He was probably born in Sonora, Mexico sometime in the 1820s. By 1851, he was in Calaveras County, California, where he robbed miners, stole horses, and shot those who tried to resist his appropriation of their treasures.
As Joaquin Murrieta and his gang continued to terrorize the mining camps, a posse, led by Captain Harry Love, stalked them in the hopes of securing the $7000 reward offered by the governor of California for their capture, dead or alive. On July 25, 1853, Love and his men rode into a Mexican camp in western Fresno County, just northwest of the future Coalinga.
The Mexicans insisted they were in the area innocently hunting wild horses, but one man sprinted forces horse and was shot in the back as he tried to flee the scene. A gun battle ensued. Love identified the runner as Murrieta, even though he had never seen the scoundrel or his picture. Another of the dead gang members was identified as a sadistic killer known as Three-fingers Jack.
In order to prove they had killed the notorious bandits and thus collect the reward, Love cut off Joaquin’s head. Because Jack had been shot in the face and thus disfigured, Love cut off Jack’s hand: three fingers and a bloody stump. Love wrapped the trophies in an alcohol soaked blanket and took them to Sacramento, where the party collected the reward.
The grisly remains were put on display in a large glass jar in San Francisco. Tickets to view them sold for one dollar. They were destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. All of this is fascinating enough, but just as interesting is the story of how Jack lost his finger in the first place. It seems that Jack was stealing from Murrieta, and Murrieta discovered it. Ordinarily, that would have been the end of Jack right there, but Jack was an important and skilled member of Murrieta’s gang, and Murrieta felt he could not afford to lose such a valuable resource.
Still, he could not allow the theft to go unpunished . . . he would look weak in the eyes of his men, and such reluctance to punish the wrongdoer would encourage others to try their hand at mischief. So Murrieta took this knife and, in front of the entire gang, cut off Jack’s finger! It worked. From that moment on, whenever a gang member even hinted at insubordination, Murrieta would brandish this knife, and the gang member would immediately toe the line. While the capture and killing of Murrieta and his gang (including Three-fingers Jack) has been generally accepted history, there has always been a question as to whether Jack really lost his finger in the way bragged about by Murrieta.
Recently, while traveling through the desert outside of Coalinga, California, I stopped off on the side of the road and got out of the car to stretch my legs. I wandered off several hundred feet into the desert. As I was about to return to my car, a small protrusion from out of the ground beneath a small, scraggly bush caught my eye. A quick excavation uncovered this box, inside of which I found this knife. The box had the initials “J.M.” carved into its top, but Murrieta’s story of how Three-fingers Jack lost his digit was corroborated by what I found when I next looked inside of the box.