Lincoln County Courthouse – Lincoln, New Mexico - Atlas Obscura

Lincoln County Courthouse

Lincoln, New Mexico

The site of Billy the Kid’s most famous escape and the end to the Lincoln County War. 


This sleepy little town hidden in the hills of New Mexico was the site of what was arguably the bloodiest and most notorious 4 days in the history of the Wild Wild West.

The events began with a rivalry between lawyer and businessman Alexander McSween, and merchant (and crime boss) Lawrence Murphy. These men were at odds over cattle and their respective mercantile businesses in the mid 1870s.  McSween, an attorney, wanted to bring law and order and fair competition to the little town ruled by Murphy’s moneyed interests.

The town took sides in the conflict.  Cattleman John Chisum sided with McSween and his partner, John Tunstall, while Murphy had Sheriff William Brady and his deputies in his back pocket. Sheriff Pat Garrett, elected later, also sided with Murphy and his partner, James Dolan.

Both Murphy and McSween had storefronts on Main Street and, as tensions grew between them, each faction hired gangs to protect their interests. The Murphy/Dolan faction hired the Jesse Evans Gang, while McSween and Tunstall hired a quasi-official law enforcement gang called “The Regulators” under the tutelage of cattleman John Chisum.

Enter a young, good looking, quiet, polite teenager named William Henry McCarty, Jr., also known as William H. Bonney.  McCarty was an orphan, his mother having died several years earlier.  He was known to be a jovial boy, studious, with a good singing voice, and could make people laugh with his jokes.  However, to make his way in the world, “The Kid,” as he was known, took to theft, including horse theft.  He learned how to handle a gun and was very prolific.

Billy made the acquaintance of cattleman John Chisum, known to take in young “strays,” providing them with food, education, a roof, and guns in exchange for work as “cowboys.”  Billy quickly rose to the top of Chisum’s “Regulators” pecking order and became a Chisum favorite.

Tensions between Andrew McSween and Lawrence Murphy continued to grow.  Under the orders of Murphy, John Tunstall (McSween’s partner) was murdered by the Brady deputies.  The murder was witnessed by several “Regulators,” including Billy, who went into a rage, took out a rifle and killed both deputies.  Billy, who was known to have a temper, later confronted Brady as both walked down Main Street.  Brady tried to dismiss it, so the Kid pulled out his gun and shot Brady dead.

The killings continued unabated for several months, climaxing in the “Battle of Lincoln,” a four-day gunfight and siege.  As the “war” escalated, the Murphy/Dolan faction, backed by the “official” law, brought in the Army and surrounded the McSween faction and the Regulators.  McSween and the Regulators were trapped in McSween’s house (and the Ellis store) where several Regulators were killed. McSween was killed in the gun battle and and the house burned to the ground.  The remaining Regulators (including Billy) barely escaped with their lives and scattered across the landscape.

With a $500 bounty on his head Billy the Kid fled the county.  Newly elected sheriff Pat Garrett made it his mission in life to capture the Kid.  Garrett, from the time of his election, spent very little time in Lincoln County, trailing Billy all over New Mexico.  Garrett finally tracked Billy to a little town called Stinking Springs and after a bloody shootout Billy was arrested. 

Billy was tried and sentenced to hanging.

With his execution scheduled for May 13, 1878, Billy the Kid was transported back to Lincoln and held in the Lincoln County Courthouse, under guard by two of Garrett’s deputies, James Bell and Robert Ollinger.  He was held on the top floor, which had no jail cells.  He was handcuffed and shackled and held at gunpoint waiting for the sentence to be carried out.

On April 28, Pat Garrett was out of town shopping for lumber to build a gallows to hang the Kid. 

Billy, being very clever and stealthy, had made several escapes from jail in the past.  He had a reputation for making a getaway without being caught.  Billy had a secret: he had large wrists and small hands, and was able to easily slip in and out of handcuffs without ever being noticed.

On this day, Billy was alone on the second floor of the courthouse.  Bell was downstairs and Ollinger was across the street.  He slipped his cuffs and took out a gun that had been secretly hidden for him on his last trip to the outhouse.  He quietly waited for Deputy Bell to come up the stairs.  As he heard him come around the corner, he politely apologized to Bell for what he was about to do, then promptly shot him dead.  Deputy Ollinger, eating lunch in the nearby Wortley Hotel, heard the shots.  He knew what was happening.  He realized he had left his new rifle in the courthouse and muttered to the people around him that he was about to die.  Billy shot Ollinger from a second-story window with Ollinger’s own rifle as he approached the courthouse.

Billy stunned the territory by killing both of his guards and escaping on a stolen horse, riding off to live another day. 

That was the day William McCarty, alias William H. Bonney, alias “Billy the Kid,” became a household name and, perhaps, our nation’s greatest Wild West legend.

Know Before You Go

Main St. (U.S. 380); far west side of town, south side of highway

Admission to historic site (including courthouse) is 5.00 per adult. Children under 17 are free.


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