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 a second record of the Kid playing a sport recently suggested to be a pastime of hired-gun cowboys in violence-prone New Mexico territory in 1878.
It was another old photo of croquet in New Mexico and I remembered the Kid’s penchant for silly hats. I wondered if the guy second from the right, in what appears to be a flower-topped lid, might be the infamous Mr. Bonney.
But, no, I won’t keep you in suspense. The photo is only another reminder of a New Mexico celebrity almost as prevalent as the Kid — namely, John Gaw Meem, the famous Santa Fe architect, who had much more sober taste in headgear.
The photo was taken in New Mexico around the turn of the century but 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).
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. But my curiosity about croquet in cowboy country in the late 1800s, especially during the height of the New Mexico territory’s Lincoln County War, continues. And a recent, two-hour-long National Geographic “documentary,” presented with all the perspicuity of Gabby Hayes, left me with a number of questions.
The National Geographic special 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 in the supposed Tunstall ranch photo. 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.
But biggest questions might be 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 Tunstall, who emigrated in in 1872, refused to leave England without it.
As for the time of the photo, one internet trail I’ve gone down suggests 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.”