Charles F. Price on his new book, the murderous Espinosas and Colorado's bloody history
In his new book, Charles F. Price illuminates one of Colorado's most unsettling and violent stories: the tale of the "Bloody Espinosas." Through careful research, Price tells the story of the three Hispanic outlaws in 1863 whose goal was to kill every Anglo in the Colorado Territory; they were responsible for an estimated 32 deaths before they were stopped. Price will read from and sign Season of Terror: The Espinosas in Central Colorado, March-October 1863, published by University Press of Colorado, at 7:30 p.m. tonight at the Tattered Cover Colfax. In advance of this appearance, Price spoke with us about the gory tale, his unexpected findings and possible motivations for the rampage.
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Westword: How did you first come across the story of the Bloody Espinosas?
Charles F. Price: In a previous incarnation I was a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. I lived in northern Virginia and there was a bookstore I loved to go to there called Bailey's Crossroads. I was in there one day and looking at a book about Western firearms and it had a photograph of this Army scout in his buckskin outfit holding his plains rifle and the cutline for the photograph said that his name was Tom Tobin and he had managed to track down and do away with these Hispanic serial killers, the Espinosas. I'm kind of an armchair historian and I had never heard of Tom Tobin or the Espinosas, so I was fascinated. My wife, Ruth, is from Salida and the Espinosas operated in Colorado and that's where Tobin hung out. There's a little bookstore there that I love to haunt, and I found a biography of Tom Tobin quite by accident and read it and it had an entire chapter about Tobin working for the Army and tracking down the Espinosas and killing them. It was quite a gripping story, but when I tried to find out more about it, the only things that I could find were highly sensationalized, sort of lurid melodrama types of things. There wasn't really a scholarly or objective history of these people who had set out in 1863 with the avowed purpose of murdering all the Anglos in Colorado. They managed, apparently, to kill at least 32; that's the estimated number.
It seemed to me that there was a fascinating story because there were ethnic and religious and political and ethical implications to the story that nobody seemed to want to focus on -- and when I discovered that there really hadn't been an academic treatment of it, I took it on my own shoulders. Now, I'm a novelist. This was my first attempt to write nonfiction. I wasn't sure I could pull it off, but actually I interested the University Press of Colorado in it and I survived all the fact checkers and peer reviewers and they decided to publish it. I'm very pleased. I hope it's a contribution to Colorado history and some of the ethnic and political concerns that it had then and that linger still in some ways.
What were you surprised to discover in your research?
Archibald Gillespie was an interesting character because he had been famous during the Mexican War but had fallen from favor due to drink and it was not very well known that he had been involved with the situation in New Mexico and Southern Colorado. He was sent by President Polk to California prior to the outbreak of the Mexican War to send some messages to Army officers who were operating out there in preparation for the war. And Gillespie, it turns out, was a very fascinating figure. He was quite the hero during the Mexican War but later fell victim to demon rum. He was basically run out of the service because he had been such a drinker, and was rehabilitated for reasons that escape me, and was sent in 1862 to New Mexico territory to do a census in the population of Southern Colorado and New Mexico of men of military age. It seemed to be a desire on the part of the Army to find out what manpower they might be able to call up if there was some other invasion of the Southwest. Gillespie was stirring up a lot of concern and antipathy among the Mexican population with his census, because they sensed that the purpose of the census might be to get them to be drafted in the U.S. Army, something they didn't want to do. It caused a great deal of unrest among the Hispanic population of Colorado and New Mexico, and to make it even worse the new regime of the Americans who had taken over the Mexicans were imposing all sorts of rules and regulations and laws which weren't even translated into Spanish so they could understand them. They were concerned about having to pay taxes that they hadn't had to pay before.
The Espinosas had been part of this unrest, and that was sort of the beginnings of their troubles with the U.S., because they had been part of a tax revolt and the U.S. Army sent a detachment down to arrest them and some shooting broke out and they killed an American soldier. And from that they went off onto their rampage. My book is the first time that's really been brought out, that Gillespie had this second life after he had fallen from power and from grace and was involved in creating the disturbances with his census. I found that quite interesting.
How did the Espinosas go from being involved in a tax revolt to going on a murderous rampage?
The Army had a fort at Fort Garland in southern Colorado and their involvement in the tax revolt caused a great deal of concern, plus they had attacked a Mexican teamster in New Mexico and word of that had gotten back to General Carlton, who was the commander of New Mexico, and he contacted the commander of Fort Garland, who instructed him to arrest the Espinosas because of the unrest they were causing. He sent a detachment down to where they lived in a little community called San Raphael almost on the New Mexico border in southern Colorado, and the Army basically raided their home and started a fire fight and burned the Espinosas' home and drove them out and, of course, terrorized their families. They said that was the reason they went on their rampage, that they had been attacked in their home.
What did the rampage involve? They killed one soldier when the Army attacked their home and then they set out going north in Colorado up to the Arkansas River country and they simply began killing at random people they ran across. The first man they killed was named Franklin William Bruce, who was a farmer, and then they went north a few miles and they killed another gentleman who was working in a saw mill, Henry Harkens, and then they went a little bit farther north into the edge of South Park and killed a mail-station operator named John Addleman, and then they went into South Park, which at the time was a fairly busy gold mining region, and they killed six men there at different times and committed pretty horrible butcheries at the same time they killed these people. One of the men that they killed was the brother of an officer in the first Colorado cavalry and the cavalry was sent into South Park to try to capture them, and unfortunately the cavalry combined with some of the more dangerous members of the South Park community -- and some lynch mobs hanged a few people thinking they were the Espinosas when they weren't.
The activities in South Park resulted in the death of two gentlemen who had come down to do some business in South Park from the Leadville area, and they basically formed a self-appointed posse and tried to track down the Espinosas and were actually able to track them into an area north of Canon City and they ambushed the two Espinosas -- one was named Felipe and the other Vivian, and they killed Vivian but Felipe got away. He went back into Southern Colorado where he was from and recruited a fifteen-year-old nephew and began killing again and killed at least two more people and then attacked a couple in the Sangre de Cristo mountains and captured a woman and violated her and turned her loose. And that alerted the Army and Tom Tobin, who was a scout, and he led an Army detail into the mountains and eventually tracked down the last brother and killed him and the nephew.
What did you try to accomplish in writing the history?
I tried to understand the motivations of the Espinosas. They're usually painted as insane, murderous fiends or religious fanatics. One of the two. It seemed to me that there might be more to the story than that, so I tried as best I could to understand their motivations. The two brothers were members of a lay Hispanic religious fraternity called the Penitentes. They were mostly laborers, farmers and lower-class people, and they had developed sort of a religious ritual on their own that was based on the sufferings of Christ during the crucifixion, so they engaged in self-torture. They whipped themselves and cut themselves during special religious ceremonies. It was a supposedly philanthropic organization, but because of these practices that were pretty violent, even if it was turned on themselves, a lot of Anglos thought that maybe it was a breeding ground for violence against them. A lot of the Hispanics, including the Espinosas, were motivated religiously because they felt the Anglos didn't respect the Catholic religion because they were all Protestant and were contemptuous of the Hispanics because of their poverty and religion. So they had a lot of grudges against the Anglos: the Mexican War, the prejudice, the oppression, and what they felt was the change of government which had become much more oppressive. The Mexican pretty much ignored them and the Anglos came along and insisted on them paying taxes and obeying laws.
I tried to just explore the various possible motives. We can't know for sure. They may have just been homicidal maniacs. But the fact that they were involved in this religious group I felt deserved at least to be looked at. I don't draw any conclusions about what their motives were, but I tried to explore all the possible motives and I think that makes it a little bit of an unusual approach. I hope it says something that we can learn from today, because we have this whole immigration debate and this issue that we're dealing with about the role of Hispanics in our country today and we certainly have religious concerns. We are engaged in a war on terror and yet it has its religious overtones. It seems to me that there's a link between them and the issues that we face.
In what way?
I found in researching the Espinosas that the knee-jerk reaction of the people in the communities where these killings occurred, their first reactions seemed to be to form a mob and go after somebody. Several people were either seriously injured or killed [because someone thought] they were the Espinosas when they weren't, simply because they looked suspicious. So I feel like that's an important part of the story, too. What do we do when we feel under assault? Do we resort to legal means or extralegal means, and if we go the extralegal way is that useful at all? And it usually isn't.
As I've said, I'm an armchair student of Western history -- and Colorado seems to think of its history in more wholesome terms than other Southwestern states. New Mexico and Arizona and so forth, they're big on their outlaws and their feuds and fights, but the Colorado historical establishment is more about mining and railroading and exploration, more seemly subjects than just lawlessness. Colorado needs to take a harder look at its own history.
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