Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Mystery of the Lincoln Stones [UPDATED]

In our last post we wrote a little about how creating a biography in comic strip form, and having to draw the elements involved, can sometimes lead to questions no one thought to ask before. Today, we'll give you another example.

After leaving Roswell on the morning of June 19, 1935, Robert E. Howard and Truett Vinson drove to the town of Lincoln, NM -- epicenter of the bloody Lincoln County War of 1878.

Lincoln today is virtually unchanged from when Bob saw it, and not only that, it's virtually unchanged from its heyday in the 1870's and '80's. Pretty much the entire town was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1960, and has been called "the best preserved cowtown in the United States." One of the highlights of the town is the courthouse where Billy the Kid was being held prisoner before gunning down his guards and escaping on April 28, 1881.

REH wrote of touring the courthouse, trying to follow in the Kid's footsteps from that infamous day, and at one point looking out the window from which the Kid gunned down Pat Garrett's deputy, Robert Ollinger.

Outside the courthouse today, there is a marble stone marking the site where Olliger fell after being struck by the Kid's buckshot (and a similar stone marking where Deputy James Bell likewise died). Obviously, the stone would make a great visual to go with REH's text -- but, we had to ask ourselves, were those stones there in 1935 when REH visited the courthouse, or were they added later?

We assumed it would be no problem to establish the date they were laid. We simply called the on-site Historical Society and asked. Unfortunately, the very nice man we spoke to did not know, but he did put us in touch with another very nice man, Mike Pitel, who is a historian and a Billy the Kid / Lincoln County War expert, as well as a former New Mexico state tourism official. Though he had spent over twenty years researching the town of Lincoln and other related Lincoln County War sites, he admitted that it had never occurred to him to ask about those stone markers.

He did, however, share a glimpse into his vast historical knowledge of Billy the Kid, and kindly put us in touch with other BtK and Lincoln County War experts. They also shared fascinating Billy the Kid information, but none of them had any idea about the stone markers.

In the end, with the deadline looming, we couldn't in good conscience show the Ollinger marker. Instead we could only show Bob looking out the window, with no indication of what he might be seeing down below.

So when WERE those stones put there? The consensus among the Billy the Kid scholars was that they were most likely added during a WPA restoration of the site in 1937 -- though they all admitted that they had no evidence for this opinion. This may very well be the case, but we wonder if the stones might not be from closer to the Kid's own era. His nefarious exploits had made Lincoln a big tourist draw long before the New Deal. It wouldn't be surprising to discover that local interests, such as the Wortley Hotel (once owned by Pat Garrett!) across the street, had them put in as lure for sight-seers.

We intend to keep pulling on that thread, and maybe finding the answer before we create a comprehensive collection of these strips, if, for no other reason, than to be able to share the info with the kind and generous men who did their best to help us, and, in some small way, add to the scholarly (though, in this case, admittedly peripheral) knowledge on the famous outlaw, Billy the Kid.

• • •

UPDATE: In the comments, Keith West rightly points out the problem with the Torreon -- the large circular structure you see in the second illustration at the top of this post. Like the courthouse, we knew that the Torreon had been restored, but unlike the courthouse, we couldn't find any reference showing its condition in 1935. We absolutely had to show it (it being one of the coolest looking things in Lincoln, and a structure REH specifically talked about seeing), but we didn't know exactly what to draw.

In this case, since we knew it was there in 1935, we felt comfortable including it in the strip, but were forced to use more modern reference for the visuals. Shortly after the strip went to press (don't it figure), we finally found the reference we were looking for, so we went back and revised the drawing to more accurately represent the Torreon as REH saw it (unfortunately, it wasn't quite as formidable and cool looking as it is today -- it looked a little sad, actually). Here's the revised panel:

New research material becomes available every day, so this happens occasionally (not often, but definitely more often than we'd like), and we always go back and revise the strips in our archives to match any new scholarship that comes into our possession.  When we do finally gather all of these strips into a comprehensive collection, it'll be these revised versions of the strips we use.


  1. I visited Lincoln for the first (and hopefully not last) time this past June and stayed at the Wortley Hotel. I took photos of the stones marking where Bell and Ollinger died. It never occurred to me to ask when they were put into place. I would have asked some of the Park Rangers if it had.

    My guess is they were added later, as Bob mentions the courthouse was used as storage at the time and there was talk of tearing it down. Of course that's pure speculation on my part. I wrote post about Bob's trip after I got home.

    One other thing of interest. The Torreon wasn't restored to its present height until 1937. I'm not sure what it looked like when Howard was there. Your (excellent) picture looks like the photos I took this past year. The ranger who gave the tour said it was originally 4 stories high. He also said they had to replace the adobe on the walls every few years.

    Thanks for this post, Jim and Ruth. I hope you can find out when the stones were put there. I'd be interested in knowing.

  2. Jim and Ruth, I responded to your comment on my blog. With your indulgence, I'm reprinting it below in case anyone is interested in joining the discussion here:

    I’m glad you liked the pictures. Do you know if the photo of the Torreon Howard sent Lovecraft still exists? I’d love to see it.

    As for my information, it came from Mark Lee Gardner’s TO HELL ON A FAST HORSE. It’s a dual biography of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett. My understanding is that it’s one of the better books on both the Kid and Garrett, although there are a couple of places where his bias shows. In the epilogue, Gardner discusses the renovation and dedication of the courthouse as a historical monument (p. 249-250). I wouldn’t consider your sources wrong just yet. Garnder lists his sources for the renovation and dedication (p. 297-298). The first one is the Albuquerque Journal for June 14, 1937. So the date of 1938 Garnder gives in the text could be a mistake nobody caught that I simply repeated through ignorance.

    Gardner doesn’t mention the markers for Bell and Olinger (I’ve seen the name spelled with one “l” and with two; Gardner uses one.), but my guess is they were put in about the time of the renovations and dedication. As you mention, the bullet hole is rather controversial. What is certain is that forensic tests a few years ago found blood at the top of the stairs where Billy scuffled with Bell. One of the rangers told me this, and I don’t recall the exact date the tests were done.

    The Wortley was very cool. The original structure burned decades ago, but the current version was built to be as much as possible like the original, but with indoor plumbing. I’ve been meaning to write about the trip on my Texas and Southwest history blog and include some pictures.

  3. Hi Keith,

    I don't believe that REH's picture of the Torreon still exists, but new REH pictures are turning up all the time, so you never know -- maybe we'll see it yet!

    Thanks for the info on Mark Lee Gardner's book. None of the guys we talked to were willing to recommend ANY book. They had problems with all of them. Mr. Pitel went so far as to say that he didn't think an accurate Billy the Kid biography was even possible at this point. Too many years and too much BS in between. Still, we'll check out To Hell on a Fast Horse -- GREAT title!

    Wow -- they found traces of blood after 100+ years? Holy cow, that must have been one unwashed courthouse! :-)

    It's incredible how bottomless the debated details become once you start researching something -- straight down to the number of Ls in Ollinger (or Olinger)! It's nice to know we aren't the only ones interested in that kind of thing.

    We'll definitely keep an eye on your blog!