Burnsville novelist explores Old West serial murders
by Rob Neufeld
Nor has he ever been a sensationalist. His quartet of novels set in fictionalized Clay County from the Civil War up through the early 20th century portray, with penetrating honesty, a wide range of low and high characters involved in historical conflicts.
In this way, his work is most akin to the novels of John Ehle.
His fifth published novel, “Nor the Battle to the Strong,” reveals his heroic temperament, as he follows the exploits and thoughts of a Quaker Revolutionary War general and a local private.
Lately, he has turned to westerns, which means they’re set in the Old West, a place to which he’d originally formed an attraction as a kid, watching Roy Rogers on TV, he revealed in an interview.
Season of Terror
Today, Price settles in the saddle of his office chair with more philosophy and grit than “True Grit.”
His new book, “Season of Terror,” the first thorough examination of the Espinosas, serial murderers in Civil War-era Colorado, contains horror and tragedy, but also moments of grace and scene-circling post-mortems.
Price has as many questions as answers as he tries to avoid the traps of interpretation. Such traps had led the relatives and neighbors of the Espinosas’ mutilated victims to form a posse and hang and torture innocent suspects.
It seems that Price, throughout his career, has exerted a minister’s attempt to bring full understanding to communities seized by worst case scenarios.
I asked him how he got attracted to his latest subject.
One day in the 1990s, he told me, he was leafing through a book about Old West firearms, when he saw “a photograph of a man dressed in a fancy, fringed buckskin coat, holding a percussion-cap Hawken plains rifle.”
The caption said it was of a plainsman named Tom Tobin who had killed and beheaded two of the Espinosas. (No spoiler alerts in non-fiction!)
“Despite my familiarity with the history of the frontier,” Price explained, “I had never heard of Tobin or the Espinosas and immediately wanted to know more of the story.” He came to learn that no reliable book-length account of the episode existed, so he went on a hunt.
“The more sources I found,” he related, “the more fascinating the story became. Because the Espinosas were Hispanic and devout Catholics and had announced that their purpose was to kill all the Anglos in Colorado Territory, the incident raised all sorts of religious, ethnic and political issues, some of which have resonance today.”
Now, let’s back up—because “Season of Terror” has fiction-like, suspenseful elements. There’s a progression and there are resonances.
In his introduction, Price outlines the story: three Mexican-Americans—the Espinosa brothers, Felipe and José, and their nephew, José Vincente—killed and mutilated 32 victims before being exterminated eight months after their spree had started.
Many reasons have been proposed for the Espinosas’ barbarity. One of the compelling factors is that, two months before the first act of terrorism (is it accurate to call it that?), the Espinosas, New Mexico natives, “were assaulted in their homes by troops of the US Army. Before then, they appear to have been no more dangerous than run-of-the-mill, small-time bandidos.”
Does the connection to modern day jihads provide “sufficient reasons to pluck the dread Espinosas from the dustbin of history and parade their massacres before the reader?”
Price answers yes—“not simply because the Espinosas were verifiably the worst serial killers in frontier history,” but also because “theories and ideologies can never explain everything, that in the final analysis the human heart is always an insoluble mystery.”
Vendetta and vengeance
Chapter 1 reveals the first murder. Henry Harkens, a 55-year-old former gold prospector, who had settled the “wildly beautiful but brooding and lonely” Saw Mill Gulch, was found dead in his cabin, “his head split open with an ax and two ugly gashes in his left breast.”
By Chapter 3, we are hearing all the chatter—witnesses, lawmen, newspapermen, rumor-mongers—as a cavalryman’s brother becomes the latest victim. The killers’ identities are still unknown; a lynching sentiment forms.
You feel like you’re reading a combination of Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men” and Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s “The Ox-Bow Incident.” Except that “Season of Terror” is history and essay, and keeps stepping back to examine not only the evidence but also the historiography.
In the final chapters, Price lays out a series of multiple endings for his story.
First, there’s the plot-driven ending: Tom Tobin kills and decapitates the Espinosas. Then there’s a focus on Tobin’s character—a surprising tale of tenderness lurking within a hardened man.
By the way, Price presents a great photo of Tobin, as well as photos of other subjects, including the brooding setting.
Three chapters follow the Tobin chapters—one featuring a puzzling historian; a second serving as a postscript on Tobin; and the third and last discussing “alternate theories.”
Fiction v. non-fiction
I asked Price about the novelistic aspects of his non-fiction.
“I actually first took up the Espinosa story as a novelist,” Price revealed. “I wrote a mammoth 600-page manuscript entitled ‘Blood Offerings.’…I still hope, if ‘Season of Terror’ does well, that I might be able to sell the novel eventually.”
“After completing ‘Blood Offerings,’” Price continued, “I decided that, since I had found no single authoritative historical source on the Espinosas, I would try to write the history source that I had sought but never found during my research for the novel.”
How does his history book compare to his fictional treatment?
“The novel has multiple endings too,” Price said. Also, “the cast of characters in both books is so diverse and representative of the races and social standings of the time and place, it seems like a cross-section of frontier life to me.
“I was especially drawn to the female characters in the novel—Felipe's crippled but beautiful wife Secundina; Tobin's adoring wife Maria Pascuala; and his mistress, Dominga, with one foot in the Navajo world and one in the Anglo-Hispano world of Tobin.
“I used one of the real-life hunters for the Espinosas as a major character in the novel— Fremont County Sheriff Egbert Bradley, who is fascinated and repelled by the possible motives of the killers and ends by being drawn into their world.
“The real-life destinies are so much more poignant than anything I could have invented,” he concluded.
Season of Terror: The Espinosa’s in Central Colorado, March-October 1863 by Charles F. Price (University Press of Colorado hardcover, May 2013, 351 pages, $34.95).
Charles Price presents his book at Malaprop’s Bookstore today at 3 p.m. Call 254-6734. He will be a featured author at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival in Burnsville, Sept. 6 – 8.
See the complete interview with Price on “The Read on WNC.” See Price’s blog, including a report on his recent book tour in Colorado, on his website at www.charlesfprice.com.