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  • Three-Fingered Jack and the Severed Literary History of John Rollin Ridge’s The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta
  • Erica Stevens (bio)

In August 1853 the severed hand of Three-Fingered Jack accompanied the severed head of Joaquín Murieta in a gruesome exhibit that traveled through northern California. Earlier that summer, several veterans of the U.S. war with Mexico, contracted by the California government, had captured and murdered Murieta, the leader of a violent Mexican mob, and his partner—his “murderous id,” his “depraved and bloodthirsty,” his “utterly savage” sidekick—Three-Fingered Jack.1 John Rollin Ridge’s The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta (1854) ends with a meditation on the preserved head and hand. While a minor character in Ridge’s tale, Three-Fingered Jack is, I argue in this essay, another instance of the circuitous literary tradition that surrounded the fearsome yet often heroic Jack Mansong, Jamaica’s own Three-Fingered Jack.

Ridge’s story grew out of newspaper accounts of the real yet elusive Joaquín Murieta and his gang. This widespread group had been terrorizing incoming miners and camping out in the mountains with men and women committed to their cause of “racial rebellion.”2 Seeking revenge for new U.S. laws regarding land and taxes, Murieta and his gang intimidated and murdered immigrant miners of all races who, for these [End Page 73]

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A Poster Advertising the Display of the Head of Joaquín Murieta in Stockton, CA. 1853.

Courtesy of Creative Commons. <>

[End Page 74]

Mexican natives of California, represented the Californios’ decline in power. As a result of changes in the racial and political landscape, minor theft and scattered violence in the vast state of California were replaced by inter-connected webs of gang activity. Newspapers called for a solution, and citizens called for the death of the most notorious gang leader, Murieta. However, Murieta’s identity was not easy to pin down; as many as five different men named Joaquín were suspected as the prime target.3 The organization of these powerful bands evoked in new citizens a fear of collective, insurrectionary violence. The severing and containment of Murieta’s head—perhaps, as it turned out, a “spurious head”4—in a large jar for public viewing had important symbolic meaning because it consolidated power in one antihero. This head was preserved in alcohol and displayed in an attempt to restore order by condensing and containing the rebellious political organization of which Murieta was only a part.

The story of Joaquín Murieta, with its complex racial entanglements and its sensational violence, attracted writers and journalists throughout the later nineteenth century. In that respect, it is no wonder that the newspaper editor and poet John Rollin Ridge—a prominent member of the Cherokee nation who had, at the age of twelve, seen his own father and grandfather murdered by leaders of an opposing Cherokee faction—took up and published his version of Murieta’s story. But the fact that Ridge, a Native American, chose to write his only novel not about his own history or culture is a bit more surprising, considering that he wrote many nonfiction pieces and poems on just that subject. For scholars interested in rethinking the boundaries of nation, Ridge’s novel has turned transnationalist frameworks inward by its illuminating marriage of Native American politics and the history of Mexicans in California.5 My reading of Ridge’s novel focuses on the mistranslations of literary history that occur between discontiguous and discontinuous places. With this focus on the machinations of fiction, I highlight not only [End Page 75] the antihero of Ridge’s novel, but also the common trope of the sidekick that he employs for political ends. My focus on Three-Fingered Jack—Murieta’s murderous appendage, “possessing nothing of his generous, frank, and cordial disposition” (JM, 17)—restores his literary history by way of an overlooked connection to the Jamaican bandit and runaway slave, Jack Mansong.

Ridge begins his novella with a sympathetic view of the young Murieta: “He was remarkable for a very...


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