The Severed Head of Joaquin Murrieta

February 25, 2022
San Francisco Hauntings

Before Madame Tussaud’s there were...traveling pickled heads. And in late 19th Century San Francisco, it made A MINT. For $1 (THAT’S $30 NOW), you could see the severed head of notorious Californio Joaquin Murrieta, preserved in a jar of alcohol, at King John’s Saloon on the corner of Halleck and Sansome.

An advert for the exhibition of the head of Joaquin Murrieta, one day only  on Aug 1853. Admission was $1. There is a small paragraph at the bottom attesting to the authenticity of the jar's contents.


Murrieta was a famous outlaw in California during Gold Rush times. There are conflicting accounts of who he really was - some say vicious gangster, some say the Robin Hood of the Sierras. Murieta, whose real name was Joaquin Carillo, was a Mexican highwayman who ran a gang that robbed and murdered people all over Northern California in the 1850’s. The state offered a $5,000 bounty on his head before the California Rangers killed him and his right hand man, Three Fingered Jack, in a shootout in 1853. Murieta’s story was romanticized by pulp fiction writers of the time, who turned him into a Latino Anti-Hero, fighting back against the white folks and American government that stole his land.

An etched portrait of Joaquin Murrieta, looking fiercly out from under a bandana and hat


Whichever story you believed about the man - he was famous enough that people paid good money to see his HEAD IN A JAR. Three-Fingered Jack’s hand was supposed to be displayed in its own jar, but it apparently did not survive the pickling process (lol). Rumors circulated that the HAIR ON THE HEAD CONTINUED TO GROW and that Murrieta’s ghost hung around the jar, leveling curses and demanding it back. The head toured around San Francisco until it was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake. In the 1970s, however, a local man claimed to have the head (look at the picture, THAT CANNOT BE REAL), which he eventually buried.

Santa Rosa, CA man Walter Johnson claimed to have the head, which for a time he stored in a vault. According to his granddaughter, Johnson eventually grew tired of being bothered by the health department and buried it in a secret location. Picture credit: SF Chronicle, August 7, 1980


There’s a lot more to be said about the way that Mexicans and Californios were treated in this state, why the story of Murrieta evolved the way it did, and the cultural practice of the trophy head in the West - but right now I just needed to show you guys a severed head in a glass jar filled with whiskey. I didn’t even charge you the dollar!! 

Court

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