David Schmalz here, with bloodshed and nooses on my mind.
That’s because, for the last few weeks, I’ve been immersed in the Central Coast’s lawless and bloody history. One tale I was digging into—the lynching of local vigilante lawman Matt Tarpy from the Old Monterey Jail in 1873—can be found in this week’s issue.
I’ve long been obsessed with that period of history, and once spent a year trying (and failing) to write a screenplay about the Sydney Ducks, a violent gang of Australian convicts that terrorized San Francisco in the early 1850s, when they burned down the city multiple times (to loot the wreckage) and robbed and murdered with impunity. (Five Sydney Ducks also ventured down to Monterey in December of 1850 and robbed $14,000 from the Custom House; they were later arrested and the money confiscated, but they were each released on $5,000 bail and the trial resulted in a hung jury due to a lack of other evidence.)
The terror the Ducks wrought in San Franscisco gave rise to its residents forming a vigilance committee in that city in 1851, which culminated with the lynchings of a few Sydney Ducks out of the city’s jail in very public hangings, as well as 14 other members being deported back to Australia. For others, the vigilance committee ordered them to leave the state or face death, and by the end of the year, most if not all of the Ducks had skipped town.
It was because of my obsession with that story that a good friend (and fellow history nerd) sent me a history article last fall about vigilantism in the Pajaro Valley that local historian Phil Reader, who passed away in 2014, wrote in 1995. Tarpy was central to that story, which culminated with him being lynched. That same friend also gave me a history book for Christmas—Bandido by John Boessenecker—where Tarpy popped up occasionally in important ways.
I immediately knew I wanted to write a story about Tarpy’s lynching, as it’s a name widely recognized locally, and I sensed few people had read a deeply reported account.
Both Reader’s article and Boessenecker’s book were invaluable in providing context for the story, but I knew I also wanted to read contemporaneous news stories on the subject for myself, so I went down my favorite rabbit hole on the internet, the California Digital Newspaper Collection. It can be a bit cumbersome to use, and the text can sometimes be hard to read, but I find there’s something uniquely thrilling about reading news stories from more than a century ago—it feels like a treasure hunt.
But one challenging aspect, as a reporter, is knowing what to trust—you can find stories from newspapers of that era about the same thing that often have conflicting narratives or details. So I read as many as I could, and used my judgment to discern which reported facts were on solid ground—the works of both Reader and Boessenecker were indispensable to that end—and when possible, corroborated them elsewhere.
It was a fun story to report, despite its violent subject matter. I hope you’ll check it out—I think it’s a pretty great read.
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