Bury those nasty things.   

From the moment Tom Tobin dumped the heads from a gunny sack onto the floor at the isolated Fort Garland garrison on October 11, 1863, the Espinosas’ heads have galloped into myth and legend.   

A macabre legend was born shortly after that bloody day when Tobin pulled out his Bowie hunting knife and began to cut on the back of Felipe’s neck. He made slow progress and Felipe cried out: “Tom, hurry up, that knife is dull and it hurts!”

Nevertheless, true or black humor, the beheadings were accomplished. A popular version is that the heads were preserved in alcohol-filled jars and were carried off into various paths before they were lost to history. One version is that Tobin put the severed heads into pickled jars as a means of proof to claim a $2,500 reward by Territorial Governor John Evans. Supposedly, Tobin hauled them to the capitol, but Evans didn’t pay the bounty. Instead, Evans claimed the heads and put them on display in his office in large specimen jars.  Evans, who posted the reward in the Rocky Mountain Newspaper, presented Tobin with a dandy rawhide suit but no money.

Tobin gallantly wore the suit in all of his pictures for posterity. After his term in 1865 Evans hauled them home and much later turned them over to the newly established Colorado Historical Society in 1880. The Historical Society placed them in underground storage area in the tunnels beneath the State Capital in 1894 where they are said to still haunt the tunnels. In a Denver Post article, Governor Billy Adams ordered the tunnels under the Capital cleaned and someone found the two heads. Adams had them cremated to dispel evil spirits.  

A second version has emerged from the dusty passages of historical lore. Tobin, learning of the reward, put Felipe’s head in a crock of alcohol to preserve it until he could make the trip to the Capital in Denver. The head disappeared. It was said the army physician, a Dr. Waggoner, had stolen the head when he left the service, and rode off for Pueblo, Co. Tobin mounted a horse and went after the head. It’s said he found the head on the roadside where the doctor had dropped and shattered the jar near the Sangre de Cristo Pass. Tobin reclaimed the head and took it to Pueblo, intending to put the ugly specimen back into a jar of alcohol. In Pueblo, Tobin found “a most unusual situation,” because for the first time in the little hamlet’s history and probably the last time, there wasn’t a drop of alcohol to be found. Before the day ended, however, a wagonload of alcohol arrived, and Tobin re-pickled his gruesome head. Yet, in another historical account Waggoner arrived in Pueblo and buried the head but had second thoughts and exhumed it to remove the flesh. He gifted the skull to a Professor Denton who donated it to a Professor Folwer who owned a collection of skulls of other murderers. Some claim the heads were sewn back on the bodies for burial. This version is highly unlikely because the bodies were left in such rugged country that they couldn’t be found much less retrieved.   

But what provoked the bloody murder spree by the Epinosas?   

History is murky on this provocation as well.  

One theory was that the Espinosa brothers went on their rampage because their parents and other family members were killed in an American Naval bombardment in Vera Cruz during the Mexican American War. Another was that a sister was raped by an Anglo that was welcomed into their hacienda in Cucheti, New Mexico Territory. There is even a version of a love affair between the Anglo and sister, who fell madly in love. When the young man was asleep, Felipe tiptoed into his room to steal his money but the American awoke and fired his pistol at Felipe. He missed and Felipe stabbed him in the heart. Consumed with grief, the sister went insane.

In another version the brothers were hauling supplies for the Army when they became snowbound on La Veta Pass. To save their horses they used the Army feed to keep their animals alive. For this, the commander confiscated their team and wagon for the misdeed. And yet, in a diary found in a rawhide bag hanging on the neck of Vivian when he was shot dead by a posse, 20 miles from Canon City, the brothers claimed their vengeance was in regard to their father who had been convicted of murder in Mexico. The narrative goes on to say that Felipe had been compelled by his patron saint to commit these murderous deeds to expiate his father’s sins. The most repeated theory is that Felipe told friends in New Mexico that the Virgin Mary appeared in a vision and told him to kill 600 gringos, 100 for each family member lost at Vera Cruz, and this was his heavenly penance.   

Some have pushed the Espinosa as celebrated folk heroes, especially in the San Luis Valley, who attempted to retaliate for the injustices (tax revolt and loss of land) of a Manifest Destiny or enraged by the repugnant actions of Americans upon their family. 

According to a direct descendant of the Espinosas, the wrath occurred when an American soldier raped Felipe’s wife and daughters, with his wife dying four days later in the fall of 1861 in the village of San Rafael, Territory of Colorado. In an 1860 Census of Conejos, Felipe is listed in Household 1625 as a 39-year old laborer and born in Rio Arriba, New Mexico Territory. He possessed $00 in real estate and $30 in personal property. He did have a wife, Secundina Hurtado, 23, (whom he kidnapped at a very early age) and a daughter, Vicenta Espinosa, 5, and a son Domingo Espinosa, 2. Things got supposedly worse when soldiers appeared at his brother’s home, where Jose (Vivian) Espinosa killed a soldier who allegedly raped his sister, and more soldiers came to the ranch and killed everyone to avenge the soldier’s death. The Army and a marshal in Conejos confiscated the family’s belongings, including 11 cows and oxen, one steer, four beds, one trunk, and two water buckets. This decision to seize these items left the Espinosa family destitute and the incident was most likely why the brothers went on a murderous rage. Vivian was killed by a posse near Canon City. Later, Felipe recruited his nephew, Julian, 14, to aid in his murderous vendetta.

The true reason for the bloodshed may have come from Felipe’s own pen. While Governor Evans, Colonel John Chivington (of the infamous Sand Creek Massacre) and others were in Conejos on business with the Ute Indians, Felipe delivered five letters, demanding a pardon for his crimes from Evans and that all lands and property be restored to him. If this was not done, he would come down from the mountains and commence a war of extermination.

This indicates the loss of his ranch and surrounding lands as the primary motive for the trail of blood. Tobin wasn’t aware of any reward when he spurred off on the hunt for the Espinosa Gang and rode directly into Western lore. When he learned of a reward supposedly advertised in the Rocky Mountain News following the killings, he wanted the money. It was a substantial amount for the times and Tobin had to fight for any semblance of a reward.

Territorial Governor John Evans, who is said to have created the reward, never paid a penny to Tobin and instead gifted him an elaborate coat. Only one more existed, and that had been presented to Kit Carson. The military would also gift Tobin a limited-edition Henry rifle. He did receive $500 from Territorial Governor Edward Moody McCook, years after the bloody incident, and then $1,000 from Governor Davis Hanson Waite in 1893, exactly 30 years after he killed Felipe and Julian Espinosa and 12 years before his own death. He constantly wrote numerous letters to request the remaining $1,000 until the day he died in 1904.   

So, what really happened to the heads of the Espinosas?

Tobin didn’t want to walk back to Fort Garland—a distance of over 30 miles—and he decided to behead the killers. Tobin rolled the heads onto the floor at Fort Garland and rode off for his nearby ranch.

And most likely, the heads are still buried somewhere on the parade grounds at Fort Garland.

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