José Gabriel
  • José Gabriel
  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

Monday, October 17, 1892

The Geyser place looked different in the early morning. The bonfire that warmed angry farmers the night before was a gray-black smear of ember and ash. And the loudest noise on Otay Mesa was the breeze. But even if Henry Beckley hadn’t seen the three bloody bodies in front of the kitchen door the night before — two dead, the third hog-tied and moaning — he would have known in an instant that something evil — there was no other word — happened there.

Someone had clubbed John J. Geyser, 66, and his wife Anna, 72, to death. Two black pools, like the eye-sockets of a giant skull, left an indelible reminder on the gravel walkway.

Beckley lived a mile and a half to the east. When his neighbors Fred Piper and Fred Piper, Jr., found the bodies they sent young Meta Piper to fetch him. She arrived at 7:00 p.m.; Beckley checked the time. He grabbed a coat, hat, and lantern. Meta “piloted” him west on Lone Star Road.

At the preliminary hearing, Beckley testified that he saw two bodies “lying in front of the front door of the house… the south door.” Mrs. Geyser, “the old lady,” was “about five feet from the door, by measurement…the old gentleman, about six feet.”

A yard from the bodies: an “Indian was tied up, on his face.” Fred Piper pressed both knees on the man’s back.

“Killed ’em,” Piper yelled, “’n tried to kill us, too! Caught him in the bedroom. Pulled a knife. We wrestled in the kitchen. Quite a wrestle there. He cut me a little here on the hand.”

Piper said he and his son ripped the knife away and dragged the man outside “to see better to tie him.” When the man “still wouldn’t behave himself,” Piper told his son “to take the stick and lick him so he would give up, and he done so.”

The stick, Beckley saw, was an iron picket pin used to tether milk cows. The sharp end was dark red. Beckley offered to guard the prisoner, a quivering mound of crimson-streaked grime, until the authorities came.

Several hours later, long after a self-appointed posse of Otay Mesans arrived and demanded a lynching, Deputy constable Smallcomb rode up on his buckboard. He, Beckley, and Piper made a brief search for evidence. When Smallcomb took the prisoner and the bodies away, Beckley promised to inspect the crime scene at sunup.

Smallcomb could trust Beckley. A widower in his mid-40s with four sons, Henry Beckley and his brother George had recently emerged from a long controversy that could have sent them to prison.

The wealthiest family on Otay Mesa, the Daniel O. McCarthys, owned a large ranch on the southeast corner. They had a store, the Siempreviva, which, an ad in the Otay Press boasted, was “well stocked with groceries [sold] at San Diego prices.” They also had a blacksmith shop and post office. In 1889 they laid out a racetrack, where local horses ran for purses up to $30.

McCarthy’s ranch extended into Mexico and abutted with José Yorba’s. The alliance meant, among other things, they could transport goods across the border without paying import duties.

In the fall of 1891, Henry and George Beckley bought two horses in Mexico from José Yorba. The brothers paid $80 in promissory notes and a $20 import duty. The deal ran afoul when McCarthy’s son, J. Harvey, “forgot” to pay the duty.

Not long after, McCarthy went on trial for using his ranch as a “smuggling depot.” Henry and George Beckley testified against him. When the case was dismissed for lack of evidence, McCarthy ordered the brothers arrested for perjury, twice.

A government investigation by J.F. Evans accused McCarthy of “ferocious endeavors…to crush out all who stand in his way.” Evans’s report extolled the Beckleys’ “honesty” and ordered all charges against them dismissed. The Union printed Evans’s report on August 16, 1892, a month before Beckley got the call about trouble at his neighbors’ farm.

Although they retained ownership until 1895, the McCarthys left their ranch around the time of the Geyser tragedy.

Whoever committed the murders could have fled south to Mexico, only two miles away: either cross the border down one of the many canyons in the dark, dodging spikey barrel cacti and black scorpions the size of crabs; or go southeast and disappear down McCarthy’s private supply line for contraband livestock.

For Beckley, thoughts of “who?” and “how?” scrambled for attention with “why?” The crime scene made no sense.

The hardpan looked like someone had held a square dance around the fire. Though all swore they hadn’t, some had been inside the house. And the bodies lay side-by-side, as did two clubs not far away. This wasn’t a crime scene. This was a display, as if someone had placed the victims and the weapons in an orderly manner to speed the investigation along.

That’s the only thought that made sense to Beckley. Had a murderer in the entire history of violence ever done such a thing? Well maybe, but never in local memory, at least.

The message was: Here are the people I killed. Over here the weapons I used. I hope this arrangement helps.

Beckley went back to the beginning. The house stood about 400 feet from Lone Star Road. At least 60 feet from the kitchen door, a milk stool lay tipped over. Nearby Beckley saw a small hole, the kind a picket pin would make to tether a cow for milking. The pin was gone — obviously the one Fred, Jr. used to pulverize Gabriel.

So, John Geyser was milking the cow at the time?

The night before, Smallcomb found the tin pail in the kitchen. Inside: a small amount of milk, mixed with dirt, and a man’s black felt hat. The hat couldn’t have been Gabriel’s; they found his behind the barn. So, was it Geyser’s? Everyone assumed so, since no one asked or checked the hat size.

More Geyser Murders: Part 1| Part 3 | Part 4

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!