William J. Brady

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William J. Brady
Brady in 1872, Territorial Legislature photograph
Born(1829-08-16)August 16, 1829
DiedApril 1, 1878(1878-04-01) (aged 48)
Cause of deathGunshot wound
OccupationLawman, soldier, politician
Years active1851–1878
Known forLincoln County War

William J. Brady (August 16, 1829 – April 1, 1878) was the sheriff of Lincoln County during the Lincoln County Wars in New Mexico, United States. He was killed in an ambush, aged 48, in which Billy the Kid took part.

Early life[edit]

Brady's family were Irish Catholics and members of the rural working class of County Cavan, his father being a potato farmer. He attended the newly opened local school and graduated in 1844.[1]

After the death of his father, he was briefly involved in local politics. During the Great Famine, he left for the United States.[2]


Upon his arrival in New York in July 1851, Brady enlisted in the U.S. Army and was assigned to the mounted rifles. He spent five years in southern Texas achieving the rank of Sergeant and upon reenlistment was transferred to Fort Craig, New Mexico in 1856.[3]

His enlistment was up in March 1861 and he was discharged at Fort Craig, only to enroll in the New Mexico Volunteers as a first lieutenant in Albuquerque the following August. He fought against the Confederate Army at the Battle of Glorieta Pass and stayed with his unit when it was incorporated into the First Regiment, New Mexico Cavalry.[citation needed]

After the Confederate troops left New Mexico, he was assigned as a recruiting officer in Polvadera, New Mexico.[4]

In 1862, he married María Bonifacia Chávez, a Mexican-American widow from Corrales.[5]

The following year Brady was assigned as the acting commander at Fort Stanton, and in 1864 was confirmed as commandant there. He led several successful campaigns against the Navajo and Apaches. He served as commandant at several other New Mexico forts until his discharge in October 1866 at the brevet rank of Major.[6]

Lincoln, New Mexico[edit]

Brady and his wife and children settled on a ranch on the Río Bonito, four miles east of Lincoln, New Mexico. He was first elected Sheriff of Lincoln County on September 6, 1869 and took office in January 1870.

In 1871, Brady was elected as the first representative from Lincoln County to sit in the Territorial Legislature.[7] He lost his seat in the next election. In 1876 he was elected again as sheriff.[8]


Although Lincoln sheriffs had tried for eight years to get money from the county for a jail, Brady finally got funds ($3,000)[9] to build an underground holding area in 1877.

Prior to that, the sheriff used the military jail at Fort Stanton. The new jail was twenty feet wide by thirty feet long, and ten feet deep. It was lined with rough logs and divided into two cells with a ladder and a trap door for access.[10] Light, when available, was by candles.[11]

Conditions were so bad and escapes so common that the county anted up for a real jail in 1880. One of the causes in the lack of confidence in Sheriff Brady was the escape in November 1877 of Jesse Evans and his gang.[10]

Lincoln County War[edit]

Brady sided with the Murphy-Dolan faction in the Lincoln County War. This put him up against Alexander McSween, Billy the Kid and the Regulators. Lawrence Murphy owned the mercantile (the dry goods store) in Lincoln, and Brady owed him money.

In the Spring of 1877, Brady was beaten up by two bravados, believed to be John Tunstall’s cowboys, in the middle of the main street of Lincoln. But their identity was never confirmed. People speculated that they worked for Tunstall.[12]

Lincoln county deputies, sympathetic with the Murphy-Dolan faction, shot and killed Tunstall on the trail in cold blood. Tunstall was the first fatality in what has become known as the Lincoln County War.[citation needed]

On April 1, 1878, Regulators Jim French, Frank McNab, John Middleton, Fred Waite, Henry Newton Brown and Billy the Kid ambushed Brady and four of his deputies on the main street of Lincoln. They fired on the five men from behind an adobe wall. Brady, aged 48, died of at least a dozen gunshot wounds.[13] Deputy George W. Hindman was hit twice, fatally.[14]

Once the shooting stopped, Billy the Kid and Jim French broke cover and dashed to Brady's corpse, either to get his arrest warrant for McSween or to retrieve Billy's rifle which Brady had kept. A surviving deputy, Billy Matthews, wounded both men with a rifle bullet that passed through each of their legs. They still managed to escape.[citation needed]

Brady was first replaced by John Copeland as sheriff. Copeland refused to take sides in the conflict. Dolan used his influence to have him replaced by George Peppin.[citation needed]

It was for the murder of Brady that Billy the Kid was convicted by a territorial court in April, 1881, and sentenced to death, a conviction that led to his famous escape from the Lincoln County jail and his subsequent killing by Sheriff Pat Garrett.[15]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ Lavash 1986, pp. 15–17
  2. ^ Lavash 1986, p. 18
  3. ^ Lavash 1986, pp. 20–21
  4. ^ Lavash 1986, p. 23
  5. ^ María Bonifacia Chávez claimed military pension widow's benefits but no evidence survives of their actual marriage. See Lavash 1986, p. 29, footnote 18. However at the time of the alleged marriage New Mexico did not yet have mandatory marriage registration, which law went into effect the following year. NM Laws 1862-63, pg. 64. However, New Mexico did not recognize common law marriage. In re: Gabaldon's Estate, 1934-NMSC-053, 38 N.M. 392, 34 P.2d 672 (New Mexico Supreme Court, 1934).
  6. ^ Lavash 1986, p. 28
  7. ^ Lavash 1986, pp. 34–36
  8. ^ Lavash 1986, p. 52
  9. ^ Fulton, Maurice G. (1968) History of the Lincoln County War University of Arizona Press, Tucson, Arizona, p. 89; ISBN 0-8165-0052-5
  10. ^ a b Ball 1992, pp. 109–110
  11. ^ Las Vegas Gazette quoted in Ball 1992, p. 110
  12. ^ Ball 1992, p. 200
  13. ^ The Officer Down Memorial Page Remembers ... Sheriff William Brady, odmp.org; accessed April 11, 2020.
  14. ^ The Officer Down Memorial Page Remembers ... Deputy Sheriff George Hindman, odmp.org; accessed April 11, 2020.
  15. ^ Utley, Robert M. Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life. chapters 15-17. ISBN 0-8032-9558-8


Police appointments
Preceded by
Mauricio Sanchez
Sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico
Succeeded by
Lewis G. Gylam
Preceded by
Saturnino Baca
Sheriff of Lincoln County, New Mexico
Succeeded by
John Copeland