By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
At least 11 innocent Mexicans were arrested and lynched across Southern California in the chaos resulting from the search for Flores. Eventually, Flores was caught and jailed, but a mob lynched him before the courts could judge the 22-year-old. All of las Manillaswere captured and executed or lynched, with the last member not apprehended until 1859.
The only contemporary accounts of las Manillas appeared in four newspapers: the Los Angeles Star, Southern Californian, the Spanish-language El Clamor Público (The Public Clamor) and the San Francisco-based Daily Alta California; all reported that the leader of las Manillas was originally Pancho Daniel, but that Flores assumed the leadership role after Daniel was injured in the Barton ambush. Flores’ quick capture, admission to his role in the crime spree (he claimed to have only killed a Barton accomplice), and subsequent lynching ensured historians would connect his name alone with the crimes. Such notoriety—Barton was the first law-enforcement officer killed in the line of duty in Southern California—also meant Flores quickly joined the pantheon of such California-based outlaws as Joaquin Murrieta and Tiburcio Vazquez in seeing their exploits enshrined, embellished and novelized in magazines and chronicles alternately romanticizing and demonizing Spanish California.
Flores didn’t get his life distorted until the late 1870s, when legendary California historian Hubert Howe Bancroft began interviewing the state’s pioneers for his archives, which the public can still view in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. From these early efforts, we have Cosas de California (Tales of California), an 1877 retrospective offered by longtime California resident Antonio Coronel. Interestingly, Coronel concentrated more on the exploits of Daniel than Flores, mentioning of the latter only that he rode with Murrieta—a charge newspapers at the time levied against Daniel, but never Flores.
A more substantial mention appeared in Horace Bell’s 1881 Reminisces of a Ranger: Or, Early Times in Southern California. The book remains a much-celebrated history of early Los Angeles, as famous for Bell’s exaggerations as it is for detailing the day-to-day life of early Los Angeles. A former vigilante himself who was involved in the pursuit of Murrieta, Bell remembered Flores, even nearly a quarter-century after the episode:
Juan Flores was a dark-complexioned fellow of medium height, slim, lithe and graceful, a most beautiful figure in the fandango or on horseback, and about 22 years old. There was nothing peculiar about Juan except his tiger-like walk—always seeming to be in the very act of springing upon his prey. His eyes, neither black, gray, nor blue, greatly resembling those of the owl—always moving, watchful and wary, and the most cruel and vindictive-looking eyes that were ever set in the human head.
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A cottage industry of Southern California histories and memoirs sprung up in the late 1800s as Southern California became increasingly developed, and inclusion of Flores virtually became mandatory. Soon, magazines such as Overland Monthly devoted to celebrating and documenting the West shared Flores with an American public thirsty for anything dealing with Old California. Bancroft’s epic History of California series in the 1880s included Barton’s murder. Each telling, however, added details never mentioned in the newspapers that actually covered the events.
In “Juan Flores, the Outlaw,” appearing in 1896 in Land of Eternal Sunshine, a journal published by the influential Southwestern historian Charles Fletcher Lummis, author Edwin B. Julian painted a scene of a “quaint old mission town” rousted from its “siesta” by las Manillas and created a protagonist to advance the narrative. The publication of The Curse of Capistrano in 1919 by Johnston McCulley, the first of his Zorro serials, combined the stories of Murrieta, Flores and others to create a new archetype: the California Robin Hood.
By the time the Los Angeles Times published a series on California bandits in 1925, Flores had transformed into a dandy. With no proof whatsoever, author Michael J. Phillips claimed in his Flores piece that he “had an eye for the picturesque. He loved to pose in the dusty plaza, attired in gaily colored garments, his belt sagging with weapons, an admiring bodyguard of lesser young Californians about him, applauding uproariously his utterances.” Phillips also told Times readers that Flores was “fond of the ladies” and “danced agilely at the fandangos” but secretly kept “the temper of a devil. It was ever a word and a blow with Juan. If the blow could be delivered in the back—why, so much the better.” His essay ended with the ludicrous scene of Flores greeting his lynching party: “He arose, stretched with the grace of a great cat, canted his bullioned sombrero at a reckless angle over one dark eyebrow, and grinned. ‘Coming, amigos,’ he replied and stepped jauntily out” of his jail cell to meet Fate.
Five years later, the Flores mythmaking machine was so out of control that it warranted a comment from Terry E. Stephenson in Caminos Viejos: Tales Found in the History of California of Especial Interest to Those Who Love the Valleys, the Hills, and the Canyons of Orange County, Its Traditions, and Landmarks. A former editor of the Santa Ana Register and a founder of the Orange County Historical Society, Stephenson devoted a chapter of his book to Flores, whom he called “the cruelest bandit known to the history of the Santa Ana valley.”