The Trial of "Indian Joe"


The Trial of "Indian Joe"

Race and Justice in the Nineteenth-Century West

Clare V. McKanna Jr

Law in the American West Series

159 pages


September 2007


$19.95 Add to Cart

About the Book

On the night of 16 October 1892, a double homicide occurred on Otay Mesa in San Diego County near the Mexican border. The two victims were an elderly couple, John and Wilhelmina Geyser, who lived on a farm on the edge of the mesa. Within minutes of discovering the crime, neighbors subdued and tied up the alleged killer, José Gabriel, a sixty-year-old itinerant Native American handyman from El Rosario, California, who worked for the couple. Since Gabriel was apprehended at the scene, most presumed his guilt. The local press, prosecutors, witnesses, and jurors called him by the epithet “Indian Joe.”
The sensational murder trial of Gabriel highlights the legal injustices committed against Native Americans in the nineteenth century. During this time, California Native Americans could not vote or serve on juries, so from the outset Gabriel was unlikely to receive a fair trial. No motive for murder was established, and the evidence against Gabriel was inconclusive. Nonetheless, the case went forward. Drawing on court testimony and newspaper accounts, Clare V. McKanna Jr. traces the murder trial: the handling of the case by the prosecution, the defense, the jury, and the judge; an examination of the crime scene; and the imaging of “Indian Joe.” Through his considerable research, McKanna sheds light on a dark time in the American legal system.

Author Bio

Clare V. McKanna Jr. (1935–2012) was a lecturer in history and American Indian Studies at San Diego State University. He is the author of Homicide, Race, and Justice in the American West, 1880–1920 and Race and Homicide in Nineteenth-Century California.



"The Trial of 'Indian Joe' is a scholarly monograph that reads sometimes like a whodunit and sometimes like a courtroom thriller. . . . [B]y book's end, the author has aroused our sympathies for Gabriel, noting that the very name bestowed upon him, 'Indian Joe,' conveyed the stereotypes . . . that afflicted Native Americans in California. . . . Recent events in California politics remind us that Native Americans are still being marginalized and victimized."—Los Angeles Times

“McKanna very skillfully weaves the extensive trial transcript into a highly readable narrative while at the same time injecting very interesting information on capital punishment, juries, judges, and even the literary treatment of Indians. . . . This is high-quality history at its evidential best.”—John R. Wunder, author of Retained by the People: A History of American Indians and the Bill of Rights

“Nearly everyone loves a murder mystery. Clare McKanna has written one—and it is a good read—based on newspaper accounts and trial transcripts, featuring a double murder on Otay Mesa in San Diego County in 1892. . . . McKanna does an excellent job contextualizing the murders: San Diego County of the 1890s, the life of Indian laborers, and Gabriel’s background in Baja, are well described. Moreover, he offers the reader a primer on crime scene investigation and legal strategies of criminal defense.”—Roger D. McGrath, Western Historical Quarterly