It’s life in the fast lane again after a 10-month tangle with cancer. I was up early today to cook breakfast for my stepsister-neighbor Susan and just yesterday had coffee with a bunch of other retired newspaper guys in the heart of what ringleader Jim gang was talking baseball when I got there, but I wanted to talk about croquet.
This might have been grounds for excommunication from the coffee klatch except that it involved Billy the Kid. Susan wanted to tell me about Hobie cat racing at Puerto Peñasco, but she also listened patiently to my theories about Lincoln County recreational opportunities in 19th century New Mexico.
Billy the Kid, you see, is the subject of a new television documentary airing October 18 on the National Geographic Channel. The show apparently will deal with a new Kid photograph, just “authenticated” and valued at $5 million.
I would continue my life as a New Mexican not much interested in Mr. William Bonney — the young hoodlum involved in a characteristically small-stakes New Mexico brouhaha called the Lincoln County War — if it weren’t for controversy over this photograph.
It remains tragic that nearly two dozen people were shot and killed in the vengeful conflict, but I’ve always been underwhelmed by its roots. The best I can tell is that, other than simple revenge, it was about which of two factions would have the corner on government beef contracts and mercantile business in a sprawling and largely lawless expanse of New Mexico territory.
The photograph purports to show Bill the Kid and cohorts standing outside a schoolhouse somewhere in Lincoln County in September 1878, pausing for the camera during a game of croquet.
There are published questions about whether the photo is real, mostly focusing on the landscape and the absence of leaves on the trees. The fullest discussion of the photograph I’ve found so far — including a full-blown rebuttal from the maker of the documentary — is in this article in True West magazine.
But what gets me going is the notion of The Kid and his ruffian buddies, known as the Regulators, playing a game seemingly as genteel as croquet. Especially when Mel Brooks wasn’t around to write the script.
How croquet made its way to rough-and-tumble Lincoln County in 1878 seems at least an interesting sidebar to the lead-laced bushwhacking that characterized New Mexico commerce just a little over 100 years ago. One can only imagine how lawn-sport disputes were resolved.
Initially, I was dubious: But research quickly reveals that the game made its way to the U.S. from the British isles by 1870. It may be especially significant that Billy the Kid’s employer at the time was British-born John Tunstall, who emigrated in 1872 and whose efforts to establish cattle-ranching and mercantile footholds in Lincoln County were opposed by interests backed by the infamous Santa Fe Ring.
So, Tunstall not only had roots in England but he had a store in Lincoln County. If I were still an enterprising reporter, I would be looking for receipts in Tunstall’s store ledgers — presuming they still exist — from John Jaques & Sons of London, the preeminent croquet equipment supplier. Would Tunstall have lugged this stuff over from England? Or would he have assigned his New Mexico cowboys, blacksmith or wagonwright to make a set of mallets, balls and wickets? I’m not sure either is likely, and I would check those ledgers for goods manufactured in the U.K.
But it seems even more obvious questions are being overlooked.
Billy is decked out in a striped sweater in the new photograph and the sweater’s pockets seem to be bulging. He also has one hand behind his back. And one of the other figures in the photo looks to be pointing an accusing finger at the famous OUTLAW.
I think it’s questionable whether the finger-pointer is merely offering an explanation of the game of croquet.
I think it might be more likely that the famous OUTLAW has extra balls stashed in his sweater, a pistol behind his back and his friend is accusing him of, let us say, bending the rules.
Then again, maybe it’s all more mundane. Maybe this is what New Mexico cowpokes and horse thieves, who happened to have an English employer, who might have been involved in importing British recreational equipment, might have been doing on a day off from rustling and shootouts in Lincoln County in September 1978.
(Photos from Kagin’s).