Joe Dye was a hot-tempered, vengeful desperado and one of the most feared men in southern California— as much for what he had done as what he was capable of doing.
Those were the musings of a longtime acquaintance who had known Dye since the early 1850s. Actually, Joe Dye was all those things and more. In some ways he might have seemed like the typical Easterner seeking to make his mark on the Western frontier. A Kentucky native, he moved with his family to Texas in 1847 and soon after the teenager tried his luck in the California Gold Rush. That didn’t work out, so he returned to the family farm in the Lone Star State. Not long after his father’s death in 1852, the rawboned young man headed west again in search of adventure, and he found plenty of that on both sides of the law. He ended up back in California, where he became a hard case, but not the usual kind. He didn’t become involved, legally or illegally, in mining, ranching, banking or railroads. Instead, his business in the 1870s was oil. With his mercurial temper and penchant for vengeance, few people dared step on his toes. Joe found black gold all right, but he also found plenty of trouble, and he eventually paid the ultimate price for his recklessness.
Joseph Franklin Dye was born in 1831 in Union County, Ky., where his parents, Benjamin and Sally Dye, farmed two land grants. There were five boys and three girls in the expanding family, which eventually grew to 16 children. After Benjamin’s brother Amos returned from the Mexican War with tales of free land in Texas, the elder Dye brought his family west to the Trinity River in Dallas County. In 1849 18-year-old Joe and his brothers Enoch and Ben ventured to the California goldfields, but like many FortyNiners they had little luck. The three discouraged boys were back home on the farm by 1850, though Joe remained restless. After father Benjamin died in July 1852, Joe again left Texas, landing work as a teamster in Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory.
“In those days Dye was full of fun,” recalled a friend, “fond of a practical joke and a good shot. In our camp was a hard character we called on the quiet ‘Hand Saw Pete.’ His name was Peter Fantig.…We called him ‘Hand Saw’ because he killed a man by cutting him to pieces with a saw. This fellow and Dye got into a dispute over a game of old sledge and came to blows.”
The next day Dye met Fantig on the street and asked, “How are you fixed?” When Hand Saw Pete said he was unarmed, Joe pulled two Navy Colts and told Pete to take his choice. “You have threatened to kill me, Pete, and we might as well have it out one time as another.” Fantig took one of the pistols, and the men agreed to walk in opposite directions around an adobe hotel and start shooting when they spotted each other on the other side. Both got off a shot. Fantig’s ball went through Dye’s hat, but Dye’s slug struck Pete in the neck. Hand Saw survived (some said he was “too mean to die”), but a gambler later shot him down in Salt Lake City. Dye’s wounding of Fantig was the first recorded instance of Joe’s deadly temper. It would not be the last.
Perhaps Dye’s days as a teamster contributed to his roaming disposition. He mined in California and Arizona Territory, but it was hard, grueling work. By late 1863 he was working on Abraham Harlow Peeples’ Antelope Ranch, some 25 miles southwest of Prescott. With the soldiers gone east to fight the Civil War, the Apaches were raiding livestock regularly in Arizona. On January 4, 1864, raiders took 28 head of stock from Peeples’ ranch, 33 head from King S. Woolsey’s Agua Fria ranch and 16 head from ranches along Granite Creek. Woolsey, an early settler who lived with an Indian woman and had numerous Indian friends, once told an Army officer, “I fight [Indians] on the broad platform of extermination.” He assembled a posse of 28 local miners, traders and ranchers, including Joe Dye, and headed east, gaining several dozen Maricopa and Pima Indian allies along the way.
Soon after making camp beside natural water tanks in Fish Creek Canyon, the Arizonans found themselves surrounded by a much larger war party of Apaches. Woolsey sought a parley with enemy chiefs, though he planned to kill them once they were in talks (one of Woolsey’s men, Daniel Conner, said the Apaches had the same idea). The parley group included Woolsey, Dye, Cyrus Lennan and two others, plus a Pima interpreter. After meeting with six of the Apache chiefs for nearly an hour, Woolsey gave a signal, and his men fired on the seated Indians, killing all six but losing Lennan to an Apache spear. While that slaughter was taking place, the rest of Woolsey’s party opened up at the warriors on the hillsides. The startled and now leaderless Apaches loosed a few flights of arrows, then fled as the whites charged uphill after them. The whites returned to Prescott with Lennan over a saddle but otherwise minimal casualties. The Indians, who claimed the whites had served them poisoned food during the negotiations, counted 24 dead. The Apaches would not soon forget Woolsey’s deceit. Perhaps sensing an Indian war in the offing, Dye gave up ranching and returned to California.
In 1864 Dye, a supporter of the Confederacy, reportedly joined a loosely knit group of guerrillas led by bushwhackers John Mason and Jim Henry and operating from the San Joaquin Valley. Whether Joe participated in any of the gang’s lawless murders or robberies is unknown. Both outlaw leaders were ultimately gunned down in separate incidents. By then Dye had moved on, wrangling stock and doing odd jobs for rancher William “Uncle Billy” Rubottom, who ran a hotel and stage station on the road between San Bernardino and Los Angeles. Dye felt right at home in the villages of El Monte and Spadra, settled largely by Southern Democrats and secessionists.
Rubottom also served as a deputy sheriff and on occasion would deputize Dye to serve papers. When outlaw brothers stole a wagon and six horses from a local ranch in February 1866, Rubottom sent Dye in pursuit. With the help of a guide and soldiers from Camp Cady, Dye captured the outlaws at the border and returned with them and the stolen property. “Too much cannot be said,” reported The Los Angeles Semi-Weekly News, “of the energy displayed in bringing these offenders to justice.”
The Los Angeles Common Council was also impressed by Dye’s derring-do and in November appointed him one of the police force’s special officers, who patrolled particular problem sections of the city. Dye’s assigned beat was Chinatown, which centered on Calle de los Negros (“Street of the Negroes” or, pejoratively, “Nigger Alley”), a reference to the dark-skinned Hispanics who first occupied the area. The tong (secret Chinese societies tied to criminal activity) made it their drug and gambling center. The Los Angeles Daily News described it this way: “It is the chosen abode of the pariahs of society. The low adobe buildings are simply hives to hold swarms of social outcasts.…Herded like beasts, men, women and children, male and female, dwell together, ignoring all distinction of sex.”
Appointed to the regular force in 1869, Dye quickly established himself as a first-class lawman, arresting counterfeiters, horse thieves, burglars, even a cigar manufacturer who ran an underground shop to avoid paying for a federal license. “Evildoers are not known to flourish much in Mr. Dye’s vicinity,” chortled the Daily News. Although City Marshal William Warren had been a staunch Yankee during the war, he and Dye got along well at first. Their relationship cooled somewhat when, over Dye’s objections, Warren filled a vacancy on the force with a Union veteran.
In the summer of 1870 Dye acted on a complaint by friend Billy Rubottom, who said someone had sold him a stolen horse. Dye, with two fellow officers as backup, nabbed the culprit, one Jake De Long, in the northern part of the city. As the lawmen led De Long to jail, he bolted into a yard and over a fence, heading toward a vineyard. “Stop, or I’ll shoot!” Dye shouted a couple of times. De Long didn’t, and Dye did, mortally wounding the fleeing prisoner with a bullet to the back. As several physicians examined his wounds, De Long stated Dye “only acted in the line of duty.” The thief died two days later. It is not known if Warren reprimanded Dye in any way for the fatal shooting.
Their relationship suffered another blow that fall, though, after Dye learned that Sing Lo, a Chinese woman accused of stealing valuable jewelry, had been spotted in San Buenaventura. Dye wired the marshal there to hold the woman until he arrived with a bench warrant, but Warren and Constable José Redona were already en route and took custody of the prisoner themselves. Dye was understandably upset, but he fully expected to share in the reward money.
On October 31 Warren escorted Sing Lo to the Los Angeles Justice Court, and Dye also showed up. The marshal applied for the $100 reward, and when the session wrapped up, an angry Dye followed Warren outside to confront him over the reward. “Sir,” snarled Dye, “you have robbed me of that money!” The marshal responded in kind: “You’re a liar! I’ve never robbed anybody out of money!”
Dye raised his cane in anger, but before he could strike, the marshal, who had palmed a derringer, raised the gun and shot at his adversary. The bullet only grazed Dye. The lawmen quickly drew their six-shooters and fired at about the same time, Dye darting aside in a cloud of gun smoke. More shots followed before local attorney Horace Bell rushed into the street and grappled with Dye, who dropped his weapon and rushed Warren. According to Bell, Dye grabbed Warren by the lapels of his coat, “drew him up to him and took hold of him with his teeth,” biting the marshal’s ear. Bell then grabbed Dye by the throat and called on others to help him.
During the fight stray bullets struck Constable Redona, another officer and a Chinese onlooker. Along with the slight wound to his forehead, Dye had also been shot in the thigh. Warren was less fortunate. He had taken a bullet to the pelvis and died the next morning. Dye remained on duty while awaiting a hearing and was ultimately acquitted after witnesses testified Warren had shot first. Still, the marshal had been a good officer, and the police department did not rehire Dye.
Having lost his badge, Joe Dye next joined a group of prominent Los Angeles business- men in a prospecting venture. Ostensibly, Dye’s presence was for protection against claim-jumpers. The men filed a few claims up near Alamo Mountain and Sespe Creek, east of the growing village of San Buenaventura. Back in 1865 Thomas R. Bard had drilled the first oil well in the area, and since then others had searched for black gold. It was Dye’s turn at the dice. Luck was with him. “Somewhere in the Alamo Mountains [sic],” The Ventura Signal reported on August 8, 1874, “Mr. Joe Dye has discovered a flow of fine petroleum…so pure that it can be put into a lamp and burned without refining.”
Dye was in the oil business. In addition to the partnership, he was staking his own claims and enjoying a security he had never known. Very protective of his holdings, Dye scared off many tenderfoot claimants by threatening to kill them if they did not keep their distance. It was understood in the Sespe country of newly established Ventura County, one was wise not to step on Joe’s toes.
In Los Angeles one afternoon in late July 1873 Dye was talking to a friend when Los Angeles County Sheriff William Rowland walked up. Earlier that day Dye had made a political remark about the sheriff, and Rowland now called Joe a liar and took a swing at him. Quick as a flash, Dye grabbed the sheriff’s beard and pulled a pistol. Luckily, officers were on hand to separate the men. The sheriff knew of Dye’s bad temper, but again Joe hadn’t made the first move. Rowland refused to prosecute, and the case was dropped.
By then Dye was buying and selling leases, prospecting and drilling his own wells, all the while growing increasingly paranoid about his properties. A claim dispute with one “Coal Oil” Scott led to a court case. Sometime later in a Santa Paula saloon the litigants met and argued about the cause of the trouble between them. “Joe, you’re a liar!” Coal Oil finally shouted. Dye responded in form. “As soon as the words were out of my mouth,” recalled Scott, “he yanked his revolver and stuck it under my nose. But I was too quick for him. I took it back before he could shoot!”
Dye took up farming near his claim, but his worries pressed on him and his cabin was a cheerless place. On a trip to San Francisco he met a young woman named Grace, whom he married after a whirlwind courtship. Returning to the Sespe, the couple should have lived happily ever after, and indeed the 1882 birth of daughter Gracie, named for her mother, delighted Joe. But there was a wolf in the Dye woodpile, and his growing oil domain would soon implode.
As Dye’s wells kept producing, his estimated worth rose above $200,000. To help manage things, he brought in a Los Angeles partner, H.J. Crow, and hired Santa Paula resident Herman Haines and son to do part-time work around the farm. Returning home from a business trip one day, Dye intercepted Haines’ son, who was slinking away from the ranch with a note that shook Joe’s existence. Herman Haines had written to Joe’s wife: “Mrs. Dye, meet me at the barn tonight or I will tell Joe about that medicine. Answer.” Grace Dye had scribbled her response below: “I return your insult, and I say to you for the last time, never come upon this ranch or speak to me again.”
When Joe confronted Grace, she confessed to having an affair with Crow. Dye told his wife she should visit her mother in San Francisco, arranged for daughter Gracie to live in a Catholic boarding school in Los Angeles and then disappeared for two days. How could something like this happen to the most feared man on the Sespe?
After returning home, Joe Dye told Herman Haines and his boy to stay away from the farm; he would mail what wages they were owed. As for Crow, he would be visiting the ranch on business soon, and Dye would settle then with the man who had taken up with Grace.
On the afternoon of August 27, 1886, Dye was standing in the aisle of Morris Cohn’s store in Santa Paula when in walked Haines, whom Joe had sought to avoid. Haines leaned his Winchester against the door frame, then addressed Dye as he passed. “Don’t you speak to me!” shouted Joe as he struck Herman in the face. Cohn tried to grab Dye but was hurled aside. Meanwhile, Haines picked up his rifle and jumped behind a counter. Joe went after him, getting close enough to push aside the barrel of Herman’s Winchester. Dye, The Ventura Free Press reported, “shot the man twice with his revolver. Haines then dropped the rifle and started for the door. Dye followed him out upon the porch and shot him again as he was making his way up the street.” Hit in the shoulder, stomach and thigh, Haines died a few days later.
Dye surrendered to a local constable but quickly secured his $5,000 bail from wealthy oil associates in Los Angeles. To represent him in court he promptly hired other oil cronies—attorneys Henry T. Gage, later governor of California, and Stephen White, a future U.S. senator. As one observer put it, there was a definite smell of Sespe oil to the proceedings.
“Henry T. Gage opened the argument for the defense yesterday,” reported the November 26 edition of the Free Press, “his thrilling speech of three or four hours in length indicating that he justly has the reputation of standing in the front rank of criminal lawyers.” Dye’s worst nightmare came true, however, as his attorneys insisted on relating the whole sordid story of his wife’s adultery as a means of obtaining an acquittal. The Ventura and Los Angeles press gleefully reported the sordid details. What’s more, the jury convicted Dye anyway.
But even as the sheriff was taking him to San Quentin to serve a 16-year term, Dye’s attorneys managed to secure a new trial. This time he was acquitted, and it was apparently a good thing for everyone. While in jail Dye had confided to a female visitor that if convicted, “He would take the life of the judge, every member of the jury and a man named Shepherd who assisted the prosecution.” Those who knew him were convinced Dye would likely have attempted to carry out his threat.
Indeed, his temper was again in full evidence on a hot July day in 1888. Dye had ridden up to the house of claim owner James C. Udall to discuss some matter when their dogs laced into one another. “Let ’em fight it out!” shouted Dye. “If we don’t, they’ll fight every time they see each other.” Dye’s dog got the worst of it, and Joe finally rode off, his chastened pet limping after him. Returning later with a rifle, Dye shot and killed Udall’s dog. “I’ll settle with you the same way when it’s convenient!” he shouted to his fellow oilman. Despite being heavily invested in the area, Udall packed up and left, afraid of another confrontation. “Dye had for so long ruled affairs in the Sespe region,” the Los Angeles Times later observed, “that he regarded anyone else coming in as an infringement on his personal rights.”
Following his acquittal in the Haines shooting, the Sespe badman went back to the oil business. Dye’s productive Oil Spouter claim stood next to unsurveyed government land. When the California Oil Co. (later Union Oil) leased the Oil Spouter, a company rep asked Joe to point out the best spot to drill. Dye indicated a spot on the adjacent unsurveyed land, intending to file claim on it himself should those “tenderfeet sons of bitches” strike oil. Sure enough, when the land began producing more than 100 barrels a day, Dye asked young protégé Mason “Nate” Bradfield to file the claim in Joe’s name. Dye was a good friend of the Bradfield family, Mason having worked alongside him in the oil business for several years. But when Mason refused to go along with Joe’s scheme, the badman lashed out in a tirade of threats and abuse. “Just do as I tell you!” he bellowed. “You dance to my music, or I will make it so hot that you can’t stay in the country. You know Haines; you know Billy Warren; you remember the son of a bitch in the vineyard [De Long]. You do as I tell you, or I will give you some of the same medicine.”
Instead, Bradfield quietly registered the claim under his name and those of two friends, then transferred the property to California Oil in exchange for the job of company superintendent. When Dye discovered the betrayal some months later, he went berserk. Running across Bradfield in a Los Angeles jewelry store, he pounced: “You son of a bitch, you have thrown me down! I gave you a chance to make a stake, to make $10,000, and you have thrown me down for a lot of tenderfeet sons of bitches. This will cost you your life. I have a mind to kill you right now.” Instead of drawing a gun, though, Dye slapped Bradfield in the face with his gloved hand. A bit of iron concealed in Joe’s glove left a mark on Mason’s face. The bloodied young man fled.
Bradfield tried to steer clear of Dye after that but was determined not to let his former mentor drive him out of the country. Joe resorted to stalking. Once, he spotted Mason on a streetcar and feigned drawing a gun; another time Dye followed him home. Tired of living in fear, Bradfield decided to act before Dye could do any real damage.
Dye lived in the Mott Building and most days strolled the north side of Commercial Street, heading downtown or to the train depot. Bradfield knew his routine, and on May 13, 1891, he checked into the Arlington Hotel, choosing Room 29, on the second floor with a good view of Commercial Street. For a change he got a good night’s sleep. The next day, just after 3 p.m., 61-year-old Dye was strolling down Commercial when a slight sound caught his attention. As he started to turn, a shotgun boomed out from a second-floor window of the Arlington, and nine buckshot tore into his body. A second blast followed, but Joe was already sprawled on the sidewalk in a pool of blood.
From his cell in the city jail Bradfield told horror stories about his relationship with the late oilman. Dye, he said, was not satisfied with having killed former employee Haines but had offered Bradfield a saddle horse as incentive to seduce Haines’ daughter and cause her ruin. Also, according to Bradfield, Dye had tried to induce him to kill an oil company employee with a charge of dynamite and had personally scattered scale bugs in the orchards of his enemies—all in revenge for fancied wrongs. In the end Bradfield won the sympathy of the court and was acquitted on a plea of temporary insanity. As for the late Joe Dye, he was not well remembered by the Santa Paula Chronicle: “Not only did he die unmourned and unregretted, but the people of this community were glad of it, and were not slow to express their opinions.” His funeral and burial still drew huge crowds, though an observer wryly dismissed the turnout. “Hell,” he insisted, “they just wanted to make sure that son of a bitch was really dead!”
California author William B. Secrest, a frequent Wild West contributor and author of more than a dozen books, devoted a chapter to Joe Dye in his 2007 book California Badmen: Mean Men With Guns.