Billy The Kid Escapes!

On Thursday, April 28, 1881 William Henry Bonney, better known as Billy the Kid, escaped from the county jail in Lincoln, New Mexico.

Billy was 22 and loved reading books, singing, and dancing. He was fluent in the Spanish language and skillful with a rope, horse, and gun. He was a hard worker and not much of a drinker. He didn’t use tobacco either.

But Billy did have two problems: He was small for his age and he had a hair-trigger temper. Also, like most of us, he didn’t appreciate being made fun of. In August 1877, while he was working as a cowboy in Arizona, a bully taunted the Kid one time too many. Bonney shot and he didn’t miss.

When the man died, Billy fled to New Mexico. By November, he was in the Lincoln area. By early the following year, he had signed on at John Tunstall’s ranch. The rest is history. [link to Tunstall post]

Three years later, at the tail-end of the Lincoln County War, Bonney was in jail in the town of Lincoln, waiting to be hung for the murder of Sheriff William Brady. Then he saw his chance and took it. He got away, killing Deputies J.W. Bell and R. Olinger in the process.

April 28 illlustration.Lincoln County Courthouse

Given that he now had the murder of a Sheriff and two Deputies hanging over him,  Billy’s friends thought he should head south to Mexico. Instead, he went north to Fort Sumner. There, sheltered by friends and associates, he kept a low profile.

But it wasn’t low enough. Word of the Kid’s whereabouts got out and Sheriff Pat Garrett started nosing around, making inquiries. One night, Garrett was visiting at the Maxwell ranch just outside town when Billy, not knowing he was there, wandered into the room.

Within a few seconds, William Henry Bonney was dead. [link to post about Peter Maxwell in July]. It was Thursday, July 14, 1881, just eleven weeks since his escape from the Lincoln County jail.

Billy the Kid should have listened to his friends.

Sources: Don Bullis, New Mexico, A Biographical Dictionary, Vol. I, Rio Grande books, Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, 2007; Howard R. Lamar, The Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West, Harper & Row, New York, 1977; Ruben Salaz Marquez, New Mexico, a brief multi-history, Cosmic House, Albuquerque, 1999; David Grant Noble, Pueblos, Villages, Forts and Trails, University of New Mexico press, Albuquerque, 1994.

John Tunstall Dies, Lincoln County War Begins!!!

On the morning of Monday, February 18, 1878, on an otherwise-deserted road in Southeast New Mexico, a young Englishman was shot and killed, and event which initiated the Lincoln County War.

The young man was John Henry Tunstall. He and Alexander McSween had been in the process of organizing a business  partnership when McSween was accused of absconding with some life insurance money. Although Tunstall wasn’t legally responsible, he was wealthy and he was friends with McSween, who had already ruffled feathers in the County. The court decided that Tunstall should participate in repaying the $8,000 involved.

Feb 18 post illustration

That Monday morning, Tunstall was on his way to the town of Lincoln to try to negotiate a settlement in the case. Instead, he and the four gunfighters he’d recently hired encountered a posse which had been sent out to collect Tunstall’s cattle as partial payment of McSween’s debt. In the ensuing battle, Tunstall was killed.

Born in Middlesex, England, Tunstall emigrated to British Columbia when he was 19, then headed for the American West in February 1876, looking for investment possibilities. After six months looking into sheep ranching in California, he went to New Mexico, where he met Alexander McSween.

McSween persuaded Tunstall to move to Lincoln County. Land was cheap there and the profit potential was high. Eighteen months later, Tunstall was dead. McSween would follow him shortly thereafter.

Tunstall’s death not only started the Lincoln County War, it brought the British government into the conflict. The embassy wanted to know how and why their countryman had been killed and his body left where it fell.

As a result of the British inquiries, Frank Warner Angel was sent West to investigate Tunstall’s murder and other New Mexico violence. Angel’s report would put an end to the current Governor’s term and bring Lew Wallace to New Mexico in his stead.

However, it wouldn’t end the Lincoln County conflict. More people would die, including William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, who’d fought beside Tunstall that February morning, and Juan Patron, leader of the County’s Mexican-American faction and staunch opponent of Tunstall’s killers.

But eventually, the conflict fizzled out. Like so many wars, it started with a bang but ended with a whimper, with no clear winners and a lot of damage that would never be fully repaired.

Sources: David L. Caffey, Chasing the Santa Fe Ring, UNM Press: Albuquerque, 2014; Howard R. Lamar, ed., The Reader’s Encyclopedia of the American West, Harper & Row: New York, 1977; tomrizzo.com/killing-john-tunstall/accessed 1/10/19; Marc Simmons in Marta Weigle, ed., Telling New Mexico, A New History, Museum of NM Press: Santa Fe, 2009; Stephen Zimmer ed., For Good or Bad, People of the Cimarron Country, Sunstone Press, Santa Fe, 1999