finished rounding up the stray cattle, a letter arrived from Breen, advising that Chá- vez was very much wanted. Raggio approached Baker, who agreed to help capture the fugitive. He assigned two of his best men, Clark Colvig and Harry Roberts, to assist them. Raggio insisted they take Chávez alive. The outlaw was digging a trench for a palisade-like wall Baker was erecting around the ranch buildings. It was agreed Raggio would seize the muscular badman from behind while the others bound him with fence wire. As Raggio, Baker and Chávez worked on the trench, Colvig and Roberts rode up and dismounted. Colvig, carrying a Colt Model 1855 revolving shotgun, decided to ignore the plan. He ordered Chávez, “Throw up your hands!”

“Chávez did not even look at him,” recalled Raggio. “He jumped sideways out of the ditch and started to run for his cabin, where he had a rifle and a pistol. Colvig fired at him as he jumped, but missed him. When he was about 40 yards away, Colvig fired again and hit him in the back just below the shoulders with a charge of buckshot. He fell on his face with his arms outstretched. I spurred my horse and rode over to the place. I lifted up his head just as he made his last gasp.” Clodoveo Chávez was dead. It was November 25, 1875.

Raggio, Roberts and Colvig brought the body into Yuma in a wagon, arriving at 3 o’clock in the morning. Recalled Raggio: “The Mexicans about the place had heard of what happened and crowded about the wagon. I was the only one of our party who could understand what they said. They said the man was not Chávez, that he was a man from Altar, Old Mexico, and they began planning to kill us. There was a pile of old trash and lumber beside our wagon, and I climbed up on top of this with my rifle. I explained to them in Spanish what had happened, but they would not believe me and became more threatening all the time.”

Just in time the sheriff arrived and broke up the mob. Raggio, Roberts and Colvig were lodged in jail for safekeeping until an inquest could be held. After the three testified about the killing, a number of Mexicans swore they knew the dead man as José Espinosa, Chávez’s alias. Raggio finally managed to convince both the court and the people of Yuma that the dead man was in fact Clodoveo Chávez. The three were released, as Raggio recalled: “We were all broke, and the sheriff asked what I wanted to do about collecting my share of the reward for Chávez. I told him that I wasn’t sure we could prove that we had the right man, unless someone from San Juan or San Jose could see the body. So he sent across the river to Fort Yuma for Dr. [Leonard] Loring, an Army officer at the garrison there. Dr. Loring cut off Chávez’s head, and we sealed it up in a 5-gallon coal oil can full of alcohol.”

Reports of Chávez’s death appeared in newspapers nationwide. Clodoveo’s mother, Dolores, and his only sister, Rosario, wept bitterly at the news and went into mourning. His mother told a newspaper reporter she “would rather he should die in this way than be dragged over the state and hanged as Vásquez was.” Although news of Chávez’s killing was received with elation in most quarters, his old compadres in San Juan were outraged and engaged in drunken quarrels with Anglos over his fate. Early in the morning of December 18 someone burned the Raggio home to the ground. Fortunately, Luis’ father had moved his family into another house the day before, and no one was injured. The Hollister Advance reported, “There are grounds for suspicion that some vindictive sympathizer of Chávez did the deed.”

In Arizona Territory, Raggio, Colvig and Roberts labored several months to scrape up enough money to send Roberts with the head by riverboat and steamer to California. He brought the gruesome relic to San Jose and then to San Juan Bautista, arriving on May 9, 1876. It was on display for two days in Breen’s Plaza Hotel office. After collecting affidavits from witnesses, Roberts took the head to Sacramento to claim the state reward. The ghastly relic reportedly ended up in Dr. Louis Jordan’s freak museum in San Francisco, where it appeared alongside the severed head of Joaquin Murrieta and the hand of Three-Finger Jack.

The 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed Jordan’s museum and its bizarre collection of pickled deformities. Given the violent life and bloody death of Clodoveo Chávez, perhaps it was an appropriate finale.

 

Frequent contributor John Boessenecker, a San Francisco-based attorney, wrote about Tiburcio Vásquez in the August 2010 Wild West. He is the author of Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vásquez (2010) and such other California outlaw and lawmen books as Lawman: The Life and Times of Harry Morse, 1835–1912 and Badge and Buckshot: Lawlessness in Old California. Boessenecker is interviewed in the current issue (P. 14).

Originally published in the August 2011 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.  

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