In the days of the Old West, New Mexico was home, at one time or another, to many of the more colorful desperadoes. The Clantons, William Bonney, Jesse Evans, William "Curley Bill" Brocius, Clay Allison, Doroteo "El Tigre" Sains, Tom "Black Jack" Ketchum, John "King of the Rustlers" Kinney, Jim Miller, and Johnny Ringo are a relatively small sample. Because of its remoteness and proximity to the Mexican border, Southern New Mexico attracted a large number of outlaws: violent men who lived from the labor of others, who were quick to kill, and for whom the conventions of settled society meant little. A man who fit the mold of New Mexican outlaw, and has been largely ignored by historians and folklorists, was José Chavez y Chavez.
Born in 1851 in Ceboleta, New Mexico, little is known of his childhood. José discovered that honest labor is often difficult, and he gradually drifted from petty theft to cattle rustling. By the time of the Lincoln County War (1878-79), José was in the company of William Bonney (Billy the Kid) and his following of thieves and rustlers. During the Lincoln County War, José sided with the Tunstall-McSween faction against "The House" as the Dolan faction was popularly known. The formation by McSween of "The Regulators," a personal army under a thin cloak of legality, made up of between forty and fifty hardcases paid four dollars a day by Tunstall, turned the sniping of the two Lincoln County factions into open warfare. Among the Regulators were José, Billy the Kid, Charlie Bowdre, Jim French, John Middleton, and Fred Waite. Special Constable Dick Brewer led them.
The murder of John Tunstall on February 28, 1878, by members of the Dolan faction led, on April 1, to the assassination of Sheriff Brady in Lincoln by Bonney and several others. In later years, Chavez y Chavez claimed the killing of Brady to have been his own work. More deaths followed, and a climax of sorts was reached with the "Big Killing" of July 19. McSween, his wife, and their dozen or so allies had barricaded themselves in McSween's home (among whom were Tom O'Folliard, Francisco Zamora, Eugenio Salazar, Vincente Romero, and Ignazio Gonzalez). The house was set afire, and in the chaos that followed McSween and five of his allies died. José and four others, among them Billy the Kid, fled the burning structure, all save one making it safely to the shelter of the riverbanks behind the burning house. Harvey Morris died in a hail of gunfire before he had gone three steps into the yard.
In an attempt to stop the chaos, Governor Lew Wallace established in March 1879, a militia of fifty men called the Lincoln County Mounted Rifles (or as their detractors called them, the "Governor's Heelflies"). Chavez y Chavez enlisted as a private. The purpose of the militia was to curtail rustling and its accompanying violence, and to bring to justice men for whom warrants had been issued. The group was disbanded the following July, having done little to bring stability to the turbulent area.
In the meantime, José had testified at the Dudley Court of Inquiry along with Billy the Kid, in a vain attempt to secure some accountability for the Army's role in the Big Killing. In May 1880, a prisoner in the Lincoln County jail, "One-Eyed Joe" Murphy, was assassinated, and it was widely held that Chavez y Chavez was responsible. After his friend Billy the Kid was killed by Pat Garrettat Fort Sumner on July 14, 1881, José began to drift, always on the fringe of the law, doing what was necessary to survive. He moved north, and turned up at Las Vegas, New Mexico, where his reputation with a gun reputedly led to a contest with Bob Ford, assassin of Jesse James. José's skill won a shooting match convincingly, the story goes, and when subsequently challenged to a duel, the humiliated Ford fled.
The story, apocryphal or not, may have led to a job as a lawman, because José became one of three policeman in Old Town, Las Vegas. Unwilling to escape his past, he joined Vincente Silvas' gang, La Sociedad de Bandidos (Society of Bandits), and Las Gorras Blancas (White Caps), the terrorist arm of El Partido del Pueblo Unido (People's Party). The White Caps, a Klan-like organization, sought through fence-cutting, arson, and physical assault, to drive settlers from lands that had once been common pasture. The Society of Bandits was a Mafia-like collection of some of the meanest, cruelest men ever assembled in New Mexico. Chavez y Chavez felt right at home.
On October 22, 1892, José and two other Old Town police officers, Eugenio Alarid and Julian Trujillo, lynched one Patricio Maes at the behest of Vincente Silva. In February 1893, Silva, fearing his brother-in-law, Gabriel Sandoval, was privy to the truth about Maes and was about to inform, murdered Gabriel with the assistance of Chavez y Chavez, Alarid, and Trujillo. Silva became concerned over his wife's constant questions about her brother's disappearance and decided she had to be killed. He ordered his trusty trio to dig a grave for his wife's body, and while they dug they decided that Silva was out of control. When Silva appeared with his wife's body, the trio murdered him and buried the two together.
The following year, a man arrested for the Maes murder implicated José, Eugenio, and Trujillo in the murder of Sandoval. In April 1894, Eugenio and Trujillo were arrested, tried, and sentenced to life imprisonment. Chavez y Chavez, with a $500 price on his head, fled and was arrested May 26, 1894, at Socorro. He was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death, but was given a new trial by the territorial supreme court. Found guilty again, he was sentenced to be hanged October 29, 1897. He was granted a stay of execution, and on November 20, Governor Otero, over prolonged and vociferous objections from the citizens of Las Vegas, commuted the death sentence to life in prison.
On November 23, 1897, Chavez y Chavez entered the Territorial Penitentiary as inmate #1089, there to remain until January 11, 1909, when, at the age of 57, Governor George Curry pardoned him. The pardon was the result of assistance José had rendered to guards during a riot. He returned to Las Vegas and spent his remaining years among his friends. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, his passing was a peaceful one. A feared pistolero, killer of more men than Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett combined, José died in bed holding the hand of Liberato Baca, who was possibly the only man to face José in a gunfight and live to tell about it. The hombre muy malo was 72.
There is a curious footnote to José's story. He has been linked by a number of writers to the February 1, 1896 murder of Col. Albert J. Fountain and his son, despite the fact that he was behind bars at the time the murders took place. In his autobiography, George Curry asserted that José was implicated in the murders, and that assertion has been accepted uncritically until recently. The deaths of Albert and Henry Fountain cannot be counted among José's many killings.