The 1860s were a tough time for America. As the Civil War raged on the east coast, the West was expanding outward into new uncharted territory that brought with it violence, pain, and hardship. This was the real Wild West, a place on the frontier of the known, where outlaws ran amok, lawlessness was common, settlers fought each other over land, war was brewing between settlers and the Native tribes as their land was invaded by the whites, and yet another new vicious war was being fought after Texas rebels invaded New Mexico. It was truly a toxic, unstable place where the specter of death never seemed to be too far away, where only the tough survived, and one of the toughest of these was a man named Tom Tobin, a man who lived a rather strange life, and who would be called upon to hunt down and kill America's first serial killer.
Born in St. Louis, Missouri, on May 1, 1823, by the age of 14 years old Tobin was already working as a trapper and scout at Bent's Fort in present-day Taos, New Mexico, as well as helping his brother Charles deliver supplies and whiskey to trappers in trade for furs, which they would sell back in St. Louis. From these humble beginnings Tobin would go on to become a jack of all trades, becoming well known as an adventurer exploring much of Colorado, tracker, trapper, mountain man, guide, and US Army scout. On January 19, 1847, anti- American insurrectionists at Taos led by the Mexican Pablo Montoya and a Pueblo Indian named Tomás Romero, murdered and scalped the governor, the sheriff, and several other government officials, after which they went on a bloody rampage, eventually finding their way to Simeon Turley's Mill and Distillery, where Tobin worked at the time. Tobin and around eight other mountain men proceeded to defend the mill from a mob of 500 angry Mexican and Pueblo forces, finally escaping when the mill was burned down.
Only Tobin and one other escaped that day, and it would establish his reputation as a tough as nails mountain man who could get things done. His history was mysterious, having been said to have lived with the Natives to learn his skills, but based on his fierce reputation he would become a valued scout against those Natives during Indian hunting campaigns against enemy tribes, and he would be involved as a scout in a company of volunteers led by fur trader Ceran St. Vrain that would eventually hunt down the insurrectionists and subdue the revolt. During this time, Tobin’s reputation would only grow as he rubbed elbows with a veritable who’s who of Wild West figures, including Kit Carson, "Wild Bill" Hickok, and William F. Cody, better known as “Buffalo Bill.” He was known for his survival skills, marksmanship, toughness, bravery, and tracking skills, once said to be able to “track a grasshopper through sagebrush,” and perhaps most of all for surviving the Taos Revolt and hunting down the insurrectionists who had instigated it. This was partly why he would eventually be approached to do a new gig as a bounty hunter tracking down a new threat stalking the land.
On March 16, 1863, sawmill worker Franklin Bruce headed off to work as usual at the mill in what is now Fremont County, Colorado, but he would never show up. That day, his body was found in a rather gruesome state, shot through the heart, stripped naked and mutilated, and with a large cross carved into his chest with a knife. It was shocking even in an era where life was cheap, and unfortunately it would not be the first such malicious murder. Over the coming weeks and beyond, more such bodies would begin showing up, always horribly mutilated, sometimes with the head split open with an axe, sometimes with sticks or crucifixes jammed into holes in the forehead, and at least one victim with his heart hacked out of his body. The town was held under siege with terror, the populace scared to go out at night and authorities unable to find who was responsible. It was only when one lumberman miraculously survived being attacked by the killer when a folded up copy of President Abraham Lincoln’s recent Emancipation Proclamation in his breast pocket stopped the bullet aimed for his heart that the case would be bust open. With his description a picture would be painted of just what the authorities were dealing with, a known outlaw by the name of Felipe Nerio Espinosa.
The Mexican Felipe and his brother Vivian had ended up in American territory after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of February 1848 had ceded the area to the United States in the wake of the Mexican–American War and they were not happy about it. By all accounts they lamented the loss of their land and treatment at the hands of the settlers, as well as the fact that several of their relatives had been killed during the Mexican–American War, all of which had turned into a simmering cauldron of hatred for their Anglo oppressors. Together, the two Espinosa brothers turned to committing robberies, which had already put them on the radar of the US Army, who had then confiscated their property and burned down one of their houses in a failed raid. Now, they had graduated to murder, and as the manhunt started and the killings continued, Felipe sent a letter to Territorial Governor John Evans telling of how he had had a dream in which the Virgin Mary had ordered him to kill 600 gringos, and that the only way to stop it was to grant them full pardons and 5,000 acres (20 km2) of land in Conejos County. The ominous letter sheds some light on their mindset and motives, and reads in part:
They [the Anglos] 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.
They were refused. The killings went on unabated, dozens of them, with the brothers favored hunting grounds being sparsely populated areas and mining camps, and in twelve months the Espinosas shot, stabbed, and mutilated an estimated sixty people or more, by some accounts many more. There were several posses sent out to hunt the brothers down, and one of these even managed to track the brothers down to southwest of Canon City, Colorado and shoot and kill Vivian as Felipe escaped. The posse then cut off the criminal’s head as proof of the kill and burned the body. Although this seems to have slowed the rate of murders down somewhat, Vivian had been considered a small fish, the less dangerous of the two, and Felipe quickly replaced him with his young 14-year-old nephew José Espinosa as a partner in crime. The killings resumed, each seemingly more gruesome than the last, until authorities got desperate to put an end to the bloody killing spree. It was then that Colonel Sam Tappan, the commanding officer of Ft. Garland, Colorado, decided to approach Tom Tobin.
At the time, Tobin was raising horses and cattle on his ranch near Ft. Garland and waiting for his wife Pascula to have their child, so he had more or less settled down and was without the thirst to go out and kill. However, the reward offered for the bounty was high, and considering the grave threat that the Espinosa brothers posed, he was eventually convinced to take on the job. On October 12, 1863, Tobin headed out on his mission to track down what is now considered to be one of America’s first serial killers. Although Tobin had wanted to go alone, Garland insisted that he go with a Lieutenant Horace W. Baldwin and a contingent of 15 troopers.
They started with a lead given by a stagecoach rider who had survived a recent attack by the brothers and worked from there, Tobin meticulously tracking them but annoyed by the noise and sloppiness of his entourage. As they traversed the rough, mountainous terrain, Tobin followed every lead he could, often crawling through thick scrub and following the Espinosa’s based on mere broken sticks. As they got closer to their quarry, Tobin tired of the noisy soldiers and left them behind, choosing to approach the Espinosa’s on his own. He would eventually find their camp, where Felipe was by the fire cooking a meal. Tobin decided it was the time to strike, and deliberately loudly broke a stick to catch the killer’s attention. Tobin would say of what happened next:
Felipe heard it crack…and saw me. He jumped and grabbed his gun. Before he turned around fairly, I fired and hit him in the side. He bellowed like a bull and cried out, ‘Jesus, favor me!’ and cried to his companion, ‘Escape, I am killed!’
Jose then bolted, as Felipe reportedly slumped into the fire, still alive but singeing his hair and skin. The younger Espinosa ran and fired back at Tobin, and as he did the tracker would say “I tipped my powder horn in my rifle and dropped a bullet from my mouth into the muzzle of my gun while I was capping it,” after which he shot Jose right in the spine, killing him. He then caught up to Felipe, who was badly burned and crawling away from the fire. Despite being badly injured, Espinosa still had fight in him, cursing and blindly firing with his revolver, but by Tobin’s account he was able to disarm him, drag him to a log, and cut his head off with his knife. Jose was similarly beheaded, Tobin stuffing their heads into a sack while leaving the bodies where they lie. It was about then that the rest of his posse caught up with him, but the deed had already been done. The Espinosa reign of terror was over, and they would never kill the 600 gringos they'd promised. When Tobin got back to Fort Garland, he allegedly was asked if he had had any luck, after which he nonchalantly responded “so-so,” and rolled the two Espinosa heads out of the bag across the floor.
Although there was a bounty in place, Tobin never was paid it in full. His reward for ending the most brutal series of murders ever seen was a buckskin coat and a limited-edition Henry rifle, and he would only receive a small portion of the money many years later. Tobin would go back to his quiet, secluded life on the farm where his wife would have his daughter, María Pascualita. In later years Pascualita Tobin married Kit Carson’s son Billy, and after a drunken argument Tobin and Billy would get into a fight that left Tom shot in the groin. He would survive and live out the rest of his days in peace as a successful rancher right up to his death in 1904. It is all a rather strange and spectacular tale, and an odd and obscure bit of lore surrounding the often turbulent history of the American Wild West.