Lincoln County War produced lots of dead men, long list of losers

March 9, 1878

On this day, a band of unregulated cowboys known as the “Regulators” officially became outlaws.  They were declared outside the law hoping to avenge the murder of rancher, John Henry Turnstall. (Right)

Turnstall, a 24-year-old Englishman, had died 19 days before at the hands of a posse deputized by Lincoln County sheriff, William Brady.  In truth, they’d actually been sent to seize cattle being driven to Turnstall’s ranch on the Feliz River, eliminating  him as a competitor to a corrupt local enterprise known as “the House.”

The Regulators included at least 16 members, many with already dodgy histories as gun fighters and outlaws.  Turnstall and his business partner, Canadian ex-pat, Alexander McSween,(left) had run afoul of the “House” founders, James Dolan and L.G. Murphy.  The Brit and the Canadian had opened a bank and a store just steps away from the Dolan-Murphy enterprise.  

Dick Brewer, (below) a Turnstall employee and ally, was appointed town constable by Justice of the Peace, John Wilson.  Brewer’s first hire as deputy was William Bonney, a.k.a. “Billy the Kid,” not yet a big time bandit.  The new constable had been given the mission of finding young Turnstall’s killers. 

Tunstall’s ranch hands, along with a number of ordinary citizens eager to be out from under the Dolan-Murphy company, were deputized by Deputy U.S. Marshall, Robert Widenmann,  Another “Regulator” ally, Widenmann had been given the authority to organize a civilian posse.

But the whole Brewer/Widenmann constabulary was soon declared outside the law by territorial governor, Samuel B. Axtell. (Left) Weighing in at the request of Sheriff Brady, he called Justice of the Peace Wilson’s appointment illegal and cashiered Deputy Sheriff Widenmann. 

That put Dolan-Murphay suragate, Sheriff William Brady, (below) in  charge of  whatever law enforcemen still existed Lincoln County.  The Regulators became fair game for Brady. 

But the list of dead men had reached a baker’s dozen by mid-July, including Sheriff Brady, (right) Constable Brewer and Turnstall’s partner, Alexander McSween.  Dolan’s cohort, L. G. Murphy, (below right) had died of cancer.   Three Regulators, including Billy the Kid, were indicted for shooting Sheriff Brady and three members of the “House” were charged with killing Turnstall. 

When most of the principals had been buried, it appeared both sides were willing to bury their differences, as well.  The box score was 14 killed, 11 wounded on the House side, eight killed and 12 wounded on the Regulators side for a grand total of 45 casualties.

But the aftermath followed the survivors forever.  Billy Bonney soon became the country’s most celebrated felon, gunned down by Sheriff Pat Garrett at the tender age of 21.    

Marshall Widenmann (right) outlasted the mayhem and visited the Turnstall family in England before unsuccessfully running for Congress in New York’s 17th District.  Family members insisted, however, he feared for his life his remaining years.

For a time, it looked like James Dolan  (below) was the big winner.  He’d finally acquired all of Turnstall’s property, only to have a large part of it taken over by the Federal Government in a conservation move.   Suffering from alcoholism, he died at just 49 and the rest of his estate was sold off.

It would be tough to pick an actual winner, however.  Territorial governor, Samuel B. Axtell, would be a contender,  skating on most of his misdeeds.  He was already under investigation at the time of the Lincoln County debacle and was suspended seven months later by “muck raker” President Teddy Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, Carl Schurz. 

Axtell’s successor, contender number two, is Civil War hero, Lew Wallace.  His appointment to the governorship by the new president, Rutherford B. Hayes, apparently gave Wallace (left) enough spare time to pen “Ben Hur,” the best-selling novel of the 19th Century.  He held the office until 1881. 


Contender number three, however, Alexander McSween’s widow, Susan, (right) may have done the best job of making lemonade out of lemons. When the shooting stopped, she took up ranching herself.  Known for a time as the Cattle Queen of New Mexico, she died rich in 1931 at the age of 85.

Lincoln County Historic District, Highway 380, Lincoln, New Mexico, is the most visited state monument in New Mexico.  Considered by historians as perhaps the best “preserved cowtown” in America, it includes 17 structures,  five to seven of them museums, open to the public depending on the season. 

In addition to the San Juan Mission church, there is the courthouse, the jail and the Turnstall Store displaying original 19th century items.  The Anderson Freeman Visitor Center and Museum includes a variety of exhibits from New Mexico’s prehistory up to the Lincoln County War  era. It features a brief, 22-minute video.

The Dolan House restaurant is open Friday through Tuesday.  Seven buildings, most wheelchair accessible,  are open 9 to 5, daily, closed New Year’s Day, Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.Admission for adults is $5, children under 16 are free.  State residents admitted free the first Sunday of the month and New Mexico seniors are admitted free every Wednesday.  Active duty military plus four family members are free Memorial Day through Labor Day.  For information go to, call (575) 653-4082 or write PO Box 36, Lincoln, NM 88338

 © Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.