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Letter From Wild West – December 2015

By Gregory Lalire
10/4/2015 • Wild West Magazine

The Kid Escapes Death Row

Lincoln, New Mexico, is a wonderful place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there. Well, that’s not exactly true. Allow me to amend that: I wouldn’t have wanted to live there in the 1870s and early 1880s when the Lincoln County War and other unpleasantness caught the attention of not only Santa Fe but also Washington, D.C. No doubt when one warring faction was making its headquarters at the L.G. Murphy & Co. store and the other was based at the nearby J.H. Tunstall & Co. store, I would have been in serious hiding down the street at the store operated by José Montaño, who managed to remain neutral during the bloody disorder.

‘The day Billy escaped and so casually rode out of town, he galloped into the realm of legend’—Paul Andrew Hutton

All three stores (the adobe and stone structures that once housed them, that is) are prime stops on any present-day tour of Lincoln. In 1880 the county purchased Murphy’s former store for a courthouse. It was in that building (now known as the Old Lincoln County Courthouse) Billy the Kid was to be held for his May 13, 1881, execution after being convicted down in Mesilla for the April 1, 1878, murder of Lincoln County Sheriff William Brady. The Kid, of course, had other ideas. The courthouse had no actual jail, so the prize prisoner was kept handcuffed and shackled day and night in a large second-floor room (Murphy’s former bedroom) on the northeast corner of the building. On April 28, 1881, the Kid escaped this unusual death row. Exactly how he did remains in debate, but this is certain—in making his getaway he killed Sheriff Pat Garrett’s Deputies James Bell and Bob Olinger, and no one tried to stop him when he rode out of town like a young man of leisure.

After that, Billy kept making the newspapers, as Frederick Nolan notes in The West of Billy the Kid: “Thrilled by accounts of his cool, reckless, daring escape, readers—not only throughout the territory but also as far apart as San Francisco and New York—waited with bated breath for his next daredevil exploit. There were reports of him here, there, everywhere.”

Billy’s actions during the Lincoln County War had been well reported, but much about that conflict was confusing, and lawmen and soldiers weren’t necessarily the “good guys.” But Billy’s courthouse escape was equally dramatic and easier to get a handle on—a desperate man of action had acted coolly and saved himself from the noose. “The day Billy escaped and so casually rode out of town, he galloped into the realm of legend—where he has been riding ever since,” says historian Paul Hutton, who like Nolan has long been fascinated with Kid stuff. “The escape is essential to the outlaw myth, and we certainly can see how it worked for later desperadoes like Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde. The escape elevated Billy into the pantheon of almost mythical outlaws.”

Garrett, who had been out of town, didn’t think too highly of Olinger, who liked to taunt the Kid. Bell, though, had treated the Kid fairly. Both deputies had been shot dead in Lincoln. Is it any wonder that Garrett took no chances when he confronted Billy the Kid at old Fort Sumner on July 14, 1881? WW

Wild West editor Gregory Lalire wrote the 2014 historical novel Captured: From the Frontier Diary of Infant Danny Duly. His article about baseball in the frontier West won a 2015 Stirrup Award for best article in Roundup, the membership magazine of Western Writers of America.

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