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[whitespace] Tiburcio Vasquez Slot Machine
Photograph by Eric Carlson

Notes From the Underbelly

Tiburcio Vasquez--The Polite Bandit

By Eric A. Carlson

"Over one thousand ladies representing the elite and respectable of the city of San Jose visited Tiburcio in his jail cell, showering him with flowers and gifts..."

--Waves Smokehouse and Saloon placemat

BEFORE VISITING THE GRAVE of notorious bandito Tiburcio Vasquez at Santa Clara Mission Cemetery, I enjoyed a cheeseburger at Joao's Restaurant in Santa Clara that was so good it almost brought tears to my eyes. Still a country mile from the burgers at Camellia Grill in New Orleans, but respectable for Santa Clara County.

I found Tiburcio in Section 18-Old. A simple but handsome headstone with bare-bones text: Vasquez, Tiburcio, 1835-1875, Rest in Peace. Potted flowers and a votive candle were carefully placed by the stone--presumably by relatives. Tiburcio was an outlaw of considerable ability and style who terrorized a large swath of California for 20 years (counting 10 years in San Quentin penitentiary). And he was polite--especially when he was pinching your poke. Many of his victims related that he apologized for the inconvenience and would do his best to make restitution with interest. This technique is currently being exercised by PG&E bandits who recently announced--politely--that rates will be going up by 40 percent. Tiburcio and his cohort, Juan "The Human Wildcat" Soto, would have admired the ability and chutzpah of PG&E to rob everyone in the state of California simultaneously--on a monthly basis.

Tiburcio started out well enough, born in Monterey in 1835 to a good family. He was well educated and enjoyed plucking the guitar and writing poetry. His handwriting was spectacular. But he did consort with unsavory elements and, by some accounts, had wild ways. The catalyst for a lurid life of crime would prove to be gringos. Not God-fearing decent gringos such as myself, but low-down dirty dog gringos who crashed fandangos and panned for gold while the Foreign Miners' Tax Law of 1850 prevented anyone else from doing so. The theft of California from Mexico in the guise of Manifest Destiny (It's God's Will) in 1846, and the Gold Rush shortly thereafter, did not bode well for Mexicans and Californios. Vigilante mobs lynched Mexicans and Chinese capriciously. Young Tiburcio and his peers chafed at such boorishness, and one thing led to another.

Tiburcio maintained that stagecoach robbing, rustling and armed robbery were the means to raise money for an army of patriots to free California from the invasion of gringos. In a perfect world, if he could have stolen enough gold, there is no doubt that some of it would have gone for such a cause. But the world is coarse, and gold difficult to separate from those who do not understand the greater scheme of things. The requisite needs for gambling, women and natty wardrobe often precluded the exercise of his altruistic nature.

The defining moment, signaling the end of the fun, would be the robbing of Snyder's Store in Tres Pinos (now named Paicines, though just to confuse things another settlement soon took the name Tres Pinos--just to the north of Paicines). Murder most foul occurred, something that Tiburcio had avoided in the past and often bragged of, ("There was no bloodshed"). Bloodshed there was at Tres Pinos, and in due course he was tracked down and delivered to San Jose for trial.

Tiburcio met his end with nerve, walking unshackled to the gallows. His final word as he faced the executioner: "Pronto!" Panache to the bitter end. Thousands mourned his passing--the majority of them women. And his headstone is maintained in a place of honor. (Unlike other San Jose notables such as A.D.M. Cooper, whose headstone lies broken and uncared for at Oak Hill Cemetery.)

A magnificent wooden slot machine in the likeness of Tiburcio Vasquez can be found at Wave's Smokehouse and Saloon, 65 Post Street, in downtown San Jose. The owners, Judy Pearson and Joel Wyrick, have a sense of the importance of history and have restored this historic building to its former glory, when it was a mainstay downtown saloon and whorehouse. I hasten to add that the whores have long since departed for San Francisco.

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From the January 11-17, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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