• Cheryl Anne Stapp

Questionable Circumstances


In the early years of the Gold Rush, the mining camps were terrorized by the bloody exploits of a ferocious bandit named Joaquin Murrieta. It was said he had 20 or more accomplices—all horse thieves or fearsome, savage killers—who raided, pillaged, and wantonly murdered in the far-flung Mother Lode region, and other settlements, both south and west.


Frightened citizens declared that no more desperate, cut-throat band of outlaws had ever ridden; always on the finest horses, always armed to the teeth. Soon enough--illogical though it was--crimes committed hundreds of miles apart on the same day were attributed to Joaquin! The public clamored for action. Harry Love, a former U.S. Army dispatch rider in Texas, convinced the California legislature to appoint him the captain of a 20-man posse to hunt down the culprit. Their pay was an enviable $150 per man per month, with an additional bonus payable upon Murrieta’s death or capture, if they accomplished the task within a three-month time limit.


Love’s California Rangers captured and beheaded the outlaw on July 25, 1853. Affidavits attesting to the corpse’s identity were duly sworn and the head, preserved in a jar filled with alcohol, was displayed in many locales throughout the state. But then . . . doubts began to circulate in the press. How could the Rangers be sure they had executed the real Joaquin Murrieta, when there were four other, criminally-inclined Joaquins roaming the state: Joaquin Carrillo, Joaquin Ocomorenia, Joaquin Valenzuela, and Joaquin Botellier. Perhaps, some of the names were aliases of Murrieta himself; no one knew that for sure. Wasn’t it interesting, though, newspaper editors asked, that the Rangers captured and executed someone named Joaquin before their three-month time limit expired?


Editorial allegations notwithstanding, Harry Love collected a $5,000 bonus, and gained statewide fame as the gunslinger who had dispatched Joaquin Murrieta. In May 1854 he married Mary Bennett, a widow who owned substantial real estate. The marriage between two domineering personalities was turbulent, to say the least. In 1858, while she remained in Santa Clara, Harry took up permanent residence on his estranged wife’s property in Santa Cruz County. He worked hard, but within a few years multiple fires, and a disastrous flood, destroyed his grain crops, the lumber mill, and his dwelling and tool houses. Now destitute, Harry returned to Mary’s Santa Clara home in 1868. There, he lived in the barn, drank too much, and convinced himself that Mary was consorting with her hired man, Christian (aka Fred) Eiversen.


Acccording to witnesses, on the morning of June 29, 1868, Harry was lying in wait—with a loaded shotgun—for the pair to return home from town. The buggy, driven by Eiversen, came down the drive. Warned by a daughter who rushed out to the buggy, Mary started screaming, then shots rang out so close together that neither of the two impartial housepainters on the scene could say who fired first: Harry, or Fred. More shots were exchanged. Harry retreated, Fred followed, and the gunfight got up close and personal when Fred knocked Harry down and began beating him on the head with the butt of a pistol—whereupon the housepainters stopped the fight.


Besides the contusions to his head, Harry had suffered a serious gunshot wound to his arm below the right shoulder. As the painters were carrying him off the porch, he cried out that Mary and her daughter had hired Fred to kill him. He died later that day, after the doctors summoned to treat him had amputated his damaged arm.


The coroner’s inquest ruled that Eiversen had killed Harry Love in self-defense. He was exonerated, but Harry’s wild accusation that Mary wanted him dead wasn’t totally delusional. He knew that in recent months, Mary had begun to prosper from rents on the land she had acquired before their marriage, her sole and separate property. He knew she adamantly refused to share this prosperity with him as her lawful spouse, but for the same reason she couldn’t divorce him, either. California law provided that a well-to-do woman owning her own property must provide support for an indigent husband whom she had deserted—an issue raised in previous litigations between the couple—and a divorce court would probably force her to do so.


Mary, Harry knew in his heart, was caught between two equally untenable alternatives that would be satisfactorily solved by his own death.

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