Billy the Kid and the U.S. Marshals Service

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

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!

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