Governor Lew Wallace

Territorial Governor


New Mexico


In the early autumn of 1878 former union general of Shiloh, and the future author of the novel Ben Hur, agreed to pardon the teen-age saddle tramp outlaw Billy the Kid if he would turn state's evidence on Lincoln County killings. While Billy was a fugitive from numerous murders warrants which would surely guarantee a trip to the hangman’s gallows, Billy still would not leave his adopted region where he found security. Before the autumn of 1878 Billy showed signs of wanting a clean slate, but new not how to obtain one.

For a short time period it seemed possible that one perhaps could be obtained, through the new territorial governor, a retired Union General named Lew Wallace who had arrived in New Mexico. The General was determined to restore some order in Lincoln County who was recovering from the war between gunfighters who fortified themselves in McSween's home, which was in the center of Lincoln. The opposing force led by the new sheriff, George Pepping, along with Marion turner, and their men surrounded the McSween's home for some five days the battle ensued. After the battle was over Tunstall and McSween both lay dead, ending the Lincoln county war. A great many detractors believed Billy the Kid had been at the bottom all along. "Just a little, small sized cow and horse thief." said a man who new Billy.

The new Governor Lew Wallace had issued an amnesty proclamation. But the new proclamation did not apply to anyone already under indictment, soon the governor became intrigued by the rumors that Billy the Kid might give himself up and testify against the other participants in the Lincoln County War. Lew Wallace, who at this time was engulfed in writing the remaining pages of his novel Ben Hur, put down his pin and got word to Billy the Kid and let him know that his status was at the least open to discussion.

It wasn't long before Wallace herd from Billy, the letter read in part: "I have heard that you will give one thousand dollars for my body which as I can understand it means alive as a witness, but I have indictments against me for things that happened. I am afraid to give up because my enemies would kill me. If it is in your power to annul these indictments I hope you will do so, so as to give me a chance to explain. I have no wish to fight any more. Your obedient Servant W. H. Bonney."

One night in March 1879, around nine o'clock Wallace heard a knock on his door, as he opened the door he was startled to see The Kid standing there with a rifle in one hand, a pistol in the other. Wallace and Billy sat down to negotiate. Wallace had promised Billy if he would supply evidence against the other killers of the Lincoln War, "I will let you go Scot free with a pardon in your pocket for all your misdeeds." Billy said that he would consider the offer and left. Five days later he reply to Wallace in a letter: "General Wallace, Sir, I will keep the appointment I made, but be sure and have men come that you can depend on. I am not afraid to die like a man fighting but I would not like to die like a dog unarmed."

Buy prearrangements made with General Wallace, he agreed to submit to arrest, he spent a very short time in jail, went to court, gave his evidence against the Lincoln County killers. John Dolan, one of the proprietors of the house, which was attacked, was indicted for complicity in one of the murders at his home. Billy expected to go free, per the arrangement with Lew Wallace, but the district attorney of Lincoln defied Wallace's orders. He pointed out that there were indictments, which were outstanding against Billy; he refused to dismiss them and remanded Billy to jail. Billy then performed an old trick by slipping off his handcuffs, this he could easily do because of his hands being so small and his wrist being rather large, and Billy simply took his leave. A year later Pat Garret was to enter Billy's life.

Ronald R. Wallace


Lew Wallace's Grave Site