Cold Case File, Part three: Preliminary Hearing
In 1892, San Diego was two cities. The real estate boom of the 1880s had flipped the docile backwater into an emerging metropolis of 40,000 people. Downtown businesses had telephones. As did the tall Victorian mansions, sculpted like gingerbread, on the hills. Streetcars ran on electrical tracks to Logan Heights, the depot, and the ferry to Coronado. The island was flat as a board except for the Hotel del Coronado, which shone like a white sepulcher across the bay.
In 1892, Kate Sessions leased 30 acres in City (later Balboa) Park and promised to plant 100 trees a year — cypress, oak, eucalyptus — on the site, plus 300 per year in other parts of town.
Advertisements lauded the area as “Our Italy.” But as the boom faded and the Panic of 1893 loomed ahead, invitations to come West could no longer conceal the other San Diego.
In 1892, writes Walter Gifford Smith, the city had become a “wild town,” its “population drawn from the adventurous classes of the world.” Gambling reigned, from curbstone craps to Wyatt Earp’s three notorious halls for games of chance. “Painted women paraded the town in carriages” and formally invited gents to “high tea.”
Men wore guns openly. “Theft, murder, incendiarism, carousals, fights, highway robbery, and licentiousness gave…San Diego many of the characteristics of the frontier camp.” Perhaps this explains why, on October 18, the San Diego Union asked its readers to forgive the farmers of Otay Mesa for not hanging a double-murder suspect on the spot.
Wednesday, October 19, 1892. The San Diego Union published the results of the coroner’s inquest for the murders of John J. and Wilhelmina Geyser. Even before the preliminary hearing began, Coroner Keller, two doctors, and a seven-man jury determined that the elderly couple “came to their death by a blow or blows from the hands of one Indian named Joe.”
The article announced that the pre-trial would take place at Otay Friday morning. “Excitement is said to be increasing in that vicinity and it is barely possible that the preliminary examination will end the legal formalities.”
Friday, October 21, 1892. Early in the morning, deputy constables Thomas Smallcomb, Ray Johnson, and H.P. Whitney — “an old Ohio sheriff and a determined and fearless man” (Union) — backed Smallcomb’s farm wagon up to the county jail’s steel doors. They escorted three chained, Native American prisoners — Jose Gabriel, Pedro Armento, and Jose Barra — onto the wagon and headed south. The officers were armed and expecting trouble, since local newspapers, and just about everyone else, had already convicted Gabriel.
The wagon didn’t get far down National Avenue when an electric streetcar stopped at a corner. Men climbed out and joined a crowd already assembled. They wanted “to deliver the criminal for justice.”
As Whitney — “who had been there before” (Union) — and the others reached for their guns, Wesley Wenzell, a Democratic candidate for supervisor ran to the front of the crowd. Instead of giving a speech, he opened a box of cigars, handed them out, and said “remember me come election time.”
As Wenzell worked prospective voters, Whitney “laid whip to the horses” and the wagon sped away.
A larger crowd awaited the prisoners at Otay. Horses, mules, and buckboards lined both sides of Main Street. At least 35 to 40 ranchers and their sons stood in the shade in front of justice W. S. Clark’s office. “The crowd was very quiet as it followed the officers and their charges into the court room,” wrote the Union, but a “certain feeling of expectancy…could not be mistaken.”
The room was so packed, deputy prosecution attorney Frank W. Goodbody had to stand. Ranchers poked their heads through an open window. The three defendants sat immediately behind Justice Clark. They had no defense attorney.
After he arranged the papers on his desk and read the complaint, Clark asked Gabriel if he understood.
“Me no sabe,” replied the Native American, his head still bandaged from blows three nights before. “Put a rope around his neck’n he’ll talk!” shouted a man at the window.
“Order, gentlemen!” said Constable Smallcomb.
A court-appointed interpreter mistranslated Gabriel’s reply as “me no talk too much.”
First witness: Mary Piper, age 12. On Sunday, October 16, shortly after dark, she, her sister Katie, and young Lillie Lohman were heading home. About a half mile from the Geyser residence, Mary “heard Mr. Geyser hollering and I heard strikes.” She could recognize Geyser’s voice. “We heard the strike every time and heard the ‘halloa!’ right after.”
There were between “five and ten strikes,” but she couldn’t tell if they came from inside or outside the house. The girls raced home. “Something’s wrong over at Mr. Geyser’s,” they told their father, “a halloing…as if someone was killing him.”
After each sister testified, the judge asked Gabriel if he wanted to ask questions. He replied, “No, sir.”
Clark called the girls’ father, Fred Piper, to the stand. When he and Fred Jr. approached the house they saw a light in the bedroom. Near the front door, “we seen something lying there: two objects: we didn’t know what it was.
“It” looked like two bodies. Piper took them “to be drunken persons — Indians — lying there.”
Fred Jr. later testified that he said, “Those aren’t Indians, Pa.”
The Pipers went in through the kitchen door. Fred Sr. hollered to his uncle twice: “John J.! You in there?” The second time, “the light blowed out in the sleeping room.”
A man was “stirring around.” When he “tried to slip out the door,” between the bedroom and the kitchen, Piper grabbed him and called his son for help.
“We had quite a wrestle” in the kitchen. The man kept reaching for a pocket. “I first thought he had a revolver…but a knife he was getting; I guess he cut me a little…here on the hand [shows the court].
Fred Jr. pried the knife away. “After that we pulled him outside so we could see better to tie him.”
The man still “wouldn’t behave himself” so Piper ordered his son to “take the stick [an iron picket pin used for milking cows] and lick him so he would give up, and he done so, and he give up wrestling, and we could tie him.”
As Fred Jr. bashed him with the sharp end of the pin, the man muttered in fractured English, “not so hard!” After that, “he couldn’t state anything, he never got his voice.” And couldn’t ask why they were beating him senseless.
Fred Piper recognized the man as “Joe.”
Jose Gabriel was a native American who came to Piper’s home two years before because he “wanted some grub.” Piper’s daughters, who had apparently read Mark Twain’s Adventures of Tom Sawyer, called him “Injun Joe,” after the book’s villain. A day-laborer for farmers, Gabriel did odd jobs. He chopped wood and dug 20-feet-deep cisterns on the mesa for 50 cents to a dollar a day.
About two weeks before the murders, Gabriel dug one for the Geysers. It took five or six days, and he slept in their barn. Then he went back to work for Frank Sousa, down in Otay. Gabriel had already dug a cistern for him. But since promotional promises of water fell through and Otay Mesa had been in a long drought, Sousa needed another.
Gabriel had been in San Diego County for at least 25 years. He was five-foot-three, 130–140 pounds, and at least 60 years old.
The Pipers testified that they saw no one else on the property when they arrived. Six other witnesses corroborated. Gabriel was the only living person at the Geyser farm that night.
Asked if he wanted to question the other witnesses, Gabriel replied, via a translator, “Nada, nada; me no talk too much here, I guess.”
The court adjourned for dinner. When it reconvened at 1:30 p.m., at least two-thirds of the men were gone. They had “convened” across the street in the warehouse of Perry’s store. This was, writes the Union, “Judge Lynch’s court.”
Seventy-eight-year-old Lyman B. Moody sat on a pile of cheese boxes. The gray-bearded man told around 20 men to get a rope. Someone produced 50 feet of half-inch hemp with a noose at one end. They paraded across the street and slung it over a scaffold where the butcher hung beef, “ready to be snatched at a moment’s notice.”
Inside the court, Gabriel sat with hands folded on his lap. According to a reporter, when someone unwrapped two blood-stained clubs, “he gripped his hands together…and a look of uneasiness passed quickly over his face.” Then he “resumed his old demeanor and was as impassive as a cigar store sign.”
The other defendants, Pedro Armento and Jose Barra, who didn’t understand English, “showed no sign of fear or restlessness.”
Deputy constable Thomas Smallcomb took the stand. Gabriel, he said, “was not sure but thought two other Indians had committed the murder and then sent him up [to the mesa] in order that he might be blamed.”
Smallcomb added that the two purses found on Gabriel were the Geysers’.
In testimony, George A. Johnson and Frank Sue said Gabriel never liked the Geysers and that “they had plenty of money.” Sue saw the accused the day of the murder at 4:00 p.m. Gabriel had come down from the mesa and stopped at Guatelli’s winery. Afterwards he went back up.
Witnesses said they saw Armento and Barra “about six or seven o’clock” around “three miles from the scene of the murder.”
Willie Fletcher said he saw Gabriel with the two others at 11:00 a.m. “Joe appeared to be drunk, and the trio went up the valley.”
Peter Beckley, who did the most thorough search of the crime scene, noticed the trio at Guatelli’s “about 5:00 p.m.”
They were at his place Sunday afternoon, said Antonio Guatelli, “about four o’clock.” The next morning he saw “Pedro and Jose [come back] down the valley toward Otay at 7:00 a.m.” — where Deputy Smallcomb arrested them.
Justice Clark declared the court adjourned. He signed the complaint that Gabriel “did willfully and feloniously and of his malice aforethought kill and murder one John J. Geyser a human being then and there being and existing.”
A crowd gathered outside. At least a dozen women came through the door. Amid shouts of “hang him!” the men parted, making a corridor for the women to cross the street. They ran, one hand on their hats, the other on their skirts, and assembled in a yard, where they “waited, pale-faced and breathless but entered no protest against the proposed actions of their husbands and brothers” (Union).
Lyman Moody shouted above the din: “Hang him! Men, where is your nerve?
“I live alone on the mesa with my wife,” he added. “How do I know but tonight our brains may be beaten out by some drunken brute?”
Attorney Frank Goodbody tried to calm Moody.
“Get a rope,” Moody straightened himself up and shouted at Goodbody’s face, “and I’ll help you pull him up.” As if on cue, the 50-foot rope flew over the crowd and landed at Goodbody’s feet.
A carriage pulled up. “With the fire of ’49 in his eyes,” (Union) Goodbody’s father, Frank Sr., chewed out his son, “if you don’t want to see it, let’s take a drive down the road!”
When Frank refused, “the Union reporter also urged the same request,” he writes of himself, “as it was apparent that the deputy district attorney was bent on spoiling a good story.... But for once [he] was disobedient and held his ground.”
Deputy Smallcomb came outside, “his face flushed but his bearing cool and determined.” He walked to the center of the crowd.
“Men, neighbors, friends, this is the wrong time to attempt what you are contemplating! I PLEDGE YOU MY WORD IF THE COURTS FAIL TO CONVICT THIS MAN I WILL RESIGN MY COMMISSION AND HEAD A CROWD TO HANG HIM!
“But now he’s in the hands of the law, and his person must be kept inviolate for trial… I do not want to hurt any of you, but if you carry this thing out, some of us will be carried away from here!”
As he returned to the courtroom, Smallcomb picked up the rope and locked the door behind him.
H.P. Whitney, the former Ohio sheriff, arrived with the wagon for the prisoners. He stood on the seat: “If you resist officers of the law, you know what you can expect.”
“We know it,” a man blurted, “and are willing to abide by the consequences!” The crowd surged toward the courtroom door.
Smallcomb brought Gabriel out, “his face ghastly and aswim and he clung closely to Mr. Smallcomb.” Gabriel “sprang nimbly” onto the wagon.
Then no one moved, or spoke, until W.W. Johnson, a young Otay rancher, stepped forward: “Men of Otay, I am no leader, but if there is one man in this crowd will take hold with me, we will pull him out!”
“Don’t do it, men!” shouted Smallcomb, “standing over his cowering prisoner” (Union) with one hand on Gabriel and the other on his six-shooter.
Ray Johnson helped Armento and Barra onto the wagon. Whitney cracked his whip. The horses sprang “forward under the blow” and galloped “quickly down the road in a cloud of dust.” And “Indian Joe was safe.
“It was a noticeable fact that a great big man from National City, who was loudest in his cries of ‘hang him,’ was the first to drive away on the appearance of the rope. If the crowd had one man to lead, or had Mr. Moody been allowed to continue his remarks uninterrupted, Indian Joe would not be occupying a cell in the county jail this morning.”
Next time: The Trial.
- 1.) Clare V. McKanna: Gabriel had no legal counsel. “Apparently he did not comprehend the hearing. His rights were unprotected.”
- 2.) San Diego Union (October 19): during the reading of the charges, “Indian Joe maintained that Indian stoicism for which his race is noted.”
- 2.) Los Angeles Herald (October 18): “Gabriel appears stupid and will not talk.”
McKanna, Clare V, Jr., The Trial of ‘Indian Joe’: Race and Justice in the Nineteenth-Century West (Nebraska, 2003); Race and Homicide in Nineteenth-Century California (Nevada, 2002).
Pourade, Richard F., The History of San Diego: The Glory Years (San Diego, 1964).
Smith, Walter Gifford, History of San Diego (San Diego, 1892).
Coroner’s Inquest, 1892, San Diego County (San Diego History Center, research archives).
Preliminary Hearing: Gabriel, Jose, People v., Justice Court of Otay Township, San Diego County, Oct 22, 1892 (San Diego History Center, research archives).
Articles in San Diego Union, San Diego Sun, Otay Press, Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Herald, and others.
More Geyser Murders: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 4