Times Past

Dan Krieger: Jurist challenged gang that had Central Coast in its grip

‘There were 86 Masons in the procession that accompanied the remains to the cemetery, with 315 others, and 81 carriages, making one the most impressive funerals ever witnessed in San Luis Obispo.”

The elaborate funeral of Walter Murray on Oct. 8, 1875, was a benchmark event in the history of San Luis Obispo. The once rugged, sometimes lawless Catholic mission town had segued into Protestant, Masonic respectability.

Much of this transition could be attributed to Murray himself, who founded this newspaper. Myron Angel, the author of the first formal history of our region, the 1883 “History of San Luis Obispo County,” clearly recognized Murray’s role in the making of a sustainable community as he wrote his account of a funeral that he hadn’t personally witnessed.

Both Murray and Angel were civic boosters and journalists among their many other career lines. While still in Northern California, Angel may well have read the account of an anonymous special correspondent for the San Francisco Bulletin writing from San Luis Obispo in 1853: “I know scarcely a month has passed without the disappearance of several travelers, or the finding of dead bodies or skeletons on the roads.”

I’m fairly certain that Walter Murray, newly arrived in San Luis Obispo, was that unnamed author. San Luis Obispo was known throughout California as “El Barrio de Tigre” – “the town of the wildcat.” It was one of the most untamed towns in the trans-Mississippi West.

Throughout most of the 1850s, our then-tiny mission pueblo had fallen under the control of a well-organized gang led by Irish immigrant Jackie Powers and a virulently anti-Norte Americaño band of Californios led by Pio Linares and Joaquin Valenzuela.

Over the next five years, Murray, who had apprenticed as a law clerk during his youth in England, established a reputation as the foremost jurist of the Central Coast. Like the BBC’s “Horace Rumpole of the Bailey,” an aging London barrister who defends any and all clients, Murray even defended a member of the Powers-Linares-Valenzuela gang.

By the spring of 1858, he was convinced that he had to take on what he regarded as the source of lawlessness in our region.

At that same moment, Murray and a group of Americans including Daniel Blackburn (later co-founder of Paso Robles) met at Murray’s adobe home on the upper end of the Monterey Road near the present Motel Inn. The purpose of the meeting was to organize effective force to suppress the rising crime wave in San Luis Obispo.

The group might never have been galvanized into a committee of vigilance if Pio Linares had not responded to the threat posed by this meeting. Hearing of the meeting, Linares led a gang of his followers to Murray’s home.

Linares’ plan was to shoot through the windows, killing Murray and Blackburn. The bandidos fired a number of rounds through the windows without any apparent effect. Linares then urged his men to batter down the door and enter the darkened rooms.

His comrades lost their nerve at the last moment. They ignored Linares’ plea: “Well, if you come here to fight, why don't you go in? We are stronger than they!”

Linares was the leader of the young Californios in San Luis Obispo.

He once told his cousin, Miguel Blanco: “I have always taken up for them in any petty quarrel. Don’t you know that I have always been at the head of all revolutions in San Luis Obispo?”

He lost the first battle of his last “revolution” at Walter Murray’s home, and didn’t fully comprehend the extent of his rout.

To be continued.

On Oct. 8 at 1 p.m., the 136th anniversary of Walter Murray’s funeral, the Masonic Order’s King David Lodge will have a ceremony honoring him at his newly restored gravesite in the Odd Fellows Cemetery at Elks Lane and Higuera streets.

I’ll give a brief keynote talk, and at the end of the ceremonies we will tour the graves of other pioneer leaders of San Luis Obispo. The public is invited.

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.