The Real Zorro?

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s True Crime: A Classic Collection of Crooks, Cops, and Capers.

Every cultural legend has to start someplace, even if it’s from just a kernel of truth, expanded and embellished until it bears no resemblance to the original. Here’s the possible origin of Zorro, the “bold renegade” who “carved a Z with his blade.”


Pulp fiction writer Johnston McCulley created the swashbuckling character Zorro for a tale called “The Curse of Capistrano” that appeared in All-Story Weekly magazine in 1919. Literary historians believe McCulley based him on a number of characters, most of them fictional… and at least one real human being. It turns out that the story of the real man’s life was just as unusual—and probably every bit as embellished—as Zorro’s.


Not long after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California in 1848, a young Mexican man named Joaquin Murrieta came to California with his wife, Rosa Feliz, and her brothers Claudio, Reyes, and Jesus. They hoped to strike it rich in the gold fields, but none of them did; the closest any of them got was when Claudio was arrested for stealing another miner’s gold.

In 1850 Claudio escaped from jail and led his brothers and Murrieta in what became one of the most violent bandit gangs ever to terrorize the California gold country. The group was known to raid isolated ranches, but they preferred to rob lone travelers and Chinese miners (they thought the Chinese were less likely to be armed than whites or Mexicans). The gang murdered most of its victims after robbing them, to ensure that there were no witnesses.

The law began to catch up with the gang in September 1851, when Claudio was killed in a shootout following a robbery in Monterey County. Murrieta happened to be in Los Angeles at the time, and when Claudio died he assumed control of the gang. Not long afterward the bandits made the mistake of killing Joshua Bean, a major general in the militia. Murrieta then compounded the error by abandoning Reyes to his fate—Reyes was arrested for Bean’s murder and hanged.


Jesus, the youngest of the Feliz brothers, apparently never forgave Murrieta for Reyes’s death, because when the posse of state rangers caught up with him he willingly gave them the location of Murrieta’s hideout. On July 25, 1853, Murrieta died in a gun battle not far from where Interstate 5 now intersects Highway 33 outside of Coalinga, California. After Murrieta died, Jesus gave up his life of crime, moved to Bakersfield, and started a family. He lived to a ripe old age and died in 1910.

Murrieta was not as lucky. After he died in the shootout, the posse cut off his head and preserved it in a giant glass jar filled with brandy—there was a bounty on his head (so to speak), and in the days before fingerprinting and DNA evidence, posses had to be a little more creative in documenting that they’d gotten their man.

Murrieta’s brandied head made the rounds of the “$1-a-peek, crime-doesn’t-pay” lecture circuit for a few years; then it ended up as a feature attraction behind the bar of San Francisco’s Golden Nugget Saloon, where for the price of a drink you could sit at the bar and stare at the…

California Moves to Turn Freeway Traffic Into Electricity

California legislators are looking to put the state’s notorious car traffic to good use. State officials recently approved a plan to generate electricity from vibrations produced by cars driving down freeways, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The California Energy Commission recently voted to put $2.3 million into two piezoelectricity projects, which convert pressure into power. One pilot will test a 200-foot-long piece of asphalt on UC-Merced’s campus, while the other experiment will be built by the San Jose green technology company Pyro-E. The company’s technology is expected to generate enough power to supply 5000 homes using less than a half-mile of piezoelectric highway.

The idea is that highways could produce energy mechanically, much like a watch runs on the mechanical energy of a spring….

Before and After Photos Show California’s Super Bloom From Space

Due to a little extra rain, California’s “super bloom” has been especially vibrant this year. Places like Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and Los Padres National Forest have seen a huge explosion of colorful wildflowers this spring compared to years past. The effect is even visible from space. These photos from Planet, a satellite imagery service, show just how dramatic the growth has been. They were first posted by KQED.

The satellite photo above, taken in late March, is an image of the Los Padres National Forest, which stretches…

Selfie-Takers Are Damaging California’s Super Bloom

Spring has arrived in Southern California, and dedicated selfie-snappers have taken note. For the past month, the typically barren deserts of the region have been animated with flowers and tourists traveling to see them. The vibrant flora makes for an epic Instagram backdrop, but California park rangers are begging guests to stick to the trails and resist trampling flowers for the sake of a photo op, Mashable reports.

California’s current super bloom follows a winter of drought-ending rainfall. Thousands have visited places like Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Walker Canyon, and the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve to see the rare display, but for…

Sticking Around: The La Brea Tar Pits

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges into California.

(Image credit: Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD)

How much do you know about the Angelenos of the Pleistocene? Yeah, us either. Read on.


Hancock Park, an affluent area of Los Angeles, is well known for its celebrity sightings, million-dollar homes, and the famous Hollywood sign in the distance. But some of the neighborhood’s “residents” are even cooler. World-famous fossils—like the extinct dire wolf, saber-toothed tiger, and Columbia mammoth—are among the millions of specimens that have been excavated from the La Brea tar pits. Located on Wilshire Boulevard in the Miracle Mile, the tar pits contain one of the richest deposits of late Pleistocene era (the last ice age) fossils in North America. The fossils date from 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, and more than three million of them—including plants, mammals, birds, lizards, and insects—have been excavated since paleontologists first began digging there in the early 1900s.

The tar pits on display today were once excavation sites where workers dug for asphalt or scientists dug for fossils. Over the years, humans dug more than 100 pits throughout Hancock Park, but most of them have been refilled with dirt, debris, asphalt, and water. About 13 tar pits remain—the largest, called the Lake Pit, measures 28 square feet and is approximately 14 feet deep.


The La Brea tar pits formed thousands of years ago, when gas and oil beneath the ground came under pressure. The molten mixture pushed up through vents in the earth’s crust. Once it reached the surface, the oil pooled in natural depressions aboveground. The lighter part of the pooling oil evaporated—left behind was a heavy, sticky oil. Then rain and underground springs added water, forming ponds and lakes on top of the oil and creating what we now call the tar pits.

The water on the tar pits’ surface was especially attractive to thirsty animals, and during the warm spring and summer, the thick oil underneath was especially sticky. Animals that ventured into to the pits couldn’t escape. Often predators chased their prey into the pits and got stuck too. Paleontologists once found a large bison fossil surrounded by a pack of fossilized wolves. The dead animals eventually sank completely, and their bones and teeth turned brown from the oil. But otherwise, they were almost perfectly preserved for more than 30,000 years.


Hundreds of years ago, local Native Americans used the thick oil at the tar pits as waterproof caulking for their baskets and canoes. When the Spanish arrived in the 18th century, they used it to waterproof their houses. In 1828 the tar pits were part of a Mexican land grant called Rancho de la Brea (brea means “tar” in Spanish). When the United States took over California in 1848, the area was part of the deal, and ultimately, it came into the possession of lawyer and surveyor Henry Hancock…

Snapchat Went Public, and This Silicon Valley School Made a Cool $24 Million

When I was in high school, we held bake sales, car washes, and carnivals to raise money for things like shiny new uniforms and ski trips. Now – at least if you go to school in Silicon Valley – investment opportunities have gotten quite a bit more sophisticated.

And, if I remember the $200 we made after an entire day washing cars in the heat correctly, quite a bit more successful, too.

It all started back in 2012, when venture capitalist Barry Eggers came home to find his children at the kitchen table playing with a new app – Snapchat. In a world bogged down with social media, Snapchat offered something new and just different enough, with its filters and the disappearing content element.

At least that’s what Eggers thought, and he subsequently negotiated a $500,000 investment in the company.

That’s where St. Francis High School (where Eggers’ children go to school) came into play. The school set up a fund in 1990 that aims to…