Billy the Kid and the U.S. Marshals Service

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

On April 13, 1881, Judge Warren Bristol in Mesilla pronounced a death sentence for the outlaw, and Deputy U.S. Marshal Olinger brought him back to Lincoln. The Kid was now Sheriff Garrett’s prisoner again, and he was kept in restraints at the Lincoln County Courthouse. On April 28, Garrett was out of town collecting taxes, so Olinger and guard J.W. Bell were watching the prisoner. While the overbearing Olinger was eating his supper across the street, the Kid escaped his restraints and killed Bell, with some regret because Bell had treated him right. Minutes later, he kneeled in the courthouse window and shot down the returning Olinger with no regrets. The Kid made good his escape, according to one later account, on Garrett’s own horse.

Garrett, known as sheriff but still also a special deputy U.S. marshal, pursued Billy the Kid for several months after the deaths of Olinger and Bell. It was in the middle of July that Garrett and his deputies found Billy at old Fort Sumner, and Garrett shot the Kid dead in the dark bedroom of one Pete Maxwell. That traditional account — as told by Garrett himself (with the help of a ghostwriter) in The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid — has been questioned many times over the years, with some accounts suggesting that the Kid got away to live another day or decades, and others indicating that somebody else besides the Kid died in Maxwell’s bedroom. In any case, the criminal career of Billy the Kid was over, and the Lincoln County War, though it had petered out some time earlier, was now ended.

The fate of the marshals involved in the Lincoln County War was varied. U.S. Marshal Sherman resigned on March 23, 1882, and returned east. During his stint as marshal, some of the known deputies who served under him in Lincoln County were Pat Garrett, John Hurley, George Peppin, George Kimbrell, Robert Widenmann, John Copeland, Tony Neis, Robert Olinger, William Brady and George Hindman. With the exception of Widenmann and perhaps Copeland, all these known deputies were allied with or favored the Murphy-Dolan faction during the Lincoln County troubles. Garrett, of course, achieved everlasting fame for shooting Billy the Kid and was himself shot to death in a 1908 dispute near Las Cruces, New Mexico Territory. Deputy Hurley met his end in a gunfight with a rustler near Las Vegas, New Mexico Territory, in January 1885. Widenmann’s post–New Mexico career took him to Great Britain, where he visited Tunstall’s family, and to Haverstraw, N.Y., where he died on April 17, 1930. According to his daughter, Widenmann lived in fear of his life for many years because of his role in the Lincoln County War and in bucking such powerful New Mexico politicians as Stephen B. Elkins.

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