Bonito City and its ghosts — if there are any — were featured in a recent ghost-related TV show.
The show’s three ghost enthusiasts visited Bonito Lake in Lincoln County, New Mexico. However, that show’s version of Bonito City’s past was very different from actual history. They may have missed the real ghosts of Lincoln County.
The TV Version
Bonito City was a thriving town until the night Martin Nelson shot and killed seven innocent people at the Mayberry Hotel for no apparent reason. After that tragedy, people began to move away. It’s as if Martin Nelson killed the town, not just some of its citizens.
Some years later, a dam was built that flooded the ghost town — and all of its buildings — to create Bonito Lake. Soon, people reported ghosts at the lake, including the dangerous spirit of Martin Nelson. Today, people avoid the site and whatever haunts beneath its waters.
Bonito City was one of many western towns that sprung up briefly when people were looking for gold.
Martin Nelson came to Bonito City to strike it rich as a miner, but soon realized that there wasn’t much gold. He could do better with petty crime… and so he did.
One night, Martin Nelson was interrupted while robbing the hotel room of Dr. William H. Flynn who had recently arrived from Boston.
After a loud fight over the watch that Nelson planned to steal, Nelson shot everyone who stood between him and a quick escape… including the doctor, five members of the family that owned the hotel, and two neighbors.
Then, Nelson was shot and killed by Charlie Barry, the local Justice of the Peace.
In the years that followed, people gradually moved away from the town. Mining near Bonito City required hard work for few results. A few people stayed to farm, but most figured they could do better elsewhere.
By the early 20th century, Bonito City was a ghost town and conveniently located near the Rio Bonito… an ideal water source for the Southern Pacific Railroad.
After negotiating with the remaining landowners, the railroad began building a dam to store water in the newly-created Bonito Lake.
However, since they needed clean water, every building, sidewalk and fence in Bonito was torn down and removed before the city was flooded. The graves were also moved to nearby Angus, New Mexico.
Today, Bonito Lake is a favorite vacation spot for campers, mountain bikers, fishermen, and rock hounds.
HERE’S THE COMPLETE STORY…
Bonito City and Gold Fever
When gold was discovered in California, many people dreamed of becoming rich overnight. All an area had to do was hint that their rivers, streams or hills contained gold, and mining towns would spring up overnight.
At right: This is a typical newspaper article from 1883, suggesting easy money for anyone willing to join the gold rush.
Bonito City — not far from Santa Fe, New Mexico — was a cluster of tents in 1882 when “gold fever” brought aspiring miners from states such as Texas and Virginia. For a very short time, Lincoln County was the most populated place in New Mexico.
At its peak — around the mid-1880s — Bonito City seems to have included a schoolhouse, three general stores, a saloon, a post office, a boarding house or hotel, one blacksmith and one lawyer.
(Most people agree that there was no church in Bonito City. The local minister, Rev. John Henry Skinner, was also a farmer and later a grain store merchant. He and his wife built a church… but not in Bonito City.)
Martin Nelson, Amateur Thief
The “ghost story” of Bonito City had its roots in 1885. In a nutshell, it was a robbery that went sour.
Martin Nelson was like many young men who dreamed about getting rich overnight. He claimed to be a miner, but no one recalls him actually working.
Some said that he’d been in Bonito City for four years. Others claimed he’d drifted into town the night of the murders. The truth is probably somewhere in between, and Nelson seems to have boarded with a couple of families including the Mayberrys.
Soon after Martin Nelson came to town, robberies were reported. No one was sure who was responsible, and the thefts were generally small.
However, at about 3 a.m. on Tuesday morning, May 5th, 1885, the thief — Martin Nelson — made a fatal error. He decided to steal a watch belonging to Dr. R. E. Flynn, who’d recently arrived from Boston and was staying with the Mayberrys.
Dr. Flynn woke up and raised the alarm, bringing the Mayberry family to his room. Panicking, Nelson shot and killed the doctor, and then began shooting the Mayberry family.
John Mayberry, Sr. and his two sons, John Jr. and Eddie (alternately referred to as Robert), died instantly.
At first, Mrs. Mayberry was only wounded. She and her daughter, Nellie (about 14 years old), ran down the stairs of the boarding house, attempting to escape. Nelson shot Mrs. Mayberry a second time, killing her, and the bullet also struck Nellie.
Nellie pleaded for her life, and Nelson agreed not to shoot her, as long as she promised to attend his hanging. She promised, and he let her live.
(In another version of the story, Martin Nelson was secretly engaged to Nellie, and he was stealing the doctor’s watch so the young couple could afford to elope.)
Meanwhile, saloon owner Pete Nelson (no relation to Martin) heard the shots as he was cleaning up for the night. As he entered Mayberry House, Martin Nelson killed him, too.
By then, a large number of people had gathered outside Mayberry House. Nelson was trapped, and remained there until about 7 a.m. when he tried to escape out the back door of the building.
Unfortunately, grocer Herman Beck (reported as Herman Breck in some stories) was waiting for him. Beck was killed instantly by a single shot from Martin Nelson’s rifle.
Martin Nelson got as far as the street when Charlie Berry, a Justice of the Peace, shot and killed the thief.
(Other versions of the story include a posse chasing Nelson to Littleton Canyon, where he was shot. That seems more credible. In 1933, the bodies were dug up and moved to another cemetery when the city was flooded. Those who saw the remains of Martin Nelson said that his green felt hat was still preserved, and it had several bullet holes in it.)
Martin Nelson’s victims were buried in the town’s cemetery, atop a hill. Nelson was buried outside the cemetery, in a flat area near where Bonito Lake is, today.
Nelson’s body was thrown into a rough pine box, face down, and buried with his body pointing to the west. Some said that this was so he’d never rest. Others said that it prevented him from haunting the town.
(The idea that he’d never rest is more likely. In that era, bodies were usually buried facing up, and pointing toward the east so they could rise and join Christ at the Second Coming.)
Bonito City’s Decline
Bonito City’s population boom lasted less than about 20 years. Some miners turned to farming or other work. The majority rushed to find “easy money” in California and elsewhere.
By 1900, Bonito’s ore — what little there was — had played out. The entire population of Lincoln County was just 1,065, and most of them were farmers and merchants building communities in towns like Carrizoza and Runnels. Others worked for the railroad, which brought new people to New Mexico every day.
Bonito’s location was beautiful, but isolated. Some records suggest that just two people lived in Bonito City (sometimes called Bonita City, or just Bonito) by 1910. The town’s post office formally closed in 1911, and by 1920, Bonito City was just a store and seven or eight houses.
In the late 1920s, the Southern Pacific Railroad sought permission to dam Bonito Creek to create a reservoir.
Bonito City was the ideal location for the new lake. Once the railroad negotiated ownership of the land, it hired workers to remove everything that remained of Bonito City.
One Final Journey for Martin Nelson
By 1933, the lake had filled and the water level was approaching the graves of Nelson and his victims.
Members of the Pfingsten family — long-time residents of Bonito City — helped to dig up the bodies for reinterment.
Dr. Flynn’s casket was moved to Texas, where his family lived. The rest of Nelson’s victims were given new caskets and placed in a common grave in Angus, New Mexico, not far from Bonito Lake.
Martin Nelson was also reburied, east of the Angus Cemetery. His body is in a grave at a hill, about 50 feet above the road. The plot is overgrown, but it’s marked with a concrete tombstone.
By the 1950s, steam engines were dinosaurs in the railroad world. Bonito Lake was sold and it is now a popular recreational site described in one travel guide as “a fisherman’s paradise.”
If You Go There
Bonito Lake covers about 60 acres at an elevation of 7300 feet. According to the book, Fly Fishing in Southern New Mexico, it’s “one of the most heavily stocked lakes in the state,” and has “very high use by bait fishermen.”
The Rockhounds Guide to New Mexico recommends panning for gold along the nearby Rio Bonito. You probably won’t find any gold nuggets, but most New Mexico rivers contain at least some gold dust, and the Bonito is one of the best for that.
If you’re interested in mountain biking, you’ll like Forest Road 107 near Bonito Lake.
Camping is available at the lake from April 1st through November 30th. For more information, or to make reservations, call 575.336.4157.
The lake is open for fishing — but only from the shore — from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. You can expect to catch rainbow and brook trout, as well as carp.
Remember that swimming, wading, and boating are not allowed in or on the lake.
For additional information about Bonito Lake and vicinity, check your library for books such as 100 Hikes in New Mexico, Frommer’s New Mexico, and New Mexico’s Wilderness Areas.
Tips for Ghost Hunting
Bonito Lake is about 12 miles northwest of Ruidoso. Take NM highway 48 north to Angus, and turn left on NM 37. After a mile, turn left again onto Forest Road (FR) 107 (County Rd. C-9). The lake is ahead about three miles.
You can camp at or near the lake; as of late 2009, campsite fees are $14/night, but there are no electrical hookups at campsites. [Link] If you prefer a motel, you’ll find several around Ruidoso and Capitan.
If you watched the Extreme Paranormal episode at Bonito Lake, keep these points in mind:
- Despite what you saw on TV, swimming, boating and wading are not permitted at Bonito Lake. The water is a source of drinking water for nearby communities.
- Never go diving alone in unfamiliar waters. (Though it looked like the investigator was alone, at least one underwater cameraman was probably filming him.) It’s particularly stupid to dive in unfamiliar waters, alone and after dark.
- If you feel as if something might be pulling you underwater, it’s probably a plant, an old fishing line or other debris. Get out of the water. Don’t risk getting further entangled in it. (And always carry a knife to cut yourself loose, if necessary.)
- If you’re on the water and you see lightning, get to shore immediately.
- The floating “circle” of candles looked like a Christmas display in Florida (without Mickey), but it had nothing to do with genuine ghost research.
- Provoking the ghost of a murderer is not a good idea, especially in an isolated location.
The Real Ghosts of Lincoln County
If I was in Lincoln County, New Mexico, these are the potential haunts that I’d research.
- The Bonito City area (not the lake) – Some or all of the town’s land belonged to the Mescalero Indian Reservation. A former resident, Mrs. Pinkie Bourne Skinner, talked about Indians peering into her house. I’d check to see if there had been a Native settlement somewhere near the lake; stolen lands are often very good for paranormal research.
- The Lincoln County War – I’d check several sites of drama and tragedy, including: the Torreon (shown at right), Blazer’s Mill (including two cemeteries off Rte. 70) where Billy the Kid was among those involved in the shootout, and the site of the Fritz Ranch, which has additional reasons to be haunted.
- Fritz Ranch – According to Wikipedia:After Brewer’s death, the Regulators elected McNab as their captain. On April 29, 1878, Sheriff Peppin was directing a posse that included the Jesse Evans Gang and the Seven Rivers Warriors. They engaged in a shootout with the Regulators McNab, Saunders, and Frank Coe at the Fritz Ranch. McNab died in the gunfire, Saunders was badly wounded, and Frank Coe captured.The next day, the Seven Rivers members Tom Green, Charles Marshall, Jim Patterson and John Galvin were killed in Lincoln, and although the Regulators were blamed, this was never proven. Frank Coe escaped custody some time after his capture, allegedly with the assistance of Deputy Sheriff Wallace Olinger, who gave him a pistol.The day after McNab’s death the Regulator known as the “iron clad” took up defensive positions in the town of Lincoln, trading shots with Dolan men as well as US Army cavalry. “Dutch Charley” Kruling, a Dolan man, was wounded by rifle fire by George Coe. By shooting at government troops, the Regulators gained a new set of enemies. On May 15, the Regulators tracked down and captured the Seven Rivers gang member Manuel Segovia, who is believed to have shot McNab. They shot him during an alleged escape. Around the time of Segovia’s death, the Regulator “iron clad” gained a new member, a young Texas cowpoke named Tom O’Folliard.
- Angus Cemetery – Communal graves, such as where Martin Nelson’s victims are buried, are often active. Rootsweb.com has a page listing the most important marked graves and where they are now: Bonito Cemetery webpage. At Angus Cemetery, look for the following murder victims from the Bonito City tragedy: Peter Nelson, Herman Beck, John Mayberry (aged 17 years), Edward Mayberry (aged 7 years), and Mr. & Mrs. W. F. Mayberry. See other graves — marked and unmarked — about two miles below where the dam is. In addition, there’s an extra name on the group headstone: R. F. Oswald. (I’m fairly certain that’s the son of Leo & Alice J. Bragg Oswald, a child who died many years later in Bonita City. His grave was probably moved when the others’ were, but it’s still odd that he’s in the same plot.) And, of course, if I could find Martin Nelson’s grave, I’d check it for EMF, EVP, and so on.(I’m still amazed that the show didn’t include those locations.)
- Fort Stanton – This is the Lincoln County site that really interests me. Besides being the first World War II internment camp, the fort — now open to the public — was the site of two lynchings: In the spring of 1883, 13 men lynched a fellow soldier (an alleged gunman). However, according to the newspaper report (at right) just one soldier confessed and stood trial; his 12 accomplices deserted. The lynching of William S. Pearl wasn’t the first at Fort Stanton; on 10 July 1876, outlaw Jose Segura was also lynched at or near the fort. When history seems to repeat itself, that can indicate residual energy. It’s worth investigating.
It’s always fun to check locations with rumored ghosts. The Martin Nelson story — while not especially unusual — is chilling. In addition, the lake setting presented something unusual for TV.
However, the victims’ graves — and the murderer’s — are just five miles away. Billy the Kid‘s two graves (yes, two of them) are just a daytrip from Bonito Lake. And, since there are numerous other sites of violence and tragedy nearby, there seem to be far richer haunts than one town’s off-limits water supply.
Well… unless you’re filming a really campy, over-the-top TV show, that is. (Note: The guys filming the show in question weren’t responsible for the scripts or editing of the show. In fact, it sounds like a nightmarish experience for them.)
References (in addition to the links in this article)
- Unbelievable – Extreme Paranormal and Bonita City (Also see Extremely Honest: A Conversation with Jason Gowin — linked above — and published two years after my original article.)
- Pioneer Story: Mrs. Pinkie Bourne Skinner
- Angus Cemetery, Lincoln County, NM (Wayback Machine copy)
- Bonito City – New Mexico Ghost Town
- Killings Began Town’s Slide, by David Bowser / Livestock Weekly
- Mayberry Murder Mystery of Bonita City (Ancestry.com)
- Lincoln County Folktales (link no longer works, but the same story seems to be at Lincoln County Paranormal)
- Myth of the Hanging Tree, by Robert J. Torrez
- The Sacramento Daily Record-Union, 10 Oct 1883
- The Sun, New York, 7 May 1885
- The Salt Lake Daily Herald, 7 May 1885
- The Sacramento Daily Record-Union, 14 May 1885 (clipping shown below)
- Photos include pictures by Lauren Burbank , Keely Dugger, and Loretta Humble.