Interview With Outlaw-Lawman Biographer John Boessenecker | HistoryNet MENU

Interview With Outlaw-Lawman Biographer John Boessenecker

By Candy Moulton
6/3/2011 • Interviews, Wild West Interviews

Boessenecker visits the grave of California bandido Tiburcio Vásquez.
Boessenecker visits the grave of California bandido Tiburcio Vásquez.
San Francisco attorney John Boessenecker began researching the subject of his 2010 biography, Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vásquez, more than 40 years ago when he was just a teenager. He went on to study history at San Francisco State University and earn a law degree from the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

Boessenecker’s interest in the Old West, particularly California, has deepened over the years. Since 1969 he has published many magazine articles and several well-received books, including Badge and Buckshot: Lawlessness in Old California (1988), The Grey Fox: The True Story of Bill Miner (with co-author Mark Dugan, 1992), Lawman: The Life and Times of Harry Morse, 1835–1912 (1998), Against the Vigilantes: The Recollections of Dutch Charley Duane (1999) and Bandido, all published by the University of Oklahoma Press, and Gold Dust and Gunsmoke (1999), published by John Wiley & Sons. Bandido, the first full-length biography of Vásquez, is a Western Writers of America Spur finalist in the Best Western Nonfiction Biography category. Boessenecker has appeared often as a historical commentator on PBS, The History Channel and A&E. He recently spoke to Wild West about his book, Vásquez and the California Gold Rush era.

How were the Californios affected by the California Gold Rush?
It was a real culture shock, and I devoted several of the first chapters of the book [Bandido] to that. It really explains why Vásquez became an outlaw. The Californios became second-class citizens in their own land within a few years. They lost political, social and economic power almost overnight. Vásquez lived in Monterey, which during his boyhood was one of the most violent communities in America. It had a deadly brew of homegrown Californio outlaws as well as “Sydney Ducks” from the penal colony in Australia, American ruffians and desperadoes from Mexico.

‘Because of my research, we know who [Vásquez] robbed, we know who he shot, we know about his illegitimate children’

What factors made Monterey such a Mecca for outlaws?
Monterey had both cattle and women, and that was something the gold mining region did not have. Cattle, money and Californio women attracted rough men and led to much violence. Vásquez later said that he was the victim of violence by Anglo ruffians who came to the dances to monopolize the girls. This was undoubtedly true. His life is a microcosm of the broader effect on the Californios of the American conquest of California.

Who influenced him?
In the early 1850s Vásquez fell under the influence of Anastacio Garcia, one of the most dangerous outlaws of the gold rush. Garcia got Tiburcio mixed up in the Roach-Belcher Feud in Monterey, a deadly war over a beautiful Californio widow and her fortune. This, in turn, led [Vásquez] to a life of outlawry.

How do you compare Vásquez with Joaquín Murrieta?
[Murrieta’s] exploits took place between 1850 and 1853, a time when California society was very unsettled, communication was poor and newspapers were few. So information about him is uncertain. His life is totally enmeshed in myth, and it would take a governmental commission to unravel it all. There were hundreds of bandits in the gold rush, and over time their stories were all conflated into a single man, Murrieta, and that did not happen with Vásquez. Because of my research, we know who he robbed, we know who he shot, we know about his illegitimate children. People actually left recollections and reminiscences about Vásquez that I have been able to authenticate. People always ask me to write a book about Joaquín Murrieta, and the thought of it just gives me a headache.

Why did Vásquez turn bandido?
He had six brothers and sisters who lived to adulthood, all of whom were reputable, honest people. One of his brothers became a prominent citizen in Carmel Valley, right next to Carmel, and was a member of the school board and a prominent rancher. Another brother became a justice of the peace in Los Angeles County for a short period. His sisters were warm and caring women who raised large families. They all grew up in the same household. Tiburcio was the youngest, and he may have been spoiled. The community he grew up in had all sorts of grog shops and gambling halls. He began to hang out with the rough element in Monterey, both Anglos and Hispanics. When he was 17, he opened his own dance hall, and that is what really led him down the road to perdition. These cutthroats were in his dance hall, which one night led to a fight and the killing of a constable. From that day on he was an outlaw.

Was he a simple bandit?
He was definitely not just a common criminal. He was well educated for that time period. He wrote poetry, he sang, played the guitar and was a graceful and popular dancer. He was very charming. He had many love affairs. But at the same time he could be menacing and deadly. He was involved in nine murders in his lifetime, although he denied to his dying day ever killing anyone. He was a sort of dichotomy. Vásquez was extremely popular during his own lifetime. His magnetism attracted people to him. People would harbor him and feed him. Beginning a few years before he was captured, he became a folk hero to many of the Spanish-speaking people of California. There were several paperback books on Vásquez published around the time he was captured and hanged. There were a lot of crazy myths that had been written about him. The last years of his life were fairly easy to research, but it was extremely difficult to learn about his early life, especially during the Gold Rush period.

How did you sort through the myths?
I’ve been interested in Western history since about 1967. After a while you get a feel for what is true and what isn’t. I was a police officer for eight years, and that gave me insight into criminal behavior. I had to sort out fiction from fact. Many stories were told by Vásquez himself in newspaper interviews. He was not really one of the most reliable reporters, to say the least. From these interviews you get a sense of his personality, his truthfulness, his character and how he presented his story in the best light possible. I had to track down all these obscure newspaper interviews with him.

What lawman most intrigues you?
Right now it’s Bob Paul (a lawman from 1854 to 1901), because I have recently completed a biography of him. He was sheriff of Calaveras County, Calif., during the late 1850s and later befriended the Earp brothers in Tombstone. [Paul] was very involved in the events surrounding the O.K. Corral gunfight. He was a Wells Fargo detective, a sheriff, then U.S. marshal of Arizona and, finally, undersheriff in Tucson before he died in 1901. He had an amazing life.

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