In June of 1935, Robert E. Howard and his friend Truett Vinson took a road trip through New Mexico, and on the way stopped in the town of Lincoln. Howard was fascinated by the Lincoln County War. It’s easy to understand why. It was a horrible, senseless conflict fueled by greed and pride from which no one came out looking good.
A friend and I took a similar trip this past June. We’d been talking about this trip for over a year. Family considerations required him to move back to Kansas, so we knew we had to go or the trip would never happen. We managed to find a couple of days when we could both get free and headed west.
After hiking in the mountains we made our way to Lincoln, where we stayed the night at the Wortley Hotel (Where No Guest Has Been Gunned Down in Over 100 Years). The next morning, we toured the town before heading home.
Howard described his impressions of Lincoln in a letter to H. P. Lovecraft in a letter circa July 1935. My intention of this post is to comment on some of the things Howard wrote about, supplemented with my own photos from the trip. I didn’t know much about the Lincoln County War before we went, but I’ve learned a lot since then. (I hadn’t read that portion of Howard’s correspondence at the time.) Had I known more, I would taken some additional pictures.
While it’s not the most famous picture of Howard, the photo on the left has been fairly widely disseminated. It was taken in front of the Lincoln County Courthouse. Click to enlarge the image. The sign says “The house from which Billy the Kid made his fast escape after killing his two guards Bell and Ollinger before ? 1881 being later killed by Sherriff Pat Garrett. Visitors Welcome.”
I’m not sure who the person on the left is. It could be Vinson, but I have a vague memory of reading somewhere that it’s one of the locals. I just can’t remember where I read it. If I really did.
If that is one of the locals, it would most likely be Ramon Maes, who was the grandson of Lucio Montoya, one of the participants on the Murphy-Dolan side of the conflict. (Billy the Kid fought for the McSween-Tunstall faction.) Maes regaled the Texans with tales of the fighting and gave them the key to the building. At one time it was the Murphy-Dolan store and bank, and after the Lincoln County War ended, it became the courthouse and jail. When Howard was there, it was a storage building.
Here’s some of what Howard said about the building:
Maes gave us the key to the old courthouse, which was once Murphy’s store. It is used as a storeplace for junk now, and there is talk, we were told, of tearing it down to build a community hall. It should be preserved. When it is torn down one of the landmarks of Southwestern history will be gone.
Howard would have been pleased to know that not only has the building been preserved, but it’s now part of one of the state historical parks. In fact the whole town is a historic site to a distance of several miles in both directions along the road. The entire area is zoned historical, which makes owning property there an interesting thing.
The picture on the right is the courthouse today. I thought I had taken a shot from directly in front, but it appears I didn’t. Howard is standing about where the historical sign is in the photo. (Again, click to enlarge.) The museum is well taken care of, with walkways laid down over the original floors to protect the wood. You can seen down to the ground floor through the gaps between the boards in the upstairs floor.
One of the things Howard writes about is seeing the bullet hole in the wall where Billy the Kid shot deputy Bell while making his escape. The Kid had been sentenced to die by hanging. He had been promised a pardon by Governor Lew Wallace (author of Ben Hur) if he would turn informant and testify in a murder trial. Billy agreed and fulfilled his part of the bargain, but then Wallace reneged. Feeling betrayed, he returned to his life of crime and was eventually captured just before Christmas 1880 at a place called Stinking Springs. Copies of some of Billy’s letters to Wallace are on display in the courthouse.
Bell and US Marshall Bob Ollinger are believed to have been abusive to Billy, and he had a history of reacting violently to bullies. After shooting Bell, Billy got Ollinger’s shotgun and waited for him in the upstairs corner window (behind the tree in the photo; the Wortley was behind me and to my left when I took the picture). Ollinger was across the street at the Wortley Hotel with a group of prisoners having lunch. When he heard the shots, he raced across the street and into history. Also into two barrels of shot from his own shotgun.
Bell managed to crawl out the back door into the yard before he died. Ollinger died where he stood. Today two small monuments mark the locations (or as near as can be determined) where the two lawmen died.
Here’s more of what Howard had to say about the visit:
We tried to re-create the situation that April morning in 1881 when the Kid, tricking his captor, J. Bell, off-guard by a game of monte, snatched his pistol and fought his way to liberty. We followed the route through the rooms and hallway by which Billy marched his prisoner, intending to lock him into the armory. We saw the stair where Bell made his desperate break, and the hole in the wall at the floor where the Kid’s bullet had lodged, after tearing its way through Bell’s heart…We stood at the window from which the Kid watched Bob Ollinger run across the street at the sound of the shot; the same window from which he poured eighteen buckshot into Ollinger’s breast from the man’s own shotgun.
Howard goes on to describe how he envisioned the scene. It’s great stuff, as powerful as any fiction he wrote. You can find it on p. 347 of The Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard Volume Three: 1933-1936 (edited by Rob Roehm) or on p. 868 of A Means to Freedom The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard Volume 2: 1933-1936 (edited by S. T. Joshi, David E. Schultz, and Rusty Burke).
Howard and Vinson continued down the street, still a dirt road, to the Torreon. (The highway wasn’t paved until the 1950s.) The looked at a number of buildings, some no longer in existence. The Torreon is the oldest standing structure in Lincoln. It was built around the time the town was first settled and served as a fortification against Indian attacks.
Howard summarized the bloody history of Lincoln (which includes a great deal more than the Lincoln County War) as he closed out this portion of his letter to Lovecraft, and here’s what he said about the Torreon:
Yonder, to the east, stands the old tower about which, in the past, waves of painted braves washed like a red tide. Their bodies littered the earth like bright-colored leaves when that tide broke. Not once but many times.
Lovecraft appreciated Howard’s description and said so in his answering letter. He also expressed a desire for the courthouse to be preserved. One thing I find intriguing is he thanks Howard for sending him photographs of the courthouse and the Torreon. I would love to see them. The Torreon was restored in 1937, although not to its original height. It was four stories tall when it was originally completed. It currently stands about two stories tall as you can see from the photo on the right. I would be interested in comparing how it looked in Howard’s day to its present appearance.
As I said at the start of this post, I hadn’t done my homework on either Howard’s trip to Lincoln or the Lincoln County War. Things were pretty hectic during that time, and I was barely able to get away. Lincoln is about a half a day’s drive from where I live, so a return trip is probably something I can pull off in a year or two. I’d like to get some more photos and revisit a couple of spots whose significance I didn’t realize at the time.
My wife was quite envious when I told her about sitting out on the porch at the Wortley in the evening enjoying the cool mountain breeze and listening to the crickets and sleeping with the window open in the room that had been restored to period. I think that means I’ll have to take her on the next trip.
Which won’t be a bad thing at all.