THE LIFE AND DEATH OF JOHN HENRY TUNSTALL
Revised Edition with a New Foreword by the Author and an Addendum with Corrections
Foreword to this Edition
Readers who prefer the story of how a book comes to be written, rather than why, may be interested to learn that this one came about through an unlikely mixture of good luck and chutzpa. It begins in 1952, when a book called The Saga of Billy the Kid by Walter Noble Burns was reissued by a British publisher. Unaware it had originally been published in 1926, fired with the desire to know more about this gallant, courageous, reckless lad, a twenty one year old shipping clerk in Liverpool, England, plunged headlong into finding whatever further information he could. This led to his striking up, one by one, long-distance airmail acquaintanceships with such early seekers of the truth as Robert N. Mullin, Jeff C. Dykes, Eugene Cunningham, Carl W. Breihan and Colonel Maurice G. Fulton.
In January,1954, the shipping clerk—reader, it was I, and this is the good luck bit—made a major breakthrough by discovering, in the archives of the British Foreign Office, a substantial file of correspondence between the British and American governments, the Tunstall family and many of the participants in the Lincoln County War in New Mexico relating to the murder of John H. Tunstall. This, I realized, could make the Transatlantic disadvantage—all the information I wanted was in America and there was not the remotest likelihood I could ever get there—work for, rather than against me, and that I could achieve much more with John Tunstall’s life story than with Billy the Kid’s.
There was only one problem. The Foreign Office records were in London and I was two hundred miles away in Liverpool. There were no photocopiers then, so the only way copies could be made was by hand. So over the next year or so, hoarding pennies to make cheap overnight trips to London and back by train, I sat in the Public Records Office in Chancery Lane and transcribed those records one by one until I had a complete file. In the process, I also found Tunstall’s birth certificate and, with the aid of a fellow aficionado named Joseph G. Rosa (later to become the pre-eminent authority on the life of ‘Wild Bill’ Hickok) located the house in Hackney where Tunstall had been born, and the one in Hampstead where his family had been living when he left for Canada in 1872.
On one of these London visits (this is where the chutzpa comes in) I also—by the simple expedient of telephoning everyone named Tunstall in the London telephone directory—established contact with John Tunstall’s sister Mabel, and through her with the Tunstall-Behrens family.
By now I was firing enthusiastically on all cylinders, producing a monthly magazine for the English ‘Corral’ of The Westerners which I had co-founded that year, and also energetically conducting a regular correspondence with many of the leading Lincoln County War authorities—Bob Mullin, of course, but also William A. Keleher, Philip J. Rasch and most notably, Maurice Garland Fulton—then entangled in providing research and editorial guidance to Frazier Hunt for his biography The Tragic Days of Billy the Kid—who, when I excitedly told him about my Foreign Office discoveries, remarked (rather drily, I thought) “You do seem [to] have made an achievement.… I am glad you are obtaining self-education through your research.” Somehow I’d expected a bigger round of applause than that.
But I didn’t care. In short order I wrote an article about the fruitless eight year battle the Tunstall family fought to obtain recompense from the US Government for the murder of their only son and the loss all his investments and property in Lincoln County. Throughout all the foregoing, I had been sharing my ‘self-education’ on Tunstall’s life and the events which had led to his death with the family, and when it was published, Mary Tunstall-Behrens and her nephew Hilary invited me to her home where, spread out on a refectory table, were all of John’s letters and diaries (not to mention photographs) dating back to 1872 when he left London to work in the Turner, Beeton and Tunstall store in Victoria, British Columbia. And it was decided that they would allow me full and unfettered access to everything.
The (to me) vital letters from Lincoln County, however, were not there; apparently Mary’s father had loaned them to Colonel Fulton in 1927, and Fulton still had them. At the family’s request I exhorted him to return them, which he eventually did. And just in time, because on February 15, 1955, he unexpectedly died, leaving his work, his papers, and three manuscripts of the unfinished history of the Lincoln County War he had been writing for a quarter of a century (it was eventually completed by Robert N. Mullin and is now available again from the publisher of this revival) in total disarray.
During our correspondence, I had at one juncture proposed to Colonel Fulton that there should be a proper marker on the site of John Tunstall’s unmarked grave in Lincoln, to which he replied, “A book is a better monument than stone.” When I put that thought to the Tunstall family they agreed to my writing a biographical study, which I began researching and writing in 1956 and finished in 1959.
Readers today may find it hard to believe, but for the original edition the University of New Mexico Press was so concerned about the detailed references in the book to the existence and activities in Territorial New Mexico of the Santa Fe Ring (and Thomas B. Catron, whose son Thomas was alive and well and practicing law in Santa Fe at the time) it took them six years to get up the courage to actually publish the book.
By the time they did, I had moved on to many other things, including a successful career in publishing. In 1971, following a stint working for Ballantine Books in New York, I was finally able to visit Lincoln, New Mexico for the first time. It was late in September and when we got there it was raining. All the tourists had gone and the empty town appeared to be closed down. There was no one at the desk of the old Murphy-Dolan and the Tunstall store was locked and shuttered. There wasn’t even anywhere to buy a cup of coffee. I remember we sat in the car with the windshield wipers clacking and my wife said, “You brought me five thousand miles to see this?”
It got better later, when we were given a special tour of the Tunstall store by Henry Sanchez and met a daughter and grand-daughter of Sheriff George Peppin, who told me that until she read my book she had always thought Tunstall was a “panty-waist” and had no time for him, but now she understood him and what he had been trying to do. And that alone was worth the trip.
What had happened, I discovered, was that The Life and Death of John Henry Tunstall had turned upside down the strongly-entrenched tradition that the Murphy-Dolan combine had been the “good guys,” while the “outsiders,” McSween and Tunstall, had been given the come-uppance they deserved. That sea change in sympathies has prevailed to the present day, and I wonder now whether perhaps, as I have written elsewhere, it is time for someone to reassess Tunstall’s role in the Lincoln County War, to render sterner judgment upon the activities of Alexander McSween and his proud, devious wife, and perhaps reconsider the lives and achievements of their opponents. Nevertheless, as you might expect, I am proud of the book, especially in this new edition by Sunstone Press with additions and corrections to the original edition.
But please remember as you read it, that (to borrow from Isaac Newton) if I have seen further it is because I was standing on the shoulders of giants.
—Frederick Nolan, Chalfont St. Giles, England, 2009