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Historically Speaking: Billy the Kid in Santa Fe’s jail

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Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives The caption reads, "Old Lincoln Co. Jail and Court House, Scene of 'Billy the Kid's' escape — Lincoln, N.M." — Date unknown.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

When Billy the Kid went to jail in old Santa Fe

By Janice Dunnahoo

Special to the Daily Record

When I find new material on Billy the Kid, I cannot help but share it here with the rest of you. Most of us know, or have heard stories of his many exploits, both good and bad. So much has been written about him through the ages, that there are still new discoveries to be made.

Col. Maurice G. Fulton was one of the early experts on the life and times of Billy the Kid. At one time, he was considered the foremost authority on Billy the Kid and The Lincoln County Wars.

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In the introduction of his book, “History of the Lincoln County War,” it is stated: “But folklore is seldom restrained by documented fact, and it is probable the legend will keep right on growing… .”

Truer words were never spoken; books are still being written about Billy the Kid today. Following is the article I found that was published in the Roswell Daily Record, Sept. 9, 1931.

“BIG NEWS WHEN BILLY THE KID WENT TO JAIL IN OLD SANTA FE

“Santa Fe, N.M., Sept. 9

“The Santa Fe New Mexican, which has chronicled life in the state capitol for at least a couple of eons, found ‘Billy the Kid’ to be an exciting news source during the three months the outlaw was confined in jail here.

“Maurice G. Fulton of Roswell has assembled from the files of the New Mexican much material on the life of the Kid.

“‘The most important arrivals on last nights train’ wrote the New Mexican reporter on December 28, 1880, ‘were Billy the Kid, Rudabaugh, and Billy Wilson, whom it is unnecessary to introduce to the readers of the New Mexican. Everybody in the Territory has probably heard of the famous outlaws who have so long infested the country and filled the papers with accounts of crime, and every law abiding man will be delighted to hear that last night they were safely landed in the Santa Fe jail. For this great boon, Sheriff Pat Garrett and his posse of brave men are to be thanked.’

“The story treated briefly the capture at Stinking Springs, observed that  ‘At Las Vegas there was a strong disposition to lynch the men, and it was deemed safer to bring them on to Santa Fe,’ and closed with ‘The arrival of the prisoners created a good deal of excitement and Sheriff Garrett is the hero of the hour.’

“The Kid’s first noteworthy experience in the Santa Fe Trail occurred immediately. He was not fed, and the New Mexican scorned the jailer for the omission.

“‘The Kid, Rudabaugh, and Wilson were jailed at Santa Fe about 7:30 Monday evening,’ the New Mexican reporter wrote on December 30. ‘Tuesday morning at 11 o’clock when Pat Garrett and his men went down to see them, it was discovered they had not had a mouthful to eat since they were put in jail, upon which, one of the posse went down to the keeper of the restaurant who had a contract for feeding United States prisoners, and asked why he had not sent down meals for the three.

“‘The man said he had done so, and after a little investigation it was discovered that Jailer Silva or some of his henchmen had eaten the grub themselves. It’s pretty tough on prisoners when the jailers eat the meals sent to them.’

“A later issue of the paper carried Jailer Silva’s denial that he had eaten the food. He placed the blame on subordinates.

“So noteworthy a prisoner was the Kid, that the New Mexican carried a description of the cell in which he was confined, and likewise gave the public it’s perception of the Kid’s attitude.

“‘The custodians of the Santa Fe jail are apparently determined,’ the New Mexican said, ‘that the Kid shall have no opportunity to escape this time. He is shut up in a stone cell to which even the light of day is denied admittance, and only when some of the jailers or officers enter, can he be seen at all. He is nevertheless cheerful and hopes to escape under the present circumstances. At least this is the supposition, for it cannot be fairly presumed that he hopes to be acquitted for his crimes.’

“February 10, 1881 demonstrates the people were just as curious then as now. ‘United States Marshal Sherman with a group of assistants took quite a number of curious down in the jail yesterday to have a look at the far famed Kid and his companions,’ said the New Mexican.

“March 1, 1881 brought the New Mexican a real top line thriller.

“‘Yesterday, it was discovered that the Kid and his gang had concocted, and were still fully carrying out a plan to try, which they hoped to gain their freedom and escape the fate that awaits them,’ was the opening paragraph.

“‘And very fortunate it was that the discovery was made when it was, for a night or two more would have sufficed for the completion of the well laid scheme.’

“Fearing that an escape might be attempted, Sheriff Martinez had hired another prisoner to keep an eye on the Kid, and it was he who tipped off the officers.

“‘Sheriff Martinez,’ the New Mexican said, ‘accompanied by Deputy Marshal Neis, at once proceeded to the jail and entering the cell found the men at supper. They examined the room and found the bed ticking was filled with stones and earth, and removing the mattress found a deep hole.’

“‘Further investigation showed that the men had dug themselves nearly out, and by concealing the loose earth in the bed and covering the hole up with it, had almost reached the street without awakening the suspicion of the guard. Last night they were closely guarded and heavily ironed, and today further precautions will be taken.’

“Then the New Mexican editorially cracked the officials.

“‘Had the Kid and Billy Wilson escaped,’ said the editorial writer, ‘there would have been a heavy reckoning to settle with somebody. These men are desperados and should be treated like wild beasts. Official neglect of duty must not be allowed to turn loose upon the community again for such men as these.’ The editorial accused the officials of ‘indifference’ and in closing said, ‘The people of Santa Fe and of the whole of New Mexico want better attention paid to such matters.’

“Early in April appeared a note that the Kid had been taken to Mesilla for trial, and April 16 appeared the story of his conviction, under a Mesilla date line:

“The headline over the story read: ‘The Aerial Jog of the Kid.’

“The story read: ‘William Bonney alias the Kid, tried at this place for the murder of Major William Brady, Sheriff of Lincoln County, and convicted by the jury of murder in the first degree, was yesterday sentenced by Judge Warren Bristol to be hanged in Lincoln County on the 10th of next month.’”

Janice Dunnahoo of the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives can be reached at 575-622-7004 or at jdunna@hotmail.com.

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