This should be a well-known story—after all, people from all over the world visit Lincoln County to see where Billy the Kid shot his way out of jail, and although he claimed to have killed 21 men in his short life, Billy probably killed—at least on his own—only four men in his short sad life. Nevertheless, over 50 movies have been made about the young outlaw, and today, a surprisingly large number of people make a living out of the tourism based on his legend.
There is more than one museum dedicated to the The Kid, and every day of the week, tourists trace his steps through the ghost town of Lincoln, New Mexico.
New Mexico is a poor state, and it seems a real shame that no one is making a living out of Lincoln County’s worst murderer—a youngster who killed almost twice as many people as Billy did. Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not praising his deeds, but the state could certainly use the extra income. Unfortunately, there are no movies, no monuments, no historical markers, nor any tacky gift shops full of imported trinkets to memorialize the tragic short life of Martin Nelson.
You’ve probably never even heard of him at all.
I blame this on the railroad. If it weren't for that, every year in the thriving little town of Bonito, New Mexico, people would reenact the murder spree of….Marty the Swede, for the benefit of tourists (and for the financial benefit of the town!). Unfortunately for the state’s tourist industry, the scene of the crime is now under 75 feet of water and visited only by the large-mouth bass that inhabit the lake.
Following the Civil War, New Mexico enjoyed a brief gold rush. Miners pushed into the state, and began panning gold out of the mountain-fed creeks, erecting a minuscule village at every wide spot in the road; each tiny town was usually clustered around a saloon and a general store. The railroads dutifully followed the miners, building short spur lines in and out of these valleys, connecting those small mining communities to the rest of the nation. Eventually, as the gold ran out, most of those communities became ghost towns, although still connected by long-abandoned, rusty rails.
Those steam-powered trains used a lot of water, something still in short supply in most of the state, so when the Southern Pacific Railroad noticed that Bonito was built along a mountain-fed creek that ran all year long, they bought the property and dammed up the valley. The resulting Bonito Lake, provided a water stop for the railroad. After the steam locomotives were replaced with diesel locomotives, the railroad sold the lake to the town of Alamogordo, that still uses it as a source of water.
For a while, though, Bonito was a thriving little village, perched on the side of a mountain and surrounded by tall pine trees. There were three general stores, a saloon, a post-office, a small hotel, and a school. The village had a blacksmith, a lawyer, and a justice of the peace who boasted that the town had no crime worthy of a visit from the territorial sheriff. Any place where the bars outnumber churches is a wonderful place to live, and Bonito, whose name is probably an Anglo-corrupted pronunciation of the Spanish work for pretty, certainly qualified.
The picture at left, shows the post office, supposedly with Martin Nelson standing front of it. (Or not. Historians aren’t positive about the photos of Billy the Kid, either.)
The peace ended early one morning on May 5, 1885. Dr. R. E. Flynn, a physician and owner of a drugstore in Boston, had come to the mountains for his health. Sharing a room at the Mayberry Hotel with a young local prospector and day laborer named Martin Nelson, the doctor awoke at 3:00 AM to discover the 24-year-old man going through the pockets of his clothing, attempting to steal his watch. During the struggle, Nelson struck the doctor on the head with his revolver, and when this failed to quiet the man, Nelson fired his gun, killing Dr. Flynn.
At this point, Nelson probably wanted to flee the hotel, but the gunshot brought the hotel’s owner, John Mayberry and his two teenaged sons, John Jr. and Eddie, running. Nelson shot and killed all three, and as he made his way down the stairs, he shot the pregnant Mrs. Mayberry. Though wounded, she fled the hotel, taking with her, Nellie, her fourteen year-old daughter. Nelson followed them outside where he fired the sixth and final round from his revolver, killing the mother and wounding Nellie in the arm, before she was able to flee to the basement of a nearby house.
Nelson followed the young girl into the basement, and now armed with a Winchester rifle, told the girl to prepare to join her family in Hell. As Nellie begged for her life, Nelson struck a deal with the terrified girl—he spared her life in exchange for her promise to come to his future hanging. Satisfied, Nelson left the basement, and returned to Mrs. Mayberry, where she lay in the street.
By now, most of the small village’s citizens were awake and starting to investigate the nearby shooting. As Herman Consbruch stepped out of his general store, Nelson fired a shot at him, driving the merchant back into his store. Cautiously looking out a window, Consbruch watched Nelson use his foot to roll the body of Mrs. Mayberry over and down the side of the ditch that drained the community's single street.
As Peter Nelson—the town’s saloon keeper and no relation to Martin—stepped out of the saloon, Martin fired a single shot from his Winchester, striking the bartender in the heart, killing him instantly. Martin walked to the edge of the community and vanished into the trees.
By now, most of the men of the community had armed themselves and began to gather at the hotel. Believing the murderer to be inside, they surrounded the building and waited for him to reappear. Some of the ladies of the village tended to Nellie’s wounds, but the terrified young girl had no idea about the location of Nelson.
Nelson had made his way about a quarter of a mile to the Rademacher home, presumably looking for a horse to make good his escape. Unfortunately, Mr. Rademacher, awakened by the distant gunfire, had ridden his horse into the community to investigate the trouble. Unperturbed, Nelson ordered a terrified Mrs. Rademacher to cook his breakfast.
After finishing his breakfast, Nelson walked back towards Bonito. As he neared the village, he spotted groups of armed men standing outside the hotel. Taking careful aim with this Winchester, Nelson fatally shot Herman Beck in the back. As he ran towards the gathered men, one witness reported that Nelson yelled, “Hunt your holes!”
Though Charles Barry, the Justice of the Peace, was credited with firing the shot that killed Nelson, a later examination of the body revealed several bullet wounds. One man claimed that even his hat was riddled with bullet holes.
Eight people (Nelson's seven victims & himself), representing a sizable portion of the town, had been killed. A visitor to the community later remarked that half the inhabitants were making coffins. Dr. Flynn’s embalmed body was shipped by stage to Fort Stanton, where it was shipped by rail back to his family in Boston. The rest of the victims were buried in the Bonito Cemetery, while the body of Martin Nelson was placed face down in a crude pine box, buried with the murderer facing west. (It was the practice of the time to bury people facing east so they could greet the sunrise on the day of resurrection. A facedown body facing west was said to be denied eternal peace.)
No one has ever offered much of an explanation as to why a young man who had resided in the community for years suddenly erupted in violence. Some of the ladies of the village later whispered stories that hinted that a budding love affair between Martin and Nellie was the real cause. Others claimed that there had been a series of petty thefts in the region for years, and that Martin was afraid of being discovered as the thief. Whatever the truth is, it will remain as buried as the rest of the town.
The hotel was abandoned and the locals claimed it was haunted. Occasionally, visitors inspected the building, but the sight of the still-visible bloody footprints on the stairs usually frightened off even the most stalwart. The rest of the town didn’t fare much better. As the gold ore ran out, one by one the residents moved off. By the turn of the century, only two people still lived in Bonito.
When the railroad bought the land, all of the buildings were torn down. The remains of the victims were moved to a single mass grave in the cemetery in Angus, New Mexico while the remains of the worst mass murderer in New Mexico history was moved to the side of a nearby hill and marked with a simple cement tombstone.