In 1863 he and his brother terrorized central Colorado Territory.
By March 1863 former gold prospector “Uncle Henry” Harkens had settled down to work the land at Saw Mill Gulch in Colorado Territory. His new life would be short-lived. After sunset on Wednesday, March 18, two of his friends found him dead in his cabin. Another friend, Henry Priest, later described the scene for a reporter:
We found Harkens had been shot in the middle of the forehead with a Colts Navy revolver, then the murderers had taken the ax and split his head open from the top to the mouth, and then, judging from the appearance of his head and the ax, they had hit him on each side of the head with the head of the ax, and two pieces of skull and his brains lay on the ground at the top of his head. He was also stabbed twice in the left breast.
It was the first of many such grisly murders in the area that year, although overshadowed by the Civil War raging back East and the quest for gold in the mountains. The main man responsible, Mexican outlaw Felipe Nerio Espinosa, rates as one of America’s earliest serial killers, but it was a family affair. Brother José Vivián Espinosa and nephew José Vincente Espinosa also played roles in this vicious, if oft-overlooked, murder spree.
Felipe Nerio Espinosa was born in 1827 in a cramped jacal outside El Rito, New Mexico, then under Mexican rule. His parents raised him to be patriotic and intensely religious. Following the death of six family members in the Mexican War, that patriotism boiled over into vengeful nationalism. On his induction into the fraternity of Catholic flagellants known as the Santa Hermandad de la Sangre de Nuestro Señor Jesucristo (Holy Brotherhood of the Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ), or simply the Penitentes (Penitents), Felipe adopted a zealous spirituality that would steadily drive him to madness. Of his physical appearance little is known outside of witnesses’ description of his overdeveloped jaw and toothy “jack-o’-lantern grin.”
At age 26 Felipe broke into the home of 17-year-old Maria Secundina Hurtado and her 11-year-old sister, Eugenia, and kidnapped the two girls. After brutally whipping Maria and holding Eugenia hostage, Felipe finally agreed to release Eugenia to her father in exchange for Maria’s hand in marriage. The Espinosas and the Hurtados moved north in 1858 to a small village (near present-day Conejos, Colo.). After the birth of a third child in 1862, Felipe gave up his meager bean fields for more lucrative pursuits—horse stealing and freight robbing with younger brother Vivián. One day, after holding up a teamster between Santa Fe and Galisteo, the pair tied the driver to the underside of the wagon tongue and then, laughing, whipped the mule team down the road. The man dragged for miles, his face plowing through rock and soil until another traveler spotted the runaway freight and saved the mangled teamster.
In early March 1863 soldiers from Fort Garland rode to the Espinosas’ home under the guise of Army recruiters. Felipe saw through the ruse, however, and opened fire from the windows. An intense gunfight erupted, the two brothers shooting out the windows as their women and children hunkered low and handed them fresh rounds. Trapped, the bandits dashed out a back door, firing wildly as they escaped into the woods.
The brothers fled deep into the crimson peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Range. There the two wrote of crimes white Americans had supposedly committed against Felipe, as well as a description of a dream in which the Virgin Mary ordered Felipe to kill 600 gringos—a hundred for each of his relatives killed in the Mexican War. Over time the manifesto would include a tally of the Espinosas’ murders that Felipe ultimately sent to Territorial Governor John Evans in an unsuccessful demand for a pardon.
The brothers stalked the Rockies, killing randomly as they went and slinking down into the sweeping mountain valley of South Park. There they hunted lonely mining camps, watching their victims for sometimes hours before cutting them down with long-range rifles and then going to work with smaller, sharper instruments. Newspapers began referring to the unknown murderers as “The Axemen of Colorado.” Corpses stared to the sky wide-eyed with crude twig crucifixes protruding from bullet holes in their foreheads. In his manifesto Felipe wrote, “They ruined our family—they took everything.…Seeing this we said, ‘We would rather be dead than see such infamies committed on our families!’…In killing one gains his liberty. I am aware that you know of some that I have killed, but of others you don’t know. It is a sufficient number, however. Ask in New Mexico if any other two men have ever been known to have killed as many men as the Espinosas. We have killed 32.”
Felipe’s boast might not have been an exaggeration. Some sources say there were about a dozen victims, while a few claim well over 32. “All, from the beginning, have been marked with a peculiar singularity—the most fiendish and diabolical atrocity,” reported Denver’s Rocky Mountain News in early May 1863. “In some cases the amount of money, or valuables, has been so trifling that it seems incredible that it should excite the cupidity of the most black-hearted murderer to commit so terrible a crime.” Paranoia rippled across the region. On two separate occasions citizens of Fairplay, Colorado Territory, mobbed and lynched travelers simply for being strangers.
But the Espinosas’ anonymity in South Park was about to end, for on April 25, 1863, Felipe did something he had never done before: He missed. His target, a lumberman named Metcalf—who had stumbled upon the Espinosas in the midst of yet another slaying—escaped in the back of his oxcart with only a minor injury. Metcalf gave descriptions of both assailants, and a posse led by Captain John McCannon of the 3rd Colorado Cavalry struck out the next day along the murderers’ trail. The men rode all day and into the night under a full moon. Shortly after daybreak the posse caught sight of two horses hobbled in an aspen meadow within a small canyon.
The men moved into position. When a short, dark-skinned figure emerged from a thicket, a rifle shot rang out. Wounded, Vivián Espinosa slammed into a tree trunk and then, staggering, reached for the pistol on his hip. A second bullet struck him in the head, though, and he crumpled to the ground. Suddenly, a second figure burst out of the trees. The party took aim, but McCannon yelled, “For God’s sake, don’t kill Billy Youngh!” The man wore an expensive-looking coat (stripped from a victim) that resembled the one worn by posse member Youngh. When the man spun around to reveal his black bushy beard and gigantic teeth, the men realized they had made a mistake. But by then it was too late. The fugitive whirled back into the trees and vanished. Possemen cut off Vivián’s head as proof of the killing, then buried his body.
The summer of 1863 was quiet as Felipe, sequestered near his old home, reeled from his brother’s death and sank ever deeper into madness. After returning to Vivián’s death site, exhuming the body and removing a foot from the corpse as a keepsake, Felipe resumed his vendetta, this time with his young (some sources say 14-year-old) nephew José. They were doomed from the start. On October 10, only days into his renewed campaign (and perhaps after only one more killing), Felipe was drunk on tequila when the Espinosas attempted to hold up a wagon. The two passengers jumped off and eluded their assailants, eventually making their way to Fort Garland and its commander, Lt. Col. Samuel Tappan.
Tappan knew just the man to reel in Felipe Espinosa—Thomas Tate Tobin, a bowlegged Métis guide who could reportedly “track a grasshopper through sagebrush.” He had worked with “Wild Bill” Hickok, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, John Frémont and Kit Carson (Tobin’s daughter married one of Carson’s sons). In a grim irony, through his wife he was also a distant cousin to one Felipe Espinosa. Tappan summoned the guide to Fort Garland. Around midnight on October 12, Tobin and 15 Union soldiers (he grudgingly took them with him) set out. Tobin stalked the outlaws for three days and nights, following them from campsite to campsite, allowing his own party four hours of sleep a night. Tobin sent home any soldier who grew exhausted.
Early on the 15th Tobin saw in the distance magpies circling amid rising smoke. Ordering the soldiers to hold back, he crawled forward with his trusty Hawken muzzleloader in hand. He found Felipe and José cooking meat over a small fire. When Felipe rose to his feet and stretched, Tobin squeezed the trigger. The ball smashed into the outlaw’s side and sent him toppling into the fire. José took one look at his fallen uncle and dashed for the trees. Tobin quickly rammed another ball down his barrel, raised his rifle and fired again. The ball caught José in the spine, killing him instantly.
Later that evening at Fort Garland, Colonel Tappan welcomed into his office Tobin, back sooner than expected, with a burlap sack strung over a shoulder. Leaning back in his desk chair, Tappan asked, “Any luck, Tom?” “So-so,” Tobin replied, turning the bag upside down to let the heads of his quarry roll onto the floor.
In short order Tom Tobin had abruptly ended a seven-month episode that finally got a full-book treatment in 2013 with Charles F. Price’s Season of Terror: The Espinosas in Central Colorado, March– October 1863. The Espinosas have been called “social bandits,” but Price writes that whatever their “provocations, grievances or mental states, their reign of terror was in no sense justifiable and may have been inspired by no motive more complicated than criminal insanity.”
Adam Jones’ historical novel The Vendetta of Felipe Espinosa is due out in November.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.