When I Googled Fort Stanton and croquet — Fort Stanton being a military post in Billy the Kid’s neck of the woods during his alleged croquet-playing days — I thought I might have stumbled across another record of the Kid indulging in a supposed pastime of gun-playing cowboys in New Mexico territory, circa 1878.
I remembered the Kid’s penchant for silly hats. I wondered if the guy second from the right, observing a croquet match around the turn of the century in what appears to be a flower-topped lid, might be the infamous Mr. Bonney.
But, no, I won’t keep you in suspense. Peoplewise, the photo is mostly a reminder of a New Mexico celebrity almost as famous as the Kid — namely John Gaw Meem, the iconic Santa Fe architect, who had more sober taste in headgear.
The photo was taken in New Mexico at the Sun Mount sanatorium in Santa Fe, which along with Fort Stanton, was a tuberculosis treatment center.
I don’t know that Meem is in the Sun Mount photo, but it is part of a Meem collection maintained at the New Mexico Records Center and Archives. I found it in an article titled, “The Lungers and Their Legacy — Chasing the Cure in New Mexico,” by Nancy Owen Lewis, scholar-in-residence at the School for Advanced Research. (See El Palacio magazine in 2008 for a more scholarly presentation of the photo than mine). Meem built a home nearby and some of his property later became part of the Santa Fe Prepatory School campus.
Apparently, croquet was healthy recreation for “lungers” as New Mexico became a center for tuberculosis treatment. Meem himself arrived at Sun Mount for recuperation in 1920.
I also don’t know if Meem played croquet, but my curiosity continues about the true prevalence of the game in cowboy country in the late 1800s, especially during the height of the New Mexico territory’s Lincoln County War. And a recent, two-hour-long National Geographic “documentary” on a possible Kid photo, presented with all the perspicuity of Gabby Hayes, left me with a number of questions.
The National Geographic show focused on a photo supposedly taken in September 1878 on the Tunstall ranch in Lincoln County, two months after a famous 5-day gun battle in the town of Lincoln.
Not the least of my questions is about the bareness of the trees in September. And, in an earlier post, “Did Billy the Kid cheat at croquet?,” I questioned the strange bulges in the Kid’s sweater, the hand behind his back and the seemingly accusatory posture of his cohort to the right.
The Kid seems recognizable at least for his cockeyed skypiece and buck-toothed visage, but questions remain about the occasion, the time and the place.
The photograph’s proponents say the occasion was a wedding. And others have noted that Tunstall, the Kid’s former employer, who was shot dead in February 1878, was reputedly a croquet afficianado whose Lincoln County mercantile business might have been able to import the equipment. Or perhaps it was part of Tunstall’s baggage when he emigrated in in 1872.
As for the time of the photo, one internet trail I traveled suggested the Kid and his gang in September might have been several hundred miles east in Tacosa, Texas, selling stolen livestock, which, other than bushwhacking fellow humans, seems to have been the chief employment opportunity in Lincoln County in the late 1800s.
I may never get to the bottom of it. But the croquet-playing allegations probably aren’t doing the Kid’s reputation any good and they obviously are providing new fodder for Texans to sneer at neighboring New Mexico.
“Billy the Croquet Kid?” sniffed the headline on an editorial in the Fort Worth-Star Telegram on October 15. “Not much of an outlaw.”