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Interview With Outlaw-Lawman Biographer John Boessenecker

By Candy Moulton 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: June 03, 2011 
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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.


29 Responses to “Interview With Outlaw-Lawman Biographer John Boessenecker”


  1. 1
    Robert E Adams says:

    My grt,grt grandfather was Sheriff of Santa Clara county when Vasquez was captured. His name was John Hicks Adams, he was also a U.S. marshal in Arizona when he was ambused & killed in 1878 near Tucson. Have you ever thought about writing a book about him?

  2. 2
    John Boessenecker says:

    Dear Mr. Adfams: I have done fairly extensive research on Captain Adams, both for Bandido and also for my first book, Badge and Buckshot (1988). I have also interviewed various members of the Adams family. I do hope to do a book on him some day. I have a lot of data on his murder and also the men who killed him and his mining partner, Cornelius Finley.
    John Boessenecker

    • 2.1
      Tony sparks says:

      John…
      I somehow lost your phone number. I wanted to get an autographed copy of ..Harry Morris.. from you. I have lived in Alameda County my entire life and am retired from the Alameda County Sheriffs Dept. It is so interesting to read about the history of all the different places i grew up in.. My great grandfather was Gov. John Sparks of Nevada, another interesting story.

      If possible call me with contact info…

      Tony Sparks….
      925)577-0530

  3. 3
    Jim Cooper (ret. OPD) says:

    I have read most of your works and found them fascinating, especially your book about Harry Morse. Being a fourth generation Oaklander, the local history you provided had me captivated. I missed your presentation in Pleasanton on September 11th. Do you have any other presentations planned in the Bay Area? I would love to attend.

  4. 4
    C Petersen says:

    I purchased your book Bandido and thought it excellent. It was well researched and documented. As I am a descendant of several bandits including Vasquez and other Californios that you have written about, I was intrigued when I found your books. However, I read Gold Dust and Gunsmoke and found numerous errors, some taken from historic books that were somewhat racist and poorly documented. In particular, the families involved in the Rancho de los Osos and that surrounding area who you had written about. Bancroft and others of that time, did not always write without their own slant and prejudices which seemed to have somewhat obscured the real facts.
    Again, Bandido is by far your finest work.

  5. 5
    John Schubert says:

    Good morning . . . . I am the historian for the Russian River area and like you have written about law-breakers. I am currently chasing two Cazadero stage robbers of 1892. They were first charged in Sonoma County Superior Court but then the federal government claimed jurisdiction as there was U. S. mail aboard. I have contacted the national archives in San Bruno. The two defendants pled guilty in federal court and were sentenced two years at Folsom. I have copies of all "currently known" court and commitment papers.

    Now: the problem is none of the three jurisdictions involved -county, federal, state – have "mug-shots" / booking photos. This is not to say they didn't take photos.

    My question to you is: have you any suggestions where to search for such photos? When did the state start to photograph convicts? Any help would greatly be appreciated.

    Thank you, John Schubert

  6. 6
    Lisa Eisemann says:

    Hi, I am the historian for the Salinas Police dept. and CTF Soledad Prison and have written several historical non fiction books on murder and crime in our area. Are you aware of the current controversy in Salinas regarding naming our new elem. school after Tiburcio Vasquez? If you would be willing to speak with me, I would love to order a signed copy of your book. I m a private investigator, my husband is a ret.d homicide det. He will be sworn in as Mayor on Tues. and we are against this name for the school. The school board claims Vasquez was framed, etc. I have read the court docs and just wonder if you are interested in this because of your excellent research. Lisa Eisemann and Joe Gunter. 831. 809. 5543 or email. Thank you for your time. Lisa

  7. 7
    Gabriella Martinez-Perez says:

    What a shame that Mr. Boessenecker chose to utilize his education and talents as an author to malign the history of Monterey and to draw attention to Vasquez, a criminal who should have been forgotten long ago.

    • 7.1
      C Petersen says:

      California has a colorful past which also included many Californio bandits. Most written accounts of these people have been filled with errors and racism. As a descendant of many of these bandits, I feel thier stories should be told, as they were a part of our history. I do not feel Monterey history has been maligned, as Santa Barbara any many other towns were hot beds of criminal activities. Most Californians today have no sense of early history in this state, both good and bad. The Californio people lost everything when the new settlers arrived and became outcasts unless they married into an Anglo family, thus creating a perfect inviornment for men to become criminals, The best solution is to read every available piece of information on California's past and become more informed. I do however feel that Mr. Boessenecker would do well to write a factual book about the great Spanish families who first settler in Ca.- from the days of the Great Dons to the horrific end, when many families had their land stolen (by the Anglos who are protrayed as heros) and they became dirt poor.

  8. 8
    Rob Anglin says:

    John:
    I am an as-yet unpublished author in the Bay Area working on my first book (planned series) which will take fictional characters through the Wild West up to about 1887 or so, before they head over to China for a "front-row seat" of the demise of the Qing Dynasty. The first protagonist will be based loosely upon the experiences of my G-grandfather, who ran-away from home in Illinois to serve as a Drummer Boy, and later fought under Sherman in Atlanta. We believe it was apocryphal, yet rumor was that he disappeared in the 1890's working as a Pinkerton agent. That will be the basic trajectory for my protagonist. I hope to implicate him in the behind-the-scenes detective work in a mix of real and made-up cases throughout the Wild West. I'd love to meet you, and plan to purchase your books, once I am "finished" with Antebellum America through the Civil War.

  9. 9
    Dick Dryden says:

    Dear Mr. Boessenecker;

    From all the stories of our family in Los Angeles, it seems my great grandfather was a personal friend of Vasquez.Once he was on a stage from Los Angeles
    going North when Vasquez held up the coach. The story of how Vasquez returned his money is fascinating.

    If you have time I would like to talk with you about that relationship.

    Thanks,

    Dick Dryden
    408/265-1808

  10. 10
    Larry Thompson says:

    Dear John,
    Chris Brewer gave me your name and suggested that you may be able to help me in verifying the history of Bill Dalton's rifle Win 1876 Serial# 23082. Many years ago I purchased this rifle and others from the estate of Frank Latta. It is pictured on page 245 of "Dalton Gang Days." If you have any paperwork or opinion on this rifle's history, would you please share it with me. Winchester had a fire and Tulare County had a flood which destroyed records. I have the rifle. The book and the story, but nothing else. Have a good day and I hope to hear from you someday.

    Sincerely yours,
    Larry Thompson
    PO Box 10
    Shady Cove. Or 97539
    541-878-4640

  11. 11
    Heidi says:

    Hi John,

    I would love to carry your book in our gift shop at the New Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum/Casa Grande. Can you provide me with a wholesale distributer? We would also be interested in having you as a guest speaker for staff, volunteers and perhaps the general public if you are interested please contact me at 408-918-7774. Thanks!

    Heidi

  12. 12
    Paula Trahan says:

    Mr Boessenecker, I understand from the July issue of True West that you are 75% complete on Frank Hamer biography. My son in laws cousin Travis is Frank Hamer's great grandson. I've been told he has much family memorabilia. Not sure he completely appreciates the historical value of these archives.
    Thank you and good luck.
    Paula K Trahan
    Magnolia, TX

  13. 13
    John Boessenecker says:

    I will be giving a talk about my book Bandido on October 5, 2013, at the New Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum near San Jose.

    • 13.1
      Shannon Ryan says:

      Hello Mr Boessenecker,

      I'm reading with relish your book "Harry Morse Lawman…" It's wonderfully written and eye-opening. One of the cattle rustlers mentioned in your book is my 2nd great grand uncle, Crisanto Altamirano. I'm currently writing a book to be self-published, probably limited to family and a few genealogical societies. May I use a quote from your book in mine, with appropriate acknowledgement? If so, I can send you the context. Let me know how to connect with you, if you don't mind. Would have loved to attend your talk this month, but – alas – I live in Albuquerque now. (The book will probably be titled "The Bagleys of Livermore and Tracy, California." Very boring, but it's useful for genealogical purposes!

      Thank you very much. Sincerely, Shannon

  14. 14
    John Boessenecker says:

    Mr. Schubert — I apologize for the delay in answering. I did not know about all the comments on this page until a friend mentioned it yesterday. The only place there might be mug photos would be at the State Archives in Sacramento. There are scattered Folsom and San Quentin mug photos from the early 1890s; it was not until about 1894 that all prisoners were photographed. Most of the stage robbers arrested on the North Coast between 1880 and 1990 were captured by Sheriff Doc Standley. Most U.S. prisoners from California and Arizona were sent to San Quentin pursuant to a contract with the federal government in those years.

  15. 15
    John Boessenecker says:

    I apologize for the delay in answering. I did not know about all the comments on this page until a friend mentioned it yesterday. The school board never read my book; if they had they would not ave made all those kooky statements about Vasquez. Of course he was not framed for the Tres Pinos murders. He admitted taking part in the raid, though he denied killing anyone. Under the law then and now, he was a principal in the crime and all principals are equally guilty of any murders committed in the furtherance of the robbery. I spent 40 years collecting the information on Vasquez that appeared in the book and it was very disappointing that they did not read it, despite the fact that in 2010 the Salinas California devoted most of a page to the book. A couple of week ago the Los Angeles Times ran this story and used a quote from me, but the reporter failed to mention that I told him that although Vasquez is seen as a folk hero today, it is absurd for a school to be named after him. He left that statement out of his story. You probably know that there is already a high school named after Vasquez in Los Angeles County.

  16. 16
    John Boessenecker says:

    I would be happy to talk with you. My office number is 415-392-3374.

  17. 17
    regan says:

    Hello John,

    I am told I am related to Calvin Hall and Mary Hall, but I am not seeing on line where the two had daughters named Mary and Agnes (execpt for my family history-see the below link). Do you know if they did or not? Do you know if Mary Hall was Native American?

    http://familytreemaker.genealogy.com/users/s/i/m/Claudia-J-Simmons/WEBSITE-0001/UHP-0053.html

    I am told by my family that Mary Hall daughter of Calvin and Mary had a son named Carl H. Lorenz. Carl is my great grand father.

    I am just curious.

    Thanks.

    • 17.1
      John Boessenecker says:

      Calvin Hall was a white man and soldier. In 1865 he began living with a 17 year old Achumawi, or Pit River, Indian girl named Mary Joe. She became his common law wife. They had 4 children: Mary Nevada, born in 1866; Dora, born in 1876; Charles, born in 1878; and James, born in 1881. They also had an adopted full blood son, Frank Hall, born in 1869. In 1885 Calvin and Mary Hall separated or divorced. Calvin and Jim Hall were two of the four victims of the Lookout Lynching in 1901. I don't have any information on Mary Nevada Hall's children, however. Hope this helps.

  18. 18
    Tony sparks says:

    John…I would very much like to order an autographed copy of your book on Harry Morse. I was born and raised in Hayward/ Fremont and enjoyed reading about all the local environs as they existed back in early California history.

    I have quite a history in my family myself. My great grand father was governor John Sparks of Nevada. I was a Deputy Sheriff with Alameda County from 1978- 2005.

    If possible could you autograph the Lawman book for me. I have PayPal or you can contact me for further.

    Respectfully

    Tony Sparks
    925)577-0530

  19. 19
    John Boessenecker says:

    I'll try to call you; if I can't reach you my office no. is 415-392-3374.

  20. 20
    Anita Grant Steele says:

    Hello,
    In a nutshell, not long ago we discovered some stories related by my gr-gr grandmother. I am a descendant of HBC Chief Trader of Fort Hall, Richard Grant. He had a son, Richard, who traded on the Oregon trail and who died (now Idaho) in 1852. After his death, his wife, a French Canadian, went to the Half Moon Bay area, supposedly married a Vasquez, who absconded with (some of) her money. I don't know how long she was with him, but she did have a son by him, left California and returned to Canada.

    I read your book and am so impressed with the research and resources which went into it! I don't think 'your' Tiburcio is the Vasquez we've been searching for. However, I am wondering if I sent you my grandmother's story, would you perhaps be able to offer some insight into which Vasquez it might be?

    I would be very grateful for any assistance you could offer. Thanks for your time and considerations. And a really good book!

    Sincerely,
    Anita Grant Steele
    anitas@northwestel.net
    867-667-4675 (Whithorse, Yukon Territory, Canada Y1A-4R4)

    • 20.1
      Anita Grant Steele says:

      Sorry, I meant to mention she maintained that some 'friends' later murdered him with slingshot.

  21. 21
    John Boessenecker says:

    The founder of Half Moon Bay was Jose Tiburcio Vasquez. He had quite a few sons and daughters, but I do not know who they married. It must be one of his sons who married the French Canadian woman.

    Jose Tiburcio Vasquez was the uncle and namesake of the bandit, Tiburcio Vasquez. Jose Tiburcio Vasquez was shot to death by an unknown assassin in 1865 in Half Moon Bay.

    Jose Tiburcio Vasquez had a son, Luciano Vasquez, who was a notorious tapadera, or fencer of stolen property, in the 1860s and 70s. He is the only one of the sons whom I know was dishonest. Perhaps he is the one who married the French Canadian woman. However, I have no further information, I'm afraid.

    • 21.1
      Anita Grant Steele says:

      Hello,
      Thanks so much for this info! I am very grateful. There is the possibility there was no marriage, but I would like to determine that. Do you have any suggestions where to start that search.?
      Again, thank you!
      Anita

  22. 22
    Louise Marquering says:

    Hi John,
    Are you Ed's son? He was the Marquering family attorney from the time they all knew one another growing up in the Mission.
    We saw your name in the article on the gold coins found in Gold Rush country. You know the original Marquering was a 49'er and we still own the family homestead in Calaveras County.
    Hope to hear from you
    Louise & Dennis Marquering

  23. 23
    John Boessenecker says:

    Yes, Ed was my father. We worked together as lawyers until he passed in 2010. My most recent book, When Law Was in the Holster, is about Bob Paul, pioneer sheriff of Calaveras County after the Gold Rush.



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