One victim of the Lincoln County War was Morris Bernstein. Who was he?

James Freed

Dennison, Ohio

On August 5, 1878, Billy the Kid and a group of Regulators raised hell at Blazer’s Mill in Lincoln County, New Mexico, hoping to steal horses to replace some they’d lost. The trading post supplied beef to the local Mescalero Apaches.

The Lincoln County War had been waging since February with members of the House faction, who monopolized county trade, fighting Regulators once employed by cattleman John Tunstall. His murder in February had stirred his cowboys to avenge his death and finish his work to defeat the House.

At the Indian agency, Morris Bernstein, a former employee of House member James Dolan, handed out rations to the women. When gunshots rang out, everyone scattered. Riding into the midst of the gunfight, Bernstein was shot and killed by Atanacio Martinez.

At a nearby spring, Indians and soldiers opened fire on Billy the Kid and George Coe. They escaped the hail of gunfire, riding double on Coe’s mount.

The killing of Bernstein incurred public wrath upon the Regulators. He’d been shot four times, and his weapons and valuables were stolen. Killing him may actually have been an accident, but it looked like brutal murder. Even though the Kid was several hundred yards away at the time, he was branded as Bernstein’s killer.

Read Fred Nolan’s The West of Billy the Kid to learn more.

The latest research, though, indicates that Bernstein may have been a newspaper reporter with the pseudonym Soapweed, who criticized House members with articles about their corrupt business tactics. Jerry Klinger, president of the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation, discovered this while trying to find out more about this Londoner, born February 11, 1856, who first came to New Mexico in 1873, finding work in Santa Fe as a bookkeeper.

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