The so-called Bloody Espinosas were two brothers—some contend they were cousins—and a nephew who terrorized southern Colorado in the early 1860s. On their vengeful rampage, Felipe, Vivian, and José Espinosa killed dozens of people and remain Colorado’s most prolific serial killers. Today, the Espinosas live on in the canon of western myth and as one of the most violent chapters in Colorado’s territorial period.
The Espinosa Family
The family of Pedro Ignasio Espinosa and his wife, Maria Gertrudes Cháves, resided in the hamlet of El Rito, some thirty-five miles west of Taos, New Mexico Territory. The couple had two daughters and three sons, including Felipe Nerio Espinosa (born in 1828 and the eldest of the boys) and his younger brother, José Vivian Espinosa (born 1831). Even as a young man, Felipe was known as somewhat of a hothead. Around 1854 Felipe married seventeen-year-old Maria Secundida Hurtado. In 1858 the couple moved with their two children to San Rafael, two miles west of Conejos, at the west end of the San Luis Valley in what would soon be Colorado Territory. By 1862, Vivian Espinosa joined his brother, and the two farmed, herded sheep, and rustled horses. At one point, the Espinosas robbed a wagon carrying freight to a priest who operated a trading post in northern New Mexico Territory.
Robbing the priest’s supply wagon proved to be a mistake. The priest notified Gen. James H. Carleton in Santa Fe, who sent word to Fort Garland in southern Colorado that the Espinosas should be arrested. US marshal George Austin and sixteen soldiers proceeded to the Espinosa cabin near San Rafael. Attempting to get the Espinosas to Fort Garland without a confrontation, the lieutenant told the pair he was on a recruiting trip and asked them to join the army. They declined, and a gunfight followed in which a Mexican corporal was killed. The Espinosas fled and the soldiers looted their cabin. Felipe now vowed revenge on the Anglos. Around March 10, 1863, Felipe and Vivian rode northward from San Rafael to begin their private war.
The Killings Begin
On March 18, 1863, Francis William Bruce left his log cabin south of Cañon City bound for his sawmill twelve miles up Hardscrabble Creek. His horses and empty wagon returned alone to the cabin, and his body was found near the mill, shot through the heart. His gun was still in its holster. Bruce was the Espinosas’ first victim. The next day, Henry Harkens worked all day around his cabin at Little Fountain Creek, southwest of Colorado City. He was busy chinking his logs, hanging a blanket for a door, and chatting with his partners at a nearby sawmill. That evening, Harkens’s friends approached his cabin and noticed that no lamplight could be seen between the logs or through the door opening. They came closer and discovered Harkens shot once in the head, which had also been split open by an ax. His chest had two big ax gashes.
The two passersby apparently had interrupted the murderers in the act of ransacking Harkens’s cabin. A sheriff and deputy out of Hardscrabble traced the killers to Colorado City, Manitou, and up Ute Pass toward Fairplay. The next day, the lawmen came upon the body of J. D. Addleman; he had been shot through the head at his remote ranch on the Ute Pass road. They rode back to Colorado City to report the murders. Next, men named Binkley and A. N. Shoup were found murdered by the Kenosha House way station, near the fledgling Fairplay mining camp. The next day, May 2, Bill Carter was found slain near Alma. Two days later, near Fairplay, Fred Lehman and Sol Seyga were found shot and beaten to death.
With the body count rising, a fearful public demanded that territorial officials bring the murderers to justice. But lawmen and military troops were widely scattered, and at that moment, nobody knew who was responsible for the slayings. With the Civil War in progress, some theorized that the terrorists were Confederate sympathizers from Texas.
Lehman and Seyga lived in California Gulch and had many friends there—tough prospectors who vowed to prevent any more killing. They called a general meeting to discuss a plan and raise funds for a sustained manhunt. Seventeen men volunteered to set out immediately, with John McCannon as their leader. At the same time, the militia was dispatched to guard Fairplay, and Company I of the Second Regiment of Colorado Volunteers was ordered from Denver to patrol the area around Cañon City. A break came when lumber freighter Edward Metcalf was ambushed between Alma and Fairplay. His body toppled over his wagon seat after he was shot and his oxen bolted and dashed back to Fairplay. There Metcalf met the McCannon posse on its way south and gave a description matching the two men who had fled from the Fort Garland soldiers a month earlier. Now authorities knew who their targets were, and the newspapers came up with a name for them: the “Bloody Espinosas.”
The killers had adeptly covered their trail, but a few days later McCannon’s men spotted two horses grazing in a meadow near the mouth of Four Mile Creek. As Vivian Espinosa approached the horses, posse member Joseph M. Lamb fired, striking Vivian in the left side. He fell before raising himself on an elbow and firing back. Posse member Charles Carter fired, striking Vivian between the eyes and killing him instantly. On his body was found an “article of agreement” indicating that the Espinosas intended to kill 600 whites to avenge the loss of family property. Vivian also carried a leather pouch with a note stating that his father had been a murderer and that Vivian was compelled to commit fifty additional murders to expiate his father’s restless soul. The posse promptly cut off Vivian’s head and took it back to Fairplay as a trophy of the “remarkable chase.” For years, a well-known doctor kept the bleached skull and Vivian’s rifle went to a private collector.
With Vivian dead, Felipe Espinosa emerged from a ravine, but as the sharpshooters set their sights on him, McCannon mistook him for one of his own men and ordered a cease-fire. In the lull, Felipe bounded into the brush and escaped. At the Espinosa campsite, the McCannon posse found personal effects from four of the murder victims before returning to California Gulch as heroes. On his way south, Felipe killed two more men, their names unknown, near Cañon City. Back at Conejos, he became concerned that Vivian might still be alive and retraced his steps back to Four Mile Creek. There he located and buried Vivian’s body before returning to San Rafael with his brother’s dried foot as a memento.
Felipe Renews the Fight
Felipe recruited a nephew, sixteen-year-old José Vincente Espinosa, to travel north with him and resume the slaughter in retaliation for Vivian’s death. On June 30, they killed fisherman William Smith near Conejos. From Fairplay to New Mexico Territory, public terror grew daily. Freighters feared being on the roads and nearly all travel and commerce stopped unless accompanied by military troops. No mail entered or left South Park without guard; ranchers abandoned their properties and fled to more populated areas. Governor John Evans, along with the commander of the Colorado Military District, Col. John Chivington, and President Abraham Lincoln’s chief secretary, John George Nicolay, traveled to Conejos to negotiate a treaty with the Utes. While there, Chivington and Evans attempted to soothe public anxiety over the Espinosa murders. The Espinosas learned of the trip, and on September 4, they dispatched a message to Evans, requesting pardons and asking the governor to restore property to the Espinosa family. If their message was ignored, they pledged to kill Evans at the first opportunity. The threat went unheeded.
On October 10, 1863, the Espinosas attacked a buggy occupied by a man named Philbrook and a woman, Dolores Sanchez, northeast of Fort Garland. When both mules pulling the wagon were killed, Philbrook and Sanchez fled in opposite directions as the Espinosas torched their wagon. Sanchez, whom the Espinosas referred to as “that prostitute of the American,” was caught, bound, raped, and released—the Espinosas had still only killed one Mexican, the corporal at their initial standoff with the law. Later, Sanchez and Philbrook reunited at Fort Garland, both offering a full description of their attackers.
Enter Tom Tobin
As the military stationed in Fort Garland, Cañon City, and Fairplay continually failed to catch the Espinosas, Fort Garland’s commander, Lt. Col. Sam Tappan, summoned famed tracker and army scout Tom Tobin to find the killers. Tobin was hard, gruff, taciturn, fearless, and an incredible marksman. On October 12, 1863, Tobin and Lt. Horace W. Baldwin of Company C of the First Colorado Cavalry, fifteen soldiers, a civilian named Loring Jinks, and a youth named Juan Montoya struck northward after the Espinosas. It only took Tobin one day to locate the assassins’ tracks near present-day La Veta Pass, west of Walsenburg. After following the trail for two days, the posse noticed a group of crows and magpies circling a clearing, evidence that someone was in the area.
As Tobin crept up on the Espinosa camp, he saw Felipe dressing a carcass for food. Tobin stepped on a twig, and hearing it snap, Felipe lunged for his gun. Tobin shot first, wounding Felipe in the side, and the outlaw tumbled into the campfire as he shouted for his nephew to flee. As Tobin reloaded, José ran out of the ravine into an aspen grove. Three of the soldiers set their sights on José and fired. They missed, but Tobin did not—he shot the fleeing boy in the lower back, breaking his spine. Meanwhile, Felipe had pulled himself from the fire and was groping around blindly for his revolver. According to Tobin’s memoir,
I had run down to where he was. . . . A soldier went to lay his hand on him. I said, “look out, he will shoot you.” Felipe fired but missed the soldier. I then caught him by the hair, drew his head back over a fallen tree and cut it off.
In Felipe’s diary Tobin found a record of the Espinosas’ killings, a total of thirty-two. To this day, the Espinosas remain Colorado’s most prolific serial killers. Tobin, the victorious hunter, placed the Espinosas’ heads in a burlap sack and returned to Fort Garland the next day, October 16, 1863.
Adapted from Clark Secrest, “‘The Bloody Espinosas’: Avenging Angels of the Conejos,” Colorado Heritage 20, no. 4 (2000).