The West's Unluckiest Lawman
by Bill Kelly
While on leave from the Marine Corps back in 1947, I traveled across the desert of southern New Mexico with a shipmate to visit his aunt, Lily Casey Klasner. She lived in the village of Carrizozo, which is located at the western end of the pass between the Capitan and Sacramento mountain ranges, at the head of a valley awash with legendary names from the days of the Wild West. I soon learned that Lily (author of My Girlhood among Outlaws) had known two of the region’s most famed gunfighters, legendary law enforcer Pat Garrett and legendary law breaker Billy the Kid. I also met Sear Crocket and Ward Leslie, both of whom knew Garrett.
Intrigued by the stories they told, I traveled east, to Roswell, New Mexico, to meet Pat Garrett’s daughter, sixty-two-year-old Elizabeth Garrett, one of nine Garrett children. From her, I got my first sense of the bad luck which dogged Pat and his family for all of his life. Although she became a remarkable woman – well educated, a nationally known soprano, a fine composer – she had been rendered blind almost from birth by an excessive application of blue vitrol (a copper sulfate chemical) to her eyes. Blue vitrol was used to prevent infection, a common practice in those days.
Over the succeeding years, I would learn that much of Pat Garrett’s bad luck flowed from bad times, bad judgment and bad enemies.
Born in Alabama and raised in Louisiana, Patrick Floyd Jarvis Garrett, a tall, thin angular man with prominent cheek bones, came west in 1869, when he was nineteen, to take part in the slaughter of the buffalo on the High Plains of Texas. He left that trade in 1878. The great buffalo herds of the Southern Plains had been decimated. The Comanches had plundered his hunting camp. He moved to Fort Sumner, in eastern New Mexico, where he would marry Elizabeth Garrett’s mother, Apolonaria Gutierrez.
He arrived just as the fabled Lincoln County War was drawing to a close. That deadly conflict, essentially an economic turf battle between rival gangs, climaxed in mid-July, 1878, in a five-day shootout at Alexander McSween’s house in Lincoln, a small community about thirty miles down the valley from Carrizozo. It helped spawn a storm of enmities, lawlessness and violence which would envelop southeastern New Mexico for the next two decades. It unleashed a nest of killers and outlaws – including Billy the Kid – mad dogs escaped from their cages. New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace (author of Ben Hur) had put a price of five hundred dollars on Billy’s head.
In this swirl of conflict, Garrett, a Democrat and gunman who promised to put the dogs back in their cages, got himself elected sheriff of Lincoln County, which covered all of southeastern New Mexico at the time. By the end of the year, Garrett had captured Billy the Kid and killed two of his cronies. "...Sheriff Garrett is the hero of the hour," said the New Mexican.
Garrett delivered Billy to Mesilla, New Mexico, for trial. A jury convicted him. Judge Warren Bristol sentenced him to hang at Lincoln, the county seat. Garrett’s deputies hauled Billy to Lincoln, the scene of many of his crimes, and locked him in the county jail, from which The Kid promptly escaped, killing two guards along the way.
Within three months, Garrett had tracked Billy the Kid down again, finding him this time at Pete Maxwell’s house on Stinking Springs, near Fort Sumner, some seventy five miles north of Roswell. About midnight, Garrett hid in Maxwell’s darkened bedroom, waiting for Billy. Billy entered the room. He saw Garrett’s shadow. "Quien es? [Who is it?]" he asked urgently, drawing his gun. Those were the last words Billy the Kid ever said. Garrett shot him square in the heart.
In the process Garrett became, not "the hero of the hour," but a villain because he had killed a favorite son. Although he had put his life on the line for his community, he lost the next election for the sheriff of Lincoln County. Moreover, according to Sear Crocket and Ward Leslie of Carrizozo, Lew Wallace never paid Garrett the five hundred dollars reward for capturing or killing Billy the Kid. On top of that, Garrett lost an election for state senator in 1884. It seemed as if Garrett did not have bad luck, he would not have had any luck at all.
Fed up, Garrett moved from Lincoln County to Tascosa – the Cowboy Capital of the Plains – a settlement on the Canadian River, in the Texas Panhandle. He served as captain of a unit of Texas Rangers, whom Texas Governor John Ireland had assigned to protect ranchers from cattle rustlers. Within weeks, Garrett quit the Texas Rangers and returned to southeastern New Mexico, this time to Roswell.
He set up a scheme to irrigate the desert, in an area with impoverished soil and bad water. With a lack of funds and a nudge from the local establishment, he stumbled again into failure. He ran for sheriff of Chavez County, which had been carved out of Lincoln County, with Roswell as the new county seat, in 1890. He lost. In 1891, he went to Uvalde, a community down in the South Texas Brush Country, where he raised and raced horses with John Nance Garner, the future vice president of the United States.
Meanwhile, on February 1, 1896, back in southeastern New Mexico, someone committed a "murder most foul," shooting the distinguished Colonel Albert Jennings Fountain and his eight year old son, Henry, to death on a lonely stretch of road in the desert between the Organ Mountains and the great White Sands dune field. Like the Lincoln County War, the killing of Fountain and his child helped spawn a storm of enmities, lawlessness and violence.
The murder almost certainly grew out of a personal and political feud between Fountain, a Republican allied with the Southeastern New Mexico Stock Growers’ Association, and Albert Fall, a Democrat associated with cattle thieves. Fountain, a lawyer who had defended Billy the Kid a decade earlier, had secured indictments against alleged rustlers and against a powerful New Mexico rancher named Oliver Lee. Fall, a self-taught lawyer who later would resign a cabinet post under President Warren G. Harding and would serve time in jail for accepting a bribe in the infamous Teapot Dome Scandal, opposed Fountain’s pursuit of the thieves. It seemed obvious that Fall and the rancher Lee were somehow implicated in the murder of Fountain and the child, but investigations led to nothing but confusion.
New Mexico Governor William T. Thornton remembered Pat Garrett and his successful pursuit of Billy the Kid and other outlaws in Lincoln County. He brought Garrett back from Uvalde to New Mexico. He helped install Garrett as sheriff in Las Cruces, the seat of New Mexico’s Dona Ana County, where the Fountain murder had taken place. Garrett took over the investigation. At last, it looked as if Garrett would received the recognition he deserved as a law enforcement officer.
Garrett worked his way through a minefield of potentially violent encounters, and finally, he arrested Oliver Lee and a ranch hand, Jim Gilliland, charged them with the murder of Fountain and his child, and saw them tried before a court in Hillsboro, New Mexico. Lee and Gilliland, favorite sons represented by Albert Fall, won acquittal by the jury, to the jubilation of onlookers. The murders, among the most infamous crimes in the history of the Southwest, remain unsolved to this day. The bodies of Colonel Fountain and his child have never been found. Pat Garrett’s luck had failed again. He did succeed, however, in winning reelection to the sheriff’s office in Las Cruces for two more terms.
Things seemed to be looking up. Theodore Roosevelt, infatuated by the gunfighters of the West, appointed Garrett as the El Paso Collector of Customs on December 20, 1901, and Garrett moved forty miles south, to the Texas border city to take over the office. However, Garrett, it seemed, could not stand success.
He developed a close friendship with a man named Tom Powers, a one-eyed, bad tempered El Paso gambler and saloonkeeper who had been run out of his home state of Wisconsin for beating his own father into a coma. Friends cautioned Garrett about Powers. Garrett refused to listen.
In fact, Garrett took Powers with him to a reunion of Roosevelt’s old combat unit, the Rough Riders, in San Antonio, and Garrett embarrassed the president by having the notorious Powers share a table and appear in a photograph with them. Garrett compounded the blunder by taking Powers with him to Washington to seek reappointment by the president to the Collector of Customs post. Roosevelt, stung by political criticism, informed Garrett that there would be no reappointment.
Garrett, in disbelief and despair, returned to El Paso. He still refused to abandon Powers, giving his friend the pistol he had used to kill Billy the Kid as a symbol of the friendship. Garrett contacted Emerson Hough, a friend and famous writer, and requested that he intervene with Roosevelt and ask for reconsideration. Roosevelt now regarded Garrett as a political liability. There would be no reconsideration. Garrett wrote Hough a last letter, blaming all his problems on the killing of that favorite son, Billy the Kid.
Pat Garrett, discouraged and broke, his reputation indelibly stained by his unwelcomed killing of Billy the Kid, his defeat as a New Mexico politician, his unremarkable stint as a Texas Ranger, his failure as an irrigation farmer, the unsuccessful outcome of his high profile Fountain murder investigation, and, finally, the loss of the Collector of Customs office, returned to Dona Ana County in 1906. He and his family moved to his isolated ranch at Bear Canyon, near the northeastern end of the San Andres Mountains, only a few miles from the Fountain murder site.
Garrett, fifty seven years old, contentious, and hard pressed to provide for his large family and to meet obligations to creditors, put his ranch up for sale. Meanwhile, he had leased rangeland to Wayne Brazel, a cowboy who worked for a nearby rancher named W. W. Cox and who ran one thousand eight hundred goats on Garrett’s place. Most buyers had no interest in Garrett’s land encumbered by a lease, especially one which permitted goats. Garrett tried to persuade Brazel to break the lease. Brazel refused, saying that he would agree to terminate the lease only if a buyer would purchase his goats, too. Garrett and Brazel argued. Garrett said, "If I can't get you off one way I will sure try another!"
On February 29, 1908, in spite of the lease with Brazel, Garrett had found a prospective buyer, a cowboy named Carl Adamson. The two of them had started for Las Cruces in Adamson’s buggy. They traveled south from Garrett’s ranch, along the eastern side of the San Andres Mountains, to the crossing at San Augustine Pass. They turned west, down the slope of the mountains, toward Las Cruces. They could see the community in the distance, perhaps ten miles away, in the valley of the Rio Grande.
They encountered Wayne Brazel, riding horseback. Garrett began arguing with Brazel. Presently, Adamson stopped the buggy. Garrett got out and turned away to urinate, the last conscious act of his life. Brazel blew his brains out.
Ironically, even in death, Garrett could not win.
Brazel tied his horse to Adamson’s buggy. The two men drove into Las Cruces, leaving Garrett’s body where it lay. They notified Sheriff Felipe Lucero.
Lucero dispatched a posse, led by Major Eugene Van Patten, to the site of the shooting. The men found Garrett’s body crumpled in a ditch, his face half shot away, his unfired shotgun beside him.
"Self defense!" said Brazel. "Self defense!" said Adamson.
Investigator Captain Fred Fornoff, New Mexico Mounted Police, called that plea into question. At the site, he found unexplained hoof prints, horse dung and an empty Winchester rifle shell casing. An unknown assassin? Someone in addition to Brazel?
Within a few weeks, a grand jury indicted Brazel on a charge of first degree murder. The trial opened a year later, with Brazel defended by Albert B. Fall, the old friend of Oliver Lee and the cattle thieves. Brazel never varied in his testimony. "Self defense!" Garrett had threatened him with that shotgun which the posse found at the side of the body. The trial lasted one day. The jury acquitted Wayne Brazel. No one considered Fornoff’s evidence.
W. W. Cox held a barbecue at his ranch, an event to celebrate Garrett’s death as much as Brazel’s acquittal.
Pat Garrett lived his life amid controversy. Pat Garret lay in his grave in controversy. Conspiracy theories soon arose, much as they did in the wake of the assassinations of Lincoln or Kennedy or King.
According to one theory, Albert Fall, Oliver Lee, W. W. Cox, A. P. Rhode (Cox’s brother-in-law), Jim Gililland, Carl Adamson and several others met with a contract killer named Jim Miller at the St. Regis Hotel in El Paso in the fall of 1907 to plot the murder of Garrett. According to another theory, W. W. Cox shot Garrett, and Wayne Brazel, a loyal employee, took responsibility to shield his boss from prosecution. According to other theories, Oliver Lee shot Garrett. Carl Adamson shot Garrett. Print Rhode shot Garrett. Jim Miller shot Garrett.
We shall never have the full account of the final episode in the life of the West’s unluckiest lawman. It lies buried in the graves of hard and violent men.
Pat Garrett’s name still generated controversy three quarters of a century after his murder. A December 26, 1982, story in the Huntsville Item (Huntsville, Texas, daily newspaper) said Jarvis Garrett, 77, son of Pat Garrett, filed a lawsuit against Farah Manufacturing over the patented label that the clothing firm used to show a mustachioed cowboy in his father's likeness stitched within a lawman's star. From his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Garrett said, "If anyone should profit from using my father's name, it should be me." The article also said that Jarvis recently sold the Colt 44-caliber six-shooter that Pat Garrett used Billy the Kid to an Austin, Texas, collector for an undisclosed price. Presumably, this was the same weapon which Garrett gave to Tom Powers in El Paso. In some way, it found its way back into the hands of the Garrett family.
1. Personal interviews with Lily Casey Klasner, Sear Crocket and Ward Leslie
2. Personal interview with Elizabeth Garrett, daughter of Pat Garrett
3. Personal files and photos of the author
4. Archives, The University of Texas at El Paso, El Paso, Texas
5. Huntsville Item (Huntsville, Texas) article, December 26, 1982
6. Frontier West Magazine article (undated), The Man Who Killed Pat Garrett, by Carl Breihan
7. True West magazine article (undated), The Pat Garrett Nobody Knew, by Leon C. Metz
8. Billy the Kid, A Short and Violent Life, Robert M. Utley
9. Burs under the Saddle, by Ramon F. Adams
10. The Death of Billy the Kid, John W. Poe
11. Pat Garrett: The Story of a Western Lawman, Leon C. Metz
12. Tularosa, Last of the Frontier West, C. L. Sonnichsen
13. Violence in Lincoln County, William A. Keleher
More about the author Bill Kelly
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