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The Waltzing Bandit

August 15, 2014

“The Waltzing Bandit? That’s a stupid name for a crook.”


“Maybe so, but he buried stolen gold around here,” I said.


We were spending the day at Alum Rock Park in the Diablo Range foothills on the east side of San Jose. I’d brought along my best friend Ricky Delgado. Ricky’s dad was a drunk and currently incarcerated on the Farm, a.k.a. the county jail.


“Did he really steal the gold or did he dance for it?”


“Very funny!” But Ricky had a point. It was a stupid name. My mother, the history buff, had been the one to tell me about this Waltzing Bandit.


“She just made it up to send us on a wild goose chase,” Ricky replied, “to get us out of her hair.”


Nevertheless, Ricky and I hunted for treasure. We didn’t find stolen gold, but over the years I never lost interest in the desperado from Old California, who’d probably been a real life Zorro. I checked libraries and asked everyone I knew, but no one had heard of him. A short while ago I asked my mother if she remembered The Waltzing Bandit.


Her forehead wrinkled in concentration. Finally, she laughed. “You heard wrong. I didn’t say waltzing; I said Joaquin.”


“Oh.” In my defense, Joaquin does sound like waltzing, at least to a ten year old.


The joke was on me. But now I had more information to go on, and there was plenty of available information now that I had the proper name of someone who might actually have been the inspiration for the fictional Zorro. The legend began in the late 1840s when Murrieta was mining gold in California. It’s said that Anglos jealous of his success beat him and raped his wife, although none of this is confirmed. We do know that dime novels were already being written about him in 1854, and he was wanted for attacking settlers and wagon trains arriving in the region. The California legislature offered a sizeable reward for any of the Joaquins. All five members of his gang were named Joaquin. While they might have been the inspiration for Zorro, when these guys stole from the poor…they kept it.


Like the multiple pirates inheriting the name Dread Roberts in The Princess Bride, Joaquin Murrieta shared his name with members of his gang, growing his reputation and allowing the infamous Joaquin Murrieta to commit crimes in different locations at the same time. State Rangers finally caught up with the real outlaw and cut off his head as proof they’d done the deed. Several eye witnesses, including a priest, identified the head as authentic.


Before dying, Murrieta stashed away a large amount of stolen gold that has yet to be found. My mother was right about that, although it isn’t believed Murrieta’s gang roamed the hills near San Jose.


At the turn of the Twentieth Century, people from far and wide paid a dollar to view Murrieta’s head in a jar, which for years was on display in San Francisco. It vanished during the Great Quake of 1906.


I lost contact with Ricky Delgado years ago, but I wish I could fill him in on the rest of the tale. I imagine Ricky as he was fifty years ago, when we prowled caves and tree hollows at Alum Rock Park looking for stolen gold. I’d tell him about Murrieta’s head in a jar in San Francisco. His eyes would have lit up at the thought of seeing it.


I can almost hear him say, “Cool! Seeing that head would have been bitchin!”



Dime novel cover




1853 poster advertising Murrieta's head




I didn't realize decapitation was in vogue during 1800's, nevertheless. they caught their man. Treasure stories on the other hand are plentiful all over. Stephen, if you pick a time in history to go back to... which would you select?
By: Daniel LaFrance on August 15, 2014
Your story has the feel of an Indiana Jones adventure!
By: John on August 15, 2014
What a hilarious story! So glad you got things cleared up... finally. (Also very glad there were witnesses who were able to confirm that it was an authentic head.)
By: Mitchell is Moving on August 15, 2014
displaying the head - about as barbaric as one can get.
By: TexWisGirl on August 15, 2014
Is Murietta, CA named after a bandit?
By: fishducky on August 15, 2014
I liked "Waltzing Bandit better.
By: Cranky on August 15, 2014
I much prefer the idea of a waltzing bandit.
By: Robyn Engel on August 15, 2014
Wonder if his wife's name was Mathilda? I sure would NOT want to see a cut off head in a jar...ewww.
By: Kathe W. on August 15, 2014
What a tale! It fueled your childhood fun, and that's what counts.
By: mimi on August 15, 2014
I think every kid has hunted for buried treasure at on time or another. I'd have been right there with you. I too like the idea of a waltzing bandit better.
By: Akansas Patti on August 15, 2014
By: Karen on August 15, 2014
Waltzing Bandit sounds much less threatening. Joaquin's eyes in that dime novel cover are the stuff of nightmares! Good story, though. :)
By: Scott Park on August 15, 2014
I love the idea of a Waltzing Bandit! It makes him sounds a bit classy, like Zorro. The real Joaquins sound less than classy. I'll never understand people who see robbery as a career. Great detail about his head though! :)
By: Lexa Cain on August 15, 2014
Now I'm thinking of him as the Jar Head Bandit...
By: Val on August 15, 2014
This sounds like one of those stories that keeps being passed around but the origins , if there weree any are faded and tampered with.
By: red on August 15, 2014
Another entertaining history lesson. Now, if only we knew where he hid that goldâ¦.
By: Marcia @ Menopausal Mother on August 15, 2014
Head of a cold-blooded killer in a jar, disappearing in an earthquake - there must be a seedling for a great horror story there!
By: Bryan Jones on August 16, 2014
I'm just wondering what kind of people would pay a dollar to see a head in a jar. I can't say I would. Fun story.
By: LL Cool Joe on August 16, 2014
Well...looking at a decapitated head in a jar would probably give me nightmares!
By: Pixel Peeper on August 16, 2014
Somehow "Waltzing Bandit" gives me an image of a Liberace-esqe man with a Tommy Gun. I had to look up how to pronounce Joaquin, my Spanish is a bit rusty, but I agree, if you didn't know what the word was, "Waltzing" would fit, if not make much sense... I have had similar mistakes. Cat
By: Cat on August 16, 2014
Well, it was probably more preferable than the "Polka Pickpocket."
By: Al Penwasser on August 17, 2014
Methinks you would really enjoy Barbarosa, if you have not seen it already. It is a Willie Nelson movie about alleged Mexican bandito in Texas, who was actually a really good guy. It also stars Gary Busey as his hapless sidekick.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on August 20, 2014

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