BL Special Report

BL Longform: Snyder’s General Store and the downfall of Tiburcio Vasquez 

The raid that led to the capture and execution of an outlaw.
Tiburcio Vasquez. Courtesy of the California State Library.
Tiburcio Vasquez. Courtesy of the California State Library.
Tiburcio Vasquez. Courtesy of the California State Library.
Tiburcio Vasquez. Courtesy of the California State Library.
Vasquez marker. Courtesy of E Clampus Vitus.
Vasquez marker. Courtesy of E Clampus Vitus.
The grave of Tiburcio Vasquez. Photo by Robert Eliason.
The grave of Tiburcio Vasquez. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The night before his execution for the murder of Leander Davidson, the notorious outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez asked to see the coffin prepared for him. He felt the lining and said, “I shall sleep long and well here.” The next day, March 19, 1875, Vasquez was hung in front of a crowd of 300 invited spectators. He proclaimed his innocence until the end.

The execution of Vasquez was the final act in a series of dramatic events that began when the bandit and his gang held up Snyder’s General Store in Tres Pinos (now known as Paicines). On Sept. 25, 2021, members of the Monterey Viejo Chapter of E Clampus Vitus dedicated a plaque on Panoche Road, east of Route 25, marking the site of the raid.

“There was great outrage over the robbery and the killing,” said Clamper George Peabody, who researched the raid and wrote the text for the marker. “The thing that we were documenting here, not commemorating or celebrating, was that the downfall of Tiburcio Vasquez started on this spot.” 

According to testimony at the trial, Vasquez and his men raided the small town on the evening of Aug. 26, 1873. Gang members Teodoro Moreno, Abdon Leiva, and Romulo Gonzales robbed the customers at Snyder’s Store as Vasquez and his lieutenant, Clodoveo Chavez, waited outside. 

As Moreno and Leiva finished hog-tying the customers—a Vasquez gang trademark—Gonzales left the store. Spotting Bernard Bahury, a Portuguese shepherd, Gonzales ordered him to lay on the ground. Bahury, who spoke no English, did not understand the order and ran around to the back of the store. Gonzales chased him and shot him in the mouth. Moreno, who had joined the chase, fired the shot that killed Bahury.

Shortly afterward, teamster George Redford arrived in town, delivering fence pickets. As he came down from his wagon, Vasquez ordered him to lie on the ground. Redford, who was deaf, did not understand the order. He fled, and Vasquez fired his rifle at him. Witnesses saw Redford run behind a barn, with Vasquez giving chase, and heard shots fired. Redford was later found dead inside the barn with a bullet wound in his back. 

Several people ran for cover inside a hotel owned by Davidson. Leiva shouted, “Keep in the house, and you won’t be hurt,” but as they were trying to close the front door, Vasquez shot through it, killing Davidson, who died in his wife’s arms.

About 40 people had been present in the tiny town. A few escaped when the robbery began. The rest were tied up or otherwise subdued and robbed of everything they had, including the taking of $2 from a 10-year-old boy. 

With Chavez standing guard, the gang returned to the store and feasted on beer, crackers, cheese, canned oysters and sardines. The gang then took the horses from the stable and left, following the San Benito River, out of town. The whole raid had taken about two-and-a-half hours. 

The incident was reported in newspapers across the country and set off a state-wide manhunt for Vasquez and his gang. A $1,000 reward was offered for his capture, which increased to $8,000 within a year, as the gang robbed and shot their way to Los Angeles.

Leiva was found and arrested in an unsuccessful attempt to capture Vasquez. Leiva had previously discovered that Vasquez had been having an affair with his wife and happily gave the authorities an account of the Tres Pinos raid, as well as information about the other gang members. 

This led to Moreno’s arrest and trial for the murder of Bahury, with Leiva testifying against him. Moreno was defended by Bob Tully from Bitterwater, a small town south of Pinnacles National Park, and was convicted of second-degree murder. Leiva remained in custody. 

Sheriff Billy Rowland tracked down Vasquez in Los Angeles and, on May 14, 1875, he was captured. Surrounded, he attempted to escape and was shot twice. He gave his name as Alejandro Martinez, but a search of his possessions revealed a watch chain known to have been taken by Vasquez in a robbery in Arroyo Seco.

Wounded, he was brought by sea up the coast for trial. The ship took him to San Francisco as the authorities thought the crowds awaiting his arrival in Monterey would be unmanageable. Vasquez was then brought by train to Salinas. His lawyers, Tully and Charles Ben Darwin, successfully petitioned for a change in venue to San Jose and he was taken there to await trial.

Vasquez was treated like a celebrity and enjoyed the attention as he posed for photographs, gave interviews, and allowed his jailers to show him off in his cell to throngs of curiosity seekers. The public fascination was such that a 44-page biography of Vasquez was published within six days of his arrest and a play about him was written and staged within 10 days. 

Many of the Californios—those with roots going back to the Mexican occupation of California— considered Vasquez a hero. He played strongly to them, dismissing his criminal career as a means of inciting a revolution that would allow the Spanish-speaking population to take back California from the United States. 

Vasquez even wrote a song about himself, the “Vasquez Romance,” portraying himself as a revolutionary. In his biography of Vasquez, “Bandito: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez,” author John Boessenecker quotes part of the lyric:

That Tiburcio Vasquez is the leader of all the Mexicans
The tyrants are saying that he will have to be hanged . . .

 

Boessenecker’s book published in 2010, denies that Vasquez was a revolutionary hero or a Robin Hood.
“Vasquez did not rob from the rich and give to the poor, nor did he ever claim to have done so,” he wrote. “Most of the people he robbed were working men: travelers, stage passengers, storekeepers.”

At his trial, Vasquez was initially charged with shooting Davidson and Redford as well as being an accomplice in Moreno’s murder of Gonzales. The prosecutors dropped the charges to just the murder of Davidson, for which there were eyewitnesses. Vasquez was confident that, since Moreno had been sentenced to life in prison, he himself would be spared the death penalty. He was wrong.

His greatest error, perhaps, was his willingness to talk to the press, to which he gave differing versions of his role in the Tres Pinos raid. He claimed at first that he was not in the town when the murders happened, then changed his story to say that he had tried to stop the killings. He made various claims about who did the shooting and who was present at the scene.

At the trial, multiple eyewitnesses at the robbery told a different and more consistent story. Leiva testified at length as to the planning of the raid and what he had seen, including his account of Vasquez killing Davidson. 

While his testimony might have been somewhat tainted by his anger with Vasquez, a second witness, Louis Schever, who had been living at Snyder’s store and knew several of the gang, including Vasquez also testified. He identified Vasquez as the leader of the raid and as Davidson’s killer.

Vasquez testified on his own behalf, giving yet another account of the event. According to the transcripts, he blamed the planning of the robbery on Leiva and Davidson’s murder on Gonzales, claiming he had never shed blood in his career. In an attempt to discredit Leiva’s testimony, he claimed that Leiva had not been there when the murders took place—a hopeless assertion since witnesses had testified to his presence on the scene from the start.

The trial concluded on Jan. 9, 1875. The case was given to the jury that evening and they quickly returned with a guilty verdict.

Before his death, Vasquez made a statement to journalist George Beers, in front of witnesses, saying, in part, “common sense compels me to realize the justness of the law which holds me responsible for the innocent lives lost in the prosecution of my unlawful calling of robbery.”

On the scaffold, Vasquez was silent until the noose was put around his neck. “Loosen it a little, please,” he said. As a black hood was placed over his head, Vasquez spoke his last word: “Pronto!”

Vasquez was buried on sacred ground at the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery by special dispensation. The original wooden cross that stood on his grave has been replaced by a large granite monument. As befits a life at odds with society, the marker is at a 45-degree angle from the rest of the carefully laid out tombstones that surround it.

 

Editor’s note: If you have any Tuburcio Vasquez history to share contact Robert Eliason [email protected] or Leslie David [email protected]

 

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Robert Eliason

I got my start as a photographer when my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. He taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.  The editors at BenitoLink first approached me as a photographer. They were the ones to encourage me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  BenitoLink is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community and I have been pleased to be a part of it.