Old Times and Old Timers

by Don Bullis

New Mexico’s Old Times and Old Timers

“Whatever Happened to Arthur Manby?”

Not only was Arthur Rochford Manby disliked by the people of Taos, “Mr. Manby was disliked with a passion,” according to one source.

Manby was born in England to an aristocratic family. He studied architecture in Ireland as a young man, and was also knowledgeable in mineralogy. Along the way he became somewhat capable in oil painting.

Observers of the day generally agreed that Manby made his way to Taos, New Mexico, in 1883, specifically to participate in the land fraud that had been prevalent for some years. Many old Spanish and Mexican land grants had already been co-opted by the so-called Santa Fe Ring. There was one large plot of land not far from Taos, however, that was involved in litigation, and Manby set his sights on the 60,000 acre Antonio Martinez Grant. He didn’t have a lot of ready cash, so he salted a nearby mine with gold nuggets and then proceeded to sell shares in the operation. In fact he sold them many times over, but that didn’t matter because they were worthless in the first place.

With the money he raised, he began purchasing small plots of land owned by the Antonio Martinez descendents, often for only pennies per acre. All in all he acquired about 15,000 acres of the grant, and through some artful maneuvering, he ended up with the entire thing.

He also began construction of a mansion in the heart of Taos. It had nineteen rooms in a square configuration which was completely surrounded by an adobe wall. While the structure itself was in the Spanish style, the garden around it was in the English style, with thick grass and flagstone walks and a well. The house was also furnished with English antiques.

In spite of it all, though, Manby became deeply in debt and simple survival required additional scams and double-dealing. “For the last twenty years of his life . . . ” according to one source, “[he] made a business of selling bogus quitclaim deeds, negotiating numerous property deed manipulations and maneuvering superstitious tenants to return the properties that he had previously sold them.” His enemies were legion and lawsuits were many.

It was, however, an event in the summer of 1929 that made him quite unforgettable. A Deputy U. S. Marshal who had papers to serve on Manby discovered a body in the mansion.

It was first believed that the body was that of Manby himself. It was dressed like Manby, down to knee-high lace up boots and a stickpin in the ascot. The problem was that the body was badly decomposed and the head was missing from the immediate area. It was later found in another part of the house, badly mauled by Manby’s dog, and the initial conclusion was that Manby had died of a heart attack, and his dog, for want of being fed, had molested the body and removed the head. The body was quickly interred and even if there was a question about the nature of his demise, no one much cared. As one observer wrote, “Very few Taoseños were sorry to learn that the old coot was dead.”

But Arthur had two brothers: Alfred and Eardley. They were greatly disturbed by the reported death of their brother, and they did not believe that he had died of natural causes. Therefore, they contacted New Mexico Governor Richard C. Dillon and demanded an investigation. The Governor passed the request along to Taos District Attorney Fred Stringfellow who in turn assigned the matter to investigator William Martin.

Martin quickly discovered that serious questions about Manby’s alleged death existed. For one thing, he could find no sign of blood in an area that should have been blood-soaked. The body was exhumed for another look and it was discovered that the head had been cut off, cleanly, as if surgically, and not chewed off by the dog. For another, there were two bullet holes in body’s chest. Clearly a case of murder.

Then artist Victor Higgins, who lived nearby, recalled talking with a hobo who was looking for work. Higgins had nothing for him to do and sent him to Manby’s house. The knight of the road entered the gate in the wall around Manby’s mansion and was never seen again. That his was the body in question was a circumstantial conclusion, but nothing could be proved. Even so, it became the conventional wisdom that Manby, beset from every direction by creditors, simply killed a vagabond and disappeared from Taos and New Mexico, leaving the impression that he had died, and thus confounding his creditors.

Then a baggage-boy who worked for the railroad in Raton (he’d been raised in Taos) came forward with an interesting tale. While working on the station platform late one night in early July, 1929, just before Manby’s “body” was discovered, he had seen Manby board an eastbound train. The boy alleged that he was very familiar with Manby, and spoke to him on the evening in question. Manby, he said, gave him a one-hundred dollar bill to remain silent. Again, a story that could not corroborated.

Another Taos artist, Joseph Sharp, and his wife, while visiting Florence, Italy, saw Manby walking across the piazza. They had been well acquainted with the Englishman in Taos, and they easily recognized him. He was even dressed as he’d always dressed around town, again high boots and ascot. According to Sharp, Manby saw them, too, and quickly disappeared into a shop.

Many other sightings were reported over the years.

At one point in 1930, efforts were made to bring a San Francisco Criminologist, Edward O. Heinrich, into the case, but his fee would have been $2,000, and the State of New Mexico could not afford such an expense, according to Governor Dillon.

That is pretty much where the matter ended. The death of Arthur Rochford Manby, or somebody else perhaps, remains one of New Mexico’s unsolved mysteries.

Sources: Albuquerque Journal, February 16, 1930.

Hemp, Taos Landmarks & Legends

Kutz, The Wild West Never Died

Roswell Daily Record, January 22, 1930

Waters, To Possess the Land: A Biography of Arthur Rochford Manby