The Outlaw’s Head

Librarians and archivists help all sorts of people. On any given day, I might take questions from an attorney, a civil servant, a genealogist, or a land surveyor. Not long ago, the mother of a boy in the third grade phoned me in search of finishing touches for a report he was preparing for school.

Most of our conversation focused on dry and rather uninspiring facts about San Joaquin County. Then she asked me a question that took me off guard.

“Do you know of any truly bizarre events in San Joaquin County’s past?”

I started thumbing through my mental Rolodex. I don’t know why, but I stopped at “Murrieta, Joaquin.”

“Have you ever heard of Joaquin Murrieta?” I asked.

Silence.

“Joaquin Murrieta was a legendary outlaw in early California who met a violent end at hands of lawmen in 1853. Afterward, his head was cut off, pickled in a jar, and shown to curious onlookers in Stockton and elsewhere in California for a dollar a pop.”

“Really?” I obviously had her attention; I could hear her scribbling away. “I suggest you search the Internet or look in any history of San Joaquin County for details.”

I know from experience that this is kind of stuff fascinates third-grade boys. She thanked me; I wished her and her son well; and we hung up.

Weeks have passed since that exchange. In my imagination, I see a third-grade boy standing in front of his class. Mumbling in a monotone, he launches into a report that touches all of the boring points his teacher wants covered. Then his eyes light up, his voice quickens with emotion, and he ends with the story of Joaquin Murrieta and the pickled head.

“How gross!” say the little girls. They wrinkle their noses in disgust.

The little boys high five each other. “Cool!” they shout.

The class might as well end right then. I’m willing to bet that for the rest of the day the girls are grossed out and the boys soar with flights of imagination filled with bandits, lawmen, and pickled heads.

In fact, I’m almost willing to wager that twenty years later neither the boys nor the girls will remember much of anything from their entire third-grade year other than the bandit and that pickled head. Quite by accident, they’ve been turned into history buffs.

Okay, I’ll admit that this scene in the third grade may never have actually happened. But that can’t stop me from marveling sometimes at how many ways there are to advance historical literacy.

By the way, does anyone know for certain whatever happened to that jar?

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