Leyendas

‘Greek George’: a wanted man, a slippery escape

By Noël-Marie Fletcher
Posted 9/23/19

Alleged hired killer of Alfred Bent over land grant concocts disappearing act, double-crosses desperado

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Leyendas

‘Greek George’: a wanted man, a slippery escape

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Murder and betrayal marked the life of a Middle Eastern camel driver who made his way from California to Santa Fe to Taos, leaving behind a trail of mystery.

“Greek George,” Georges Constantine (aka Caralambo), faked his death in 1865 and returned to California after allegedly assassinating the son of New Mexico Gov. Charles Bent in Taos. Bent was the first civil governor under American rule in the territory of New Mexico. He was appointed in September 1846 by Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny and killed in 1847 by an angry mob of local men and others from neighboring pueblos who opposed a United States takeover of the territory.

Bent was attacked in his home and slain in the street. It was witnessed by his wife, Ignacio Jaramillo, and their three children. Bent’s son, Alfred (aka Alfredo), was 10 years old. In a later account by Charles’ daughter Teresina, during the chaos Alfred grabbed a shotgun, ran to his father’s side and said, “Papa, let us fight them.”

Murder. And suicide?

Greek George, born in Smyrna (now Izmir) Turkey, was known as a notorious womanizer and gambler when he was allegedly hired to kill Alfred by parties who owned stakes in what later became the famed 1.7-million-acre Maxwell Land Grant.

Two months before Greek George leveled his revolver at Alfred during a card game in a Taos saloon and gambling hall on Dec. 3, 1865, Albert was embroiled in a land dispute with Lucien B. Maxwell, Charles Beaubien and Guadalupe Miranda over the valuable acreage. Albert was a wealthy 28-year-old merchant, husband of Guadalupe Long and father of three young children.

Alfred grew to be a respected community leader active in territorial politics. He inherited part of his father’s share in the disputed land grant. In 1859, Alfred and others, children and heirs of Gov. bent, “instituted a suit in chancery to ascertain their interest in what is generally known as the Maxwell Grant, a tract of 1, 700,00 acres of land, and for a partition of the same,” according to a story published in The Santa Fe New Mexican, Oct. 25, 1884. “Their claim was that by a verbal agreement between Gov. Bent and the original grantees, Beaubien and Miranda, Bent had become the owner of an undivided one-fourth part of the grant. In 1865, an interlocutory decree was rendered by Judge Benedict declaring that Alfred Bent and his two sisters were entitled to the one-fourth claimed, and appointing commissioners to make partition.”

In an October 1865 meeting between landowners, Alfred demanded $21,000 for his holdings, but Maxwell balked with a $18,000 counteroffer.

By early December, Alfred was dead. While he lay dying for six days from a gunshot wound to his right side, he and witnesses believed the crime was an assassination. “At the time the shot was fired, many thought it was accidental and, we believe, was so alleged to be by the murderer. But some of those who witnessed the transaction thought it was done with a design, and Mr. Bent, before his death, was of the same opinion. Subsequent events moved this to be true … Before the fatal shot was fired there were no angry words passed between the parties, nor, as we understand, was there any personal enmity existing between them,” noted the Santa Fe Weekly Gazette, on Dec. 23, 1865.

Suspected of the murder and with a price on his head, according to the Santa Fe Weekly Gazette and New Mexican, Greek George fled to Santa Fe and launched a disappearing act. George commandeered a horse for escape and wrote a suicide note admitting to the “accidental” killing. He claimed he would commit suicide in the La Bajada, New Mexico area. Somehow, the horse returned to its owner along with the suicide note. A few Peña Blanca villagers swore they found and buried Greek George’s body. The case was closed. Nearly all historical records maintained Greek George died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head by Dec. 22, 1865.

However, Greek George turned up again in Los Angeles, where he lived until his death in 1913 at age 85.

Months after Alfred’s death, his New Mexican widow, who spoke no English, was coerced into selling the land to Maxwell, according to family members who unsuccessfully waged court battles to retain their land rights.

The resurrection

Months after the Alfred Bent murder, Greek George moved back to Los Angeles and became a United States citizen under the name George Allen. He knew the area because he had previously driven camels from Santa Fe to California for the U.S. Army’s Camel Corps and stayed in there for a while. Greek George was one of nine camel drivers and 33 dromedaries who first arrived in Texas from the Middle East on the USS Supply in 1856. They were paid $15 a month to drive the camels used to transport the supplies to build the famed and short-lived Butterfield overland mail route. “The camels’ Army career ended with the outbreak of the Civil War, though not without providing Caralambo with a typically violent adventure,” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Cecelia Rasmussen in an Oct. 19, 1997 article about Greek George’s land holdings and thuggish history in California. “While leading the herd of camels back to Los Angeles from Fort Mojave, his Homeric beard stopped an arrow fired by a Mojave Indian — who, unimpressed by camels, resented the trespassing on his land.”

The project failed mostly due to the fact that Army horses and mules stampeded at the sight of camels. The beasts were equally unpopular among the military despite their ability to carry heavy loads and travel long distances without water. Eventually the camels were set loose in Arizona.

Greek George needed another way to make a living. He caught gold fever and set his sights on Holcomb Valley in the San Bernardino Mountains. “He quickly established himself as kingpin of a particularly rowdy saloon,” wrote Rasmussen. “For Caralambo, one day's work involved shooting a bystander who cheered when Caralambo's horse ran second in a race, gunning down a cheat caught filing off the horn tips of a bull about to fight a grizzly bear and shooting a cook. The motive for the latter assault remains obscure.” Then in 1865, Greek George brought his brutal tendencies to New Mexico.

No one ever connected Greek George to the murder an no conspirators were ever named. Instead, he was praised for his military service. It was even reported in newspapers that he deserved a medal, and President Theodore Roosevelt was among those sympathetic to the cause for his decoration. In 1874, numerous newspaper articles celebrated Greek George for his alleged role in catching an infamous California desperado named Tiburcio Vásquez.

The spider spins a web

For his seven years of military service, Greek George attempted to get a government grant but, instead, in 1867 was given many acres of worthless land in Bolton Canyon, California.

Greek George and his wife, Cornelia Lopez, built a shack on the Bolton Canyon property and at the same time operated the La Brea Waystation. Their first house guest was the local bandido and his girlfriend Rosario, which lead to a tipoff that resulted in Vásquez’s capture in hopes of getting a $15,000 reward.

While his wife screamed due to labor pains, Greek George rode off  — not in search of a doctor — but to tell L.A. County Sheriff William “Billy” Rowland where to find the wanted outlaw. Los Angeles newspapers from the time reported that Vásquez was tricked into leaving his weapons in a different room while having breakfast with George’s daughter in the kitchen. On May 15, 1874, the sheriff and seven others hid inside a buckboard delivery wagon and ambushed Vásquez. After a failed escape attempt out a window, the 39-year-old outlaw was wounded in the shoulder and backside, dragged to San Jose without medical treatment and hung — despite protests that he was not a murderer and appeals for clemency.

Greek George never received the reward.

By the turn of the century, Greek George’s wife had died and he sold the Bolton Canyon property for $500. Flirting with indigence, Greek George unsuccessfully applied for a government pension. He ended up living the rest of his life in poverty. He died alone in a shack at La Mission Vieja in Montebello, California (forerunner of Mission San Gabriel). For his role in the Vásquez affair, he became a minor celebrity praised by local media for decades. He was feted by Los Angeles literati. However, he never got his medal for serving in the Army’s Camel Corps — President Roosevelt was unable to assist owing to the fact that driving camels was not quite military service.

To the end of his days, Greek George escaped responsibility as the assassin of Alfred Bent, and others involved in the Maxwell Land Grant conspiracy have become lost souls of history.

Editor’s note: Obtaining an image of Albert Bent proved to be futile.

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