The Gila Monster: Western Crime’s Primary Suspectum

On August 18, 1873, Edward Lumley “was butchered, probably first tortured” at the Kenyon stagecoach station he operated along the Gila River in southwest Arizona.  The grievous condition of the body – as well as the Mexican identity of the assailants – enraged local leaders.  Suspects Lucas Lugas and Manuel Subiate fled down the river with stolen goods (“the fruits of their hellish deed”) but were soon apprehended – Lugas shot and killed, and Subiate wounded and taken into custody. While the prisoner was being transported, a band of vigilantes stormed the sheriffs’ wagon and lynched Subiate from a mesquite tree near the spot of the murder. This was not the first case of public justice at Kenyon Station. Twenty years earlier, gold rush travelers hanged a killer at the same site, giving the station its original name: Murderer’s Grave.

The story of Lumley and his killers was followed by several local newspapers, like the Arizona Sentinel and the Arizona Republican, which all condoned the lynching.  However, one paper, The Weekly Arizona Miner, used an unusual term to describe Subiate in its October 4, 1873 issue:

For news, we have an account of the hanging (lynching) of Manuel Subiate, a Gila monster, who assisted in the murder of the late Mr. Lumley. Subiate met his just fate at Kenyon station. When caught, he was in custody of the sheriff, who tried several dodges to save his prisoner’s neck, but all to no purpose.

Nowhere else is Subiate referred to as a Gila monster, but there are several possible explanations for it. It is common for the media to use epithets for criminals, à la the “Green River Killer” or the “Monster of Florence.” As Subiate’s terrible crime was associated with the Gila River, it is plausible that he was colloquially referred to as the “monster” of Gila. But there is another, more intriguing connection. Perhaps the Miner was comparing Subiate directly to an animal: the Gila monster.

The Gila monster, Heloderma suspectum, is a large species of lizard that makes its habitat in the deserts around the Gila River Basin. The second part of its Latin name was coined by paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, who suspected that the lizard was poisonous. The animal has studded skin with orange, yellow, and black blotches extending through its tail. At maturity, the Gila monster can grow up to 24 inches and weigh up to five pounds, feeding infrequently on small mammals, birds, and eggs. It is a shy and slow animal that will only attempt a defensive bite if provoked.

Mendoza1Cope was correct that the Gila monster is venomous. However, Old West mythology would have you believe that the lizard terrorized inhabitants of the desert like a lawless brigand. Numerous tales of fatal encounters with the animal dotted western periodicals and even serious science magazines in the late nineteenth century. The most well-known story concerned Walter Vail, a Tucson-area ranch owner who claimed to have been bitten by a Gila monster in the spring of 1890.

Vail’s account is so emblematic of the “Wild West” trope that it could be mistaken for parody.  The rancher had slung a presumably dead specimen to the back of his saddle, but the lizard woke from its stunned state and clamped down on Vail’s finger as he rode. A ranch hand helped pry the lizard’s jaws open and bled Vail’s finger to remove the poison.  It was said that the lingering effects of the bite contributed to the rancher’s death sixteen years later.

The hysteria over Gila monsters was occasionally countered by voices of reason. George Goodfellow, a naturalist from Tombstone, Arizona, countered a report in Scientific American that the venom was fatal to humans by purposefully allowing himself to get bitten. Goodfellow was sickened for five days but fully recovered. A country physician named Dr. Ward, writing for the Arizona Graphic, opined that “a man who is fool enough to get bitten by a Gila monster ought to die. The creature is so sluggish and slow of movement that the victim of its bite is compelled to help largely in order to get bitten.” Luckily, Ward would never have blood on his hands: no human fatalities from Gila monster venom have been verified in recorded history.

GILAMONSTER001The Subiate lynching and the Vail encounter represent the various ways that the Gila monster was appropriated as a metaphor for the gritty side of the Wild West: crime, violence, and peril. Language associating the Gila monster with danger abounds in contemporary literature. One newspaper referred to the Gila monster explicitly as an “outlaw, a hermit, an anomaly among other members of the animal kingdom,” despite there being little in the animal’s natural behavior to suggest those adjectives. At other times, the lizard was invoked as representation of the deadly American desert, “a land of Gila monsters, tarantulas, and outlaws.”

The flaws in the Gila-Wild West association are embarrassingly apparent upon closer examination of the Vail story. Vail, in fact, did not die from the effects of his Gila monster bite. He was hit by a streetcar while walking in Los Angeles. It would not do, however, for proponents of the Western mythos to admit that a true cowboy was struck down by a symbol of progress. Instead, storytellers found it useful to transform the docile Gila monster into a larger-than-life foe to larger-than-life heroes.

giant_gila_monsterAs the Western mythos begin to fade in the early twentieth century, the “formidable” Gila monster was brought down with it. Beginning in the early twentieth century, Arizona and its citizens were becoming aware that stereotypes about its culture, including the fear of Gila monsters, were scaring off potential settlers. Increased medical knowledge also made it harder for writers to get away with documenting false Gila monster bite fatalities. And just as “Wild West” attractions laid on the kitsch for tourists, the Gila monster became a staple of cheap roadside zoos. The animal even earned a starring role in a 1959 B-movie, The Giant Gila Monster. Regrettably, the specimen used in the film was not even a real Gila monster: it was its similar-looking cousin, the Mexican beaded lizard.

For a while, it seemed as though the Gila monster could never win. First it was feared, then it was made the butt of a joke. But the species has slowly gained some respect. In 1952, the Gila monster became the first venomous animal to be granted legal protection to aid in its conservation. In recent years, the animal has been helpful for drug research, with proteins in its saliva being developed into treatment for Type II diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.  The Gila monster has earned the right to be left alone – history has cleared its name.


The Arizona Sentinel, August 30, 1873

Richard Lapidus, “The Gila Monster Had a Killer Reputation,”

Los Angeles Herald, August 02, 1890

“Terrors of the Gila Monster,” The San Francisco Call, October 09, 1898

The Weekly Arizona Miner, October 04, 1873


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