On the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco earthquake, my east coast outsider’s perspective focuses not on the event itself but on the image of an outlaw’s disputed head, lost in the rubble. Joaquin Murietta was a Mexican bandit, part of an outlaw band that came to be known as the Five Joaquins since many of them shared that name. During the years just after the California gold rush of 1849, they terrorized the Sierra Nevada region as horse and cattle thieves, hold-up artists, and murderers. Very little of Murietta’s story, though, is definitive: there are distortions and mythology surrounding just about every aspect. Enough of the mythology took hold that Murietta purportedly served as the inspiration for Zorro; he was also known as the Mexican Robin Hood. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Murietta invoked at our present day protests on behalf of illegal aliens, and he probably has been.
All we know for sure is that the governor of California raised a posse of California Rangers to capture or kill the Five Joaquins in 1853. The Rangers brought back the head of a Mexican who they said was Murietta, plus the hand of the man they claimed was Three-Fingered Jack, one of the band’s compadres. The latter claim may have been true, but the former seems highly dubious, and was regarded as such at the time. Nevertheless, the head was preserved in a jar of alcohol and put on tour, displayed at various California locales for the viewing pleasure of patrons.
”Joaquin” was still staring out at visitors as recently as 100 years ago this morning – on April 18, 1906, when the great quake shook the jar loose from its moorings, and off went the head for good, into a permanent mythology from which it has never been retrieved.
Yet even that isn’t the end of the story. As Steven Hayward writes in his 2003 review of Searching for Joaquin, “a man named Walter Johnson in Santa Rosa claimed an ancestor had rescued the head from the quake, and still had it in his possession in the 1970s. (He later buried it in an undisclosed location after being pestered by the county health department for keeping human remains.)” The intervention of the county health department, that modern invention, does remind one that even if the earthquake had not occurred, the head would have been banned from public viewing long before 2006. History may not have been well served in the Murietta matter, but legend has had a feast.