Billy the Kid and Santa Fe’s La Fonda Hotel History

Stories say a young Billy the Kid worked as a dishwasher in the Exchange Hotel,  the Inn at the End of the Santa Fe Trail, today’s La Fonda Hotel. There, he probably heard these tales of its legendary past.

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The single-story adobe building—the only hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1873—stood off the southeast corner of the Plaza, as La Fonda Hotel does today:

The stages from eastern points on arrival always made their first stop at the Fonda, … passengers being unloaded at the office entrance on the corner, which was the actual “end of the Santa Fe Trail.” (Twitchell, 1925, p 238)

Travelers and townspeople who gathered at the hotel—trappers, traders, soldiers, merchants, pioneers, prospectors, and politicians—always referred to this establishment, and similar ones before and after it in the same location, as la fonda, meaning “the inn.”

An inn had hosted visitors on this corner since 1610. Renowned for its comfortable accommodations, elegant gaming parlor, fine food, and even better “liquid cheer” in the bar just through the swinging doors from the lobby, the Exchange Hotel also enclosed a charming, shaded placita. Here, customers could dine amid fragrant flowers, leafy vines, and caged songbirds in warm weather.

Did Billy the Kid and his family stay in the “well equipped” rooms of the Exchange Hotel when they came to Santa Fe in the early 1870s? No mention of them appeared in the Daily New Mexican, although it noted visitors registering there most days. Perhaps they lacked enough social prominence to merit mention.

Historical writer Fredrick Nolan suggested that Mary Ann Hollinger, the sister of Billy’s mother’s long-time companion, William Antrim, lived in the Santa Fe area in 1873. Perhaps Mrs. Hollinger met the party when they arrived in the Plaza. Maybe she took them to her home for a warm welcome.

Another historical writer, Jerry Weddle, said the group lived in the Hollinger home “for some months,” then later moved to the Exchange Hotel.

Whether or not they ever stayed in the hotel, they probably visited its public rooms from time to time, as did most Santa Feans of all classes:

The public social affairs and bailes given at the Fonda were numerous … army officers in their dress uniforms, their wives and daughters gowned a la mode,  the territorial officials, their wives and prominent citizens … with music by the military band or orchestra … gave to these social festivities a color and charm never to be forgotten …

When a gran baile was in progress … champagne was the order of the “night” and case after case would disappear … [served by] special bartenders spick and span, with their white aprons, carefully waxed moustaches and hair combed to the last degree …. (Twitchell, 1925, pp 237-239)

Local tradition says young Billy earned money washing dishes at the Exchange Hotel, in addition to singing for tips around the Plaza, although Weddle said his employment there was as “an energetic messenger.”

As a dishwasher, Billy would have been largely confined to the kitchen toward the back of the hotel, off the dining room, or even to the second kitchen for the teamsters by the corral. If he had the chance to sing for tips in the popular bar or to deliver messages for patrons, he could have seen more of the comings and goings around the hotel and met many of the most interesting characters of the day. Surely, this clever, energetic boy would have found ways to become part of whatever was going on in this hub of community activity. He would also likely have heard tales from his place of employment’s storied past.

By the time Billy first arrived in historic Santa Fe, this legendary Inn at the End of the Santa Fe Trail had already accumulated quite a history of its own. In addition to its other famous guests, it had accommodated the usually inebriated General Henry Hopkins Sibley during Santa Fe’s short-lived stint as a Confederate Territory in 1862. Before that, it had hosted the lavish victory ball celebrating American General Kearny’s takeover of New Mexico during the Mexican War.

Like much of Santa Fe, the inn had also seen its share of violent incidents. Local lore says judges held court here in the early days, with subsequent hangings carried out in the lobby. Surely, this couldn’t have been good for business.

Famous for its wagering salon, la fonda’s gaming tables were “the lure for all classes of Santa Fe society.” Its main gambling hall, entered from the bar through a wide doorway and lit by kerosene lamps shaded with large tin reflective hoods, boasted:

… every kind of gambling game known in the West in those times, the principal games being faro and monte … Tables devoted to draw poker and other ‘short’ card games were in evidence and two or three billiards tables. (Twitchell, 1925, p 237)


[Army] officers in uniform … rubbed elbows with justices of the supreme court; civilians in every walk of life, bankers, merchants, clerks, “cowmen,” vaqueros … sheepmen and sheepherders, governors, lawyers and politicians, [and] with an occasional professional “gambling man” …. (Twitchell, 1925, p 239)

Legend says a distraught patron who lost all his money during an evening of drinking and wagering once drowned himself by jumping into the placita well. Customers dining there al fresco on summer evenings occasionally reported seeing his ghost cross the courtyard and fade into nothingness.

A young soldier wrote about an even more violent incident in June 1851:

In the evening several persons were seated in the hotel. A person came in, took a glass of brandy, turned from the bar and commenced firing his pistol at random, and could not be stopped until he had fired four shots which wounded one lawyer in the abdomen and another man in the arm.

He was asked the reason for doing so and replied, “A friend of his from Texas was killed at Santa Fe, and all inhabitants of the place were cut-throats, robbers and murderers.” He was a Texan.

He was placed in jail. Later in the night, the Texan was taken from the jail and hung by the neck in the backyard of the Exchange. I suppose it was done by friends of the lawyer. (Hertzog, 1962, p 7)

Another story described one of those professional gambling men who lost his life in 1857 at the end of a rope in the placita. “Judge Lynch” had grown suspicious of the stranger’s good luck at the gaming tables.

Ten years later, on December 15, 1867, two esteemed territorial citizens created another sensation when they encountered each other in the hotel billiards room. One was William Rynerson, Dona Ana County’s representative to the Territorial Legislative Council and the only Anglo sitting in that body. Historian Robert Utley described this heavily bearded member of the Santa Fe Ring who stood nearly seven feet tall, as “a great hairy giant with a fiery temper.”

Born in Kentucky, Rynerson walked overland to California to join the gold rush in 1852. At the start of the Civil War, he joined the California Column that marched from the gold fields to secure New Mexico for the Union. For the rest of the war, he served in Santa Fe as adjutant to General Carleton, Commander of the Military Department of New Mexico, and left the army with the rank of Brevet Colonel.

The other distinguished citizen was John Slough , Chief Justice of the Territorial Supreme Court, who commanded the Union forces at New Mexico’s Battle of Glorieta Pass. Later in the war, General Slough became military governor of occupied Alexandria, Virginia, and then served as a pallbearer for Abraham Lincoln. He returned to New Mexico when President Andrew Johnson appointed him Territorial Chief Justice in 1865.

Chief Justice Slough, arrogant and often offensive but reputedly honest, often angered local politicians, especially those associated with the Santa Fe Ring. As one of the Ring’s strong backers, Colonel Rynerson introduced legislative resolutions to remove the cantankerous Chief Justice from office, supposedly because of his high-handed behavior on the bench.

Chief Justice Slough, in his usual no-holds-barred manner, responded to the legislative resolutions by publicly declaring Colonel Rynerson “a thief in the army, a thief out of the army, a coward and a son of a bitch.”

The next day, in what some claimed represented a “set up” by the Santa Fe Ring to eliminate the incorruptible Chief Justice, Rynerson was standing near the fireplace in la fonda’s billiards room when Slough entered. The aggrieved legislator drew his Colt revolver and demanded that Slough retract his offensive words. Slough refused. Rynerson fired. As Slough fell mortally wounded, a derringer clattered to the floor from his vest pocket.

Even in Santa Fe, this constituted startling behavior. Rynerson stood trial for murder. But with “Smooth Steve” Elkins, Thomas Catron’s old friend and law partner, and himself another leading member of the Santa Fe Ring, as his defense attorney, the jury acquitted Colonel Rynerson on the rather flexible grounds of self-defense.

These tales of la fonda’s violent history must have attracted Billy’s attention, aficionado of dime novels and Police Gazette articles that he was. Working in such a storied setting would surely have thrilled the young teen.

Someone may even have pointed out the infamous Rynerson to Billy during one of that gentleman’s business trips to Santa Fe. “There sits a man who got away with murder!” a fellow employee might have whispered to young Billy, as the now-forty-five-year-old “hairy giant” sat enjoying his dinner in la fonda’s elegant dining room.

Billy might well have paid close attention to Rynerson. He would come to know this name much better in the future, because killing the Chief Justice hadn’t seemed to impede William Rynerson’s professional career. In 1873, he was practicing law in Las Cruces while becoming rich through mining interests and his continued close ties with the Santa Fe Ring. His recent marriage to wealthy Hispanic Luciana Lemon—widow of a Republican leader killed in the bloody Mesilla brawl of 1871—hadn’t hurt either.

In 1876, Governor Sam Axtell, would appoint Rynerson as District Attorney of New Mexico’s Third Judicial District. At the time, the Third District included Dona Ana, Lincoln, and Grant Counties, in other words, all of southern New Mexico.

In his job of prosecuting crimes related to the Lincoln County War, it was District Attorney Rynerson who successfully pushed for a change of venue when Billy faced his own murder trial five years after leaving Santa Fe. Rynerson took this unusual prosecutorial step in order to move the trial from the town of Lincoln, where most potential jurors knew and liked Billy, to Mesilla, 150 miles away, where the populace knew the young accused only from lurid newspaper stories describing him as a violent desperado.

It was also District Attorney Rynerson who, as prosecutor, refused to cooperate when Governor Lew Wallace later wanted to pardon Billy for his actions in the Lincoln County War. Rynerson pursued the Kid remorselessly. After all, he had challenged the Santa-Fe-Ring-backed Murphy-Dolan faction in that Lincoln County conflict.

But all those events lay in the future. In 1873, la fonda held yet another attraction for young Billy, in addition to its colorful history. Stories claim he would sneak into the hotel lobby to play its piano whenever he got a chance, although many dispute that he knew how to play that instrument.

Numerous friends and acquaintances did agree that Billy loved music though, especially singing and dancing. He had a beautiful tenor voice and sang in community musical shows later in Silver City. So, the lobby of the Exchange Hotel would have attracted the young dishwasher, whether to play the piano there himself or simply to enjoy the music with others.

(This selection comes from Billy the Kid in Santa Fe, Book One: Young Billy)
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You might also enjoy this brief book about the jail that successfully held Billy the Kid for three months.

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