Billy the Kid and the U.S. Marshals Service

There was plenty of confusion in the roles of marshals in the Lincoln County War. While Marshal Sherman was blamed for inaction, the scarce number of available deputies, caution in a politically divided area and the poor communication with Washington officials all played a hand in his behavior. He was constantly manipulated by those around him who had agendas — Wild, Barnes, Axtell and Widenmann. Both sides in the Lincoln County War felt they had lawful intentions, even that one-time posseman Billy the Kid.

Written deputations of federal (or marshals) possemen are rare. More likely to be found are some notation of deputation in a list or register used in reimbursement from the Department of Justice. But in Billy the Kid’s case, there is little chance that any such notation exists. The references in official letters from U.S. Marshal John Sherman establish the Kid’s tie with the position of posseman.

Since Deputy U.S. Marshal Robert Widenmann deputized the Kid, I went to the few known places in the United States that contain collections with papers written by or about Widenmann. I found several interesting things, but no personal papers and nothing about the old deputy marshal’s hiring of the Kid. Next, I located a grandson, who filled me in on some of Widenmann’s post-New Mexico movements—such as his visiting with John Tunstall descendants in England and his becoming director of the Haverstraw Light and Fuel Gas Company in Rockland County, N.Y. The grandson knew of no personal papers. In an article published by historian Bruce T. Ellis in the July 1975 New Mexico Historical Review, Robert Widenmann’s daughter Elsie mentioned some papers from the New Mexico years that she has seen inside a wrapper. However, when she went to retrieve the papers following her father’s death in 1930, only the wrapper remained.

The old Widenmann house in Haverstraw, where Elsie cared for her father until his death, no longer stands, having been leveled for new construction. If Widenmann indeed did have personal papers about his time in New Mexico, they are either in private hands or lost forever. D.S.T.

Virginia author David S. Turk is the historian for the U.S. Marshals Service, the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency. Suggested for further reading: Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life, by Robert Utley; Alias Billy the Kid, by Don Cline; and History of the Lincoln County War, by Maurice Garland Fulton.

This article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Wild West magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Wild West magazine today!

5 Responses

  1. sos

    hi my name is sos and i think that little nine year olds dont need 2 b on the computer!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! like hollie

  2. Albert gonzales

    Well, like i said be for History has made the kid look bad and Pat Garrett look real good,i read this article and the Great Escape and The Hunting of Billy the kid, and i sell say the kid was not a bad guy,he was accused of killing Sheriff Brady, and any killing the kid did ,it was commissions,how ever it goes he was in the right,and as for Deputy Robert O. he had it coming ,the kid was shackled hands and foots and harass just bout every day by Robert’s,what would you have done ?as for Pat,you see what happen to him in 1908.. thank you

  3. Scott

    Since history is written by the winners, if chisum, mcsween and the regulators had come out on top, how do you think BIlly would be percieved today?

    THe people he gunned down in his life were !) a bar slime who was beating on him when he defended himself a corrupt sherriff (brady) and two deputies who belonged to the corrupt santa fe ring.

    If bily’s side had won, its possible he might have gone on to become a lawman like wyatt earp.

  4. Steve McCarty

    Historians are sure the kid killed four men and I believe he killed eleven. The kid was indeed a killer. His motivation was revenge for the murder of John Tunstall, who he admired and who also treated him well. One of the kid’s admirable traits was loyalty.

    Billy the Kid had a deep setted set of personal values and he adhered to them. A man who had treated him well, as murdered in cold blood and the kid saw that the law was not going to take action to achieve justice, so he took on that responsibility, legal or not. He joined a group of young men dedicated to the same end. Eventually he rose to the leadership of that group, but not until the original chieftains were murdered.

    It was a hard and very dangerous time and Billy was “all in”. He didn’t consider his future or muse about his past. He was dedicated to revenge, which in his mind represented justice. Vengence, however; is not legal and it took time for the Kid to come to this conclusion. When he finally did, he understood that he was doomed to a life of crime. It took three years for him to decide to abandon the region and head to Old Mexico. If it had not been a hankering for a late night steak dinner, he might have made it.


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