Felipe Nerio Espinosa was born in 1827 in a cramped jacal outside El Rito, New Mexico, then under Mexican rule. His parents raised him to be patriotic and intensely religious. Following the death of six family members in the Mexican American War, that patriotism boiled over into vengeful nationalism. Of his physical appearance little is known outside of witnesses’ description of his overdeveloped jaw and toothy “jack-o’-lantern grin.”
After the Mexican American war of 1848; the family of Espinosa, who had been strong Mexican patriots found themselves living in what was now the United States. An article in the Treaty of Guadalupe was signed stating that all Mexicans like the Espinosa family living in the new American territory would keep their land and have the choice of remaining an Mexican national or becoming an American citizen. Like many treaties throughout American history, this stipulation was not to be honored. In the San Luis Valley of what is now southern Colorado, hatred and resentment began to arise between Mexicans and Americans.
The Colorado Territory was formed in 1861 and created Colorado's Southern border. Along with this new territory came new taxes and new laws created by the new governing Anglos. Most of, not all of the ex-Mexican nationals did not read or speak English and were confused by the new laws and taxes. Discontent had reached a boiling point for many of the Mexican families including the Espinosas.
The Espinosa family had become bitter against the United States and anything related to the Anglos who they viewed as their enemy. According to local legend, Felipe Espinoza claimed to have had a vision from the Virgin Mary telling him to kill 100 Anglos for every member of his family lost during the Mexican American War. A direct descendant of the Espinosas, who researched the history extensively, says it came down to the atrocities committed by American soldiers against his family, coupled with the nations “Manifest Destiny”, which he says was used to justify continental expansion, with American’s believing it was their “God-given right" to expand and conquer all people who were not capable of self government.
Another version suggests that the Espinosas were on a mission for revenge after American soldier’s raped Felipe’s wife and daughters. Things got worse after a similar incident at his brothers home, in which Jose Vivian Espinosa wound up killing a soldier who had raped his sister. According to this version, more soldiers came to the ranch and killed everyone there as revenge for the soldiers death, then took possession of the land and everything on it. Whatever the reason was in the beginning, it was very clear that the Espinosas hated all white Americans.
In his journal, Felipe describes the animosity he and his brother felt towards the Anglo communities of New Mexico and Southern Colorado.
"They ruined our family, they took everything in our house; first our beds and blankets, then our provisions. Seeing this we said, ‘We would rather be dead than see such infamies committed on our families!. These were the reasons we had to go out and kill Americans, revenge for the infamies committed on our families..."
Felipe Nerio Espinosa, rates as one of America’s earliest serial killers, but it was a family affair. Brother José Vivián Espinosa and nephew Jose Vicente Espinosa also played roles in this vicious murder spree.
The Espinoza's first victim was found in 1863. His name was Jim Harkins, a sawmill worker. Harkins had been shot in the middle of the forehead with a Colts Navy revolver, then the Espinosas had taken an ax and split his head open from the top to the mouth, and then, judging from the appearance of his head and the ax, they had hit him on each side of the head with the head of the ax, and two pieces of skull and his brains lay on the ground at the top of his head. His heart had also been hacked out of his chest. Twenty five more Anglo American people were killed and mutilated in a similar fashion although it is believed it could have been up to sixty.
Felipe and Jose Vivian moved North, killing whenever they could find someone who was alone and far enough from others that gunshots and screams would not be heard. They found the perfect hunting grounds in the mining settlements of South Park, Colorado. The brothers would often stalk their prey for hours before striking. Sometimes, they would rush up on their victim before shooting them in the head. Sometimes they would strike from afar, using long range rifles to kill. Either way, they would follow up the killing by mutilating the bodies.
The murders continued and became even more gruesome. Bodies were found disemboweled or decapitated. Sometimes crucifixes were carved into chests. Sometimes stakes were driven through the hearts of the murdered. Sometimes the hearts were ripped out of the bodies.
On April 25, 1863, Felipe did something he had never done before, he missed. His target, a lumberman named Matthew Metcalf who had stumbled upon the Espinosas in the midst of yet another slaying and wagon robbery escaped in the back of his oxcart with only a minor injury. Metcalf gave descriptions of both assailants, and a posse led by Captain John McCannon of the 3rd Colorado Cavalry set out the next day along the murderers’ trail. The men rode all day and into the night under a full moon. Shortly after daybreak the posse caught sight of two horses tied up in a meadow within a small canyon.
The men moved into position. When a short, dark skinned figure emerged from the trees, a rifle shot rang out. Wounded, Jose Vivian slammed into a tree trunk and then, staggering, reached for the pistol on his hip. A second bullet struck him in the head and he fell to the ground. Suddenly, a second figure burst out of the trees. The party took aim, but Captain McCannon yelled, “For God’s sake, don’t kill Billy Youngh!” The man wore an expensive looking coat (stripped from a victim) that resembled the one worn by posse member Youngh. When the man spun around to reveal his black bushy beard and gigantic teeth, the men realized they had made a mistake. But by then it was too late. Felipe Espinosa hurried back into the trees and vanished. Posse men cut off Jose Vivian's head as proof of the killing, then buried his body.
Felipe Espinosa had been silent for months. Rumors spread that he had fled to Mexico or died alone in the wilderness. In truth, Felipe spent the time mourning his brother's death and sinking deeper into madness, picking up a drinking habit, and finding a new partner in Jose Vicente Espinosa, his 14 year old nephew.
They were doomed from the start. On October 10, only days into his renewed vendetta (and perhaps after only one more killing), Felipe was drunk on tequila when the Espinosas attempted to hold up a wagon. The two passengers jumped off and escaped, eventually making their way to Fort Garland and its commander, Lt. Col. Samuel Tappan. Tappan knew just the man to reel in the Espinozas, tracker and mountain man Thomas Tate Tobin.
At around midnight on October 12, Tobin and 15 Union soldiers set out to track down Felipe and his nephew Jose Vicente. Early on the 15th Tobin saw in the distance crows circling amid rising smoke. Ordering the soldiers to hold back, he crawled forward with his old riffle in hand. He found Felipe and Jose Vicente cooking meat over a small fire. When Felipe rose to his feet and stretched, Tobin squeezed the trigger. The bullet smashed into the outlaw’s side and sent him flying into the fire. Jose Vicente took one look at his fallen uncle and dashed for the trees. Tobin quickly rammed another bullet down his barrel, raised his rifle, and fired again. The bullet caught Jose Vicente in the spine, killing him instantly.
Tobin walked over and stood over Felipe, who was crawling out of the fire. He grabbed the dying man by the hair, took out his Bowie knife, and with two blows separated Felipe’s head from his body.
Later that evening at Fort Garland, Colonel Tappan welcomed into his office Tobin, back sooner than expected, with a burlap sack strung over a shoulder. Leaning back in his desk chair, Tappan asked, “Any luck, Tom?” “So-so,” Tobin replied, turning the bag upside down to let the heads of Felipe and Jose Vicente roll onto the floor.
Jones, A. (2018, September 3) Out of Vengeance or Plain Madness Felipe Espinosa Led a Murder Spree. Retrieved From: https://www.historynet.com/vengeance-plain-madness-felipe-espinosa-led-murder-spree.htm,
Legends of America (2017, October 1) The Bloody Espinosas - Terrorizing Colorado. Retrieved From: https://www.legendsofamerica.com/outlaw-espinosagang/.
Faraci, Derek. (2016, November 16) The Violent Vengeance of Felipe Espinosa. Retrieved From: http://www.the13thfloor.tv/2016/11/16/the-vengeance-of-felipe-espinosa/.
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