When 60 men of the San Luis Obispo “Committee of Vigilance” rode south on June 10, 1858, they were after members of a notorious outlaw gang thought to be holed up on the vast Rancho de Los Osos estate.
They were led by an ambitious young attorney named Walter Murray, who was determined to put an end to the spate of robberies and murders that had been plaguing San Luis Obispo County. Murray was especially bent on capturing the man he believed to be the leader of this gang, Jack Powers.
Murray was to be disappointed. Two of the bandits, Miguel Blanco and Desiderio Grijalva were captured, and a third, Pio Linares, thought by Murray to be Powers’ chief lieutenant, was killed. But Powers was not there. He fled when he learned that California Gov. John B. Wellen had put a price of $500 on his head.
The Irish-born Powers was as colorful a character as any in the history of the Central Coast. A gambler, an expert horseman, a fine dancer and a ladies’ man, he was handsome, charismatic, and “walked with the air of a lion.” He once won $11,000 by betting he could ride 150 miles in less than eight hours; he did it in six hours and 43 minutes. He made a fortune estimated to be between $50,000 and $175,000, then lost it at the card tables. Arrested in Los Angeles on suspicion of being the leader of a burglary ring, he jumped bail and fled to Santa Barbara, where he was nearly killed in a fight over a woman.
Powers came to California in 1847 as a member of the “1st New York Volunteers,” a regiment of New Yorkers who enlisted for the Mexican War of 1846-1848. Born in Ireland in 1827, he came to New York in 1836 and grew up amid the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods of the Bowery and Hell’s Kitchen.
Powers’ nemesis, Walter Murray, was another kind of man, although the two shared several things in common. Born in London the same year as Powers, he grew up in New York, and volunteered to serve in the Mexican War. Here their paths diverge.
Murray began to practice law after arriving in San Luis Obispo. He also tried his hand at journalism (he would found the San Luis Obispo Tribune). He married a Chilean woman and began raising a family. Unlike Powers, he was not fond of the Central Coast, saying it “is very distasteful to me” in a letter to his sister.
However he felt about life in San Luis Obispo, Murray was determined to put a stop to the lawlessness that plagued the Central Coast in the 1850s.
Murray was a founding member of the Vigilance Committee on May 20, 1858. He wanted to rid the area of the bandits, especially Powers, whom he described as “the head conspirator of all.”
Over the next several weeks Murray’s vigilantes would hang five men in their quest to bring law-and-order to San Luis Obispo, effectively putting an end to the Powers gang. The Vigilance Committee, its work done, disbanded in September.
Jack Powers was never caught. Sheltered by some wealthy friends in San Francisco, he took a ship to Mexico. Two years later he resurfaced in Arizona, where he was murdered in mysterious circumstances in 1860.
Walter Murray prospered in the years that followed. He became the county’s District Attorney in 1859 and later was appointed a District Judge. He founded the San Luis Obispo Tribune in 1869 and died in 1875. Like Powers, the details of his death are unclear.