“I often urged him, while he was free and going good, to leave the country, settle in Mexico or South America, and begin all over again. He spoke Spanish like a native, and although only a beardless boy, he was nevertheless a natural leader of men. With his poise, iron nerve, and all-around efficiency properly applied, the Kid could have been a success anywhere.” – Dr. Henry F. Hoyt
“If mob law is going to rule, better dismiss judge, sheriff, etc., and let all take chances alike. I expected to be lynched in going to Lincoln. Advise persons never to engage in killing.”
– Billy the Kid, (above) the Mesilla News, April 15, 1881
Billy the Kid slipped his handcuffs, killed two men and rode out of town singing on this date in 1881. The first comment was made by a friend of Billy the Kid years after his death. It reflects what a lot of people who actually knew the Kid had to say about him. Poised and efficient. A natural leader. The second comment was made by the Kid himself just a few days before his daring escape from custody on this date and contained a subtle warning: “…let all take chances alike.” His captors would have been well advised to listen to him; given the chance he would escape.
This is the second of three posts on Billy the Kid
The Kid and the Lincoln County War
When we last left the Kid (alias William Bonney, alias “Billy the Kid”) he had just fled the Army Post at Fort Grant, Arizona, after having killed a bully named “Windy” Cahill during a bar room fight on August 17, 1877. Billy was actually a fairly mild-mannered young man who wanted to go straight, but seemingly found the system rigged against him. Nevertheless, he mingled easily with the local Hispanic community as he always had, smiled easily, and made friends quickly. And once he made friends he was very loyal.
So it was that he made friends with John Tunstall (above), a British aristocrat who was setting up a ranch in Lincoln County in the New Mexico Territory. This put Mr. Tunstall squarely at odds with James J. Dolan, and Lawrence Murphy (below, L & R ), Irish immigrants who had already come from the famine of Ireland and set up their own very powerful ranch, pushing aside the local Hispanic farmers. They had long enjoyed the power of having their ranch (called “the House”) and their beef reign supreme in
Lincoln County. To them, Tunstall was an intolerable British interloper. Billy and a lot of young men like him had been hired by Tunstall to watch over his cattle and to run his ranch. Billy said that “Tunstall was the only man who treated me like I was decent.” He gave Billy and his other men hope for a future within the law. But of course Murphy and Dolan had no intention of allowing their mercantile monopoly over Lincoln County be challenged by Tunstall. So they arranged to have Tunstall killed by their man, Sheriff William Brady on Feb. 18, 1878. This was an act of war against the benefactor of the fiercely loyal Kid and his fellow Tunstall men, so on April 1, 1878, the Kid and his cohorts shot Sheriff Brady. This unleashed several months of violence and lawlessness between the men of the House and the Kid and his cohorts called “the Regulators.” The Kid, who had tried to go straight and found the whole system corrupt, developed during this time a reputation as a fearsome fighter. But he could always find refuge among the Hispanic community who saw him as an avenger for their greedy persecutors in the House who had stolen their land.
Governor Lew Wallace Seeks to Restore Order
Word of all of this lawlessness and fighting in New Mexico got back to Washington D.C. where President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Lew Wallace, a Civil War General as Governor of the Territory, and sent him there to restore order. Wallace (below) arrived and offered an amnesty to anyone who would testify before a grand jury. On March 13, 1879 the
Kid wrote a letter to Wallace offering to so testify: “I have no wish to fight anymore. Indeed I have not raised an arm since your proclamation.” As a result of the Kid’s testimony 200 indictments were brought against members of the House, But once these indictments were secured Wallace left for Santa Fe and publishing his novel “Ben Hur – A Tale of the Christ.” He left the whole prosecution with a local prosecutor who returned almost no indictments against the House men, and forgot Wallace’s offer of amnesty. So the Kid left town. Meeting with the other Regulators in August of 1880, most of them decided to leave New Mexico. But the Kid decided to stay and “Steal myself a living.” So he began rustling cattle, and being a rebel again. This put him back in the news. On Dec. 3, 1880 an editorial in the Las Vegas (New Mexico) Gazette referred to him for the first time in public as “Billy the Kid.” On Dec. 23, 1880 he was captured by a posse under the command of Sheriff Pat Garret.
Billy the Kid’s Daring and Deadly Escape
On April 13, 1881, the now notorious “Billy the Kid” was sentenced to hang for the murder of Sheriff Brady. At that time he gave the newspapers the interview at the top of this posting. He was taken to Lincoln and was looking for a chance to escape. It came on today’s date, April 28, 1881. Sheriff Garret was out of town, so he assigned two heavily armed men, Bob Ollinger and James W. Bell to guard the Kid. Nobody knows for sure how he managed it, but after taking Billy to the privy Bell was taking Billy back to the Lincoln County Courthouse (below). Billy
dashed ahead of Bell and somehow slipped his handcuffs. He then turned on Bell and struggled with him hitting him in the head with the cuffs. Bell fell down the stairs and Billy, using either the gun he had wrested from Bell, or one that had been planted for him in the privy and which he had subsequently hidden on his person, shot him as he tried to exit the courthouse. Ollinger, who was having dinner at a bar across the street came running at the sound of the gunfire, but Billy was waiting for him. Now free of his handcuffs, he had grabbed Ollinger’s loaded double-barrel shotgun and posted himself in a second floor window where he watched as Ollinger strode across the street. “Hello Bob” he said. And when Ollinger looked up Billy emptied both barrels of the shotgun into him, killing him instantly.
Billy the Kid Rides Off Into Legend
Over the next hour, Billy – unmolested by other townspeople who were too frightened to intervene – freed himself from his leg irons, and from the balcony on the second floor of the courthouse addressed the
crowd which had formed below. He had not wanted to kill Bell, but had to. According to one witness: “He declared he was ‘standing pat’ against the world; and, while he did not wish to kill anybody, if anybody interfered with his attempt to escape he would kill him.” He then commandeered a horse and rode out of town singing a song according to some witnesses. And with this, in the view of many historians, he rode into legendary fame.
The third and final posting of this series, “Billy the Kid III – Billy is Killed” will be made on July 14, 2015.
“Billy the Kid – the Endless Ride” by Michael Wallis, W.W. Norton and Co., New York, 2007
“Billy the Kid – A Short and Violent Life” by Robert M. Utley, Univ. of Nebraska Press,
“The West of Billy the Kid” by Frederick Nolan, Univ. of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1998
“Billy the Kid – the American Experience” Dir. by John Maggio, WGBH Boston, Public Broadcasting Stations, 2012