Billy the Kid and the U.S. Marshals Service

12/7/2006 • Outlaws, Tecumseh, Wild West

By early 1879, Peppin was out of the picture and Kimbrell was both sheriff and special deputy U.S. marshal. Billy the Kid unsuccessfully sought a pardon from new Governor Lew Wallace, then withdrew from the area. He soon became a wanted man in the territory for rustling and counterfeiting near his old stamping grounds. In October 1880, Treasury Agent Azariah F. Wild arrived in Lincoln from New Orleans to investigate counterfeiting operations in that town and in White Oaks. In a report that month, he noted: “There is an outlaw in the mountains here who came here from Arizona after committing a murder there named William Antrim alias Wm Bonney alias Billy the Kid with whom these cattle thieves meet, and by many it is believed that they [the cattle thieves] receive the Counterfeit money. I have found no evidence thus far to support their suspicions.”

Special Operative Wild used deputies to assist him, knowing that it was the U.S. marshals who formerly executed warrants related to counterfeiting prior to the creation of the Secret Service. Robert Olinger, deputized in April 1880, and John Hurley, a former soldier living at Fort Stanton prior to his appointment as deputy U.S. marshal, helped Wild. These appointments, unlike the naming of possemen (such as Billy the Kid back in February 1878), required Marshal Sherman’s signature. In November 1880, former cattle driver Pat Garrett joined the group. After defeating Kimbrell that month in the election for sheriff, Garrett was appointed deputy sheriff and was basically running the show until he officially became sheriff on January 1, 1881. Raids by separate posses led by Olinger and Hurley succeeded in shutting down the counterfeiters. “Deputy U.S. Marshals who have been appointed on my request have now in their hands…about fourteen criminals,” Wild reported on November 27, 1880

Billy the Kid and other outlaws were still on the loose, though, so the hunt continued. On December 23, 1880, the Kid surrendered to a Garrett-led posse at Stinking Springs, east of Fort Sumner. Garrett had not officially been made a deputy marshal, although he was so called by Wild. The treasury agent explained in a January 3, 1881, report to Secret Service Chief James Brooks: “I will respectfully state that I applied to Marshal Sherman to appoint P.F. Garrett as Deputy Marshal to which he paid no attention. I was in great need of Mr Garrett at that time and took one of the Commissions Sherman sent to John Hurley — he having sent two — and substituted the name of P.F. Garrett the very man who has rendered the Government such valuable service in killing and arresting these men who I was in pursuit [of].”

Wild was concerned because the deputy U.S. marshal commissions expired on January 1, 1881. He was particularly worried about the “deputation” of Garrett and wanted to ensure it. Wild turned to U.S. Attorney Sidney Barnes, who shared Wild’s enthusiasm for the deputations, as he would prosecute the captured men. Barnes sent Sherman a telegram to authorize renewal deputations for all under his direction. Garrett officially became a special deputy U.S. marshal in January, but at the time he captured the Kid, it could be argued that he had been only a posseman at best (in which case, it could be said that a posseman, Garrett, under Special Deputy Kimbrell, captured a former posseman, William Bonney, at Stinking Springs). Perhaps more would have been made of Wild’s improper use of authority had Garrett not succeeded in capturing Billy.

Wild left New Mexico Territory, mission accomplished, and Garrett, based in Lincoln, thrived in his dual roles of county sheriff and special deputy U.S. marshal. Deputies (including Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal Tony Neis) and guards transported Billy the Kid from jails in Las Vegas, Santa Fe and Mesilla. While in the Santa Fe jail, the Kid complained in a March 4, 1881, letter to Governor Wallace that Marshal Sherman allowed “every stranger that comes to see me, but will not let single one of my friends in, not even an Attorney.”

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