The Untold Truth Of Outlaw Felipe Espinosa

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In the 1860s, the residents of Colorado lived in a state of fear. Someone was terrorizing the soon-to-be state (it was the Colorado Territory until 1876), leaving bloodied corpses along the roads, and no one had any idea who was responsible or why they were doing it. According to Legends of America, the murders were exceptionally brutal. One preferred method of murder was reportedly by ripping the victims' hearts out of their chests. Many of the bodies were found mutilated in such a gruesome fashion.

It would eventually come to light that the murders had been carried out by a gang led by an outlaw named Felipe Espinosa, a man from Mexico who had good reason to be unhappy with the United States. As you'll most likely recall from your U.S. history class, around this time in its history, the United States was all hopped up on its self-satisfied philosophy of Manifest Destiny, basically a spiritual justification for the country's insatiable desire for more land, resources, and influence. This rapacious doctrine had terrible consequences for pretty much any non-white person within the country's reach, and Felipe Espinosa was no exception. Let's take a look into the outlaw's incredible life story and see what caused him to embark on his vengeful reign of terror.

Espinosa witnessed family members die in a U.S. attack on Mexico

As with many adventurous tales from history — especially those so racially charged as that of Felipe Espinosa — much of what people call the truth depends on which source the information is coming from. Legends of America, for example, states that he was born in the Mexican coastal city of Veracruz in 1836, but notes that other sources mark his birthplace in what is now the U.S. state of New Mexico.

Other chronicles may or may not mention that as a child, Espinosa witnessed the deaths of six of his family members when the United States attacked Veracruz during the Mexican American War. Whether they came from New Mexico or the old one, all sources agree that Espinosa ended up in Colorado along with his brother, José Vivian, and a crew of rather unhappy cousins. In his 2013 book "Season of Terror: The Espinosas in Central Colorado, March-October 1863," author Charles F. Price contended that the beef Felipe and his family members had with the U.S. government had more to do with their resistance to paying taxes than any kind of blood vendetta. Either way, in 1863, the Espinosas went on a savage killing spree that left dozens of Americans dead in its wake.

Espinosa said a religious vision told him to exact revenge

According to Legends of America, one of the narratives behind the legend of Felipe Espinosa was recorded by a direct descendant of his named Martin Edward Martínez. His deep-dive investigation into his family's past revealed that Felipe believed he had been given divine authority to carry out the slaughter of hundreds of white Americans. He said that a rather vengeful Virgin Mary of Guadalupe gave him the charge of killing 100 Americans for every family member he lost in the attack on Veracruz.

But those deaths during his childhood were just the beginning of the slights Espinosa felt he had suffered at the hands of Americans. Martínez's research told him that Espinosa's wife and daughters had been raped by American soldiers in 1861, and that his wife had actually died from injuries she suffered during the sexual assault. Felipe's brother José reportedly killed an American soldier after the man raped their sister. In response, the fallen soldier's brothers in arms came to José's home, killed everyone in it (except José, who supposedly fled after killing the soldier), and took possession of his land. If Martínez's version of events was informed by the truth, it would be hard to blame the Espinosas for the reign of terror they subsequently let loose on the Colorado territory.

The Bloody Espinosas' reign of terror in Colorado

While it makes no mention of Felipe Espinosa's relatives being killed or raped by U.S. troops, the Colorado Encyclopedia does have a good record of who the outlaw killed when he and his brother and cousins went on a gruesome killing spree in the territory. It reportedly began on March 18, 1863, with the murder of Francis William Bruce, a sawmill owner whose body was found with a gunshot wound through the heart. Henry Harkens became their second victim the following day. His body was found with an ax wound and a bullet hole in the head. His chest had also been gashed open with an ax.

The Espinosas grew more and more macabre as they continued their killing spree. They killed however they could, shooting and beating people to death in anonymity. Terrified Coloradans didn't know if the killers were raiding Native Americans or Confederate sympathizers from Texas, bands of thieves or a single itinerant desperado gutting any poor soul to cross his path.

The Espinosas' cloak of secrecy came to an end when they botched the murder of lumber transporter Edward Metcalf. They shot Metcalf while he was on his wagon, but didn't kill him. The oxen took Metcalf back to town, and he was able to attest to the identities of the men who had attacked him. Now the authorities had a dastardly name to put to the shadowy figures terrorizing the Colorado wilds: the Bloody Espinosas.

Felipe Espinosa's brother was killed by an American posse

The Colorado Encyclopedia goes on to tell how a posse led by a man named John McCannon caught up with the Espinosas after they assumed they'd covered their tracks well enough to relax a little. The posse came upon a pair of horses near a creek, and when they saw José Vivian approach one, they fired upon him, striking him in his left side. José went down, but propped himself up on an elbow to return fire. Posse member Charles Carter, however, was too quick for José and he shot him right between the eyes. The encyclopedia states that a written "article of agreement" was found on José's person, stating that he had vowed to kill 600 white people to exact revenge for the loss of family property. This text includes no mention of members of the Espinosa family being killed or raped, either during the Mexican-American War or later on in the territories that would soon be snagged by the United States.

The posse apparently just left José Vivian's body there by the creek to rot, so after escaping, looping around, and killing another pair of Americans, Felipe returned to the site of the gunfight and was able to bury his brother. But he took an interesting memento with him after the burial: the dried foot of José Vivian Espinosa.

A family member betrayed Espinosa and his cousins

If you only read the Colorado Encyclopedia entry about the Bloody Espinosas, you'll come away thinking that Tom Tobin was simply an Old West badass who took out the territory's most prolific and fearful killer with nothing more than his grit and expert marksmanship. But here again, sources diverge. According to Legends of America, Tobin had the upper hand due to the fact that he was actually a cousin of Felipe's.

Martínez's version of events has Tobin coming to Espinosa's encampment alone and in an ostensibly peaceful manner. He was family, after all. But he apparently tricked his own flesh and blood. They had a few drinks around the campfire, remembered some good old days, then when Felipe and another cousin passed out for the night, he reportedly cut their throats and took their heads back to town in a sack. He was supposed to get a hefty $2,500 reward for taking down the brutal murderers, but he only got $1,500. It's a bummer, but hey, no one ever said cousin killing was easy work.

Of the fact and fiction about his ferocious descendants, Martínez wrote: "If the Espinosas were bandits, guerrilla fighters, and killers, let the truth be known. If the Espinosas were fighting for justice, let it be known. The Espinosas could have even been heroes. But, for myself, I am the proof, for it was my great-great-grandmother that was raped; I would have not been here ... if it was not for the men who raped her."