Geyser murders, part 1

Double murder up on Otay Mesa, 1892. An old Indian laborer is blamed.

Sunday, October 16, 1892
Thomas Smallcomb got the news around 11:00 p.m. Trouble up at the Geyser’s. A double murder. The deputy constable flicked the reins and steered his two-horse buckboard east on Otay Valley Road. The lights were off at the Guatelli winery, where Anton charged two bits to fill half-gallon demijohns and gave free samples every half-hour. A slight breeze rustled the rows of moonlit vines.

After he passed Fred Sousa’s farm, Smallcomb turned south. The wagon jostled up dirt-clodded Chester Grade to the “Big Mesa,” where the Geyser farm overlooked Otay Valley.

A double murder? Smallcomb, a 31-year-old part-time lawman, had never heard of such a thing, let alone investigated one. He could break up brawls at Otay’s two saloons on Main Avenue or track down the occasional horse thief, even into Mexico if need be. But he wore the badge to supplement his income as a farmer. He had little training in law enforcement, forensics, or the darker reaches of human nature.

A double murder. The thought gave him a chill, as did the clear night air, which, if it got any colder, would reveal his uneasy breathing.

At the top of Chester Grade, 500 feet above the valley floor, Smallcomb headed north on Heritage. When he turned east on Lone Star Road, he saw something strange a quarter mile away. Flames? Geyser’s cottage was on fire? Someone doesn’t tend to it soon, the whole dry tableland could go up.

Smallcomb heard loud voices around the fire — frightened or angry, he couldn’t tell. As he drew nearer, the blaze became a crackling bonfire, maybe 70 feet from the house, where shadows moved back and forth to keep warm. Many shadows.

Smallcomb arrived at Geyser’s just after midnight. A mob rushed the wagon. “Get a rope!” men shouted. “String him up, NOW!”

At least a dozen or more local farmers and their sons, hastily dressed, some drunk, demanded instant justice. Many sounded like they were babbling in tongues.

As the crowd parted, groans came from a barefoot man face down on the gravel walkway. He had no hat, no coat, and pants rolled up to his knees. His hands were tightly bound behind him, diamond cinched: the rope hog-tied his feet and neck. Any move jerked his head back.

Smallcomb couldn’t make out the man’s face. Blood streaming down gray hair and forehead covered his eyes. Fred Piper, owner of the nearest farm, stood over him as if posing with a trophy kill.

“Gabriel!” someone said. “The Injun did it!”

Fists and clubs rose up. Shouts peppered the escarpment. “Caught in the house! STRING HIM UP!”

As his eyes adjusted to the light, Smallcomb noticed two bodies in front of the south-facing door: a man and a woman — the Geysers? Their corpses lay in opposite directions: hers to the west, just short of the doorstep; his, the east. Crimson pools congealed beneath their battered skulls.

Between her head and the kitchen door two clubs lay side by side.

Smallcomb barely recognized John J. and his wife Sophia Wilhelmina Geyser. He’d known them since they came from New York County, Nebraska, four months ago, to live near their nephew, Fred Piper. Like many farmers on the mesa, they were German immigrants. Smallcomb had learned to pick out the English words through their thick accents. Everyone called 66-year-old John J. “the old man.” Silver-haired Wilhelmina, 72, was “Anna.” They never missed a service at St. John’s, the German Lutheran church, just down Cactus Road toward the border.

The right side of Geyser’s head had caved in. Gray matter spilled from beneath a six-inch flap of skin. A second blow to the base of the neck looked as lethal. The deputy constable checked the body. Still warm.

Smallcomb didn’t know the prisoner. But whoever “Gabriel” was, he’d almost been pummeled enough to be corpse number three.

“What’s the matter with you?” Smallcomb asked.

“Mr. Piper, he beat me,” Gabriel replied in Spanish.

“How often were you struck?” asked Smallcomb.

“I don’t know how many times. I have it bruised in different parts — cut.”

“Why did you kill the old people?”

“I NO KILL THEM,” Gabriel snapped. “I think two Indians kill them and send me up here so I be blamed.”

Smallcomb found coin purses in each of Gabriel’s pockets (the red one, right front, 40 cents, the other, $10), also a comb, cigarette paper and tobacco pouch, and a small glass similar to Guatelli’s free samplers.

Gabriel’s bloody shirt quivered. He asked for the coat he left under the fence behind the barn.

“No!” men shouted. “Let him suffer! He deserves much worse than a little cold.”

Smallcomb wouldn’t cover Gabriel or fetch his shoes or let him turn over to alleviate the pain in his busted-up right shoulder. And when the prisoner asked if he could urinate, the crowd roared a collective “No!” amid clusters of expletives.

Around two a.m., deputy coroner Herbert J. Stetson and court reporter Fred H. Robinson rode up. The arrival of these officials freed Smallcomb to inspect the crime scene.

Even from where he stood, and lit only by the bonfire and flickering lanterns, Smallcomb could tell the evidence had been tampered with. He couldn’t see drag marks leading to the bodies but wondered why they were neatly positioned so close together. And there was blood on the doorstep. Shoeprints — like a worker’s boots, not bare feet — pocked the dark splotches. The farmers swore that no one went inside. Numerous prints said otherwise.

The cold night air thinned out the crowd, many of whom adjourned to the fire for warmth.

Given the hostility toward Gabriel, Smallcomb, Beckley, and Piper could only make a quick search to collect evidence. They picked up the two clubs near the doorway. One, a three-foot, roan-colored stick, probably greasewood; the other, a long two-by-four, scantling timber, had blood-splattered fingermarks.

Like the bodies, the clubs lay side-by-side as if placed there — to help investigators? Had one of the farmers found them somewhere else — inside the house, by the barn? — and set them in plain view? Crimes like this were so rare, maybe the farmers didn’t understand the need for an untouched crime scene.

But why would Gabriel — if in fact he committed the brutal murders — use two clubs? Or align them so precisely by the kitchen door? Surely he’d heave them over the cliff.

Beckley and Robinson walked to the barn, about 60 feet northeast of the cottage. Behind it, under the fence at the edge of the canyon, they found Gabriel’s coat, shoes, and demijohn, half-full of red wine.

When they returned to the wagon, Beckley noticed “three or four” barefoot prints leading from the barn to the house. These stopped near the east door, which opened to the Geysers’ sitting room. Probably Gabriel’s.

Smallcomb, Beckley, and Piper walked up to the porch and stepped through the open screen door into the kitchen. The sight stopped them cold: blood was everywhere. And footprints. A small coin purse lay on the floor, near an open pocket knife with a bent blade. A milk pail, almost empty, had a man’s black felt hat stuffed inside.

Letters and papers were scattered all over the bedroom floor. A small wooden box holding eight $20 gold pieces and one $10 sat atop blood-streaked bedsheets.

One clue helped establish the time of the murder. The bed was made. Since farmers on the Mesa went to sleep shortly after sundown and rose long before sunrise, the Geysers were awake when the assault occurred.

Smallcomb found an unlit lamp lying close to the bedroom door. Someone had unscrewed the lamp’s chimney and stood it alongside.

Warmed by the fire and by spirits, the crowd gathered around the wagon. When he heard the growing murmurs, the deputy constable decided to drive his prisoner to the Otay railroad station and take him to the San Diego County Jail.

Beckley would do a fuller inspection in the morning.

Smallcomb, Beckley, and Piper hoisted Gabriel onto the buckboard and laid him cross-wise behind the driver’s seat. Then several men lifted the bodies of John and Anna Geyser, set them on a bed of straw, and covered them with blankets. Smallcomb and Stetson hopped onboard. They rode off amid taunts and curses while Gabriel pleaded for his coat and shoes and cried out in pain every time the wagon hit a bump.

Not far down Lone Star Road, Smallcomb stopped the wagon. He climbed on in back, untied the ropes, and handcuffed Gabriel. He also got his first real look at the prisoner.

Beneath the blood, Gabriel became an old man — at least 50, maybe even 60. He stood around five feet, three inches and weighed 125 or 130 pounds. His deeply tanned, weathered face expressed both pain and perplexity, and his “kitchen” English made little sense.

Smallcomb took off his own coat and covered Gabriel’s feet and legs.

Out of respect for the dead and since every rut in the road was agony for their prisoner, Smallcomb descended Chester Grade at a crawl. It took farmers up to four hours to haul wheat and barley down to Otay Valley. Smallcomb took at least that long.

When they reached the town, a thin gray glow lined the eastern ridges. Along the main street, townsfolk were in motion preparing for the new day — except for two Native Americans.

Gabriel had accused Pedro Armento and José Barrera of the crimes. Were the two men leaning against a fence Gabriel’s suspects?

At the sight of the deputy constable, the men bolted down the street. Smallcomb snapped the reins and chased after. About 200 yards later, he and Stetson pulled up alongside with guns drawn. The men stopped and raised their hands.

Smallcomb asked Gabriel. “These ones yours?”


Smallcomb arrested Armento and Barrera as accessories — because their clothes were free of blood. A few hours later, Smallcomb, Stetson, the three prisoners, and the remains of John J. and Anna Geyser took the first morning train on the National City and Otay Railroad to San Diego.

Next time: CSI Otay


  • 1. Van Wormer, Stephen: “By 1890, Otay Mesa was an established community with its own school, church, store, post office, and blacksmith shop. These developments occurred through mutual cooperation between farming families.”
  • 2. San Diego Union (October 18, 1892): “The details of the horrible affair are so sickening and could not well have been executed except by a blood-thirsty savage.”
  • 3. Clare V. McKanna, Jr.: “We know very little about José Gabriel; beyond his few words of testimony, he left neither oral nor written accounts of the crime for which he was charged.”

Bell, Derrick, Race, Racism, and American Law (Boston, 1992).

Coroner’s Inquest, 1892, San Diego County (San Diego History Center, research archives).

Crawford, Richard W., The White Man’s Justice: Native Americans and the Judicial System of San Diego County, 1870–1890. Western Legal History 5 (Winter/Spring, 1992).

Gabriel, José, People v., Case No 7105, Superior Court No. 2, San Diego County, Pardon File N.195 (California State Archives).

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

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); Homicide, Race, and Justice in the American West (Arizona, 1997).

Painter, Susan Annette, “Otay Mesa: A Study of the Impact of Water on Land Use Changes,” master’s thesis, San Diego State University, 1985.

Van Wormer, Stephen, “Historical and Architectural Assessment of the Piper Homestead, Otay Mesa, City of San Diego,” January 12, 1987.

Articles in the San Diego Union and San Diego Sun.

More Geyser Murders" Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

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