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by Jan Siegel
Editor’s note: This is the first in a multipart series.
It was a dark and stormy night … no, not that story. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times … no, not that story, either. But San Juan Capistrano certainly has its stories of mysteries, murder and mayhem.
Recently, a friend sent me an article written by former Orange County historian Phil Brigandi regarding the death of Pablo Pryor in 1878. Pryor died from drinking a glass of a beverage laced with poison. The drink was given to him by his wife, who also drank from the glass after Pablo had complained it tasted funny. They both fell ill, but the doctor was able to save her, though not him. A farmhand who worked for the Pryors declared on his deathbed that he had put the poison in the drink, but he did not say why or if someone paid him to do it. At the time of Pryor’s death, Pablo was much respected in the community, and as Santa Ana Times reported, the casket was “followed to the grave by one of the largest processions San Juan had ever known.” The story of the poisoning was told by Judge Egan to the newspapers of the time. And it is the story that has been passed down. But, there is more to this story—perhaps.
In 1841, Emigdio Vejar, the local Justice of the Peace in San Juan Capistrano, was granted Rancho Boca de la Playa by the Mexican Governor. Vejar sold the property to Don Juan Avila, who in turn turned it over to his son-in-law, Pablo Pryor, and daughter Rosa Avila as a wedding gift in 1864. When California became part of the United States, landowners under Mexican law had to prove the rights to their claim. It was a complicated and expensive process. Property lines were not clearly marked or stated. Pablo saw an opportunity to increase the size of his property. If he could just adjust the location of the “cienega” on the map, he could suddenly own all of San Juan Capistrano!
Pryor was able to find willing conspirators who would help him “survey” a new map, and in 1869 Max Strobel drew a new map giving Pryor, “Boca de la Playa that included all of San Juan Capistrano and the claims of over 100 persons.” To say the least, San Juan residents were upset and wanted to protest the takeover of their community. But how could they achieve that goal? According to Brigandi, two unlikely citizens of San Juan joined forces. Fr. Joseph Mut, the priest at the Mission, and Henry Charles, a Russian Jew who was a shopkeeper and owned land that was in question.
Jan Siegel was a 33-year resident of San Juan Capistrano and now resides in the neighboring town of Rancho Mission Viejo. She served on the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission for 13 years, has been a volunteer guide for the San Juan Capistrano Friends of the Library’s architectural walking tour for 26 years and is currently the museum curator for the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society. She was named Woman of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce in 2005, Volunteer of the Year in 2011 and was inducted into the city’s Wall of Recognition in 2007.