Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War: the Irish connection

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2006), News, Volume 14

Billy the Kid—emerged from the Lincoln County War as an outlaw with two arrest warrants for murder against his name.

Billy the Kid—emerged from the Lincoln County War as an outlaw with two arrest warrants for murder against his name.

The Lincoln County War of 1878 was really a battle fought between two business factions. Nowadays the weapons in such a contest would be advertising, pricing and shopping convenience. In the lawless territory of 1870s New Mexico, the weapons were more lethal. In the early 1870s Lawrence G. Murphy, an Irish emigrant and ex-Union Army soldier, went into business in Lincoln County, New Mexico, opening a store and saloon in the town of Lincoln itself. Although sparsely populated, Lincoln was then geographically the largest county in the United States and not a bad place to have a monopoly. Along with his junior partner, another Irishman called Jimmy Dolan, Murphy sold goods and supplies to rich and poor alike, including the famous cattle king and trail-blazer John Chisum. Not all of their customers were happy with the prices and interest rates on outstanding balances. Certainly Chisum wasn’t. But a monopoly is a monopoly—until competition arrives.
In the mid-1870s competition appeared in the guise of an ambitious Englishman named John Henry Tunstall. The scion of a wealthy family, Tunstall saw an opportunity. Indeed, in a letter to his parents back in England, he expressed the goal of ‘capturing fifty cents out of every dollar in the county’. To that end, and with the tacit support of John Chisum, Tunstall set up his own store and bank in Lincoln, across the street and a little bit down from the Murphy/Dolan establishment. Needless to say, the lads weren’t pleased. So relations rapidly deteriorated, with both factions hiring their own small private armies. One of Tunstall’s hirelings was a young William Bonny, who subsequently became (in)famous as Billy the Kid.
The smouldering hostilities evolved into open conflict in early 1878 when an associate of Tunstall’s, a lawyer named Alexander McSween, became embroiled in an alleged embezzlement dispute with Murphy and Dolan. In the ensuing events, Tunstall was murdered by a trio of Murphy/Dolan gunmen, nominally working within the law. All hell promptly broke loose. A group of Tunstall’s men, calling themselves ‘Regulators’, set out to avenge him. They too had initial legal cover, thanks to indictments and arrest authorisation from an aging justice of the peace, one John (Squire) Wilson. Unfortunately for their legal standing, the territorial governor quickly revoked their authority.
As wars go it didn’t last long, finally culminating in the five-day Battle of Lincoln in July 1878. By the battle’s conclusion, the McSween house had been burned down and McSween had been killed. But in reality the war produced no clear winner. On the one hand, both Tunstall and McSween were dead. On the other, the Murphy/Dolan operation was bankrupt and, coincidentally, Murphy was on the point of fatally succumbing to alcoholism. There was also another loser: Billy the Kid emerged from the war as an outlaw with two arrest warrants for murder against his name.
As prime movers in the Lincoln County War, Murphy and Dolan were part of the Irish connection. So too was William Brady. Born in Cavan town in August 1829, Brady emigrated to the US as a young man and subsequently spent ten years in the Union Army, followed by five in the Civil War New Mexico Volunteers. After being mustered out in 1866, he farmed east of Lincoln and assumed a number of civic roles, including that of sheriff of Lincoln County. In that capacity Brady aligned himself with Lawrence Murphy, his friend and former army colleague. Their relationship was compounded by his being heavily in debt to Murphy. After Tunstall’s murder Brady became a prime target for the avengers.
Although he had originally deputised the men who killed Tunstall, there is no evidence that Brady was complicit in Tunstall’s murder. Nor was he an active protagonist in the ongoing hostilities. Indeed, historian Robert Utley suggests that he was essentially lying low, waiting for the upcoming district court to resolve matters. Nonetheless, on 1 April 1878 Brady was ambushed and murdered while walking down Lincoln’s main street. The murdering party consisted of six Tunstall men, one of whom was Billy the Kid. Three years later, Bonny was sentenced to hang for his role in Brady’s killing. Of course, as Western buffs know, he escaped from Lincoln jail a couple of weeks before the execution date, killing two guards in the process. Eleven weeks later, Pat Garrett tracked him down to Fort Sumner and shot him dead.

Charles Stewart Parnell—Gray initially opposed him and threw the weight of the Freeman—unsuccessfully—against him, but once Parnell had established his leadership Gray largely supported him. (Vanity Fair)

Charles Stewart Parnell—Gray initially opposed him and threw the weight of the Freeman—unsuccessfully—against him, but once Parnell had established his leadership Gray largely supported him. (Vanity Fair)

Pat Murphy is a history and economics graduate from University College Dublin who has recently retired from a 40-year career in financial services and information technology in Toronto, Can

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