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Billy the Kid and the U.S. Marshals Service

12/7/2006 • Wild West

A civil posse consists of nonmilitary members. Deputation routinely took place prior to the event and lasted the period needed to meet its goal or capture the subject. In order to participate in the search, Billy the Kid must have become a federally deputized posseman on February 23 and possibly for seven additional days. He was not in federal capacity prior to the 23rd. Several letters support the deputation. After Widenmann approached Captain George Purrington at Fort Stanton on February 20, the officer wrote: “….Mr Widenmann again made application for troops to arrest Evans Baker Hill and others whom he asserted were at the store and residence of J.J. Dolan and Co. in the town of Lincoln. The house was surrounded at night by the troops and searched by Widenmann and citizens under him.”

A controversial document assigning this posse to county officials was an unsigned deposition by Lincoln County Deputy Atanacio Martinez. It mentioned a civil posse under his authority that searched buildings in Lincoln during the same time period. However, this was packaged with the collected reports of lawyer Frank Angel, a special agent dispatched to New Mexico Territory to investigate the Lincoln County atrocities. The deposition must be regarded as suspicious for several reasons. Angel investigated months later, after further violence between the factions. Any involvement by a deputy U.S. marshal favoring either side promised embarrassment. Most important, the deposition was unsigned and therefore invalid as physical evidence.

An April 3, 1878, letter from Marshal Sherman to U.S. Attorney General Charles Devens noted that Frank Baker and Thomas Hill died while resisting officers in their official duties. Baker, along with William Morton and William McCloskey, was executed on March 9 by Billy the Kid and other supporters of the late Tunstall — the so-called Regulators. It follows that the Kid considered himself a local lawman at the time of Baker’s death, and that Sherman saw it that way, too.

On the same day as those killings, Governor Samuel Axtell proclaimed that he had relieved Widenmann of his duties as deputy marshal. But Widenmann protested his innocence, and Sherman reinstated him in late March. In fact, Sherman continued to call Widenmann a deputy marshal even after the April 1 shooting of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady (who earlier had refused to arrest Tunstall’s murderers). In an April 8, 1878, letter to Lt. Col. Nathaniel Dudley at Fort Stanton, Sherman announced that Jesse Evans was finally captured, and the marshal signed the letter “John Sherman jr for R.A. Widenmann Deputy.”

But Widenmann’s downfall was coming because Brady was not only the county sheriff but also a special deputy U.S. marshal. The Dolan supporter had attained that latter position sometime in early 1878. Axtell utilized Brady to curb Widenmann’s powers and detain him, while the military was used to enforce new warrants against the key Chisum ally, lawyer Alexander McSween. The sheriff was legally pursuing McSween on April 1 when he was killed in a shootout in the streets of Lincoln. Both Deputy Widenmann and Bonney were present. If there was no posse officially recorded in the McSween faction that day, there was one in fact. Therefore, at the moment of Brady’s death, there were two posses, one on each side, and deputy U.S. marshals serving on both sides. On the Dolan side, Lincoln County Deputy George Hindman was also a special deputy U.S. Marshal, and, like Brady, he was killed on the 1st. In a November 20, 1882, letter to Attorney General Harris Brewster, Sherman sent in his final expense report. He mentioned that voucher No. 7 was for $365, adding: “This expense was incurred by direction of Attorney General Devens, at the request, I think, of the British Minister, in the investigation of the murder of one Tunstel [sic], a British subject, and also of the murder of Deputy Marshals William Brady and George Hindman in Lincoln County, New Mexico.”

Although Billy the Kid was accused of killing Brady, and Widenmann had not likely killed Brady or Hindman, the Dolan forces came after him. Widenmann was imprisoned at Fort Stanton at his own request, since he felt safer in military custody rather than in the hands of Lincoln County Deputy George W. Peppin.

Meanwhile, the Lincoln County War continued, with U.S. Marshal Sherman continuing to draw deputies from the Lincoln County’s Sheriff Office. Brady’s successors as sheriff — John Copeland, Peppin, George Kimbrell and Pat Garrett — all doubled as special deputy U.S. marshals. The arrangement allowed Sherman to distance himself from both the violence and the politics of the conflict. When Peppin took over in June 1878, he obtained arrest warrants for 10 men, including “William Bruner; alias Kid, alias Antrim, alias The Kid.” He vigorously went after those named, and even asked the military for aid and a howitzer to capture them. His request led to the Posse Comitatus Act of June 18, 1878, that forbade use of the military by lawmen unless authorized by the Constitution or act of Congress. Despite that act, Dudley aided Peppin, and the results were bloody — the July 19 burning of McSween’s house and the shooting of the lawyer and five others (though not Billy the Kid, who escaped).

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