Mexican-American serial killer (???-1863). He may have actually been the first serial killer in America, though record-keeping on such matters was spotty, at best.

Espinoza was a native of Mexico. As a child, he lived in Vera Cruz with his family. During the Mexican-American War, Vera Cruz was shelled from its harbor by American warships commanded by Admiral Whitfield Scott. His entire family died in the attacks. Orphaned, he had to move to Conejos County, Colorado in the San Luis Valley to live with his only relatives.

Espinoza grew to adulthood on the Colorado-New Mexico border. One night in 1863, he had a vision of the Virgin Mary. She told him it was time for him to avenge the deaths of his six family members. She wanted a hundred gringos for every one of his family. Six hundred people had to die. And Felipe was a good Catholic. When the Virgin Mary tells you to do something, you do it.

Espinoza convinced some members of his family to join his holy quest -- his uncle, his cousins, no one's really sure who agreed to help out. For about three or four months, they went out and killed people. They blackened their faces with paint or soot, ambushed cowboys, miners, settlers, any white people they could find, and killed them. Once they were dead, Espinoza would open their chests with an ax and tear their hearts out.

No one knows why he did this. Maybe the Holy Virgin wanted it that way. No one knows what he did with the hearts. Maybe he burned them. Maybe he threw them away. Maybe he fed them to dogs.

Colorado was the home state of Alfred Packer. Maybe cannibalism was contagious.

Maybe the Virgin took them off his hands.

Espinoza and his crew killed between 35 and 40 people that way. Colorado's territorial governor sent out posses to find the killers, but they had no luck, though they managed to hang several innocent people because they thought they might be the Espinozas.

At last, the governor called on a mountain man named Thomas Tobin. Most of us haven't heard of Tobin, but at the time, he was probably almost as famous as Kit Carson or Jim Bridger. Tobin managed to track the Espinozas down and kill them. He cut off their heads as proof, since he couldn't lug all those bodies around the countryside. He was carrying the heads back so he could collect the $500 reward when he got swept away by a wild river current and lost a couple of the heads. He didn't get any reward either -- Colorado didn't have enough money to pay him.

It's said that Espinoza's head was pickled in a jar and exhibited in a circus sideshow. The head eventually disappeared. Maybe the Virgin -- or whoever was posing as her -- took it back.

Christopher O'Brian, Enter the Valley, St. Martin's Press, 1999


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