Geyser murders, part 2

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

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).

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

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