Vigilante Hanging in Reno

Headline on the hanging of Luis Ortiz. | | Nevada State Journal, Sept. 19, 1891.

In the second half of the 19th Century, vigilante activism was common throughout the West. During the 1850s, businessmen in San Francisco organized vigilance committees to punish violent criminals and crush political corruption. In cattle country, where law enforcement was practically nonexistent, ranchers took matters into their own hands. And in the rowdy railroad town of Truckee, leading businessmen formed the “601,” a secret organization that initially focused on eliminating crime and vagrancy, but then eventually set its sights on eradicating the town’s Chinese population.

Read Mark’s four-part series on Truckee Vigilantes.

Reno had its own secretive 601 Vigilance Committee that issued “tickets of leave:” black-bordered cards printed with the recipient’s name, crime history and a warning to leave town. The targeted criminals were given 24 hours to quit Reno or the next day be beaten, tarred and feathered, and then given a free train ride in a box car back to California.

Not everyone got the message that the 601 meant business. Luis Ortiz paid the ultimate price for disregarding the warning. Ortiz was born in Arizona or Mexico, but spent his turbulent teenage years in Los Angeles, getting drunk and going on shooting and stabbing rampages. He later abandoned California and moved to Arizona and then Nevada. He worked cows for several years in Winnemucca before residents there forced him out of town after he stabbed a man and crippled him for life. Ortiz boarded a westbound train and landed in Reno where he lived for the next two years. Gambling provided him with an easy if meagre living, but he stabbed or shot six men over that timeframe. Penalties were light.

In July 1891, Ortiz got into a knife fight with three other drunks and cut the ear off of one and stabbed another repeatedly before leaving him for dead. He was convicted of assault, fined $75 and ordered out of town. He quietly boarded the westbound train and headed for California, passing through Truckee. He got off at Soda Springs near Donner Pass.

He spent two months working odd jobs in the mountains but returned to Reno on Sept. 7, 1891. Ortiz was already drunk when he stepped off the 10 p.m. train at the Reno depot; he was warned by authorities to leave immediately or face jail time. He laughed and said no S.O.B. was going to arrest him as he made his way to the Grand Central Bar where he drank for two hours before the bartender sent him to a bed upstairs to sleep off the alcohol.

However, Ortiz soon returned to the bar and started menacing guests. Aware of Ortiz’s vicious reputation, bar owner Dan O’Keefe decided to defuse the situation by closing the bar, clearing the room and sending everyone outside — including Ortiz. But once on the front porch the hellion sat down, pulled a revolver and began shooting with no warning. Ortiz hit bystander Tom Welch in the buttocks and then took a shot at the brawny bartender Thomas McCormack who had rushed to disarm him.

Word had gotten out that “Crazy Ortiz” was threatening to kill people at the Grand Central so Reno police officer Richard “Dick” Nash rushed to arrest him. Just as he arrived at the commotion, the bullet meant for McCormack went through the bartender’s coat and struck Officer Nash in the abdomen, seriously wounding him. Ortiz nearly escaped before McCormack felled him with multiple blows to his head.

Nash had come to Reno in 1878 and was the city’s most popular peace officer with residents and businessowners alike. He made many friends as the night constable who walked a regular beat in town. He had been a miner in Humboldt County, Nev., and was elected sheriff there in 1874. Four years later he moved his family to Reno where he hired on as a cop for many years. The day after the shooting, the people of Reno were relieved to hear that Nash’s wounds weren’t fatal but were incensed that Ortiz had gone off on another of his violent rampages and nearly killed the community’s valued law officer.

Nevada State Journal wrote that the 28-year-old “Ortiz was a desperado of the lowest type. He has a mania for getting into rows, but it is not probable that he will have opportunity to use pistols again outside the walls of a prison for many years.”

The Reno Evening Gazette pulled no punches and called Luis Ortiz a “treacherous, drunken, tin-horn loafer” and claimed he ought “to be taken out and hanged to the first lamp post.”

On the evening of Sept. 18, 1891, downtown Reno was eerily quiet. At midnight, 70 masked men marched to the Reno courthouse and jail. They warned all pedestrians to leave the area and guards were posted at both ends of the Virginia Street bridge. The vigilantes overcame Deputy Sheriff John Caughlin who was guarding Ortiz at the jail. Ortiz was then led to the Truckee River and marched out onto the Virginia Street bridge where he was asked if there was anything he wanted. The prisoner asked for “a glass of water and a priest.” He was given a glass of whiskey, but no clergyman arrived to hear his last words.

Ortiz’s hands and feet were bound and the men of the 601 threw a rope over a support beam of the iron bridge. A noose was tied around the desperado’s neck and on signal, several men jerked the rope pulling Ortiz 3 feet into the air. Almost immediately the villain fell back to the bridge with a thud. Ortiz didn’t make a sound, then told his executioners to hurry. Another rope was quickly procured and at exactly 12:39 a.m. the killer was sent to eternity.

Early the next day his body was cut down. Nevada State Journal wrote: “He died as he lived — fearing neither God nor man. Not a drop of warm blood seemingly flowed through his veins. He was a dangerous man in any community. He paid the penalty he so richly deserved.” A coroner’s jury later found that the prisoner “came to death at the hands of parties unknown.”

After the shooting, Nash was lauded as a kind-hearted and dedicated lawman. Miraculously, Nash survived his injuries, but he carried the bullet in his abdomen for the rest of his life. Two years after the fracas, Nash was elected justice of the peace for Reno township. Despite Nevada’s Wild West frontier reputation, Ortiz’s death is the only recorded lynching in Reno’s history.