This story is true. Or not.
At right about the time of the California Gold Rush, around 1849, a young man named Joaquin Murieta and his pretty wife Rosita traveled north from Mexico, to the California mining camps to mine for gold.
The threads of Murieta’s true history have unraveled over time. In 1854, John R. Ridge published a book describing how the other miners were so prejudiced against Joaquin Murieta that they assaulted and killed Rosita, which caused Murieta to swear revenge. Murieta entered a successful life of banditry.
Years later, historians would dispute Ridge’s book, calling it a dime novel. They argued that Murieta was bad man, a mere criminal, and that Gold Rush miners were not prejudiced.
Some writers dispute Rosita’s existence. They claim she was a figment of the romantic imaginations of Victorian-era Americans.
What is undisputed is this: Joaquin Murieta was a pirate, a marauder, a Robin Hood, a freedom fighter, a criminal, fictional, real, and the prototype for Zorro, who stole from the rich and did or did not give to the poor.
The story of Joaquin Murieta became so ubiquitous that every Halloween, when bad children refused to sleep, their mothers would get them into bed by saying, “Hush, or Joaquin Murieta will steal your chocolate.”
This was before psychotherapy, individual tutoring for second-graders, and other modern child-rearing techniques such as teacher collaboration and professional development days. Back then, no one knew that mothers were wrong.
Some say Murieta was killed by lawmen, with his head displayed as a trophy in the mining camps. Others say he continued to rob for the next 50 years. Still others say the bandit who robbed for the next 50 years was not Murieta but was his nephew, Procopio, aka “Red Handed Dick.” Still others say the bandit was Tiburcio Vasquez, the marauder of what is now Foothill Boulevard.
For example, here’s a bit from a story published in the Los Angeles Times, dated April 14, 1874:
“On the 14th of April, 1874, Charles H. Miles, superintendent of the Los Angeles Water Works, accompanied by a friend named Osborne, after a visit of inspection to the reservoir, was returning to Los Angeles in a two-horse Democrat wagon.
“Right where the road curved down through the oaks, Tiburcio Vasquez appeared and said: ‘Hand me your watch and your money, quick!’
“Miles said, ‘That’s pretty well done. I hope your gun isn’t loaded?’
“’Yes it’s loaded and I am in earnest. Yonder comes the sheriff after me and my party now — don’t you see them?’”
And so forth.
The stories differ because memories fade. Many of us old timers can't remember what we did on Oct. 31, 1849.
What is undisputed is this: On Halloween, when the wind rustles through the deodars and sixth-graders run through Alta Canyada, bulging pillowcases in hand, the ghost of Joaquin Murieta wakes from its not-quite-eternal rest. Murieta sneaks backs into La Cañada on his horse. He joins up with Red Handed Dick and Tiburcio. All three hide in the shadows of Foothill Boulevard, near the old Pony Express trail, hoping to rob small children. If the children are already in bed, Murieta picks up stray bits of candy and other loot. He sneaks into a nice dental office on Foothill Boulevard across from the 2 Freeway to X-ray the candy. Despite her untimely death, Rosita still likes a good chocolate bar now and then.