Should Billy the Kid have Been Pardoned?

by Tom Lewis & David Lewis

In 2010 the outgoing governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, floated the idea of a post-humous pardon of Billy the Kid. Richardson said he was interested in history, and besides that, talking about a pardon resulted in an increase in tourism to Lincoln, New Mexico, which is somewhat frozen in time since the Lincoln County War days. In the end he did not grant it. Did he make the right decision?

Billy the Kid was not the blood thirsty murderer some people make him out to be. The claim that he killed twenty-one men in his twenty-one years is an exaggeration. During Billy's short life he, by himself, killed a total of four men. The first and fourth killings were in self-defense. The second and third were guards when he escaped from the Lincoln County Jail while awaiting his death sentence to be carried out. On the other hand, he did sometimes make a living by cattle rustling, but he never held up a stage, or a bank, or so much as robbed an individual.

During the Lincoln County war Billy was involved in several killings when the side he was on shot it out with the other side. He was on the "right" side of the Lincoln County war, and during that time, many who committed crimes much worse than he ever did were never punished by the law. In fact, Billy was the only one to be found guilty in a court of law for anything done during the Lincoln County war. Billy was the only civilian to ever be brought to trial at all.

To understand the Lincoln County war, and the Kid's role in it, one must understand how crooked and corrupt the Government of the Territory of New Mexico was in the 1870's. In that era New Mexico was controlled by what has been called the "Santa Fe Ring". The Santa Fe Ring was composed of the lawyers and politicians who controlled New Mexico, politically and economically.

The Ring, with few exceptions, controlled the Territorial Governor, the Courts, the District Attorneys, and the Sheriffs. The Ring had its tentacles in all the counties of NM. If one were on the side of the Ring, they could literally get away with murder. If one was not on the ring’s side, the ring could and would make life very difficult.

The Ring’s organization in Lincoln County was headed by Jimmy Dolan. Dolan and some others owned the largest store in the area and had an economic monopoly on Lincoln County. Dolan and his business partners were crooks. They employed a gang of rustlers who supplied them with cattle. They cheated their customers. They sold Government land to which they had no title, to unsuspecting farmers and ranchers. They were willing to commit murder to keep their economic monopoly over the area.

All was well for Dolan until an Englishman, John Henry Tunstall, came to town. Tunstall had money to invest, and his plan was to start a rival store in Lincoln, out-sell Jimmy Dolan, and gain the economic monopoly for himself. Tunstall had no idea what he was getting himself into. Also living in Lincoln was Alexander McSween, a lawyer, who became friends with Tunstall.

When Tunstall's store began to put Dolan's store out of business, Dolan planned how to commit murder. To make a long story short, Dolan had Sheriff Brady send a posse of cutthroats and outlaws, some of whom had just escaped from the Lincoln Jail, to take some horses Tunstall had. Brady’s story would be that McSween owed money in a life insurance dispute and that some of his property had to be seized to recover that money, and there was a kernel of truth to that. But Brady seized all of McSween’s property, and then went after Tunstall. That Tunstall, not McSween, owned the horses in question was an inconvenient detail. The real purpose of the posse was to murder Tunstall, which it did, on February 18, 1878.

That started the Lincoln County War. On one side was Alexander McSween who sought to have the Tunstall murderers brought to justice. McSween was supported by the cowhands who had worked for Tunstall, including Billy the Kid. McSween also had the support of most of the small farmers and ranchers in and around Lincoln, who for years had been cheated by Dolan. They were known as the “Regulators.” Billy was never the leader of that group but was a member of it. The group was charged by a Justice of the Peace to arrest the killers of Tunstall.

Dolan was supported by the Ring. This included Governor Axtell, Judge Bristol, District Attorney Rynerson, and Sheriff Brady. Dolan was also supported by outsiders, such as the Jessie Evans gang and others. Among the shootings and killings that followed, Sheriff Brady was shot down and killed by at least six Tunstall-McSween supporters, one of whom was Billy the Kid.

The Lincoln County War came to a climax when Col. Dudley from Fort Stanton used his soldiers to help Dolan’s new Sheriff, Peppin, burn down the McSween house in Lincoln and kill McSween as he left his burning home on July 19, 1878. After this, Lincoln County became a haven for murderers and thieves. Sheriff Peppin could not control the lawless element that Dolan had invited in and used to kill McSween. Widespread robbery, rape and murder were the result. Billy the Kid took no part in the lawlessness.

Washington D.C. finally realized it had a problem in the New Mexico Territory. The Ring's Governor Axtell was replaced by Lew Wallace on October 1, 1878. Surprisingly, the new Governor did not go to Lincoln County. Instead, he issued a general pardon for everyone who had committed a crime during the Lincoln County War. This general pardon did not include those that had been previously indicted for a crime. Billy was excluded from this general pardon because he had already been indicted for killing Sheriff Brady. Governor Wallace also used the military to run the gangs of murderers and thieves out of the county. After this, it began to calm down in Lincoln County.

On the evening of Feb. 18, 1879, a year to the day that Sheriff Brady's posse had murdered Tunstall and started the war, Billy the Kid and other former McSween supporters met with Dolan and his supporters and made a peace treaty. They agreed not to try to kill each other and promised not to testify against each other in any trial that might come about. As the two groups moved down the main street that ran through the town of Lincoln, they ran into a lawyer named Chapman.

Chapman had been hired by Mrs. McSween to gather evidence and bring those responsible for her husband's death to justice. She, as might be expected, was outraged over the burning of her house and the killing of her husband by Col. Dudley and Sheriff Peppin. When Dolan and his friends met Chapman, who was unarmed, they shot him dead.

When Governor Wallace heard of this, he realized the trouble in Lincoln was not over. Finally, after being in office five months, Wallace came to Lincoln and interviewed its citizens. Wallace realized that the real troublemaker was Dolan and felt that the way to end the trouble was to bring Dolan to justice. The Governor learned that Billy the Kid was an eyewitness to the murder of Chapman by Dolan and his supporters. Governor Wallace wrote a letter to Billy the Kid saying if Billy would allow himself to be arrested, and then testified against Dolan in the Chapman murder the Governor would give Billy a pardon. The Governor’s letter said, "I have authority to exempt you from prosecution if you will testify to what you say you know."

Billy and the Governor had a meeting and came to an agreement. Later in a newspaper interview Lew Wallace said, concerning the meeting, "I proceeded to unfold the plan I had in mind to enable him to testify to what he knew about the killing of Chapman at the forthcoming session of court two or three weeks later without endangering his life. I closed with the promise, "In return for your doing this, I will let you go scot free with a pardon in your pocket for all your misdeeds." Billy kept his part of the bargain.

Billy cooperated with and trusted the Governor. In doing so, Billy broke his peace treaty with Dolan and the Santa Fe Ring. They in turn used their political power to see to it that Billy was tried, convicted, and condemned to die for the Brady killing. If Billy had ignored the Governor, he would never have been arrested for the Brady killing, and if he had been arrested for it, no one would have testified against him.

After Governor Wallace promised the pardon, he learned that the District Attorney Rynerson would not cooperate, and if he did issue the pardon the Santa Fe Ring would complain to Washington D.C. Wallace didn't want this, so he took the easy way out. Billy had lots of friends in Lincoln, but they were mostly illiterate, some only spoke Spanish, and none were likely to cause the Governor any trouble if he broke his promise.

It is quite possible that if Billy had been pardoned, he would have become a law-abiding citizen like many others involved in the war did. With the indictment for killing Sheriff Brady hanging over his head this was not possible. It was his cooperation with the Governor that caused him to be arrested, tried, and sentenced to death. After that conviction Billy escaped the Lincoln County Jail, killing two guards in the process. Billy should have gone four days to the south, to Mexico, to start a new life. He already spoke Spanish and would have been out of reach there. But he had a girlfriend in Fort Sumner, so that is where he went.

In 2010 there were those for and against the pardon. Those against included descendants of Sheriff Pat Garrett. Perhaps if it was confirmed that Billy should have been pardoned by Governor Wallace, it would look as though Garrett should not have shot him. But if the Governor had carried through on his promise, Garrett never would have pursued Billy in the first place. When Billy walked into that darkened room in Fort Sumner where Garrett was sitting, Garrett was a lawman who had little choice but to shoot first and he really cannot be blamed for that. With Billy staying in the New Mexico Territory without a pardon, there was never going to be a happy ending. If Governor Wallace had pardoned him, three deaths would have been avoided. A posthumous pardon would have saved none of the lives lost more than a hundred years earlier, but perhaps it would have drawn attention to the consequences when politicians do not keep their promises.

Some good books on Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County war:

Tom Lewis received his Master’s degree in American History from Arizona State University. His Master’s thesis was on the Lincoln County War.

David Lewis is a writer and amateur historian. His first book was The San Saba Treasure: Legends of Silver Creek published by The University of North Texas Press. His author page and a link to purchase his book on the San Saba Treasure is here