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Tom Lyons

The Murderous Cattle Baron of Grant County

During four decades from the 1880s until his death in 1917, Thomas Lyons reigned as the dominant rancher in Grant County, both respected and feared. His LC Ranch in the southwest corner of the county stretched across a range—including leased federal land—of some 1.5 million acres, 40 miles from east to west and 60 miles from north to south. At the turn of the 20th century, the Silver City Enterprise declared that Grant County owed its prosperity more to Lyons than to anybody else.

So he was not an average or typical rancher, and you should keep that in mind. Now dead for over a century, he remains a singular figure in our history. He reminds me of the character Thomas Sutpen in the fiction of William Faulkner: a ferocious, relentless, unrestrained empire builder who, like a classic tragic hero, was finally undone by the ramifications of his own success.

He’s an example of how history gets written—and not written. And of how, if you’re sufficiently rich, powerful, and ruthless, you can bend history to your own purposes, at least for a while. But true history usually emerges in the end.

During his lifetime, and ever since, stories abounded that Tom Lyons sometimes had his ranching rivals killed. These stories were never written down and published while he was alive. The rumors have persisted till today. A local man told me recently that his grandfather told his father the name of one of Lyons’ paid killers, Red John.

I have recently come across a large body of first-hand testimony about Lyons and his murders. This evidence has been available but neglected for decades.

This man, Lou Blachly, was one of the pioneers of oral history: that is, tape-recorded spoken recollections that were then transcribed and made available. During the 1950s he conducted hundreds of interviews here with old-timers, whose memories went back to the late 1800s, for his Pioneers Foundation oral history project. They had much to say about Tom Lyons.

Blachly hoped the interviews would lead to a book that would reward his years of hard work. To his great frustration and disappointment, that didn’t happen, but for safekeeping he sent the tapes and transcripts to the library at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.

In 1990 that library copied the many thousands of pages of transcripts onto eight reels of microfilm. They’re a wonderful source for anybody interested in the Southwest during the late 19th century. These microfilm reels have long been available at libraries in Silver City, Albuquerque, and Tucson. For some reason, they haven’t been used much.

The best source on Lyons’ early life is the biography written by his two granddaughters by marriage, Ida Foster Campbell and Alice Foster Hill. Titled Triumph and Tragedy: A History of Thomas Lyons and the LCs, it was published in 2002 by High Lonesome Books of Silver City. The book is well researched, in general, but too often distorted by the authors’ automatic, uncritical defense of their step-grandfather.

Thomas Lyons was born to Irish parents in the English Midlands in 1850. The family emigrated to America a few years later and settled in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he grew up. In his teens he moved to Chicago, 60 miles south of Kenosha, and learned the boilermaking and machinist trades. Lyons brought those skills to the new mining town of Silver City in 1872.

Here he ran through a series of jobs and ventures. He opened a machinist business and then a small iron foundry, building and repairing machinery for the many mines that surrounded the town. He bought his own mines as well. With money from them, he became a cattle rancher in partnership with Angus Campbell, a Scotsman from Nova Scotia.

Their Lyons and Campbell Ranch, well located along the middle Gila River south of Silver City, grew explosively. Backed by investors from New York and Great Britain, by 1885 the LC Ranch was called the wealthiest spread in the county.

Lyons was then 35 years old, a short, stocky, muscular Irishman with a florid complexion and a personality that ran to extremes. He could be quite charming and generous, ready to help people down on their luck. He threw lavish parties where he sang songs and told stories long into the night. His friends and family loved him and defended him.

Here’s a group of Silver City merchants touring the county in 1909, stopping at Lyons’ home and ranch headquarters in Gila. A famous host, he gave them lunch, a tour of the area, and a “souvenir purse,” whatever that was, for each man.

BUT: if any smaller ranchers came anywhere near the edges of the LC Ranch, a quite different personality clicked in. With few fences, everybody’s cattle roamed freely, following the grass and doing great, permanent damage to the land. The boundaries between ranches were fuzzy and subject to dispute. Lyons wanted no neighbors close to his ranch—but he did want their land and cattle.

A notorious event in May 1890 suggested his darker strains. His wife Emma, the mother of their daughter, was keeping company with another man. In a small town, with a family of such prominence, people were talking. One day, Lyons told Emma he had business elsewhere and would not be home that night. Instead he returned at 10 o’clock and crept silently into the house. He found Emma and her boyfriend together, and shot him dead.

In such cases, public opinion and common law often exonerated the killer for simply “defending his home.” A judge dismissed the case.

That pattern—of deadly violence that went unpunished—was also how Lyons ran his cattle business. It’s impossible to know when these murders started, how many people were killed, and when they stopped, if they did. The libel laws, and a prudent fear of Lyons’ potential revenge, kept such stories out of the local newspapers. Historians here have generally lacked letters and diaries, the most intimate sources, which might in their private candor have disclosed the rumors about the cattle baron.

The following quotations are from the Blachly interviews.

The frontier era of 1870 to 1900 was, in general, a time of lawlessness and six-gun justice in Grant County and much of New Mexico. “We had to make our own laws…because there WAS no law,” Marietta Wetherill said. “People did bad things in those days.” Later on, “There was some semblance of law but I couldn’t see that it changed things very much.”

In Silver City, even the most respectable lawyers and judges drank and gambled heavily, often conducting their business at the Clubhouse Saloon. “There was nothin unusual about havin a dead man the next morning,” said Henry Stanley. “You carried your gun in self-protection….You might call it kinda wild now but we didn’t in those times….That’s just the way things went.”

The most documented Lyons murders involved the four Hall brothers. They had small ranches near the southwest border of the LC Ranch, close enough to attract the attention of Tom Lyons. “Their cattle ran together,” Henry Brock said. “Lyons wanted to put everybody out of those mountains.”

Lyons accused the Hall brothers of rustling his herds. “They didn’t have to steal cattle,” Wayne Whitehill said of the Halls. “They had more cattle than they knew what to do with….All the people here in the country all knew there was nothing to it,” that the accusation was false.

In September 1891, Bob and Dick Hall were kidnapped, taken into the mountains, and beaten to death. Their bodies were thrown into a ditch and burned. The two men left wives and children.

Having murdered two of the Halls, Lyons then pursued legal action against the surviving brothers and their father. Their trial was held at the Hillsboro court in April 1892. Peter Hall Sr. and Tom Hall were indicted for cattle rustling, and Peter Jr. for stealing a horse.

The few witnesses for the prosecution were seedy and not credible. The jury acquitted the father and was deadlocked about Tom, with eight votes for acquittal and four for conviction, which ended the case against him.

In his separate case, Peter Jr. insisted he had not stolen that horse. But his lawyer, John J. Bell, persuaded him to plead guilty anyway, as a sop to the frustrated prosecution and because his father and brother had been freed. Peter was sentenced to five years in the state pen.

Two years later, friends of the Halls gathered evidence and asked William T. Thornton, the territorial governor, to pardon Peter. The file for that pardon case is among Thornton’s papers at the State Archives in Santa Fe.

This is my summary of those pardon documents.

John J. Bell wrote that he had urged Peter to plead guilty, against HIS wishes, in order to save the brother and father, who had families. “I judged it politic to let the young man go to prison,” he wrote. “I had not the most remote conception of the enormity of the conspiracy which had been plotted against all these people, and was really prejudiced against my own clients; for I could hardly realize that men in our midst could be guilty of murder and assassination, perjury and subornation of perjury, in order to get rid of cattle men who were supposed to be in their way.”

Forty-two ranchers of Grant County signed a statement attesting to Peter’s innocence and good reputation. “He has been the victim of a foul and deep laid conspiracy by the tools of a powerful cattle company,” they agreed, “that he with others should be either killed, run out of the country, or imprisoned” so “their ranches and stocks might be confiscated.”

The most compelling testimony came from Johnny Johnson. He was 33 years old, originally from Louisiana, a big man for the time at six feet four. He had worked at the LC Ranch from 1889 to 1892, the last two years as the foreman, with intimate knowledge of Lyons and his practices.

In his ten-page signed affidavit, Johnson swore that he had often ridden the range in that part of Grant County and had never seen “a particle of evidence,” he said, against the Halls: “I always found them to be honest and industrious people.” “I do not know and never could find out why Lyons was so anxious to destroy these men.”

Johnson swore that two of Lyons’ “most trusted employees and friends” and a third man had killed Bob and Dick Hall; that Lyons then sent men to the murder site to hide any traces of the crimes; that Lyons ordered Johnson to kill the three surviving Halls and another man; that Johnson, fearing for his life, “pretended to agree” with that plot for quadruple murder but did not carry it out; and that Johnson resigned from the LC Ranch in March 1892.

This is important: The material in this file was given confidentially, so that people could take part honestly and safely, with no retaliation from Lyons or his minions. Governor Thornton pardoned Peter Hall Jr. in September 1894.

A basic criterion for judging a historical source is to consider how private it is. The more private, the more liable to be candid and true. A diary entry, which involves only the diarist, is better than a letter, which involves at least two people. That is better than conversation at a dinner party, and that is better than a public statement to the media. And so on.

The private evidence in this pardon file was quite damning—but it led to no legal proceedings against Lyons, which is something to ponder. Perhaps his wealth, power, and reputation discouraged any further investigations.

The existence of this file didn’t become generally known until 2002. Ida Campbell and Alice Hill apparently found the file, and mentioned it in their biography of Lyons, much to their credit. But they inevitably, given their bias, rejected its sworn evidence. Its details and quotations have only been revealed this year by, well, me, in my Desert Exposure article last April, and now, in much greater detail, here today. You all heard it first.

So: since Lyons’ death in 1917, it has taken more than a century for the full documented evidence about him to become known. His family and friends have covered his tracks quite effectively. At some point all his ranch records were burned: which by itself may seem suspicious. Those unwritten stories about him have often been dismissed as just rumors. As the Silver City Daily Press said in 1996, “What Tom Lyons’ crimes were, if any, have become lost in the rumor mill of small-town gossip.”

The first break in this barricaded facade had come in 1946. Ross Calvin moved to Silver City in 1927 as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd. (There’s an excellent biography by Ron Hamm.) In 1934 Calvin published Sky Determines, a brilliant, classic book about the Southwest. Over the years, he heard the usual stories about Tom Lyons. His book River of the Sun: Stories of the Storied Gila was published by the University of New Mexico Press in 1946.

Chapter 8 was a balanced treatment of Lyons, describing him as both a “despot” and a “builder and civilizer.” Calvin recounted the strained relations between Lyons and his eastern investors; always plunging ahead, he skirted the edges of financial disaster, and the ranch paid no dividends. “Violence became his first recourse,” Calvin wrote, “instead of his last resort.”

For example, Calvin cited a small homesteader named Jenks, no first name given. He had a modest cabin and just a few cattle. But Lyons wanted him gone. Jenks was duly accused of rustling the LC’s herd. A compliant deputy sheriff arrested him and started bringing him to jail. On the way, Jenks supposedly was killed while trying to escape. (The Silver City Enterprise had reported the same fable about Bob and Dick Hall in 1891.)

Calvin implied that Lyons perhaps had Jenks killed. Almost 30 years after his death, it was the first time anybody had dared to publish the possibility that Lyons was a killer.

The Lyons family circled its wagons. From Ida, his second wife, and widow: “A cruelly false and distorted account of my husband’s life and character….A fictitious person that I would have failed to recognize.”

From his stepdaughter: “It was with horror and amazement that I read your outrageous chapter on my beloved stepfather.”

Another relative told Calvin he was unfit to be a man of God, that his “vicious” chapter had done mental and even physical harm to the family.

By the time River of the Sun was published, Ross Calvin had moved to another parish, in Clovis, New Mexico, 400 miles away. It was perhaps just as well that he had left town.

The next break in the story came in 1952 with the publication of a book by Jennie Parks Ringgold titled Frontier Days in the Southwest: Pioneer Days in Old Arizona, issued by the Naylor Company of San Antonio. In 1891 her family was homesteading a place east of Safford, Arizona, near the mountains where Bob and Dick Hall were murdered. Bill Traylor, a notorious LC ranch hand, was part of the posse that killed them.

That night, at a big dance party, Traylor—who was proud of his work— got drunk and started bragging. Jennie Parks was either there or heard about it. The posse, he said, had caught the Halls about two miles north of Solomon, Arizona. Claiming they were deputy sheriffs sent to arrest the brothers for rustling, the posse took them into the mountains.

Sensing what was about to happen, Bob Hall begged for his life, promising that he would move far away from the LC Ranch. Nothing doing. Traylor claimed that three other guys—Steve Nixon, Sam Hatch, and Bob Galloway—did the killing, and that he was not directly involved. Nixon, like Traylor, worked for Lyons. They were perhaps the two “trusted employees and friends” of Lyons who Johnny Johnson said were the killers.

These gritty details lend credibility to Ringgold’s story—which, she wrote, “has always been considered the true account of the fate of the Hall boys.” She blamed the murders on “large cattle interests” in the background, without naming Lyons.

Ida Campbell and Alice Hill did not mention this book in their biography. I am the first person in some 70 years to cite it in reference to Lyons.

Now we come to the Blachly interviews, conducted during the 1950s— the fullest, most varied body of evidence on the crimes of Tom Lyons. Lou Blachly was a smart interviewer. For the most part, he asked brief, pointed questions and got out of the way. The garrulous old-timers often talked at length, apparently happy to relive their younger days.

They held forth in everyday spoken English, with dropped Gs and mistakes in grammar. Blachly sometimes mentioned contrary or confirming testimony from other interviews, and he brought up pertinent books. (That’s how I know about Jennie Ringgold’s book.)

Montague Stevens, an English college student, visited America in 1880. Enthralled by the Wild West, he settled into southwest New Mexico. As a rancher he encountered Tom Lyons as both partner and rival. “He was one of the bad men of the West….I knew him well,” Stevens recalled. Anybody who moved close to the LC Ranch was in mortal danger. “He hired killers to kill them,” Stevens said. “I knew the killers, some of them.”

These accusations by Stevens may have been sharpened by his own ranching rivalry with Lyons. Since Lyons had larger resources and no scruples whatever, Stevens probably lost these showdowns. “Tom was a mean man,” Stevens insisted. “Not only a thief and a murderer but he was mean as he could be.”

Agnes Meador Snider came to Grant County in 1879 from Sherman, Texas, 18 years old, and settled with her family at a ranch on the San Francisco River. “There was no churches nor no schools nor no nothing when we went out there,” she said. “Those were pretty tough times.”

Her father worked for Lyons, and they became “pretty good friends… quite intimate,” she recalled. From this close, favorable perspective, she remembered Lyons as a generous fellow when he was in the right mood: “He was [a fine man] to anybody he liked,” she said, “he’d do anything in the world for them.”

But even Agnes Snider emphasized Lyons’ bloody habits: “Tom Lyons hired these men to go out and kill these little ranchers and get ’em away off of the land because he wanted it.” She remembered the names of two of the regular killers, Childers or Childress and Red John—there’s that name again —or Red Johnson. (Men in that line of work often changed their names.) “Tom Lyons hired ’em and paid ’em so much for every man that they killed.”

Notice the details here. Stevens knew Lyons well, his sometime partner, and he knew SOME of the killers. Snider’s father was Lyons’ intimate friend, and she recalled the names of two of the killers. They were dredging up memories from 50 and 60 years earlier, a long time ago, but they were describing the kind of vivid, shocking events that stick in people’s heads forever.

Marvin Powe agreed that Lyons was “quite a nice-lookin man…and a mighty pleasant man to meet.” But in the chaos of frontier-era range wars, the control of land and precious water rights came down to who hired the most guns.

“He had a bad reputation from the little cowman,” Powe said. “Whenever a man come in there and got anywhere near on what Tom Lyons called his range, which he didn’t have any more right to than anybody else, why he made every effort in the world to get them off even if it come to killin ’em.” “If he couldn’t run ’em off, why he’d hire killers and kill ’em.”

Even people who were charmed by Lyons’ personality might temper their praise with a darker undertow. “He was just a jolly, good-natured fella,” said Charley Holson. “Everybody liked old Tommy….I don’t know how he was about doin business.”

“Rather jovial looking,” Wayne Wilson recalled. “He was extremely affable and sociable in ordinary intercourse…. Unless he was mad about something.”

The bounty that Lyons paid for each murder was variously reported as 200 or 400 or 500 dollars—a pile of money in those days.

“There was quite a few men killed,” Henry Graham recalled. Years later, Graham came to know Johnny Johnson, the former LC foreman who signed the crucial affidavit urging the pardon of Peter Hall Jr. Johnson was then going by the name Johnny Cravens.

He told Graham that the LC men would kill their own cattle, re-brand them with the brands of small nesters, and then—with that faked evidence of two overlapping brands—blame the nesters for rustling the cows from Lyons. (That gave him the pretext to take his usual steps.)

Blachly asked Graham if any of this was ever proven against Lyons. “They never did prove it,” he said. “There was nobody that ever could swear that they know that he had hired these killers.” But who in Grant County would have dared give public testimony against Tom Lyons?

These stories about him were apparently common knowledge in Grant County at the time, and subsequently. As John Cox said many years later, “Everybody knows what Lyons was.”

He seldom spoke in public or responded, on the record, to his accusers. He did speak up in the summer of 1897, after another deadly, protracted struggle with other ranchers amid accusations of rustling and murder. Lyons sent a long, rebutting letter to the Enterprise. This is one of the rare times that we can hear his voice. These are excerpts:

“The facts seem to be that these parties have to cover up some of their past work, and they are trying to lay the blame at some other person’s door….These [LC] men may have done all these things for all I know, but in justice to everyone, I think it hardly right to settle a crime so gross on anyone until he is arrested and some evidence brought against him. Why the LC outfit should in any way be connected with any of these transactions is more than I can tell. We always go as far as any of our neighbors in putting down lawlessness….I wish to state that I have nothing whatever to do with it….We do not want any trouble but if it comes we must do the best we can.”

He’s describing an upside-down world. The LC Ranch as the source of law and order, and himself as unfairly maligned. Given what we know about Lyons from many sources, the letter, well composed and calmly argued, is nonetheless unbelievable.

Steve Villareal worked at the LC during Lyons’ later years. He grew up on a farm on LC land along the Gila River. (Most of the LC’s farmers were Mexicans.) After Lyons sent Steve to Chicago for two years of business college, he returned to the ranch and became its bookkeeper and notary public.

“When they say that Tom Lyons had this man killed,” he told Blachly, “and that other man killed, and all that, there’s nothing to it. I lived with him, I worked with him, I slept with him, I was around…just like one of the family for twenty-five years.” For the rest of his life, Villareal defended his boss from any charges. (He was indebted to Lyons for his education and his job.)

I have read and skimmed thousands of pages of these transcripts. Nobody else so insisted on Lyons’ innocence. Anyone who addressed the stories about him said he was a killer.

My colleague Douglas Dinwiddie wrote his PhD dissertation in 1987 on Lou Blachly and his oral histories. Doug sent me this account of their local reception.

“[In about 1955], Mrs. Lucile Gray, who was a friend of the Lyons descendants, and an acquaintance of Blachly, had invited the Lyons folks to her home to meet him, and hear some of the tapes. Mrs. Gray decided maybe she should listen to them first, and when she did, she cancelled the planned session. She warned Blachly that he and the Pioneers Foundation might get sued for slander or libel. That led to some panic on his part, and off to Albuquerque went the tapes [to protect them]. Since some prominent cattlemen were supporters of the Pioneers Foundation, I’ve always wondered if that had anything to do with it as well.”

It is now almost 70 years later, and perhaps these ancient grudges and loyalties have subsided. Ida Campbell and Alice Hill, the loyal step-granddaughters, died in 2015 and 2013, both in their nineties.

The most convincing single piece of evidence I’ve presented today is the first-hand, signed, detailed, confidential, contemporary testimony urging a pardon for Peter Hall Jr. (Five good reasons to believe it.) As to the Blachly interviews, a lawyer might dismiss them as hearsay.

But lawyers and historians have very different standards of proof. Lawyers deal with people living now, who might be fined, jailed, or even executed if found guilty. The stakes are quite high. Evidence in court cases must be airtight and undeniable.

Historians rely all the time on what lawyers call hearsay. Historians call it “a primary source.” The available historical record is always fragmentary and incomplete, with many holes and mysteries. Historians must work with the best evidence they can find, and then reach informed conclusions. The stakes are lower because all the players are dead.

The major contribution of oral history has been to give voice to the voiceless—everyday, working-class people who leave no written records of their lives, no letters or diaries or stories in the media. They live and die, and then disappear from history. Oral history brings them back.

Of the men and women that Blachly interviewed, only a few went to college or had professional careers.

Perhaps the most important oral history work here since the Blachly interviews is the Chihuahua Hill History Project at the Silver City Museum. Javier Marrufo, the museum curator, is conducting the interviews and doing other research. He recently gave a report at the Silco Theater on the project so far, playing the recorded voices of those witnesses to history. It was very effective.

To finish my story:

At his ranch headquarters in Gila, Lyons kept a crack team of horses. Those fast, beautiful, spirited grays, pulling such a light buggy, could make the 32-mile trip from Gila to Silver City very quickly. That is Lyons in the driver’s seat.

On his trips to Silver City, Lyons drove the team very fast despite the rough road. “He went fast like that,” Montague Stevens said, “because he was afraid he would be shot along the road by somebody.” (“He ought to have been killed,” Henry Brock added.)

And sure enough… A few years later, Tom Hall—one of the surviving brothers—stopped Lyons on the road outside Silver City. As Brock later told the tale: Hall, presumably with some grim, at-last relish, informed Lyons he was going to kill him. Lyons fell to his knees and pleaded for mercy. (Just as Bob Hall had done back in 1891, to no avail.) “I couldn’t kill a man with him a-beggin and on his knees,” Tom Hall regretted to Brock. “Damn if I didn’t let him go.”

However: In May 1917 Lyons was beaten to death under murky circumstances in El Paso. “Mr. Lyons is known to have many enemies,” the Silver City Enterprise pointed out. There are various theories about who hired the killers, but nothing conclusive.

“Tom Lyons finally got it, after all, didn’t he?” Lou Blachly concluded. “Lyons got the same kind of medicine he’d been giving all the time.”

Stephen Fox
WILL Lunch and Learn, October 26, 2022

Disclaimer:
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Southwest Word Fiesta™ or its steering committee.

Stephen Fox

Stephen Fox

Ever since second grade, Stephen Fox has been intrigued by how things used to be. He majored in history at Williams College and got a PhD in US history from Brown University, expecting to become a history professor. But academic life did not suit him, so he’s been a freelance historian for the past 50 years. Steve has written seven books of US history and biography, all issued by mainstream New York trade publishers. He lived near Boston, his hometown, and exploited the wonderful local libraries for his research. He married rather late, at age 43, to Alexandra Dundas Todd, a medical sociologist and the longtime chair of her department at Suffolk University in Boston. Eventually the grim Boston winters got to them, so they moved to Silver City in 2008. (How they landed here is, as usual, a long story.) Steve has done seven local history projects, notably an article about Jaime Crow practices in Grant County that ran in the Spring 2019 issue of the New Mexico Historical Review, and an environmental history of Grant County that was part of the Silver City Museum’s “Unpacking Silver City” series in the summer of 2021.
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