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A contemporary lawman described California Bandido Juan Soto as possessing “a countenance the worst I ever saw in a human face.” His wildly crossed eyes and reputation for ferocity earned him the nickname “Human Wildcat.”

“The Human Wildcat”

The old west! A time of cattle rustlers, gamblers, Indian attacks, shootouts, saloon fights, and the list goes on and on. Juan Soto, whose alias was “The Human Wildcat,” was part Indian and Mexican. He was said to be a very large, ugly man, who was a notorious California thief and murderer.

The notoriety that earned Juan Soto a place in the history of the U.S. West came at the end of his life. Soto was of mixed Indian and Mexican heritage and became notorious in California as a thief and murderer. Soto and two other men robbed a store in Sunol, California, on January 10, 1871, killing a clerk and shooting a number of rounds into the living quarters of the store owners, apparently for no purpose at all.

In 1871 Sheriff Harry Morse made Soto the subject of one of his relentless manhunts. Morse found Soto several months later, and following a spectacular pistol duel, the fugitive was shot to death while running toward Morse’s Henry rifle yelling insanely!

Juan Bautista Soto was born on Feb. 2, 1846, to José Francisco Soto and Maria Carmen Flores in what four years later became Santa Clara County. He came from pioneer stock: His grandfather Ignacio Soto had journeyed to California with the 1776 Juan Bautista de Anza expedition. He also came from bandit stock—his maternal uncle Sebastian Flores was a notorious California brigand and a member of the Francisco Garcia gang of robbers in the 1850s.

By 1860 14-year-old Juan was working as a vaquero on Daniel Murphy’s cattle ranch some 30 miles south of San Jose. At 19 Soto weighed 200 pounds and presented a terrifying figure, with wildly crossed eyes and a heavily bearded, badly pockmarked face. Nick Harris, later sheriff of Santa Clara County, described Soto as “a perfect type of desperado, over 6 feet high, well proportioned and quick as a cat, with a countenance the worst I ever saw in a human face.” He reportedly had a temperament to match—easily angered and driven by hatred for the Anglos who had taken over the land of his birth. His ferocity earned him the nickname the “Human Wildcat.” A superb horseman and dead shot, he knew every inch of the Santa Clara Valley and flanking Coast Range.

By age 19 he’d graduated to highway robbery. On the night of May 4, 1865, Soto, with compadres Francisco Salazar and Jesús Sanchez, held up hotelkeeper Julius Weitzel on the road between San Jose and the New Almaden Mine, taking his purse and his horse. Then they stopped another traveller, relieving him of a blanket and 50 cents. Finally, they tried to lasso passing rider John Winters, who ducked the rope, put spurs to his horse and escaped.

Alerted by Winters, Santa Clara Undersheriff Richard B. Hall investigated and fixed his suspicions on Soto, who was still working the Murphy ranch. Hall drove his buggy to the ranch and hid it in the chaparral overlooking a pasture where Soto and fellow vaqueros were tending cattle. Waiting until Soto’s companions trotted off, the undersheriff strode from cover. “He was humming a gay little Spanish ballad,” Hall recalled, “and did not notice me until I had him covered with my pistol.”

“Get off that horse,” Hall called out in Spanish, “and lie down upon your face quickly!” Soto complied. “I made him put his hands behind him,” the undersheriff recalled, “and then, putting my pistol in my pocket, I handcuffed him.” Hall marched Soto to his buggy, bundled him aboard and whipped up his horse. By then several of Soto’s compadres had spotted his riderless mount. “A moment later,” Hall said, “swift hoofs echoed behind us, and loud voices called to us to stop. I only drove more rapidly, for I feared they would attempt to release him. On they came, and I grasped my pistol, determined to sell my life, if necessary, as dearly as possible. My chief fear was that they would use the lasso. They stopped when they reached me, however, and asked angrily what I meant by taking Juan away. I told them of his offence, and that I was the sheriff.”

Soto’s friends did not interfere, and Hall lodged his prisoner in the San Jose jail. A grand jury indicted Soto for robbery, but the case never came to trial, presumably for lack of evidence. That fall Soto, with Alfonso Burnham, Manuel Rojas and another bandit, raided the Charles Garthwaite ranch and trading post near Pleasanton in Alameda County. The owner’s wife, Mary Garthwaite, was alone, but she grabbed a pistol and shot and wounded Burnham. The outlaws overpowered the plucky woman and tied her hand and foot before fleeing with money, Mary’s jewellery and her pistol. Lawmen captured the wounded Burnham, but Soto and the rest escaped.

Alameda County Sheriff Harry S. Morse tracked and ultimately cornered Soto. (John Boessenecker Collection)

The Far West was what people in the 1800s called the region of the United States originally comprising all territories West of the Mississippi River. Today it is generally restricted to the area West of the Rocky Mountains.

Harry N. Morse came from New York as an eager 49er to the gold fields of Northern California. Like others at the time, his thoughts were to get rich as soon as possible. Born on February 22nd, 1835, in New York City, he relocated to California to search for gold in the 1850s at 15 years of age.

While thousands of others had the same dream and were soon disappointed, many leaving California to head back East to where they came from, others like Harry Morse turned to a variety of other jobs for a steadier livelihood. Most found that their need to eat meant taking jobs simply because the gold was not as easy to find as they were led to believe.

The rush for gold in 1849 brought a flood of people from all corners of the globe, some good and some bad. It is said that for every one successful miner, they were trying to make money off of him and just as many wanting to rob him. The fact is, what attracted prospectors also attracted thieves and swindlers ready to dig out the gold from the prospectors’ pockets. There were those who sold supplies, equipment, goods, and clothing, and there were those dishonest individuals who scammed and robbed miners using any means imaginable.

Vigilantes cleaned out many of the outlaw gangs, but with the hundreds of thousands who were arriving to search for gold, there continued to be others to replace them. The two basic penalties to Miner’s Courts in the mining camps was either banishment or hanging. Small crimes that weren’t hanging crimes usually meant being banished, the miners would rather you get lost and send someone packing off to somewhere else than have to deal with some lowlife who might not have done enough to get hanged — but was awful close to that.

Harry Nicholson Morse married Virginia Elizabeth Heslep in 1862. His wife Virginia was a loving wife, mother and grandmother. His wife Virginia supported him throughout his career as the Sheriff of Alameda County and all the absences involved in his chasing desperadoes West of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.
She lost two children in 1869, 9-year-old Harry Nicholson Jr, and 2-month-old Lincoln. The next year Charles died at 6 weeks. Her son George was shot in 1904. These children are buried in the Morse family plot. After different jobs including working as a Labourer among other things, he became a Constable in the San Francisco Bay Area. He served as a Constable until he was elected Alameda County Sheriff on September 2nd, 1863 at the age of 28. He was the second Sheriff elected in that County’s history. He would serve as the second Sheriff in Alameda County’s history from 1864 to 1878. That’s a long time to be county sheriff anywhere in the West at the time. Only a few others lasted the long. Morse is regarded today as one of the finest, but least-known, lawman of the Old West.

Of his accomplishments, he chased California bandit Tiburico Vasquez for months and supplied information to the Los Angeles Sheriff that led to the capture of the outlaw leader. In 1871, he led an exhaustive search which ultimately resulted in the capture of the notorious Tiburcio Vasquez.
As for locating and killing other vicious outlaws, Morse is known to have helped bring to justice other notable early California outlaws including Bartolo Sepulveda, Narrato Ponce, “Red-Handed” Procopio, and Juan Soto. And yes, Harry Morse is known to have single-handedly captured or killed many.

Soto’s band shot store clerk Otto Ludovisi at Scott’s Corners in the Sunol Valley in 1871. (John Boessenecker Collection)

Juan Soto “The Human Wildcat”, he hated the Americans who were slowly establishing law and order in California. He terrified settlers in the southern portion of the state during the 1870s. He got away with his crimes because few witnesses were every left alive and those that were allowed to live were too scared to say anything.

But all it takes is one brave soul to stop the bad guys. On January 10, 1871, Soto and his gang planned and executed a crime they believed would demonstrate the depth of their resentment toward the determined westward settlers they referred to as “piggish gringos.”

On the late afternoon of Jan. 10, 1871, Juan Soto and two other Bandidos rode north out of San Jose on the old Stockton road, which led up into the Livermore Valley. Two hours later they dismounted at Scott’s Corners in the Sunol Valley (near the present-day intersection of I-680 and Vallecitos Road) and hitched their horses outside Thomas Scott’s store and trading post. Scott, his wife and three young children lived in rooms behind the store. At that hour they were warming themselves by the fire in the company of store clerk Otto Ludovisi and two visitors.

Hearing a knock at the door, Ludovisi rose to answer. It was a bearded Californio, booted and spurred, wearing a wide-brimmed dark hat. The man purchased a bottle of whisky and left. Ten minutes later there was another knock, and Ludovisi again opened the door. This time in stepped Juan Soto and his two compadres, six-guns in hand, bandannas concealing their faces.

“Get out of here!” a terrified Ludovisi shouted. “Get out of here!”

“Say nothing! Say nothing!” one of the Bandidos ordered. Then, without provocation, he raised his pistol and fired. That gunshot signalled the beginning of the end for one of California’s most notorious outlaws, who soon met his own fate during a shootout with a fearless lawman.

The store owner’s wife, Mrs Thomas Scott, and her children after warming themselves were assisting in the routine of closing the business by refilling candy jars, folding bolts of fabric, and restacking blankets. Otto weaved past his helpers, walked over to the door, and locked it. As he turned the key a large rock shattered the front window. The door suddenly flew open and Juan Soto and several of his rough associates stepped inside.

Mrs Scott gathered her terrified children close to her. Otto slowly backed away from the bandits unsure of what to do next. “I’m afraid we’re closed now,” the petrified clerk stammered. “We’ll open again in the morning. “Soto laughed a little at how frightened the man appeared. I don’t plan to buy anything, senor…today or tomorrow,” the desperado said coldly. “But take…that I will do.” Otto cast a glance at a rifle on the counter next to him, but before he could make a move Soto pulled out his six-gun and shot the clerk in the chest. The man fell to the floor in a heap. Mrs. Scott hurried her children out of the room and down the hall and quickly disappeared with them into a storage area.

A sly smile of content spread across Soto’s face as he watched them flee. While his outlaw group looted the store, Soto cocked his gun and fired several volleys in the direction of the place where Mrs Soto and her brood was hiding. Their screams filled the air, and they could be heard crying. Soto then reloaded his weapon and assisted the bandits in looting the store. The crooks were so preoccupied with the robbery they did not notice Mrs Scott run out of the back door with her youngsters in tow.

Mrs Scott served to be a fearless witness against the bandit. Soto was hunted down and shot to death. A witness can make all the difference in the world.

The leader of a group of bandits from 1860-65, Noratto Ponce had gunned down a man at Governor’s Saloon in the town of Hayward, California, on October 3rd, 1865. The killing occurred following a heated argument during a poker game. Ponce is said to have shot the man and ride away without a soul taking him up on what he had just done.

October of 1865 was only six months after the end of the Civil War, and California was further West than what most thought of as the West. And no, don’t make the mistake of thinking that it was not as wild as the Great Plains Mid-West states of Kansas or Missouri or down South in Oklahoma territory or Texas. In many cases, it was a much more dangerous place to be in the 1800s than many places we think of as being wild and woolly.

Narrato Ponce was one of the worst of these outlaws in 1865. Ponce was truly a “man-killer” and Morse knew this. Sheriff Harry Morse and a deputy caught up with Ponce a few days after the killing. It was midnight on that October day when Sheriff Morse and his deputy caught up with Ponce. The outlaw was on his horse near a hideout near Livermore, California. Morse called out for him to surrender. Ponce drew his gun and fired as many shots as he could get off.
All Morse could make out in the darkness was the muzzle flashes of the outlaw’s gun as he fired toward them. But that was enough as Morse and his deputy returned fired at the muzzle flashes. They wounded Ponce and shot his horse, but the outlaw still escaped into the darkness.

Yes, as incredible as it sounds, though Ponce was severely wounded and his horse was shot out from under him — he still got away. That is, until six weeks later, in mid-November, when Morse and two deputies got another chance to get him. They cornered Ponce in Contra Costa County, California, at the adobe home of his friend Jose Rojos. When Morse arrived at the house, Ponce was holed up inside recovering from his wounds. Morse and his deputies were just about to break in the door when someone ran out and high-tailed it from the house.

The lawmen weren’t fooled into following this man who was just a decoy. A moment later Ponce leapt from the house running the opposite direction. Ponce ran into the nearby brush, but by them, he was spotted. Both lawmen opened fire simultaneously, and Morse shot and killed Ponce.

It’s said that the moment of truth came when Morse and Ponce faced each other head to head with weapons drawn. Morse pulled the trigger on his rifle a moment before Ponce could fire his pistol. Morse’s bullet slammed into Ponce killing the outlaw instantly.

Sheriff Morse covers the seated outlaw with his pistol while handing cuffs to posseman Theo Winchell. (John Boessenecker Collection)

In the late 1860s, California towns weren’t as civilised as some like to think. They certainly were as civilised as some in the mid-West.

Morse’s concern was to simply do his job as Alameda County Sheriff. And frankly, while we may not have heard of Harry Morse, among lawmen he was becoming increasingly respected. In fact, by the 1870’s, his method of hunting down the lawless made him stand out among the rest.

He was known to ride alone into the hills, and he studied the areas where outlaws hid out. He made friends with ranchers and sheepherders in that area, and he corresponded with other lawmen to learn all he could about the outlaws’ habits.

Criminal Investigation, the science of police work looking for clues and evidence was in its infancy at the time. Great changes in law enforcement techniques, including using better community relations, were coming. And yes, Old West lawmen like Harry Morse helped introduce those changes to the world in need of better law enforcement. In 1871, Morse and several others found themselves in Sausalito Valley, California on the trail of Juan Soto, another exceptionally dangerous killer with the nickname of the “Human Wildcat.”

Back on January 10th, Juan Soto, who was Hispanic and Native American, had robbed a store in Sunol, California. In the process, he and his two partners shot and killed a clerk by the name of Otto Ludovici.

In the months that followed, Morse used all he had learned about the area to track down this “Human Wildcat.”
Juan Soto had fled into the remote wilderness of the Coast Range. One of his uncles had a small ranch near the Sausalito Valley (not to be confused with the town of Sausalito), 12 miles south of Pacheco Pass. Among the most isolated spots in California, the area was home to just five adobes. Joining Soto in the valley that springs were Tiburcio Vásquez and Procopio Bustamante, by then the most notorious living Bandidos on the Pacific Coast. Procopio boasted prime outlaw lineage, as one of his uncles was the late Joaquín Murrieta, foremost Bandido of them all. Vásquez and Procopio had recently been released from San Quentin, and with Soto, they made their headquarters at the Alvarado adobe, 2 miles south of the valley proper.

From time to time they slipped into San Juan Bautista, at the western foot of the Coast Range, to drink, gamble and carouse. On May 5, 1871, Vásquez and two other outlaws, probably Soto and Procopio, stopped the Los Angeles–bound stage at Soledad, 45 miles south of San Juan Bautista. Unfortunately for them, the Wells Fargo box came up empty, and they rode off in disgust without bothering to rob the passengers. The desperadoes returned to the Saucelito Valley, where four days later Soto and Procopio had a bitter quarrel. “I was there,” Vásquez recalled. “Soto made Procopio go down into his boots. If Procopio had not left like a coward, Soto would have killed him.”

Vásquez and Procopio rode down to San Juan Bautista, leaving Soto behind. It was the luckiest break of their lives. The next morning, May 10, a heavily armed, nine-man posse led by Alameda County Sheriff Harry Morse and Santa Clara County Sheriff Nick Harris crested a rocky saddle on the west side of St. Marys Peak. Morse had been hunting Soto relentlessly for weeks, making repeated treks into the Coast Range. Two days earlier he’d received a telegram from Harris in San Jose, sharing a tip Soto was hiding in the Saucelito Valley. Morse rushed to San Jose, where the two officers quickly raised a posse and started into the mountains.

On the morning of May 10, Soto and friends butchered a beef for a fiesta later that day. With them were Bartolo Sepulveda and several other hard cases. Soto and Sepulveda rode to the adobe of Juan López, at the north-west end of the valley, to get onions and salt for the barbeque. Soto was socialising with, as one early chronicler put it, “certain seductive señoritas,” when the posse approached from the north. Morse and posseman Theodore Winchell, a former policeman, dismounted at a corral behind the López adobe while Sheriff Harris and the rest of the posse rode on toward the other adobes.

Morse, certain they would ultimately find Soto at the Alvarado adobe, left his Model 1866 Winchester carbine in its saddle scabbard. His plan was to arrest the occupants of the López adobe, place them under guard and then rejoin the rest of the posse for the raid on the Alvarado place. Spotting a vaquero in the corral, Morse asked him for a drink of water. The unsuspecting man led the two officers around to the front door of the adobe. When Morse stepped inside, he got the shock of his life.

Soto was seated at a table directly in front of him, surrounded by male and female friends. Among the latter was Bartolo Sepulveda. Morse instinctively jerked his six-gun, a .44 Smith & Wesson American, and barked, “Manos Arriba!” (“Hands up!”). Winchell stood beside him, clutching a shotgun.

Soto did not move. Concealed beneath his long blue soldier’s overcoat was a pair of holstered revolvers.

“Manos Arriba!” Morse repeated, but Soto merely glared at the Anglo lawmen. Morse gave the order a third time, warning he would open fire if Soto did not comply. The desperado didn’t twitch. The sheriff yanked out a pair of handcuffs.

“Put them on him, Winchell.”

The posseman took the handcuffs, but he was frozen in fear.

“Put them on him!” Morse snapped again, but still, Winchell didn’t move.

“Then cover him with your shotgun while I do it!”

Winchell took a long look at the scowling Bandido, then whirled and fled out the door. At that, a burly Mexican woman seized Morse’s pistol arm, while one of Soto’s compadres grabbed his other arm, each yelling, “No tiré en la casa!” (“Don’t shoot in the house!”).

Soto leapt to his feet and tore open his coat to pull his pistols. Before he could draw, however, Morse jerked his gun hand free and fired, ripping Soto’s hat from his head. The sheriff then broke from his captors and ran outside, followed by Soto. The outlaw let loose a torrent of curses as he chased the sheriff to the rear of the adobe. Harris made a dead run for his horse, hoping to reach his Winchester. Over his shoulder he saw Soto, just yards away, raise one of his percussion Colts high in the air. (Gunmen of the era were in the habit of pointing their pistols up before shooting, thus allowing any spent percussion caps to fall free and not jam the cylinder.) As Soto lowered the weapon and fired, Morse dove to the ground, dodging the bullet.

The sheriff fired back, then sprang to his feet and ran toward his horse. Again Soto leaped forward, raised his pistol and fired, and again Morse dropped to the ground as the bullet whined above him. Three more times this happened. Hearing the shots, Sheriff Harris galloped back to the adobe and witnessed the gunplay. Each time Morse dropped, Harris thought he’d been killed. But each time the plucky sheriff jumped to his feet, returned fire and kept running to his mount. Morse’s last shot struck the cylinder of Soto’s raised pistol, jamming the gun and slamming the barrel back into the outlaw’s face, stunning him.

Recognising his predicament, Soto raced back into the adobe even as Morse cleared his Winchester from its scabbard. Moments later Soto and Sepulveda burst from the adobe. They had switched coats and hats. As they ran toward a picketed horse 30 yards distant, Sheriff Harris dismounted at Morse’s side and took aim at Sepulveda with his Spencer rifle. Recognising the outlaws’ ruse, Morse knocked his fellow sheriff’s barrel skyward, sparing Sepulveda’s life. Soto was the man he wanted.

Just as Soto reached the picketed mount, the spooked horse broke loose and galloped off. Without breaking his stride, the desperado turned and ran toward another horse, picketed in front of the adobe some 200 yards away.

“For God’s sake, Juan, throw down your pistols!” Morse shouted. “There has been shooting enough!”

Paying no heed, Soto kept running, Sepulveda close behind him. As Soto increased his lead to 150 yards, Morse took careful aim and fired. The .44 ball tore through the outlaw’s right shoulder. Realising he could not escape, the enraged bandit wheeled and charged headlong at Morse, a revolver in each hand. At a range of more than 100 yards, Morse again squeezed the trigger.

Even at this significant distance, the sheriff’s aim was true, as he nailed the bandit with a single shot. As Soto, now wounded, ran back toward the sheriff, Morse fired a second shot. This time, the bullet found its mark, striking the “Human Wildcat” in the head

The heavy slug struck Soto just above the eyes, tearing off the top of his head.

Juan Soto dropped dead on the spring grass, thus ending a classic outlaw-lawman gunfight, perhaps the most storied in California history. Soto had died as he lived, guns in his hands, contemptuous of Anglo authority to his last breath.

Soto’s friends all stayed in the building. It was obvious that they didn’t want a piece of Harry Morse.

Soto, as already stated, was a large and powerful man, a complete type of the traditional Mexican bandit, with long, black hair, heavy, bushy eyebrows, large eyes of an undefined colour, and had altogether a tigerish aspect. He had served two terms in the State Prison and was generally regarded as the most formidable and desperate character living on the coast. He was known to all the Mexican inhabitants in the lower counties and was held in such dread that few or none of them dared to offend him or make known his hiding places.

It appears that, like many other celebrated men of his sort, he at length fell a victim of the ruling passion of mankind, having come from the rendezvous to visit certain seductive senoritas in that secluded valley, where he had the ill luck to encounter the redoubtable and vengeful Morse. The rest of the gang had returned to headquarters, leaving the hapless chief in the society of his lady-love. It must be said for the dare-devil of the mountains that he made one of the most gallant fights on record, and fell in conflict with a foeman worthy of his lion-like courage. The slayer, having secured his splendid black horse and his three formidable revolvers, left him to be buried by his Mexican friends.

Daily Alta newspaper May 14th, 1871.

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