Geyser murders, part 2

The quivering mound of crimson-streaked grime would be the prisoner.

José Gabriel
  • José Gabriel

Monday, October 17, 1892

The Geyser place looked different in the early morning. The bonfire that warmed angry farmers the night before was a gray-black smear of ember and ash. And the loudest noise on Otay Mesa was the breeze. But even if Henry Beckley hadn’t seen the three bloody bodies in front of the kitchen door the night before — two dead, the third hog-tied and moaning — he would have known in an instant that something evil — there was no other word — happened there.

Someone had clubbed John J. Geyser, 66, and his wife Anna, 72, to death. Two black pools, like the eye-sockets of a giant skull, left an indelible reminder on the gravel walkway.

Beckley lived a mile and a half to the east. When his neighbors Fred Piper and Fred Piper, Jr., found the bodies they sent young Meta Piper to fetch him. She arrived at 7:00 p.m.; Beckley checked the time. He grabbed a coat, hat, and lantern. Meta “piloted” him west on Lone Star Road.

At the preliminary hearing, Beckley testified that he saw two bodies “lying in front of the front door of the house… the south door.” Mrs. Geyser, “the old lady,” was “about five feet from the door, by measurement…the old gentleman, about six feet.”

A yard from the bodies: an “Indian was tied up, on his face.” Fred Piper pressed both knees on the man’s back.

“Killed ’em,” Piper yelled, “’n tried to kill us, too! Caught him in the bedroom. Pulled a knife. We wrestled in the kitchen. Quite a wrestle there. He cut me a little here on the hand.”

Piper said he and his son ripped the knife away and dragged the man outside “to see better to tie him.” When the man “still wouldn’t behave himself,” Piper told his son “to take the stick and lick him so he would give up, and he done so.”

The stick, Beckley saw, was an iron picket pin used to tether milk cows. The sharp end was dark red. Beckley offered to guard the prisoner, a quivering mound of crimson-streaked grime, until the authorities came.

Several hours later, long after a self-appointed posse of Otay Mesans arrived and demanded a lynching, Deputy constable Smallcomb rode up on his buckboard. He, Beckley, and Piper made a brief search for evidence. When Smallcomb took the prisoner and the bodies away, Beckley promised to inspect the crime scene at sunup.

Smallcomb could trust Beckley. A widower in his mid-40s with four sons, Henry Beckley and his brother George had recently emerged from a long controversy that could have sent them to prison.

The wealthiest family on Otay Mesa, the Daniel O. McCarthys, owned a large ranch on the southeast corner. They had a store, the Siempreviva, which, an ad in the Otay Press boasted, was “well stocked with groceries [sold] at San Diego prices.” They also had a blacksmith shop and post office. In 1889 they laid out a racetrack, where local horses ran for purses up to $30.

McCarthy’s ranch extended into Mexico and abutted with José Yorba’s. The alliance meant, among other things, they could transport goods across the border without paying import duties.

In the fall of 1891, Henry and George Beckley bought two horses in Mexico from José Yorba. The brothers paid $80 in promissory notes and a $20 import duty. The deal ran afoul when McCarthy’s son, J. Harvey, “forgot” to pay the duty.

Not long after, McCarthy went on trial for using his ranch as a “smuggling depot.” Henry and George Beckley testified against him. When the case was dismissed for lack of evidence, McCarthy ordered the brothers arrested for perjury, twice.

A government investigation by J.F. Evans accused McCarthy of “ferocious endeavors…to crush out all who stand in his way.” Evans’s report extolled the Beckleys’ “honesty” and ordered all charges against them dismissed. The Union printed Evans’s report on August 16, 1892, a month before Beckley got the call about trouble at his neighbors’ farm.

Although they retained ownership until 1895, the McCarthys left their ranch around the time of the Geyser tragedy.

Whoever committed the murders could have fled south to Mexico, only two miles away: either cross the border down one of the many canyons in the dark, dodging spikey barrel cacti and black scorpions the size of crabs; or go southeast and disappear down McCarthy’s private supply line for contraband livestock.

For Beckley, thoughts of “who?” and “how?” scrambled for attention with “why?” The crime scene made no sense.

The hardpan looked like someone had held a square dance around the fire. Though all swore they hadn’t, some had been inside the house. And the bodies lay side-by-side, as did two clubs not far away. This wasn’t a crime scene. This was a display, as if someone had placed the victims and the weapons in an orderly manner to speed the investigation along.

That’s the only thought that made sense to Beckley. Had a murderer in the entire history of violence ever done such a thing? Well maybe, but never in local memory, at least.

The message was: Here are the people I killed. Over here the weapons I used. I hope this arrangement helps.

Beckley went back to the beginning. The house stood about 400 feet from Lone Star Road. At least 60 feet from the kitchen door, a milk stool lay tipped over. Nearby Beckley saw a small hole, the kind a picket pin would make to tether a cow for milking. The pin was gone — obviously the one Fred, Jr. used to pulverize Gabriel.

So, John Geyser was milking the cow at the time?

The night before, Smallcomb found the tin pail in the kitchen. Inside: a small amount of milk, mixed with dirt, and a man’s black felt hat. The hat couldn’t have been Gabriel’s; they found his behind the barn. So, was it Geyser’s? Everyone assumed so, since no one asked or checked the hat size.

But why bring such a mere splash of muddy milk to the kitchen? Did he spill some on the way? And if he heard an unfamiliar sound or a cry for help from his wife, why bring the pail at all?

When he testified at the preliminary hearing, Beckley said he saw blood just inside the kitchen door. It “looked like it had been trampled and spread over the floor and dried in.” He also noted spatter “on the wall, sash, glass, and sill of the window.” Only the wooden table stood erect. Near the window, a tipped-over chair had dark flecks on the upturned side.

This was where the Pipers wrestled with Gabriel. Did the murderer assault Geyser here as well?

Beckley remembered the opened pocket knife they found the night before: probably the one Gabriel tried to use against the Pipers. The bent blade corroborated that notion, maybe.

Beckley saw something they’d missed: bloody finger marks on the kitchen door, as if “someone [tried to] steadying themselves in the act of going in.”

Gabriel carried two purses. The deputy constable found a third, containing $4.88, on the kitchen floor and a small wooden box, on the blood-streaked bed sheets, with $170 in gold pieces. What was $174.88 doing out in the open? Why would the perpetrator(s) take the time to arrange the evidence outside but not take the loot and run?

And why were the family papers flung around the bedroom? Was the murderer just looking for money? Or something else? Maybe money wasn’t the object. Or maybe it was, but shortly after the killings, something startled the murderer(s) in mid-plunder.

The Geysers’ 20-by-20-foot house had a kitchen and sitting room, facing south, and the bedroom, closet, and pantry in the rear. The sitting room was spotless, so Beckley opened the east-facing door and walked to the barn on the canyon rim. Six or eight tracks confirmed what he saw the night before: a barefooted man had gone from the barn to the sitting-room door.

Beckley recalled examining Gabriel’s feet. “He was not in the habit of going barefooted.” So, he asked where Gabriel left his shoes: “He said behind the stable.”

Beckley also recalled that, though the tops of Gabriel’s feet were bloody — his own blood from several wounds — the bottoms weren’t. So, who made the bloody barefoot prints in the kitchen?

Beckley noticed a bundle 50 feet to the northwest: clothing, bound in a large black shawl, “about the size of an ordinary family washing of a week.” A sheet sticking out had “fingermarks” and “drops” of blood.

Beckley checked the contents: “vest, coat, pants, suspenders, shawl, bodkin, gloves, small box with syringe, ivory trinket, spectacle case [but no glasses], black veil, several needles, and tweezers.” Since there were still clothes in the closet, and on the closet floor, whoever wrapped these items chose them carefully. But what were they doing southwest of the house?

Isolating the crime scene and identifying fingerprints could have cleared up much of the confusion. But as Clare V. McKanna (who has written extensively on the Geyser murders, writes: “The science of fingerprinting began in 1858 with techniques employed by William Herschel, an English criminologist.” But it wasn’t until the turn of the century that Edward Henry of Scotland Yard devised an effective system of classification.

If Beckley had made plaster casts of the footprints, McKanna adds, other questions would have found answers.

October 18, 1892

By the time Beckley reported his confused findings, newspapers had already solved the crime.

“He killed Piper in the cow-yard,” wrote the Los Angeles Herald, “then crept up on the old lady in the front room [the kitchen] and dispatched her, and then dragged the man’s body up to where she had been thrown.” While he was sacking the house, Gabriel “did not hear the Pipers’ approach.... It is believed that the Indian had a grudge against Geyser over pay for digging a well.”

So, Gabriel drank too much red wine, lugged himself up a secret, switchback trail from the valley to behind the Geysers’ barn. He took off his coat and shoes and committed the deeds.

“A search of the region revealed two other Indian suspects,” the Herald story continued. “All were brought to jail this morning.... The two others say Gabielo was going along the road with a demijohn, and was drunk. They profess to have no knowledge of what occurred after he passed them.

“Gabielo appears stupid and will not talk.”

That same morning, the San Diego Union announced that a “ghastly murder” had been committed. The villain, “known as Indian Joe,” was caught “while pillaging the house,” and that “courageous captors” foiled his “desperate efforts to escape.”

“This is the murderer!” the Union reporter declared. “He is about 5 feet 8…weighing possibly 175 pounds, with a solid frame denoting great muscular strength.”

At the preliminary hearing, Smallcomb and Beckley said Gabriel was five-feet-three and maybe 130 pounds.

Although the prisoner was mute, the reporter saw “small, snake-like eyes taking in everything by furtive glances.”

The reporter concludes with an apology. When they heard the news, San Diegans were surprised that the farmers at the Geyser place didn’t lynch “the Indian devil” on the spot.

“It’s not their fault,” writes the reporter. “But two or three knew of the crime until after daylight, and by that time the officers and prisoner were a good fifteen miles away.”

Next time: Preliminary Hearing vs. “Judge Lynch.”


  1. Henry Beckley at the trial: Gabriel’s bare feet “had the appearance of being clean.”
  2. Clare V. McKanna: “If Gabriel had indeed committed the crime, why would he take a pillow case full of clothes and place them 50 feet northwest of the house?”
  3. San Diego Union: The Geysers arrived four months ago, “purchased a tract of five acres, erected a small cottage” and expected “to pass the sunset of their lives in the absolute peace and quietude surrounding them.”

Gabriel, José, People v., Justice Court of Otay Township, San Diego County, Oct 22, 1892 (San Diego History Center archives).

Hall, Wm. Han. CE, Irrigation in California Southern.

McKanna, Jr., Clare V., “Four Hundred Dollars’ Worth of Justice: The Trial, Conviction, and Execution of Indian Joe, 1892–1893,” Journal of San Diego History 33 (Fall, 1987); The Trial of Indian Joe (Nebraska, 2003); “The Treatment of Indian Murderers in San Diego County, 1850–1900,” Journal of San Diego History 36 (Winter, 1990).

Smythe, William E., “American Families of the Early Time,” “County Roster,” History of San Diego (San Diego, 1908).

Van Wormer, Stephen, Susan D. Walton, “Historical Assessment of the D.O. McCarthy and Peter and Lucy Beckley Farmstead Sites” (July, 2005). San Diego History Center archives.

Articles in San Diego Union, San Diego Sun, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald, the Otay Press, and others.

More Geyser Murders: Part 1| Part 3 | Part 4

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad