Part I: The Stage
It was a hard time in history, and even some the most depraved of horrors fell under the greater shadow, absorbed or else forgotten.
The country was at war. Eyes and resources were cast eastward where, following a string of decisive Confederate victories, the union verged on collapse. Even in the West a new theater of the war was being fought as Texan rebels under General Henry H. Sibley invaded New Mexico.
On top of this, settlers waged a second, concurrent war against its native population – The Great Plains Indians War – and all throughout Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Kansas, and Nebraska residents fought to expand settlement and protect it against opposing and still well-numbered tribes.
Yet, in 1863, as wars raged and goldfields beckoned, a Mexican outlaw named Felipe Espinosa quietly became one of America’s first serial killers and foreign terrorists.
Set against the record of other notorious American murderers, Felipe’s tally is uncanny. Wild West lore exaggerated Billy the Kid into infamy as having killed twenty-one men in the late 1800s. In truth, the young gunslinger had a part in only nine. The still-at-large Zodiac killer who made his name across Northern California during the 1960s claimed in letters to the police that he had killed thirty-seven. Investigators, however, agree on a much smaller number, believing the Zodiac to have committed at the most only five with possible copycat killers furthering his cause.
Felipe Espinosa, in twelve months, shot, stabbed, and mutilated an estimated thirty-two people.
Some reports of the day claimed the number was upwards of sixty.
At first, no one knew who was responsible. Violence wasn’t anything rare in this time and place, but never before had residents of the area witnessed violence like this. They were gruesome, brutal jobs, conducted seemingly at random. The weapons used were sometimes long-range and quick, other times handheld and dull. Along the Rockies, corpses trailed like footprints
The account that follows is a compilation of 150 years of written articles and first-person accounts. The details come from newspapers of the time, interviews, letters, and even the diaries of the story’s two key players: Tom Tobin and Felipe Espinosa. There exists very little of such material, even less than what could have been possible as, frustratingly, much, including the two diaries before they were adequately copied, was lost in the May 19, 1864 Cherry Creek flood, which swept away great portions of downtown Denver, including several offices of government and all those belonging to the Rocky Mountain News. Given this fact, later retellings of the story often vary, the result of a century and half of playing telephone. Thus, this account features both the story’s most reoccurring and historically prudent themes and accounts.
Part II: Felipe Espinosa
Of his physical appearance, little is known aside from the reports of his one trademark feature: his mouth. Newspapers of the time describe a “jack-o-lantern grin” of oversized and gapped teeth – his canines pronounced and hanging lower than any other tooth.
Born in 1827 in what was then Northern Mexico, he was proud of his heritage, a patriot. In his declaration of war, titled “A Statement of Principles”, Felipe wrote to representatives throughout Colorado and New Mexico that six of his relatives were killed in the Mexican-American War, and that for each one he would take a hundred American lives.
Also important to Felipe’s character was his intense faith. The influx of Baptists and Presbyterians into New Mexico in the mid-1800s likely upset Felipe as it did many Hispanic families living in the area at the time, many of whose roots traced to Spanish colonial rule. To Felipe, this migration was a dangerous, potentially-damning convolution of the country’s Catholicism. In the new American Southwest, the Espinosas belonged to a deep-rooted religious organization called Los Hermanos Penitentes, the Pentitente Brotherhood – a society transplanted to New Mexico in the sixteenth century by the Conquistadors. In many ways, the group represented a regional form of Opus Dei, notorious for their means of expiating sin: self-flagellation, standing on cacti, placing stones in their shoes, and binding themselves to wooden crosses. In the late 1800s, partly because of these extreme practices, pressures from the church and state government were brought against the society, ultimately banning it. Today the abandoned meeting places of the Pentitentes, moradas, can still be seen around New Mexico and southern Colorado. Chapters of the brotherhood still exist and meet today, albeit with less extremism. Nonetheless, in the mid 19th century Felipe Espinosa was a devout member of this organization, and later, when he became a wanted man, it is even believed the brotherhood sheltered Felipe on a few occasions and gave him information vital to staying ahead of the law.
The family originated from El Rito, New Mexico, about forty miles west of Taos. In 1848, with the close of the Mexican-American War, a sensitive question inevitably arose: what was to become of the Hispanic citizens like the Espinosas who suddenly found themselves living in America? An article in the Treaty of Guadalupe was signed stating that all Mexicans living in the new American territory would keep their land, and not only that, would be allowed the option of remaining a citizen of Mexico or else transferring to American citizenship. But like many treaties throughout American history, this stipulation was not to be honored. In the San Luis Valley an animosity was quick to arise between Mexicans and Americans.
The tension was exacerbated in 1861 with the creation of the Colorado Territory and its southern boundary line which suddenly cut many southern Colorado Hispanics from certain New Mexican conventions they had known for centuries. For instance, when Anglo bureaucrats began visiting the region to issue new laws and taxes, they neglected to consider that the vast majority of these citizens could not read the English-written documents handed them. Discontent spread further as rumors circulated that the newly arriving military forces would begin drafting men into their armies.
Just a year old, already rebellion stirred in Colorado Territory.
Part III: Wanted
Between 1862 and 1863, poor and living inside a cramped jacale with his family outside the village of San Rafael (near present-day Antonito, CO), Felipe took to banditry. Joining him was his younger brother, Vivian.
One day, the two stopped a freight wagon along its way from Santa Fe to Galisteo. The vehicle had with it only one driver, a Mexican as it would have it who was once neighbors with the two in Conejos. When they were through looting the wagon, the brothers decided to have a little fun. Tying the driver under the tongue of the wagon so that his face barely cleared the rocky earth, the two whipped the wagon’s horses into a frenzied dash. The man was pulled for miles, his head plowing through every bump in the path. By the time the wagon was finally spotted and stopped, the driver was within an inch of his life, his face a bloody pulp. He managed to live and eventually describe his assailers.
It was to be the first of many bounties placed on the heads of the Espinosas
The charge to capture the two bandits fell to the only military and law enforcement center in the area, the newly-constructed Fort Garland. There, a Lieutenant Hutt took charge of the pursuit, assisted by a U.S. Marshal named Austin.
Conducting a series of interrogations throughout the area, officials collected both the identities of the bandits and the place of their residence. Hutt and Austin determined it unwise to simply approach the home without first knowing what awaited them.
Thus, a plan was hatched.
Lt. Hutt and a few additional soldiers would approach the farmhouse under the guise of recruiting volunteers for the army. The great shortage of soldiers in the territories and the escalating battles with frontier Indians meant it had become commonplace for recruiters to comb the countryside seeking new volunteers. The goal was to separate the brothers from the rest of the family, to have them outside and unassuming when the arrest was made. Austin meanwhile was to keep post on an overlooking hill, keeping a close eye on the interaction in case things broke down.
But as Hutt approached the house, Vivian stepped out the door to greet him. He was unarmed, seemingly unalarmed and unsuspecting. When Baldwin calmly described to Vivian his offer, the boy at first appeared interested. He asked how much it would pay, where they would be stationed, and for how long he would have to serve. To each of these questions the lieutenant calmly answered, growing to his surprise very optimistic all the while. Vivian appeared to chew over each of these details, then, abruptly, to Hutt’s dismay, declined. Frustrated, Hutt snatched Vivian by the arm and declared him under arrest.
A gunshot fired from inside the house. The front window exploded and Luther Hutt, shot through the chest, collapsed.
Within seconds the world was a hailstorm of gunfire. Felipe had sent his younger brother to receive the troops, all the while keeping a rifle bead through the front window. Now, as Austin and the remaining soldiers spattered the mud-chinked home with bullets, Felipe and Vivian crawled along the house’s floor, rising occasionally to fire back through the window as the other family members relayed ammo.
Austin and the soldiers surrounded the residence. The brothers made a break through the rear, blazing into the spreading perimeter of soldiers. A corporal was struck and instantly killed. Austin leapt atop his horse and took chase, but before he could close in the horse misstepped and tumbled, crushing Austin beneath and leaving him with injuries from which he would never fully recover.
The Espinosas meanwhile were gone, vanished inside the forests of the Sangre de Cristos.
Part IV: Rampage
The two ran deep into the Rockies of central Colorado, stealing two horses along the way. There was no turning back.
It was during this time that, according to popular myth, Felipe received a dream in which he was visited by the Virgin Mary. Sent directly by God, Mary came to Felipe to bestow upon him a duty to kill.
Divine or not, Felipe had a vendetta, a private war, and fleeing southern Colorado where they were known and wanted men, the Espinosas brought their crusade to a rocky, canyon-filled country outside Canyon City, CO. Prior to 1863 locals knew the area as Sawmill Gulch. Today, the signs along the road winding through read, “Dead Man’s Gulch.”
It was late in the evening when Jim Harkins, known affectionately by those around him as “Uncle Jim” was found murdered in his cabin. He had just moved to Sawmill Gulch and all that day had been at work building a sawmill with three other men. Around supper time, the men decided to take a break as Harkens would go to his cabin and prepare dinner for the group. However, upon later arriving at the old man’s cabin, Harkins was already dead. The Sunday Gazette would later describe the murder scene:
Harkens had been shot in the middle of the forehead with a Colt 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.
At first they suspected Indians, but the theory was immediately questioned when the next morning, while conducting a sweep of the area, the sheriff came upon another body. Just a couple miles from Henry Harkins’ cabin, the body of William Bruce was found lying outside his ranch home, hacked to pieces in similar fashion except this time, inserted into a bullet hole in Bruce’s forehead, protruded a crucifix made of sticks.
Felipe and Vivian stalked the Rockies, moving north and killing at random. They preyed on isolated, unguarded communities – seeking out victims alone and far from help; places where gunshots, or screams, could not be heard for miles.
Given their criterion, it was the sparsely populated mining settlements of South Park that would prove to be the ideal stage for the Espinosas’ rampage. Here, the brothers orbited lonely mining camps where men tended to work high on the mountains and often alone. The Espinosas crept upon their targets and observed them for sometimes hours. When two businessmen out of Denver named Seyga and Lehman were found dead outside the popular Kenosha House, some believed the killers’ waited in the dark for some unsuspecting prey to wander too far from the busy hotel. With long-range rifles they cut victims down, then went to work on the corpses. Bodies of well-known residents were found hacked and mutilated to a point often beyond recognition. They were disemboweled, decapitated, their hearts sometimes cut out. Crosses were slashed into their chests, stakes sometimes driven through their chests and into the earth. Newspapers, before his identity became known, simply began referring to Felipe as “The Axeman of Colorado.”
Paranoia rippled across the territory. Everyone was suspect. No stranger was safe from scrutiny. In one scenario, a prospector by the name of Foster had just arrived in the town of Alma in hopes of finding a claim to work. The town immediately concluded he must be the killer. They captured Foster and promptly dragged him to a tree for hanging. He was seconds before his death before South Park’s famed minister, John Dyer, subdued the crowd and convinced them of his innocence.
By this time, Colorado governor John Evans had increased the bounty, as well as appoint a small detachment of First Colorado Infantry to comb the region. Leading this detachment was a Colonel John Chivington, a man who, two years later, would become infamous for his part in the Sand Creek Massacre. When the brother of a prominent lieutenant – Lt. George L. Shoup (Shoup would later go on to become a Sentor and Governor of the state of Idaho) was found dead and mutilated, Shoup himself doubled the reward for the capture of the culprits.
It was a lumberman name Matthew Metcalfe who became Felipe’s first target to get away. Metcalf was driving a team of horses through South Park’s California Gulch one day, an open wagon of lumber behind him, when from around a turn stood the Epinosas. They said nothing, only fired. The bullet smashed into Metcalf’s left breast and sent him flying backwards onto the wagon’s lumber. The horses reared in their harnesses and then dashed wildly down the path. The Espinosas simply stepped aside and watched as the runaway wagon disappeared towards town. Later in his diary, Felipe would merely write, “killed a man in a wagon.”
Except he had not. Metcalfe, according to statements, had stuffed inside his front pocket that day a condensed booklet of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The papers had slowed the bullet and left Metcalf alive to tell the story.
The Axe Man of Colorado had a face.
A posse was formed in Fairplay under John McCannon. The ground was soft and wet from snowmelt, and it wasn’t long before the men discovered a fresh trail of hoofprints. Following the path the men came upon an equally-fresh victim, a man butchered beyond all recognition except that of his brother. Tragically, that brother just so happened to be a member of McCannon’s posse at the moment. McCannon later recounted that the sight sent the man into incapacitating fits and the brother was quickly escorted back to town.
The others wasted no time in keeping on the trail. They rode all day and through the night, exhausted men and horses peeling back along the way. Still, they drew nearer, and they sensed it. The anxiety built to a dangerous high.
It was shortly after daybreak when the group crested a ridge and spied two horses tethered in a grassy meadow far below. The horses’ owners were not in sight but campfire smoke wafted through in the air. Either the killers were resting, or it was a trap.
McCannon split the group in two. He and three others would sneak down the forested slope to the North and hunker below the site. The other four were to slip into some bushes below.
They moved into position, their guns drawn. Finally, from the thicket emerged a dark-skinned and burly figure. He appeared to suspect nothing as he whistled and went about untying a horse. Joe Lamb could take it no longer. He drew a bead on the Mexican’s chest and fired. The man cried out, fell, yanked out a pistol and began firing from his side. A man named Sanger blasted a shotgun which only took down the horse. Finally, Fred Carter, his rifle aimed square, squeezed the trigger and sent the bullet that tore through Vivian Espinosas’ brain.
Amid all the commotion, a second figure suddenly ran out from inside the trees. “For God’s sake,” McCannon shouted, “don’t shoot, that’s Billy Youngh!” thicket. The man wore an expensive-looking suit (he had actually recently acquired it from a victim who happened to shop at the same store as Youngh, a member of McCannon’s posse sent to approach from the opposite direction) that looked just like that which Youngh was wearing. However, when the man lifted his face from his dead brother to reveal his dark features and black bushy beard, already the men were too late. Before McCannon and the others could could take aim Felipe Espinosa had already disappeared once more into the thicket.
It was growing dark by the time the posse gave up on the pursuit and returned to Vivian’s death site. As the men clustered around the body, a shot rang through the air. The bullet smashed into a tree just inches away from Joe Lamb’s head. Looking up at the ridge above them, a thin, blue smoke rose from a silhouetted gunman. With that, he was gone.
On Vivian’s body, however; McCannon found many victims’ belongings, gold, and, in the dead horse’s saddlebag, Felipe’s diary. The pages were a descent into madness: descriptions of murders and mutilations, incoherent and politically-charged diatribes, transcribed and perhaps imagined conversations with family members, unsent letters, and underlying it all, a divine righteousness.
One passage included an early draft of a letter that Felipe, following Vivian’s death, would mail to Governor Evans. According the Weekly Commonwealth, the letter read in part:
They [the Anglos] ruined our families – they took everything in our house; first our beds and blankets, then our provisions. Seeing this we said, “We would rather be dead than see such infamies committed on our families. These were the reasons we had to go out and kill Americans – revenge for the infamies committed on our families. But we have repented of killing. Pardon us for what we have done and give us our liberty so that no officer will have anything to do with us, for also in killing, one gains his liberty. I am aware that you know of some 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 killed as many men as the Espinosas. We have killed thirty-two.
It was a quiet summer after that. As stealthily as he had come, Felipe had disappeared. Some thought he may have retreated to Old Mexico, others that he hunkered low with family members or sympathizers. Many reports have Felipe at some point returning to that meadow, to Vivian’s corpse, and carrying south a severed arm to be buried.
But by October 8, 1863, Felipe had resumed his crusade, and once more with an accomplice: 14-year old Jose Espinosa, a nephew.
The two were thought to be drunk that day, passing a bottle back and forth as they waited to ambush a box canyon along what would become La Veta Pass in southern Colorado. A wagon approached, one carrying a Mexican woman named Delores Sanchez and her companion, a white man known only as Philbrook.
The Espinosas attacked and Delores and Philbrook scattered in opposite directions. Both Felipe and Jose took after the man. However, not wanting to get off their horses, they lost Philbrook in the steep and rocky mountainside. They whirled back to go find the woman.
Delores all the while had been hiding behind a rock until another wagon came bustling down the road. Frantic, she popped out and explained to the wagon’s two Mexican drivers what happened. They told her to get in the wagon and hide.
Moments later, the Espinosas trotted up.
According to the report, the two demanded that the drivers tell them what ethnicity they were. When the drivers assured them they were in fact Mexican, the Espinosas asked if they had seen a woman run by. The drivers said they had not, but as soon as they did Delores, for reasons unknown, revealed herself and began pleading for their lives.
She was raped. And when they were done Felipe and Jose bound her and promised to return once they found her gringo companion. By then, however, Philbrook had traversed the hard mountainside all the way to Fort Garland where he alerted Colonel Tappan of the situation. A patrol was sent out, and Dolores soon found in desperate shape; hiding, yet again, after having freed herself.
Safe at Fort Garland, Delores and Philbrook detailed their encounter with the Espinosas. It was the best description anyone had ever given of Felipe. The time had come to end him, and Tappan knew exactly the man to do it.
Part VI: Assassination
Thomas Tate Tobin was an American adventurer, tracker, trapper, mountain man, guide, US Army scout, and beginning the day Colonel Tappan summoned him to Fort Garland, bounty hunter. He was born in 1823 in St. Louis. When he was 14 years old he came west to Taos, New Mexico with his brother Charles to hunt beaver. A few years later, Tom began contracting with Bent’s Fort as a scout. He also worked in a whisky distillery in Arroyo Hondo, shortly north of Taos. In January of 1847, following Mexico’s surrender and the United States’ subsequent occupation of New Mexico, a revolt broke out among New Mexicans and native Indians in Taos. The rebels charged the home of New Mexico’s first U.S. governor, Charles Bent, broke down the door, shot bent several times with arrows, then scalped him in front of his wife and children. The next day, a mob of 500 Mexicans and Indians laid siege to the distillery in Arroyo Hondo. After a long battle, only two of the workers managed to escape – one of them Tobin, fleeing on foot from the blazing structure. Soon after, Tobin helped lead the scouting parties that would eventually capture many of the insurrectionists and put them to death.
In the years that followed, Tobin worked as an army scout, leading campaigns against Indians alongside Wild Bill Hickock, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Kit Carson, with whom Tobin was lifelong friends and said to be the only man to surpass Carson in tracking, shooting, and scouting abilities. He was a short, stout, bowlegged mulato. It was said he could “track a grasshopper through sagebrush” His reputation became known all throughout the southwest, and in October of 1863, Tobin was in the prime of his life.
Summoned to Fort Garland, Tobin interrogated Philbrook and Delores for everything they could tell him about the Espinosas. He wanted to go about the mission alone, but Tappan insisted on sending a small detachment of soldier along. The Colonel didn’t think Tobin fully appreciated the capabilities of Felipe Espinosa.
Tobin set out the next morning with fifteen Union soldiers and a boy to tend to his horse every time Tobin dismounted to inspect the trail. For three straight days and nights, followed the two outlaws from campsite to campsite – fresh ash still smoldering in the fire pits. Tobin was keen to every smell; every stick broken; every blade of grass bent or kicked askew. They stopped only for a few hours of sleep a night. Tobin allowed no fires. Those in the company that complained or grew exhausted he sent back.
At last, early morning on the fourth day, Tobin noticed magpies circling in the distance. Approaching the site, a thin column of smoke appeared rising within a grove of cottonwoods. The magpies floated patiently. Tobin instructed his men to stay where they were and to wait with their guns cocked. The tracker then dropped to his stomach and began army crawling nearer the camp, his old Hawken muzzleloader out front.
Felipe and Jose sat warming their hands by a small fire, a dead ox beside them with fillets cut from one haunch.
Their backs to him, Tobin watched.
Pulling his hands away from the fire, Felipe suddenly rose and stretched his arms wide.
Tobin squeezed the trigger. The big Hawken bucked and boomed. Felipe whipped in a half-circle, clutched at the gaping hole in his side and as Tobin would later report, called out, “Jesus favor me!” before collapsing backward into the fire.
Tobin worked fast, deftly cycling another slug into the rifle. Jose took for the woods. He ran until he was just a tiny shadow flickering through the trees, and just as he was about to lose him Tobin aimed and fired. The ball caught the boy in the spine and sent him crashing into the earth.
Meanwhile, Felipe, still clinging to life, pulled himself out of the fire. Tobin rose emerged from the trees. He drew out his Bowie as he approached the dying man.
Felipe, his breaths running out, wheezed curses. Tobin, snatched him by the hair, dragged him, and bent Felipe’s head over a log.
“Do you know who I am?” Tobin recalled asking him.
“Bruto. Bruto.” Felipe replied.
Tobin lopped the heavy blade down, hacking twice to fully sever the head.
Upon his return to Fort Garland, Tobin immediately strode into the office of Colonel Tappan.
“Got them,” he announced.
“Got what,” Tappan asked.
And Tobin reached into the flour sack he was carrying and pulled out the heads of Felipe and Jose Espinosa.
Part VII: The Aftermath
The assassination of Felipe Espinosa would later make Tobin a famous man around Colorado. It remains today a famous chapter of Tobin’s storied career.
There was some controversy later in his life (none of it Tobin’s doing) regarding the bounty attached to Felipe Espinosa. At the time of his death, the bounty Governor Evans had placed on Felipe’s head had risen to $5500. Of this however, Tobin would not see a cent, not from Governor Evans anyway. When the Espinosas were dead and no longer a threat, Evans revealed to Tobin, the whole state for that matter, that the capitol simply did not have the money. They were depleted between the costs of the war, of financing not only the soldiers and forts throughout the territory, but also what Lincoln called for in the East. As this revelation became something of interesting gossip around the area, speculation arose that Tobin had only accepted the commission for the reward money involved, not simply to be valiant. Tobin on the other hand, maintained all the way until his dying day that he never even knew there was a bounty.
Whatever the case, in order to make up for the promised bounty, Governor Evans instead gifted Tobin with an elaborate coat. Only one more like it existed, and that had been presented to Tobin’s friend Kit Carson. The military would also gift Tobin a limited edition Henry rifle. Later, after the Civil War and following Governor Evans resignation, Evans’ successor Alexander Cummings would raise a purse with the help of donators from around the territory and present it to Tobin as a sign of the peoples’ gratitude. The amount of the purse was thought to be less than half the original bounty.
In his old age, Tobin became a prosperous rancher, operating a large ranch near Fort Garland. Although he never knew how to read, Tobin would also become president of the county’s school board. Tobin’s daughter later married the son of Kit Carson. Years following, Tobin would try to stab his son in law for abusing his daughter and the son-in-law would strike back with a hammer to Tobin’s head and a shot at his face (Tobin, amazingly, survived). A few days later, the two were said to have “ironed out their differences..” Tobin lived a long life and died in 1904. Today his wagon can be seen at the Fort Garland museum.
No one knows for sure what became of the heads of Felipe and Jose Espinosa, though for a short period of time they’re thought to have become something of a traveling act around the state of Colorado. Floating in a jar of alcohol, the heads reportedly sat on the desk of the editor of the Fairplay Flume, and later in the offices of the Rocky Mountain News. After that, however, seemingly the heads disappeared. One 1980s newspaper article is aptly titled “Where is Felipe’s Head.” Recently, a few employees at Colorado’s Capitol building recalled hearing that an unlabeled, preserved head was discovered stored in the Capitol’s basement and incinerated.
Vivian’s spurs are on display in the courthouse museum in Colorado Springs. Two pistols belonging to the Espinosas are in the collections of the Colorado Historical Society. Back in the 1960s, a survey was conducted at the scene of Vivian’s death, led by descendents of the posse. They found a rusted rifle, as well as pieces of a human skeleton.
Descendants of these figures still live throughout Colorado and the southwest, including descendents of both Felipe and his victims. Felipe fathered three children with Maria Secundina before disappearing on his rampage. They were, in order: Maria Vincenta (b. 1855), Jose Domingo (b. 1858) and Maria Manuela (b. 1862).
And thus, until the next major piece of the tale reveals itself, ends the story of Felipe Espinosa.
Click for information on the book, The Vendetta of Felipe Espinosa.