There’s a super awesome super old saying from Confucius that goes “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” The meaning, if you missed it, is that a person who looks for revenge kills themselves as well as their target. We discuss if Confucius meant that in a literal sense or if he was talking more in line with losing one’s soul. Either take on the saying works for Felipe Nerio Espinosa.
In or around 1932, Felipe was brought into the world by Pedro Ygnacio Espinosa and Maria Gertrudis Chavez. He would be the first of five children for the couple. The Espinosa family was part of a religious group called Los Hermanos Penitentes. Los Hermanos Penitentes was all about penance and pain. Members would seek to rid themselves of sin through self-flagellation, binding, and standing barefoot on cacti. Felipe took part in these actions, and we can only assume that the self inflicted torture didn’t help his already angry personality.
Living in San Juan Nepomuceno de El Rito, New Mexico wasn’t easy for the Espinosa family. Being so far from the center of the Mexican government meant that the Mexican government wasn’t all that concerned about the people living in New Mexico. Internal struggles in the country didn’t help either. The only kindness Felipe ever showed was to his family; to everyone else, he was, according to multiple sources, a violent man with very pronounced canines that protruded past his other teeth.
Things didn’t improve when the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846. During the war, six members of the Espinosa family were killed when the US Navy bombarded their town. The US, taking control of New Mexico, pushed many of the residents of New Mexico off their own lands for richer, whiter guys to take over. The Espinosa family, who was struggling to begin with, found themselves destitute. In 1858, Felipe and his family, including his wife Secundina Hurtado moved out of New Mexico and into Colorado. Felipe left his home swearing to avenge the pain the white men had caused his family.
Soon after arriving in Colorado, Felipe and his brother Vivian turned to robbing wagons. In 1863, Felipe and Vivian were in the middle of robbing a wagon carrying a priest when, for some reason, Felipe and Vivian tied the driver to the bottom of the wagon, his head almost touching the ground. They then whipped the horses, sending the wagon, and the man tied to its underbelly, speeding off. When the wagon was found, the man was still alive, but his face was torn apart. What the brothers didn’t realize was that the driver lived in their town and knew who they were. Still alive, the man was able to tell the authorities where to find the men.
A military detachment, lead by Lieutenant Hutt, was sent to the Espinosa home to bring Felipe and Vivian in. Lieutenant Hutt, doing something that was pretty common in those days, offered the boys two choices – be arrested, or join the army. Vivian exited the Espinosa home and discussed the options with Hutt. As he did, Felipe loaded a rifle, aimed, and shot Hutt in the head. After a shootout, the brothers escaped, leaving their families behind. The military entered the Espinosa home and took everything that wasn’t nailed down, including a fair amount of cash.
Felipe and Vivian returned and learned that their family was left with nothing, which filled Felipe with rage. The next morning, Felipe would claim that the Virgin Mary visited him as he slept, giving him a mission. God wanted Felipe to kill a hundred gringos for every member of his family the white man had killed. Felipe saw this as a war of revenge, and nothing would stop him.
Jim Harkins was new to Colorado, having just arrived in Sawmill Gulch. Spending the day working on a sawmill with a few other men, Jim offered to go to his cabin and get dinner ready for everyone. An hour or so later, the other men headed to Jim’s cabin, tired from working, and very hungry. What they found was terrifying.
It would later be reported that Harkins was first shot in the forehead. Feeling that wasn’t enough, the killer or killers then split the man’s head open with a hatchet. Two more hatchet blows were dealt to the sides of the head, and he was twice stabbed in the left breast. Some reports claimed that Harkin’s heart had been torn out of his chest and placed next to the body.
The next day, as the local sheriff searched for the killers of Jim Harkins – he was sure it was Indians – a second body was found. William Bruce was found lying outside his ranch home with the same wounds as Jim Harkins. Unlike Harkins, Bruce had a crucifix made of twigs sticking out of his head.
Felipe and Vivian had begun their war.
Felipe and 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 residents of the area lived in fear. No one knew who was committing these murders, and so everyone was suspect. When a prospector showed up on a random day, some came to the conclusion that he was the killer and attacked him. The prospector was taken to a tree to be hung and was saved only by the words of John Lewis Dyer, South Park’s minister who would later become famous for different reasons that had nothing to do with murder.
Felipe and Vivian brought more family members into their war, forming a small but extremely deadly gang. 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.
Still, no one knew who was doing this. Newspapers called the killer “The Axeman of Colorado” and more murders continued. By the end of the summer of 1863, Felipe had killed twenty five people.
Frustrated, Governor John Evans put out a bounty on the head of the Axeman and sent out the First Colorado Infantry to comb the land. The First Colorado was lead by Colonel John Chivington who would later become famous for reasons connected to murder.
Matthew Metcalfe was a lumberman doing lumberman things when he ran across Felipe. Metcalfe was driving his wagon full of lumber through California Gulch in South Park when he turned a corner to see the Espinosa crew standing there, guns drawn. Felipe opened fire, hitting Metcalfe in the left breast, sending the man backwards, landing on his own lumber. Metcalfe’s horses freaked out and sped up. The Espinosas moved aside and let the wagon continue down the road, having killed the man.
Except Metcalfe wasn’t dead. In something that sounds like a moment in a bad movie, Felipe’s bullet was unable to reach Metcalfe’s heart because Metcalfe kept a copy of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in his shirt pocket and the papers slowed the bullet. Alive and relatively well, Matthew Metcalfe became the first white man to see Felipe Espinosa and live. The authorities of Colorado now had a description of the Axeman.
A posse was formed under the leadership of John McCannon and went out looking for the gang that would later become known as the Bloody Espinosas. Felipe and his crew messed up and left a load of tracks behind in the melting early snow. McCannon and his crew followed the tracks, which lead them to the body of a man who was butchered to a point where it was almost impossible to recognize him. Sadly, one member of McCannon’s posse did recognize the dead man; it was his brother. Some of the posse took the man and the body of his murdered brother back into town while McCannon and the others moved on.
Two days later, as the sun rose, the posse found Felipe and his brother. The posse moved slow and stayed hidden as they watched the brothers. When the moment came, the posse opened fire, killing Vivian. Felipe was able to escape unharmed.
Going through the items left behind, McCannon found a letter written by Felipe addressed to Governor Evans. It read, in part;
They ruined our families – 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. But we have repented of killing. Pardon us for what we have done and give us our liberty so that no officer will have anything to do with us, for also in killing, one gains his liberty. I am aware that you know of some I have killed, but of others you don’t know. It is a sufficient number, however. Ask in New Mexico if any other two men have killed as many men as the Espinosas. We have killed thirty-two.
Thomas Tate Tobin was arguably the greatest tracker to ever walk the Americas. He took part in Indian hunting campaigns alongside Wild Bill Hickock, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Kit Carson and it wasn’t unusual for territories and states to call him in when they needed an extra hand at finding someone.
When Governor Evans called for him, Tobin came.
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, picking up a drinking habit, and finding a new partner in Jose Espinosa, his 14 year old nephew. Felipe let the people of Colorado know he was back in a vicious attack.
The uncle and nephew, both drunk, attacked a wagon carrying a Mexican woman and a white man. When the Espinosa’s attacked, the man and woman ran in different directions. Felipe and Jose went after the man, but were unable to catch up to him. The went back and looked for the woman, who they found hiding in another wagon. Felipe and Jose sexually assaulted the woman before tying her up. They promised her that they would not kill her since she was Mexican, but they would hold her until the man she was with could be found and killed.
The man had made his way to Fort Garland and returned with a few soldiers. They were unable to find Felipe and Jose, but they did find the woman, who had escaped from the Espinosas.
Tobin arrived at Fort Garland and started his search. While Tobin wanted to go alone, Colonel Tappan, head of Fort Garland, insisted that he take fifteen men with him. Three days in, the fifteen men were ready to give in. Tobin was unlike anything they had seen before. He moved carefully but quickly. He and the soldiers would only stop to rest for a few short hours each night, and Tobin made it clear that there could be no fires. Tobin knew they were close behind Felipe, and worried that a fire could alert the killer. Any soldier who complained, Tobin sent back.
On the morning of the fourth day, Tobin spotted magpies circling in the distance. He and the remaining men moved quietly as the sun rose. In time, they could see a thin line of smoke coming from within a grove of cottonwood. Tobin told the men to wait and moved into the grove, crawling on his belly, his rifle, a Hawken Muzzleloader, in his hands.
Tobin reached the camp unnoticed and watched as Felipe and Jose sat on a log by the fire, a dead ox next to them, cut apart and cooked.
Tobin continued to watch as the two sat talking. He waited for the right moment, his rifle stable and ready to fire.
The right moment, in Tobin’s mind, came when Felipe stood and stretched. Tobin pulled the trigger and struck Felipe in the side. The force of the blast turned Felipe around as he yelled out “Jesus favor me!” before he fell backwards into the fire.
Jose took off into the woods. Tobin reloaded his rifle slowly, keeping his eyes on the boy. He steadied himself, aimed, and fired. The bullet flew between the trees and struck Jose in the spine.
Tobin stood from the cottonwood and walked over to Felipe, who was crawling out of the fire. He grabbed the dying man by the hair and pulled him over to the log, placing Felipe’s head on it. Tobin asked Felipe if he knew who he was. Felipe responded “Bruto… Bruto…”
Tobin took out his Bowie knife and with two blows separated Felipe’s head from his body.
“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”
I imagine Felipe Nerio Espinosa had never heard Confucius’ warning. I don’t much imagine that if had heard it, Felipe would have done much different. He was a man set on revenge, taking out his anger not directly on those who had killed or otherwise hurt his family, but on random people. Felipe’s crusade lead to the deaths of at least thirty two innocent people, not to mention Vivian Espinosa, Jose Espinosa, and Felipe Espinosa himself.
For a while, Felipe’s head was kept in a jar filled with alcohol and sent around Colorado as an attraction for all to see. It sat on the desk of the editor of the Fairplay Flume for a bit, then it headed to the Rocky Mountain News for a spell. After that, it vanished.
Not that long ago, word got out that a head in a jar of alcohol was found in the basement of Colorado’s Capitol building and before anyone thought about it, it was tossed into the incinerator. How true the rumors are, I don’t know, but it makes for a proper ending, don’t you think?