Saturday, October 5, 2013

People Lew Knew: Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett

On May 30, 1881, Lew Wallace boarded a rail car on the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe to leave New Mexico Territory. Lew had calmed the Territory during his term in office from 1878 through 1881, and his tenure in office was considered successful. He accomplished much in addressing the critical issues of the Territory; however, his time out west was not wholly satisfying to him and not without controversy. Just a month before his departure, Lew wrote his wife, Susan, a long letter. In it he penned words that have resonated with governors of New Mexico ever since: “All calculations based on our experiences elsewhere fail in New Mexico.”


Although Lew left New Mexico and headed on to the publication of Ben-Hur and his service as U.S. Minister to the Ottoman Empire, he didn’t leave all of his New Mexico experiences behind him. While Lew was the Governor of the New Mexico Territory, Pat Garrett had been appointed Sheriff of Lincoln County by the Republican Party. Prior to that, Garrett had led a complicated life as a cowboy, buffalo hunter, and saloon operator. He was hot-tempered and had already killed a man. Within weeks of his appointment had already killed one of Billy the Kid’s gang members. Just days later, another gang member was killed and Garrett’s posse had captured the Kid.

A few months after his capture in April of 1881, Billy killed two prison guards and escaped. Lew had personally signed Billy's death warrant and ordered the posse that ultimately cornered the outlaw who had threatened to get Lew. This set up a massive man-hunt that was still in progress when Lew boarded his train to leave the Territory. In July of 1881, Pat Garrett shot Billy in a killing that remains controversial 130 years later.

Garrett’s term as Lincoln County Sheriff ended shortly after the killing. He ran for a number of political offices and lost each of them. As his career as a lawman foundered, Garrett moved back and forth between Texas and New Mexico throughout the 1880s and 1890s. With his rough persona and some of the whispers circulating about Billy's death, Garrett found it increasingly difficult to earn a living.

In December of 1901, the Crawfordsville Daily News-Review reported that thanks to Lew's intervention, Pat Garrett had been appointed collector of customs at El Paso, Texas. While Lew did accompany Garrett to the White House in support of the aging lawman, this newspaper report may have been giving Lew more credit than he deserved; Garrett had ingratiated himself with President Theodore Roosevelt, who made the appointment. 

As things turned out, Lew ultimately may have wished to distance himself from the former sheriff. Garrett served his five year term but was not reappointed. At a reception for Roosevelt’s beloved Rough Riders, Garrett showed up his friend, the notorious gambler Tom Powers. Among other things, Powers had been run out of his native Wisconsin after beating his own father into a coma. Photos of Garrett and Powers with the President opened Roosevelt to public criticism.

When his reappointment was denied, Garrett travelled to Washington to personally meet with Roosevelt. Instead of bringing someone with the reputation of Lew Wallace, as he had done in 1901, Garrett brought Tom Powers to the meeting! A plain-spoken man, Roosevelt made it clear to Garrett that he was not going to be reappointed. Although Lew Wallace and Pat Garrett shared a connection through their associations with Billy the Kid, these two men who brought law and order to the New Mexico Territory could not have been more different.

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