Wednesday, 28 May 2014

John Clegg on bandits and bottled heads: the story behind 'Captain Love and the Five Joaquins'

I swore by heck I’d break his neck
for the jolt he gave my pride,
so I threw my noose on that old cayoose
and once more took a ride;
then he turned around and soon I found
his tail where his head should be.
So I says, ‘Says I, perhaps he’s shy,
or he just don’t care for me.’

                     (‘The Devil’s Great Grandson’, Bob Nolan)

Like Skyball Paint, the devil’s horse and subject of Bob Nolan’s hillbilly song, here’s a tale where a head should be. The head belonged to Joaquin Murrieta, a horse-thief and bandit active during the Californian gold-rush, and the tale belonged to Harry Love, a veteran of the Mexican-American War contracted by California’s embryonic government to put a stop to Murrieta’s career and that of his associates: four more bandits, each also called Joaquin. Love had been hired for a three-month term, concluding in mid-August 1853, and there is little doubt that there was a tacit agreement of a substantial bonus if Love brought down his man. On August 4th, Love reported to Governor Bigler that the deed was done; as proof, he brought with him Murrieta’s severed head, preserved in a jar of alcohol. It was taken on a tour of the state by two of Love’s confederates, with admission charged at a dollar, and during this period a number of affidavits were taken as to the identity of the head. The route, however, seemed to purposefully avoid those areas where Murrieta had been well-known, and most of the affidavits were signed with Xs, indicating that the witnesses had not been able to read what they were signing. One of Love’s confederates was reported as bragging in a pub that ‘one pickled head was as good as another if they [sic] was a scar on the face and no-one knew the difference’.

An illustration from Captain Love and the Five Joaquins

This is history, of a sort. My poem ‘Captain Love and the Five Joaquins’ plays thoroughly fast and loose with it. My real inspiration was the legend of Zorro: the serials, the Douglas Fairbanks film, Youtube clips of the Mexican telenovela (in which Zorro battles pirates and zombies, and is assisted by a flamboyant coterie of gypsies), and especially the 1998 film starring Antonio Banderas. All of these (apart from possibly the telenovela, which plays by rules of its own) engage with history but are not bound by it. To get a clearer view of Love alone, as his lie begins to close in on him, I have made him a solitary figure, erasing the twenty California Rangers he rode with; on the other hand I have made the Five Joaquins real, whereas all evidence suggests they are a joke being played on the California legislature by a cynical state senator called De La Guerra. I have also played merry hell with Californian geography: Fresno was not a city at this point and certainly not a seat of government, and Laredo is mentioned in tribute to the beautiful song rather than out of any topographic plausibility.

And in a way this is honesty towards the source, because in fact Murrieta is Zorro. The early newspaper accounts were turned into a sensational novel by John Rollin Ridge (who was incidentally the first Native American novelist), pirated and corrupted by the California Police Gazette, and thereafter told and retold as much or more than any other piece of Gold Rush folklore; and these accounts were plainly the main source material Johnston McCulley drew on when he created for the pulp serials his ‘masked man dressed all in black’, the fox, so cunning and free, and who is especially free with carving his initial on stationary objects.

— John Clegg

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Captain Love and the Five Joaquins, by John Clegg and illustrated by Emma Wright, is publishing on 29th May 2014 with The Emma Press. You can read more about it and buy it for £5 on The Emma Press site.

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