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Pale Horse Revelations #55 - Felipe Espinosa: Old West Serial Killer

Hello readers and welcome back to Pale Horse Revelations. where we explore significant people, places, and events in Old West history. While I make no promises, don't be surprised if some of these places, people, or events find their way into future Pale Rider adventures.

As we've seen over the course of our explorations together, the American Old West was a violent time and place. Gunfights, ambushes, and bushwhacking's were commonplace. So too were cattle rustling, bank heists, and train robberies.

For many, especially those in boom towns such as Abilene and Dodge City, violence of this type was just an everyday occurrence. But for a

brief period of time in 1863 the people of Colorado faced something far more terrifying. One of the nation's first, and still most prolific serial killers, had decided to make the territory his killing grounds.

Our story begins in the Spring of 1863 when the first of what would be many victims was discovered. The mutilated corpse was discovered in May of that year in present day Fremont County, Colorado. According to records the victim's heart had been hacked from his chest.

As if the news of such a gruesome killing wasn't terrifying enough, it was soon followed by subsequent discoveries. With each new report, fear and hysteria grew. The killings were a complete mystery. The person, or persons, responsible left not a single clue for authorities to act on. Lookouts were posted throughout the regions where the killings had occurred, but new reports of mutilated bodies continued to pour in. Those foolish enough to ride alone would often disappear, only for their bodies to later be discovered in some remote part of the territory. Over the course of that summer a total of twenty-five victims would fall prey to the unknown killer (or killers).

The strategy of posting lookouts failed primarily for one reason. No one knew for sure who or what they were looking for. Were marauding Indians to blame? Or was this the work of a gang of ruffians? Could a single madman be responsible?

Everything changed when a wagon was attacked on the road to Fairplay, Colorado. The driver somehow managed to escape and was able to identify the culprit. He was Felipe Espinosa (aided by his brother, Vivian). Felipe was the undisputed leader of a gang of outlaws consisting mostly of his cousins that became known as the Bloody Espinosas.

The motivation behind Felipe's murderous crime spree remains a mystery, though several theories have been put forth. According to legend, Felipe claimed to have received a message from the Virgin Mary telling him to kill 100 gringos for every member of his family killed during the Mexican American War. According to some records Espinosa was born in Vera Cruz, Mexico and witnessed six family members die when the U.S. Navy shelled the town.

Martin Edward Martinez, a direct descendant of the Espinosa's, claimed to have researched his family history extensively and reported a very different motivation. According to Martinez, Felipe was motivated by several atrocities committed against his family by American soldiers. First, came the rape of his wife and daughters by U.S. soldiers in 1861. His wife reportedly died just days afterward.

This was followed by a similar incident at his brother's home. During the attack his brother killed a soldier who had raped his sister. According to Martinez, additional troops soon arrived and killed everyone on the ranch to avenge the soldier's death. The soldiers then took possession of the land and everything on it.

In Martinez's account, Felipe and his family banded together to avenge these atrocities. But as they traveled in search of the soldiers responsible, they encountered more Mexican families who had suffered the same fate and been driven from their land. The Espinosas would then kill those who had taken the land and return it to the rightful owners.

Historian and author, Charles F. Price proposes yet another theory. According to Price, Felipe was part of a tax revolt which ultimately led to the killing of an American soldier sent to arrest him. According to Price it was this incident that precipitated the entire bloody affair.

Whatever his motivation may have been, Felipe had now been discovered as the one behind the gruesome murders. With his identity no longer a secret, Felipe took the bold move of writing directly to the governor of Colorado, John Evans. In the letter, Felipe threatened to kill 600 gringos unless his demands were met. His demands included amnesty for himself and his gang members, 5,000 acres of land in Conejos County, Colorado, and appointments in the 1st Colorado Infantry.

Rather than entertain such demands, Governor Evans, turned instead to the U.S. Cavalry for help hunting down the criminals. Initially, the authorities met with little success. The tide began to change, however, when a posse out of Park County finally caught up with the brothers southwest of Cannon City, Colorado. A thunderous gunbattle soon waged between the two parties. Felipe managed to escape but his brother, Vivian, was not so lucky. He was killed during the shootout.

Felipe went into hiding for the remainder of the summer. At some point he recruited his fourteen-year-old cousin, Jose, to replace his brother at his side. As Summer came to an end, the two resumed their bloody revenge campaign. After the two ambushed and killed a man and his wife on La Veta Pass, the U.S. Army turned to renowned frontiersman and scout Tom Tobin to track down the killers and bring them to justice.

Tobin, who was himself a cousin of the Espinosa's, soon set out with a detachment of fifteen soldiers. Shortly after departing Tobin left the soldiers behind and departed the camp accompanied only by a Mexican boy. A few days later Tobin began the return trip to Fort Garland. In a sack, carried the heads of Felipe and Jose with him as proof of his success.

There are conflicting accounts of how the two met their demise. According to Tobin, he tracked the outlaws down within a matter of days at which time a gunfight ensued, and he was forced to kill both men. Espinosa descendant Martin Edward Martinez claims his research revealed a very different story. According to him, Tobin was a trusted member of the family and used this to get close to and betray Felipe and Jose. Martinez claims that Tobin approached the camp alone pretending to be friendly. Tobin drank with them around the campfire until the two passed out. He then proceeded to slit both their throats.

The motivation behind Felipe's murderous killing spree and the details of his ultimate demise may be debatable. But what cannot be debated are his status as one of the nation's first and most prolific serial killers. While a total of twenty-five bodies were recovered, Felipe himself, claimed to have killed thirty-two. Either way, the magnitude of his abhorrent crimes remains unfathomable.

This brings us to the end of another edition of Pale Horse Revelations. I hope you found it to be both interesting and entertaining. As usual, I have tried to provide some interesting historical information while trying not to bog the casual reader down with too much detail. I encourage anyone interested in learning more to dig in and do a little research of their own.

As a reminder, I would love to hear your suggestions for topics to focus on in future editions of Pale Horse Revelations. If there's a particular location, person, or event that you would like to know more about, please let me know. Just fill out the Contact form found on the "Contact the Author" page of this website and indicate your desired topic in the message box at the bottom of the form. I look forward to hearing from you all.

  Please be sure to check back next week for the next installment of Pale Horse Revelations and thank you for your continued interest and support.

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