The Valley: America’s First Serial Killer

Jeff Merrion gives an oral history of the country’s first serial murderer whose legend has been doomed to obscurity.

Photo by Tony Poole

Catholicism indelibly shaped much of the history of the San Luis Valley — it even informed the actions of the Valley’s first mythic villain. Few know that America’s first serial killer came from the San Luis Valley. Even fewer know that he was inspired by probably the only apparition of the Virgin Mary who besought her witness to carve the still-beating hearts out of as many white people as possible (or so the witness claimed). No doubt, these two dozen grisly murders were products of a supremely unhinged mind, but they were also a twisted articulation of mounting racial tension in the Valley, a tension that persists today — and it’s worth taking a quick survey of the atmosphere in which Espinosa committed his crimes.

The lack of precipitation in the Valley (it gets seven inches annually, tops) would render agriculture impossible were it not for a combination of artesian wells and canals diverting Rio Grande water to farmland. And in fact, despite being classified as a desert, the Valley is an important agricultural hub: enough alfalfa grows there to give bunnies the world over heart palpitations of joy. But if land isn’t adjacent to a water source, it’s dust. Back when the area was still part of Spain, the imperial government doled out huge land grants to Hispanic settlers. By the time the Americans came, the best land had long been part of multi-generation family plots.

So when Americans “annexed” the Valley and surrounding environs, they discovered that Hispanic settlers had the vast majority of arable land. What miffed the Americans most was that the Hispanic settlers still primarily practiced subsistence farming, and exchanged commodities mostly through barter. Americans saw the situation as another “white man’s burden” kind of scene, with their burden being to bring these anachronistic folk into the nineteenth century.

One of the first things the new territorial government needed to do was to survey existing plots of land and legally register them in accord with American property laws. This process of surveying and deeding turned out to be a prime opportunity for Americans to dispossess the Hispanic settlers of their best land.

Here’s how it happened: An American surveyor would visit a Hispanic landowner and inform him of good news: the landowner’s property was now part of the United States. And in order to be a legal American landowner the exact boundaries of his property would need to be surveyed. Unfortunately, the surveyor would inform the landowner, surveying isn’t cheap. The landowner would be informed that he had to pay the surveyor for his services.

Typically the landowner would inform the surveyor that he had no legal tender currency. The surveyor often responded with an idea: the landowner could pay the surveyor using his own land. To pay for the surveyor’s exorbitant fees, the landowner would have to cede the most valuable parts of his land, those parts with access to irrigation. It seems almost incredible today, but through this process, Hispanics in the Valley lost more than two-thirds of their land in a few short years. This led to astonishing poverty, cultural isolation, and no small amount of churning rage.

Even before he himself faced this surveying tomfoolery, Felipe Espinosa seethed about the treatment of Hispanics in the area by the Americans. He was intensely proud of his Spanish Catholic heritage and was infuriated by the influx of Protestants who saw his faith as barbaric. In his youth, during the American invasion of Mexico (euphemistically known here as “The First American Intervention” and “The Mexican-American War”), Espinosa saw six civilians killed by American shelling off his town in what became New Mexico.

In 1863, Espinosa (with the help of others) began murdering Americans. His killings are unclassifiable: they demonstrate aspects of spree killings (committed in a relatively short period of time), serial killings (ritualistic treatment of the bodies of victims), and political insurgency (motivated by fury at occupation of his homeland). Perhaps these taxonomical difficulties are what render Espinosa a historical unknown — H.H. Holmes of Chicago World Fair infamy gets credit for being the first serial killer in America.

One of the more bizarre aspects of the case is that Espinosa claimed to have been inspired by an apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Given the racial tension that catalyzed these killings, her appearance seems important to note. The Virgin of Guadalupe had historically been used as a mediator between native and colonial religions in post-conquest Latin America. La Virgen de Guadalupe has been seen paradoxically as both a symbol of native empowerment as well as a tool for colonial powers to force Catholicism on native populations. Because the hero of her legend is the peasant Juan Diego, and the story employs traditional native symbolism and imagery, she represents the power of native tradition. On the other hand, some interpret this same use of native semiotics as a cynical veneer of sympathy by a Church bent on snuffing out those very traditions.

When she appeared to Espinosa, the Virgin certainly did not bear a message of love. He claimed she demanded that he cut the hearts of six hundred white people (one hundred for each of the six civilians killed by Americans that he saw). He began his murders in the San Luis Valley, and the first victim was found in May, the body hideously mutilated and the heart cut out.

Espinosa killed at least 23 more people (no mean feat in this sparsely populated area) before trackers shot and killed him. Residents and travelers through the area had no information about the author of these crimes or the intent of their macabre symbolism until late in the spree. An educated man, he wrote the territorial governor to demand a land grant from the government and complete immunity for himself and his accomplices; if denied, he insisted that he would kill another five hundred and seventy gringos. Terror gripped the region, and the already taxing passage through these harsh mountains and valleys became sinister journeys of abject terror. No one knew anything beyond the fact that bodies were being found sans hearts throughout the region.

Espinosa and his coterie finally slipped up when a particularly gruesome robbery went awry; the victim survived and described his attackers. A short time later, a team of trackers found Espinosa et alia and killed them. Despite Espinosa’s letter describing the wrongs perpetrated by the Americans and the clearly targeted nature of the killings, the incident led to no particular soul-searching among elites of the area. To many, it was another senseless apparition of the violence that seemed to haunt the American West at the time. To others, the incident was the product of a man unhinged by a loss in a just war. The absorption of the San Luis Valley into the vast folds of America continued unabated, though it was never fully completed — a fact one can see easily upon visiting this strange place.

Photo by Tony Poole

While he excels in most other areas, Jeff Merrion’s spatial logic falls within the lower third percentile of United States citizens. He is a Religious Studies major and, as such, has a long life of administrative assistantship awaiting him. To potential employers: Jeff makes a mean cup of coffee.