The city of Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County, California, first sprung up in 1884 as a hot spring resort, and really got going with the coming of the Southern Pacific Railroad through a 25,993-acre swath of land acquired through a Mexican land grant, called Rancho Paso de Robles. Although the town started small, it soon became a popular place to go due to its numerous hot springs and mud baths, earning it the nickname of “California’s oldest watering place” and drawing in people from all over the country. The town would later become famous for its extensive wineries, almond orchards, and olive oil production, for which it is still known today. However, beneath the veneer of this pleasant city of hot springs and fine wines is a sometime dark lore and history full of mysterious deaths and talk of Indian curses.
It all started with the first white settlers trickling into the area, which had been inhabited by various Native tribes for a thousand years. An old Native medicine man by the name of Hago apparently did not take kindly to these intruders, and according to the tale he cursed the area, etching the words “Upon all hereafter coming wrongfully upon this land shall fall a curse” upon a huge boulder on the slope of the Santa Ynez mountains called La Piedra Pintada. When word of this sinister curse got out, there would be many deaths, disasters, misfortunes, hauntings, and paranormal phenomena blamed on it, to the point that it is hard to tell how many of these stories may have been connected to old Hago’s grim curse or even if they are true or not, yet one story has long been firmly linked to the curse and still reverberates through the area’s history to this day.
It begins with a ranch that was built right on the land where that boulder and its ominous words lies, nearly right on top of it, at a place called Carissa Plains. The story goes that the first family to live at the ranch faced tragedy when their 3-year-old girl was strangled to death. After this, the parents allegedly went insane, often ranting about all manner of supernatural phenomena at the ranch until they suddenly one day abandoned it. The ranch sat vacant for some years, accruing local legends and rumors, until it fell into the possession of a local rancher named Fred Dean, who moved there with his wife and 14-year-old daughter Bertha. When they arrived, Dean was well aware of the grisly past of the ranch, indeed it was a popular story in the area, and he was also aware of the rumors that the ranch was haunted, but Mr. Dean did not believe in such things. However, this would soon change.
Almost as soon as they moved in, the Deans began to experience various paranormal phenomena. They would hear anomalous noises they could not identify, doors would frequently open and close by themselves, and food would reportedly often go missing from the table right after being set out, often as someone had their back turned for just a moment. It got to the point to where Mrs. Dean was too afraid to sleep upstairs, instead refusing to sleep anywhere but on the ground floor, where she slept with her daughter and felt more secure. Every night, Mrs. Dean would sleep downstairs and Mr. Dean would sleep upstairs in their bedroom. Mrs. Dean still heard strange things in the dark and experienced weird phenomena on many nights, but she felt that she could at least escape outside quickly by sleeping on the ground floor. It was during one night like this, on November 17, 1919, as she slept on the sofa downstairs, that a strange and ultimately grisly series of events would play out. She would later say of what happened:
I was sleeping downstairs with my little girl who has been ill. The train that goes through Paso Robles at 5 o’clock awakened me. Then I heard a noise that I thought came from my cat and I opened the door to let her in. But she came from a different direction. I thought it peculiar, but returned to the couch. I then heard a noise – as though something heavy was being moved. I called Fred but he did not answer. I then ventured up the stairs and saw that Fred’s door was standing open. I called to him again without receiving any reply. Then I ran into his room and turned on the light.
When the light cast away the gloom, a horrific sight awaited her. Her husband lay there splayed out on a bed soaked with blood, his head split open, his throat slit, and numerous wounds on his body that suggested he had been ruthlessly beaten with a blunt instrument. It appeared that he must have been killed as he slept, especially since the rifle he always kept close at hand was still sitting there by his bedside. Not wanting her daughter to see the carnage, Mrs. Dean had Bertha go to her room and locked her inside, after which she desperately went around trying to get neighbors to come help her. When police arrived at the scene, they discovered a broken axe in the yard, as well as a blood-covered razor, both later found to have been the very ones used in the killing, but no sign of the perpetrator. Not long after the authorities left the scene, Mrs. Dean then tried to commit suicide by cutting her own throat.
This suicide attempt and the growing suspicion that Mrs. Dean knew more than she was letting on ended up drawing the focus of the police investigation to her. The daughter was also questioned, but since she had slept through the whole thing she was unable to provide much illumination. Mrs. Dean was nevertheless arrested on suspicion of murder, and the trial was big news at the time. It was argued by the prosecution that Mrs. Dean had been having an affair and had taken her husband out of the equation with murder. As evidence, it was shown that Mrs. Dean had purchased six boxes of cigars that she had hidden around the property, even though neither her nor her husband smoked, meaning that she may have bought them for when her lover came to visit. It was also suspected that Bertha had been drugged by her mother, as it was seen as suspicious that anyone could have slept through such a violent crime, and Bertha herself would testify that she had felt more lethargic and sleepy than usual on that day. This, plus the damning evidence of the razor and murder weapon in yard, were enough evidence to get Mrs. Dean convicted, although she would manage a successful insanity plea to avoid jail time, instead being committed to a mental institution.
At the time the case was all over the news, and it was not lost on locals that the ranch had seen murder before, was allegedly haunted, and sat on the same land that held Hago’s cursed rock, fueling talk of old Indian curses. There were heavy rumors that the curse had caused Mrs. Dean to kill her husband, or based on her own testimony that it had even invoked a ghostly entity to do it as she slept. Further propelling such talk was the discovery of the skeletons of ten adults and three children accidentally found by highway workers buried near the Dean ranch. This created much speculation that it was further evidence of the Indian curse at work. An article in a May, 1920 issue of the San Francisco Chronicle would say of the macabre discovery:
The first skull was discovered by T.C. Teeter, a county employee engaged on road work. The road scraper skidded and revealed the buried skull a few inches below the surface. Further excavation resulted in the discovery of nine more skulls and a litter of human bones, some mangled and crushed as though they had been hacked to pieces. Several of the skulls bore marks which indicated that the victims had been attacked with a fury much similar to that noted in the case of Fred Dean. By the time the entire grave had been reopened the complete skeletons of ten men and women and three children had been unearthed. And naturally the wildest speculation followed as to the source of the mystery. Not a few attributed the murders to supernatural agencies and recalled the old Indian curse of Hago, the medicine man.
Some suggested that these were the skeletons of Natives buried at a burial ground, as there were Indian bowls allegedly in the grave, while others said they were victims of murder, but they were never identified conclusively. It is unknown what exactly happened to Mrs. Dean, but records show that she languished at the State Hospital at Agnews until her death, taking any secrets to the grave with her. Was there ever really a curse placed upon this land, and if so what did it have to do with this mysterious murder? Were the Dean’s really plagued by ghosts and dark supernatural forces or was this just the doing of a deranged woman? We may never know for sure.