Jose Maria, Peliengo and Selles: Infamous Outlaws of Murcia.

An 8- piece real coin from 1768
An 8- piece real coin from 1768

The region of Murcia has a long history of being associated with bandits and outlaws who roamed the area stealing from travellers, farms, villas and banks. As late as the 1910’s, the rural areas around Murcia City were plagued by a cut-throat band of female outlaws who stole from individuals and banks and became known as the Chaste Diana Bandits. Much earlier on, at the beginning of the 19th Century, Murcian mothers would use the example of Jose Maria el Tempranillo (‘the grape’) as a bogeyman to frighten and discipline their children. If children didn’t do what they were told, parents often told them that Jose Maria would waylay Balthazar and steal their Christmas gifts!

Jose Maria The Tempranillo by John Frederick Lewis
Jose Maria The Tempranillo by John Frederick Lewis

Jose Maria was a legendary bandit, born in Cordoba between 1800 and 1805, who became an outlaw and bandit at the young age of 15. He went on to lead a band of brigands who rampaged throughout southern Spain, including Murcia and specialised in robbing coaches and individuals engaged on government business. It was perhaps a little unfair of Murcian parents to use ‘the grape’ as a bogeyman to frighten their children. Jose Maria was quite a gentlemanly outlaw, who assisted ladies down from coaches before he robbed them and told them their hands and necks were too beautiful to need the adornment of the jewels he removed from their person! He was eventually killed by another bandit, nicknamed ‘the barber’ in an ambush which took place at some point during 1833. 

Spanish bandits in a cave (c) Glasgow Life Museum
Spanish bandits in a cave (c) Glasgow Life Museum

The outlaw Peliengo devoted all his attentions to robbing from the better off people of Murcia and his banditry even came to the notice of the British press. In February 1841, for example, the Limerick Reporter newspaper told its readers that Peliengo had been, for the previous four years, ‘The terror of all persons who had anything to lose in the vicinity of Murcia.’ The Murcian authorities even offered a reward of 20,000 silver reale to anyone who could bring in Peliengo, dead or alive. This was a staggering sum, equivalent to £200 in 1841 and over £23,000 in 2022. This bounty on his head forced Peliengo to flee into the Murcian mountain ranges. Faint with hunger, on 4th February 1841, he was reduced to begging for a supper from two shepherds he encountered in the hills. Unfortunately for Peliengo, the shepherds realised who he was and while he ate the food they offered, one of the shepherds smashed his head open with a large stone. For good measure, the other shepherd also shot the outlaw at point blank range with a musket. The two shepherds later picked up the 20,000 reale reward when they handed in Peliengo’s lifeless body to the Murcian authorities. 

By the 1860’s, Ramon Selles, from Alicante, had become Murcia’s most infamous outlaw of the entire 19th Century. During his criminal career, which encompassed both Valencia and Murcia, Selles reportedly killed between forty and fifty people and seems to have committed every serious crime conceivable, from murder and arson to jewel theft and burglary. In the mid-1830’s, Selles was a Spanish cavalry officer, but he deserted and went to live in a remote Murcian cave, from where he emerged to carry out robberies and thefts on a very large scale. 

Murcia Cathedral courtesy of Tango7174
Murcia Cathedral courtesy of Tango7174

Selles’s reign of terror attracted attention in Britain, where the press reported on his activities with considerable fascination. The Morning Advertiser newspaper of 7th August 1866 for instance, reported that Ramon Selles was ‘The mildest mannered man that ever scuttled a ship, or cut a throat and few even have cut so many throats as he.’ Selles’s crimes in Murcia were so widespread and so serious that, in the early 1860’s, groups of his victims actually banded together to fund companies of armed men who went out to hunt for the brigand. Probably his most notable crime (and one of his last) was the massive theft of much of the plate and gems from Murcia City’s Cathedral of St Mary. The sacristy of the great cathedral was stripped bare, and although Selles left the precious relics alone, he took time to remove the valuable necklaces and earrings which adorned the Church’s main icon of the Virgin Mary. So vast was the robbery, that some suspected Selles must have had inside help from at least a few of the cathedral’s officials and staff. The hunt for Selles intensified and the infamous outlaw became so tired of a life on the run that at some point in late 1865/early 1866, he actually surrendered to the Murcian authorities.

When Selles was questioned about his long and bloody career, he began to implicate members of the clergy in his crimes. His claims about clerical involvement in theft, burglary and other crimes were probably wildly exaggerated, but they did resonate with many people in Spain. Clergymen were arrested and thrown into prison and the scandal reverberated throughout Murcia and much of the rest of Spain. Then, suddenly, just at the point when Selles was about to give evidence in court, he was found dead in his prison cell. The official verdict was that Selles had committed suicide, but many people thought his death was just too convenient, and that the notorious outlaw had been killed to prevent him saying more about the clergy’s involvement in possible wrongdoing. The real truth about the mysterious death of the outlaw Ramon Selles will probably never be known.

Adrian & Dawn Leyland Bridge, October 2022.