Bullets, booze, and brothels. There’s a reason why the Old West is more commonly called the Wild West. While plenty of places were tame rather than lawless, other towns in New Mexico fully lived up to their violent reputation. Here are 10 of them:
During these uncertain times, please keep safety in mind and consider adding destinations to your bucket list to visit at a later date.
1. Las Vegas
To most people who lived in Las Vegas in the second half of the 19th century, Vicente Silva was a philanthropic saloonkeeper. While he certainly he ran a saloon, it was far from his only business interest. Silva headed up a vicious gang called the White Caps that terrorized the area and counted local law enforcement as members.
In 1892, when gang member Patricio Maes faced arrest, he snitched on his fellow White Caps. Word of his betrayal got out and the White Caps murdered him before he could name names. Silva became increasingly concerned about betrayal, going so far as to stab his own wife to death. Since there is no honor among thieves, it should come as no surprise that the rogue law enforcement officers disposing of her body murdered and robbed Silva that same night.
The White Caps were far from the only source of violence in Las Vegas. People were killed over issues as minor as the cost of a drink. In one month, a total of 29 people were shot to death!
Lincoln is infamous for being the site of the Lincoln County War, which was violent enough for President Rutherford B. Hayes to refer to the town’s main road as “the most dangerous street in America.”
What began as intense business rivalry between the owners of the Murphy & Dolan Mercantile and the J. H. Tunstall & Co (a general store) escalated into bloodshed when Tunstall was murdered.
The Murphys and Dolans who were believed to be responsible for the killing faced off against the Regulators, a group that included Billy the Kid. A total of 19 men died in the ensuing conflict.
Billy the Kid was sentenced to death in Mesilla’s courthouse, a fact which is well advertised. That suggests a structure of law and order was in place. However, the events of 1871 demonstrate that Mesilla could be a lawless town.
In August of that year, Democrats and Republicans each wanted to hold a rally in the Plaza on the same day. Each group assembled in different areas of the square. Alcohol was consumed and both parties decided to conclude the evening by processing around the Plaza. Cue gunfire and brawling. During the chaos, nine men died and another 40-50 people were hurt. Military troops regained control of the town but no one was ever prosecuted because the judge felt an investigation would prove hazardous to his health.
4. Fort Sumner
Fort Sumner is where New Mexico’s most renowned outlaw, Billy the Kid (real name Henry McCarty), was killed and also where he is buried. Sheriff Pat Garrett shot the outlaw however, rumors persisted that the event was staged (the two had been friends once upon a time) and that the Kid escaped.
Years later, two different men claimed to be Henry McCarty. In fact, everything about this man, from the number of people he killed to his final resting place proves elusive. A body believed to be Billy the Kid’s is in the cemetery at Fort Sumner… somewhere. During a bad flood in 1904, the remains in the cemetery surfaced and were reburied without being identified.
Back in the day, Cimarron would been right up there with Las Vegas on any list citing the most dangerous New Mexico towns. “Cimarron” is Spanish for “wild and unruly” and that’s an accurate description. A territorial newspaper once printed the following: “Everything is quiet in Cimarron. Nobody has been killed for three days.”
Much of the violence in Cimarron stemmed from the Colfax County War, which began in 1875 with the murder of Methodist Pastor Franklin J. Tolby. Established settlers (who Tolby supported) opposed those trying to enforce the Maxwell Land Grant, with deadly results on both sides.
6. White Oaks
White Oaks is now a ghost town, with only the No Scum Allowed Saloon still in business. However, it was once a booming mining town that drew a rowdy crowd of revelers to the saloons and brothels. Naturally, it attracted a few Wild West legends including both Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.
In 1880, a posse from White Oaks chased The Kid. The latter claimed the lawmen lacked a warrant and in the subsequent conflict, Deputy Sheriff Jim Carlyle, was shot - it’s unclear who actually killed him.
While Clayton was the site of several crimes, including two murders in 1890, in terms of gunslinger lore, it’s significant because outlaw and train robber Black Jack Ketchum received the death penalty here. Officials had never conducted a hanging before and it didn’t go well – Ketchum was accidentally decapitated.
In the 1870s, Hillsboro attracted outlaws with a penchant for mail robbery, occasionally murder, and particularly cattle rustling. Locals didn’t take kindly to this and, rumor has it, they attempted to lynch one rustler; however, he managed to free himself and flee.
While it doesn’t compare to homicide, Shakespeare was built on a con. People were deceived into moving here by promises of diamonds that could be mined from Lee’s Peak. This was an elaborate hoax.
Other crimes included theft - Zeke Murillo, who was based in Shakespeare, headed up a band cattle rustlers.
Additionally, the penalty for murdering someone in Shakespeare was that you supposedly had to dig his grave. It’s hard to tell whether that speaks to a high murder rate or a strong belief in justice.
Raton saw a fair amount of outlaw and vigilante activity at the close of the 19th century, from a saloon owner who shot his business partner to angry mobs lynching local criminals. One of the more prolific offenders was “Kid” Barton who robbed stages traveling through the Raton Pass and murdered several of his victims.