Scott Dyke: The initial dust that led to Lincoln County fight

By Scott Dyke

Much has been written about The Lincoln County battle that raged in New Mexico Territory, a historic confrontation that spawned the legendary Billy the Kid. The origin of this struggle is not so well known. It was about the will of Emil Fritz. In the beginning, it was not about shootouts, but lawyers and courts instead.

The California Column, a Union force, arrived in New Mexico Territory in 1862. By then the Confederates had pretty much abandoned the territory and seeped down to a friendlier confine, Texas. Among the California troops was one Emil Fritz, a German by birth, who held the rank of captain given his experience in the fatherland.

He was eventually stationed at Fort Stanton and Fort Sumner, mustering out in the summer of 1864, owning the brevet (temporary) rank of lieutenant colonel. He soon became a partner in the L. G. Murphy Co., whose owners would eventually be the major participants of the Lincoln County (New Mexico) War. The Murphy Company prospered, mostly due to a lack of competition.

In 1873, Fritz fell ill and decided to take his ailment to Germany for treatment. He never returned. He died in Stuttgart in June of 1874.
It seems that Fritz died intestate. The problem arose about his assets and how they would be distributed. Given he was a bachelor, the spoils division became difficult under New Mexican
laws. There were brothers and sisters.

Complications aplenty

In 1876, L. G. Murphy, a probate judge (yes, and also conveniently the principal owner of Fritz’s employment) appointed William Brady, a buddy, as administrator of the Fritz estate. Most prominent in the assets was a life insurance policy.

A normally straight-forward distribution of said policy proved complicated. First off, the issuing company was in bankruptcy. Then there was the claim that the policy was held as security, and further clouds evolved as to whether the claim on the policy was Fritz’s personal obligation or instead an obligation of the L. G. Murphy Co.

Just when you thought the Old West settled things in simplistic gunfights. As it would turn out, however, the gun would eventually be the final solution.

Brady wisely bowed out later in 1876, and Fritz’s brother and sister succeeded him. Lincoln attorney Alexander McSween was retained as counsel. He was sent to New York to settle the insurance matter. For months there was no resolution. The heirs finally received word that the proceeds of the policy had been credited to McSween.

McSween decided to hold the proceeds until he examined the L. G. Murphy Co. books. L. G. Murphy partner James Dolan refused the request. A spate of back-and-forth petitions followed from McSween and the Murphy boys.

By this time, Dolan and partner John Riley had bought out L. G. Murphy, who was ill with what would be later diagnosed as cancer.

To further inflame the Murphy group, McSween, who had furnished legal advice to the Murphy Co, made plans to compete against them with the aid of English emigrant John Tunstall and cattle baron John Chisum.

Deadly sides

The Murphy group, by now referred to as “The House” because of their political connections, brought embezzlement charges against McSween on Dec. 24, 1877. McSween and Chisum were arrested and jailed. Chisum was bailed out and released when the Territory Attorney General found no evidence for indictment. McSween made public charges against “The House” and its cohort, Wm. Brady, who had been installed as sheriff of Lincoln County. Given what was to follow, this was a serious lack of assessment of the political situation. As a matter of fact, it led directly to McSween’s death.

Interestingly, the money from the policy was never retrieved or accounted for.

The deadly sides were now well defined, and attorneys and court proceedings were replaced by lethal posses and Colt .45s. What was to become one of the Old West’s deadliest wars would unfold, giving rise to the West’s most celebrated teenager, Billy the Kid, and a host of supporting characters immortalized by book and film.

To learn the truth of this violent confrontation, consider joining me and Attorney Bob Palmquist on Feb. 26 at 6 p.m. at the Madera Clubhouse in Quail Creek. “The Lincoln County War” presentation will walk you through the battles and flesh out the participants, including the enigmatic Kid.

Tickets are $7 and can be purchased on line at, or at the front desk at the Madera Clubhouse.

Hope to see you there, pardner.


Scott Dyke is a Wyatt Earp historian, Western writer, lecturer and researcher. He can be contacted at Article appeared at the Green Valley News and is republished here with the author’s permission.



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