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“A lawyerly regard for truth, accuracy and the written record. . . . [It’s] a tonic to the hysterical and sensational accounts of the past.”—Chicago Tribune
This story of greed, violence, and death has entered American folklore through the mythologizing of the career of Billy the Kid and also through a tendency to see the Lincoln County War as an archetype of Western history. As are Dodge City, Boot Hill, and the OK Corral, the Lincoln County War is emblematic of frontier lawlessness.
The story has been often retold, and central to many of the accounts is the question of right and wrong, even of good and evil; was Billy the Kid merely a thug, a gun-for-hire, in an amoral turf battle between rival gangs? Or was the Kid actually a participant in a brave but doomed attempt to wrest control of a defenseless town from a corrupt and vicious band?
Basing his account on a careful reexamination of the evidence, particularly on expressions of public sentiment, court records, and the actions of Tunstall and the House, Jacobsen subjects traditional attitudes—both the "Billy as martyr" and the "war among thieves" explanations—to a searching reexamination, and finds that—as with most things in life—the truth lies somewhat between.
Posted September 3, 2007
Jacobsen's account of the Lincoln County War provides a long overdue exposé of the political corruption of New Mexico's territorial Republican establishment, and its willingness to kill all manner of innocent persons to maintain the capital stakes of its respective players. From the murder of English entrepreneur John Henry Tunstall by a 'posse' of outlaws sent with the blessing of Lincoln County Sheriff John Brady, one of the primary villains in the affair, to the cold-blooded murder of Tunstall's lawyer and surviving partner, Alexander McSween, with the help of another 'posse' led by famed murderer and rapist John Kinney and his own army of bandits, Jacobsen documents the misapplication of law to protect the guilty. In this entire affair, 'Billy the Kid', was simply a Tunstall loyalist who carried the fight to the perpetrators. Jacobsen's research vindicates Billy Bonney to some extent. While the murders of Tunstall and McSween were never punished 'the establishment never attempted to punish them', Bonney was singled out for execution. Territorial governor of Lew Wallace seems to have chosen him as the scapegoat for the general breakdown in public order. Jacobsen brings to his work a successful prosecuting attorney's clear eye for evidence and testimony, and a singular degree of industry in working through the vast amount of material available to him. He relies notably on the heretofore largely ignored investigative records of the US justice department's special agent Angel, sent to investigate the misdoings of US Attorney Catron 'the boss of the Santa Fe Ring' and Gov. Axtell. He does not set out to vindicate Billy Bonney, but his narrative leads in that direction. Along the way, he writes real history, where what we have gotten up until now has basically been establishment history. Several striking facts highlight the miscarriage of justice in Bonney's case: the subsequent success of the villains, including Catron, appointed as the first US Senator to the new state of New Mexico, the acquittal of Col. Dudley on his own testimony in the face of the sworn testimony of 21 witnesses so that he could retire with pay of a full general, the escape of the murderer Jesse Evans 'one of Tunstall's shooters', and the failure of Gov. Lew Wallace 'author of the novel Ben Hur' to grant Bonney a promised full pardon in return for Bonney's testimony against the killers of Sue McSween's lawyer, Chapman. Too often, the forces of law in the western territories were forces of corruption and crime. Wyatt Earp and his brothers faced a similar situation in Tombstone, Arizona, where Sheriff Johnny Behan held power, but Earp was able to command better and more effective guns than 'the Regulators'. As a result, he was able to hunt down and kill those who had shot his two brothers, Virgil and Morgan. Consequently, the Earps, along with their partisan Doc Holladay, avoided Billy Bonney's fate and went down in history as upholders of law and order, and not as outlaws. In terms of general conclusions, Billy Bonney was one of the good guys, an Anglo cowhand who was fluent in Spanish and who threw in his hand with the Englishman John Tunstall. He was popular in New Mexico's Spanish settlements, such as Las Vegas and San Patricio. He was the best shot of the Lincoln County War. Jacobsen's book is so factually based and at the same time so well-narrated that it makes for a gripping read. I chopped through it in three days of sporadic concentration. The only other account of the Old West that can compare is the late Paul Wellman's A Dynasty of Western Outlaws, which details the rise and fall of the James-Younger Gang and its successors.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.