LINCOLN — How’d Billy get the gun?
It will be 140 years ago on Wednesday, April 28, that outlaw Billy the Kid shot jail guard J.W. Bell on a staircase in the Lincoln County Courthouse, setting in motion his escape from the gallows, and adding another layer of gloss to his legend.
Bell stumbled down the steps and out the courthouse’s back door before dying. Only moments before, the hapless guard and his prisoner, the Kid, had entered the building through that door after a visit to the outhouse.
Some people think a Kid ally put a pistol in the privy for the outlaw. Others believe Billy overpowered Bell and took the guard’s gun.
Tiffanie Owen, instructional and volunteer coordinator for the Lincoln Historic Site, is among the latter. Pressing her back against the courthouse wall, she showed how Billy might have waited for Bell to get to the top of the stairs before slamming his manacled hands into the guard’s head. That’d work.
But in his 2004 novel “Law of the Land: The Trial of Billy the Kid,” Santa Fe author Johnny D. Boggs goes with the outhouse theory.
“Because someone hiding a gun in the privy makes a better story,” Boggs said. “We all like a good conspiracy.
“But I don’t think we will ever know. One thing that makes the Billy the Kid story so popular is there are so many things we don’t know about him.”
One thing for sure is the Kid’s story has made the town of Lincoln, 33 miles east of Carrizozo, the most visited of the historic sites administered by New Mexico’s Department of Cultural Affairs.
“When people think about the American West, they think about the Lincoln County War and Billy the Kid,” said Wesley Meiss, regional manager of the Lincoln and Fort Stanton Historic Sites. “That is one of the essential stories of the West and definitely part of American history.”
The Lincoln County War, 1878-1881, pitted two commercial factions – one headed by Lawrence Murphy and Jimmy Dolan, the other by John Tunstall and Alexander McSween – against each other in a bloody battle for the dry goods and cattle business in the area.
Billy the Kid threw in with Tunstall and McSween, but Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady sided with the Murphy-Dolan camp.
Tunstall was killed by a posse deputized by Brady on Feb. 18, 1878. Brady was riddled with bullets in Lincoln the following April 1 by men, including the Kid, taking revenge for Tunstall’s slaying.
Convicted for his role in Brady’s assassination, the Kid was sentenced to hang and was awaiting execution when he escaped from the Lincoln County Courthouse on April 28, 1881.
Walking with ghosts
Walking Lincoln’s main street, which is also U.S. 380, it’s not difficult to feel the stirrings of the ghosts from its violent past.
There’s the marker showing where Brady died.
That’s where McSween’s house was before a Murphy-Dolan mob burned it down at the end of a five-day siege in July 1878. McSween was shot and killed in his backyard as he fled the flaming house.
There’s the graves of McSween and Tunstall behind the Tunstall store, which still stands.
Johnny Boswell, 68, a Mississippian in the communications business, and his wife, Maureen, live in a house that was once the office of Lincoln County War-era justice of the peace J.B. Wilson.
“According to my mother, they took me on a trip out West when I was 4 and I never got over it,” Boswell said while explaining why he has a house in a tiny New Mexico town. “She said all I ever talked about was the West and (movie cowboy) Roy Rogers. I’ve been coming to Lincoln since 2004 and have owned this house since 2016.”
Boswell said that it was in the building that is now his home that Wilson swore in the Kid and others in the Tunstall-McSween tribe as constables to give them some legal standing in the feud. Not that there was much lawful about any part of the conflict.
Lincoln Historic Site reopened on Feb. 13 after a long shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Meiss said the site has not yet regained pre-pandemic visitor numbers but is getting about 300 visitors a week now.
“We had some incredible numbers during spring break, people from Texas, even international visitors,” he said.
Historic sites open to the public include:
The Anderson-Freeman Visitor Center: Displays here give visitors a primer on Lincoln’s colorful history.
The Luna House: Built before 1869, it is now a gallery of Western art.
The Montaño Store: Used as a stronghold by Tunstall-McSween gunmen during the five-day battle in July 1878. New Mexico Territorial Gov. Lew Wallace stayed here in the spring of 1879 when he discussed a pardon with the Kid.
The Convento: Constructed in the 1860s, this building has been a saloon, a courthouse, a Catholic chapel and a home for Catholic religious sisters who taught school.
San Juan Mission Church: Dating back to the mid 1880s, this church was Lincoln’s first permanent place of worship.
The Lincoln County Courthouse: Built in 1874 as a general store and headquarters for L.G. Murphy & Co., it became the courthouse in 1881.
The Tunstall Store is usually open to the public but has been closed for repairs that are part of a $350,000 renovation of Lincoln Historic Site buildings.
The day Billy the Kid escaped from the Lincoln County Courthouse, Pat Garrett, sheriff at the time, was in the town of White Oaks collecting taxes.
When the Kid shot Bell, Deputy Sheriff Bob Olinger was across the street at the Wortley Hotel tending to the feeding of the county’s other prisoners. Hearing the shot, Olinger ran to the courthouse only to be killed by a blast from his own shotgun, fired by the Kid from a second-story window.
“People come in (the courthouse) and say, ‘I don’t understand why you people idolize this psychopath,’ ” said Owen, who is the great-great granddaughter of John W. Owen, Lincoln Country sheriff in the early 1900s. “But we don’t see Billy that way because we know his history. If you listen to what people who knew him had to say, he was loyal.
“And he was about the only person in Lincoln who was not snockered all the time.”
Paul Hutton, distinguished professor of history at the University of New Mexico and guest curator of the 2007 Albuquerque Museum exhibit “Dreamscape Desperado: Billy the Kid and the Outlaw in America,” is an unrepentant admirer of the Kid.
“Corruption was swirling all around him,” Hutton said. “Others are going along with that, but the Kid is not going to. He’s going to administer gunsmoke justice.”
Hutton said if the Kid had been hanged his story would not shine as brightly as it continues to do.
“The escape takes Billy into the stratosphere of outlaws. And it means Garrett has no choice. He has to hunt down the Kid and kill him.”