Old Times and Old Timers

by Don Bullis. 

Bonito City: Gunshots Shattered the Silence. 

The valleys of the Sacramento Mountains between Carrizozo and Ruidoso are among the most beautiful places in New Mexico.

In the early 1880s, a farming and mining town sprang up in the well-watered Bonito Valley and for obvious reasons it assumed the name, Bonito City. By 1885 it amounted to three general stores, a church, a blacksmith, a school, a saloon, a lawyer and a two-story log hotel.

Bonito City was a quiet town. Residents boasted that in the first few years of its existence, the sheriff and his deputies were never summoned from the county seat at Lincoln. All of that changed in the early morning hours of May 5, 1885.

Mr. and Mrs. John Mayberry and their three children, Johnny, 17; Eddie, 8; and a daughter, Nelly, resided at the hotel, which they owned and operated. One of the upstairs rooms was rented to Dr. R. E. Flynn, who had recently arrived in Bonito City from Cincinnati, Ohio. Another of the rooms was occupied by a prospector named Martin Nelson, 24 years of age.

Sometime early on that fateful morning, Martin Nelson rose from his bed and with rifle in hand, knocked on the door of the room in which the Mayberry boys slept. When Johnny opened the door, Nelson shot and wounded him. But Johnny grappled with his assailant who knocked him to the floor before he shot him again, this time killing the boy. Nelson then shot and killed Eddie as the child screamed in terror.

Dr. Flynn, awakened by the commotion, rushed from his room, only to be shot in the head and killed instantly. John Mayberry dashed up the stairs and was killed with a single shot to the heart as he did so. Mrs. Mayberry followed her husband and was shot and severely wounded. She rushed into the street, crying for help, which was not immediately forthcoming. Nelson then shot the Mayberry daughter, Nelly, and wounded her, too. Nelson, believing that Nelly was dead, ran into the street where he shot Mrs. Mayberry again, and killed her. He bothered to throw Mrs. Mayberry’s body into a nearby irrigation ditch.

The town at last became aroused. Saloon keeper Pete Nelson — in no way related to Martin Nelson — grappled with the killer, trying to take the rifle away from him. He failed. Martin Nelson shot and killed Pete Nelson. Grocer Henry Beck stepped into the street to see what was going on, and was shot and killed for his trouble.

With seven murder victims to his dubious credit, Martin Nelson then disappeared into the darkness of night. As the sun came up, heavily armed groups of men searched the town for the killer, to no avail. Then, as three men, Charles Berry, Rudolph Schultz, and Don Campbell, stood talking, one of them spotted Martin Nelson walking down a nearby mountainside; walking toward them. At about the same time, Nelson saw the men and raised his rifle to fire, but Charles Berry fired first. His bullet hit the young killer in the chest, and he fell dead on the spot.

The Mayberry daughter, Nelly, was the only survivor among Nelson’s victims and she soon left town. All seven murder victims were buried at Bonito City, and Nelson was buried some distance away.

No motive for Nelson’s actions was ever determined. He had no previous trouble with the law and was well enough liked around town in the time leading up to the killings.

The Mayberry Hotel remained vacant and unmolested for fifteen years. Some residents reported that it was haunted. Bloody footprints allegedly remained on the stair steps for a long time, visible to those brave enough to sneak up to the building and look in a window.

A resident told this tale: “At one time, a newspaper reporter was sent to investigate the mystery and write it up for a certain eastern newspaper. He gained admittance to the old hotel and watchers had but a short time to wait before they saw him running from the place as though being chased by a band of spooks from the infernal regions.”

Another resident said that the murders “killed” Bonito City. The town itself stopped growing after 1885 and by 1910 only two people lived there. It remained a ghost town until 1930 when the Southern Pacific Railroad dammed up Bonito Creek to capture water for use in railroad steam engines. All of the town’s buildings, including the hotel, were dismantled before 75 feet of water covered it completely. The bodies of the seven murder victims, and their killer, were moved and reinterred in the nearby Argus Cemetery.

By Don Bullis, author of ten books on New Mexico, including his lastest book New Mexico Historical Biographies available at www.DonBullis.biz

Further Reading: Lincoln County Tells Its Stories, Marilyn Buchett, ed., Lincoln County Historical Society, 2012
The Place Names of New Mexico, Robert Julyan, UNM Press, 1996
The Gold Lettered Egg & Other New Mexico Tales, Ted Raynor, privately published, 1962
Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of New Mexico, James E. & Barbara H. Sherman, University of ​Oklahoma Press, 1975

Don Bullis’ most recent book, New Mexico Historical Biographies, was recently awarded the Fray Francisco Atanasio Dominguez Award for historic research from the Historical Society of New Mexico. It also won a Bronze Medal from Independent Publishers Book Awards for excellence in research.