It’s not easy to dwell on Monterey California’s criminal underbelly when picturing the angelic shoreline found along the Central Coast, but even windswept beauty has its ugly side. As a reporter I learned this firsthand when I worked the crime beat in Sedona, Arizona.
Never trust the postcard.
Monterey has had its share of interesting crimes over the years, from cold cases to mysterious fires that have destroyed communities and lives. Below are five of the area’s most interesting crimes and criminals, culled from a variety of sources. Some glamorous, others terrifying, these Central Coast stories are the stuff of legend.
The outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez
Vasquez started his criminal career at the young age of 17 after fleeing the scene of a murder with his cousin, the outlaw Anastacio Garcia. Thus began a bloody, dangerous life of crime and womanizing, the latter of which became something of a trademark for the man and would ultimately lead to his downfall. He was hanged in 1875. His last breath consisted of a single word, “Pronto.”
While his deeds took him far and wide, Tiburcio would often stay in Monterey County. His family lived across the street from the Monterey County Jail in downtown Monterey. Tiburcio was quite familiar with both locations.
What happened in Massacre Cave? Newspaper accounts reported a number of skeletons found there near the long-lost town of Manchester, which suspiciously burned to the ground around 1900, leaving a few people missing in the process. Decades later, the skeletal discovery occurred, leaving many to speculate as to what exactly occurred during this gold-crazy era of Monterey County’s history. It should also be noted there are those who claim the area is not the site of a murder but a Native burial ground.
A determined crowd converged on the Monterey Jail in 1873 to settle things with alleged murderer, Matthew Tarpey, who had been jailed for shooting a woman in the back over a land squabble. Tarpey, a well-to-do member of a vigilante squad that operated in Santa Cruz and Monterey County, expected help to come for him. It didn’t. He was hung on a Monday evening after being forcibly removed from the jail by a lynch mob.
Arson was believed to be the cause of the Carmel Canning Company fire in 1967 that caused more than $250 million in damages to Cannery Row, which happened to be a tad seedier than the tourist mecca it is today. Despite being less than glamorous, more than 65 firefighters responded to the scene and quickly doused the Christmas Eve fire. Perhaps too quickly for the liking of whoever set the blaze.
The year 1977 wasn’t an ordinary one for residents of Seaside, California. While crime was more common there than it is today, the discovery of four female family members stabbed to death made for shocking, horrifying headlines. Grandmother Josephine Smith, her daughter Suzanne Harris, Suzanne’s daughter Rachel Harris, and Suzanne’s niece Renee Ferguson were each found murdered in their home. While a family relative was eventually captured, the murders had the small community on edge.
What happens to us when we die? That’s the big question. Some of us, many believe, might stick around after we die. Some of us might become the next generation of ghosts! When that happens, some of us will find a place to haunt, be it a favorite home, an old workplace, or possibly a cemetery.
Resting comfortably among the cypress, eucalyptus, Monterey oak, and pines trees of the California coast is the Monterey Peninsula. It’s changed little over the years but grown large in notoriety. The AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am is held here every year, car shows are a daily part of life in the summer months, and festivals bring both music and food. Sailing, kayaking, and exploring sea life are pastimes enjoyed by residents and tourists alike. The Central Coast has a long, sometimes sordid, history, but people love it. It’s been featured in a number of films and television shows, including Turner & Hooch, Basic Instinct, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Play Misty for Me, Big Little Lies, and more.
My newest book, Haunted Monterey County, will explore the many haunted locations found in this popular California community. Due in bookstores around Halloween 2019, this book will join a distinguished library of haunted, ghostly collections published by The History Press, a number of which I have enjoyed in the past. The nearest such book, Haunted Santa Cruz California, by Maryanne Porter, is a wonderfully spooky read! Their Haunted America series runs from the East Coast to the West!
In Monterey, I am hard at work on stories surrounding a number of haunted sites, including the Custom House near Old Fisherman’s Wharf, Tor House, Steinbeck’s home in Salinas, Los Coches Adobe, and many other locations said to be inhabited by the restless dead.
I plan to write updates as I progress, so be sure to check in on me from time to time!
The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History book, which Arcadia Publishing released earlier this year, got a nice write-up in Carmel Magazine. Thank you to writer Renee Brincks and photographer Kelli Uldall for making it so easy! You two rock!
Thanks to all the great authors who came out for last night’s event at The Press Club in Seaside, CA, and to everyone else who gave us their Friday night. From bodies in trunks to bodies full of junk, these folks make an impression and got the criminal minds flowing. Special thanks to Dietrick Kalteis for making it all happen! Old Capitol Books did a sweet job with the book sales, almost as busy as the bar…
Picture yourself in a dimly lit room. A light bulb hangs from the ceiling, swinging slowly to and fro, as if an ethereal skeletal hand had reached down from the inky shadows and tapped it. Beneath the light are a series of faces with dark shadows for eyes and grim, black lines for mouths. The grimy bulb swings overhead. The faces are there, then swallowed by darkness, then appear again, under the dancing, pale glow. This assembly is here for one reason and one reason only. And there are laws against it.
When you picture an evening of crime fiction called “Noir at the Bar”, that’s how I picture it going down. It won’t be like that. Well, maybe it will be. Who knows? Maybe it will go down like a tea party in a Hercule Poirot novel, or turn into a backstage party at the end of a Rage Against the Machine concert on the eve of a government revolution? Or we’ll pose like we’re trapped in a Hopper painting. Perhaps we’ll just compete for who does the best “drunk Sarah Huckabee Sanders” impersonation?
Imagine the world before the Internet, before modern medicine and modern science as we know it today; pre-cars, pre-phones, pre-fast food, and you’ve got the world that saw one of the first natural history museums on the California coast. The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History has been a part of the Monterey Peninsula since 1883, nearly as long as Monterey County has been in existence.
I’ve been lucky enough to work for the Museum since 2014 and am happy to announce I’ll be depicting the history of this amazing place through writing and more than 150 historic photographs. In the short period of time I’ve been here, as the awesome story of this place soaked in, I’ve realized just how lucky I am to be a part of this local institution. History has always been a thing with me, no matter if it’s the history of 1940s and 1980s pulp novels or the history of Tusayanand Williams, Arizona. I daydream about what it would be like to live and thrive in an era where things moved a little slower, but were harder at the same time – for nearly everyone. I can’t think of any writer/bibliophile who hasn’t dreamed about living in a small cabin near a stream or rocky shoreline.
History is a learning curve without a shelf life. It’s a way for us to see what’s happened, good and bad, and carry it with us as we move forward. At the museum, history is preserved with just such a mission in mind. Taxidermy, geology, plants, Native peoples; they’re all there.
“The Pacific Grove Museum of Natural History”, will be published in 2018 by Arcadia Publishing in their Images of America series. It’s an exciting project, which I expect to have completed by October, and I’m very thankful to be the one who gets to write it. From the first Museum building to the arrival of Sandy the Whale, this book is long overdue.
Gulls have been on my mind lately. Why I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I have these two paintings in the living room that I haven’t finished yet. Maybe it’s because the babies born this season in Pacific Grove are beginning to stretch their wings and take flight, yet they still lower their heads and call out for their parents to feed them. The one I saw today, gray and large, stood in the middle of the road pecking at a to-go cup lid. After it decided the lid wasn’t worth its time, the gull turned and began to strut away toward Central Avenue. Only the lid wasn’t done with it. A slight gust of wind, not enough to sway a branch or lift a skirt, blew over the lid and made it roll toward the gull as it walked (they kind of strut though, which I think I said already). The gull flipped out, thinking the lid had come to life and was chasing its ass down. I couldn’t help but laugh. It was a cute sight. The simplicity of it all hit me. And that felt nice. Maybe I’ve been thinking of them because they get a bad rap. I’ve always been a fan of the underdogs. So many may dislike them, but they’ve won me over.
They might be on my mind because of a Facebook post. I recently learned the book “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” was the best seller the year I was born. This led me to want to read it. Can you believe the book is $11.99 for a digital download? Must be a special read I suppose, and my Facebook friends seemed to think it is.
It could be a gull’s relationships fascinate me, its upbringing, how they all cling to California’s coastal cities with flippered tenacity; these things are so different than what we do. Some of it’s the same, but so much is different. Gulls hardly even bother to make much of a nest for their offspring and they’re a fierce lot. They communicate like crazy and seem totally okay with sharing the sidewalks and roads with us, though there aren’t a lot of us who could say the same. Maybe they’re not all that smart, but some are, and I find myself hard pressed to look away when I watch them interact. Human relationships veer and careen in so many directions, often leading to dead ends, often leading to some quiet spot where clothes are rarely worn and moaning speaks louder than promises, and often there’s shouting – the best ingredient for the best sex, the best novels, and the best telenovelas. Sometimes human relationships stay right on the course they were meant to take, despite the best efforts of the intellectual minds involved. For whatever reason, I find the simpler model the better one.
This isn’t to say people watching at the Monterey Fairgrounds won’t be a blast this year, but I bet I’ll notice the gulls hanging out waiting for some food to fall. And plenty of food will fall. They’re not that stupid.
The gulls are perfect for us.