The Mayburry Murders
(The Legend)

Bonita City, a rather grand name for the cluster of log buildings that housed a saloon, post office, schoolhouse, church, general store, a hotel, and a number of residences. Located twelve miles northwest of Ruidoso, Bonita settlers flourished in the 7000 foot meadows at the edge of the forests. All was well in the world, or so it seemed untill two events took place that would cause this serene and pleasant community to literally disappear. The centerpiece of Bonito City was the two-story log hotel called the Mayberry House operated by Mr. and Mrs. John Mayberry. They had three children; John, Eddie, and Nellie. On the night of May 5, 1885, the Mayberry House leaped into the records books with one of New Mexico's most bizarre crimes.

Earlier that evening some miners ate supper there then left. Only two guests had rooms, Dr. R. E. Flynn from Ohio and a youth named Martin Nelson. Everyone was in bed by ten o'clock. About 1:00 AM, Nelson woke up and knocked on the bedroom door of the two Mayberry boys. John awakened and opened the door, at which point Nelson fired two rifle shots, killing the boy instantly. He then turned on the 7 year-old Eddie who was screaming in bed. Nelson killed him with a single blast. Dr. Flynn, hearing the shooting, rushed from his room and was shot through the head. John Mayberry, after hearing the screams, was making his way up the dark stairs from the first floor when a shot through the heart dropped him on the landing. Blood was everywhere. Mayberry's daughter, Nellie, appeared and was shot through the side and left for dead. She later recovered. Mrs. Mayberry ran upstairs, where Nelson shot her in the chest but failed to kill her. She stumbled downstairs with blood streaming all the way to her feet, leaving bloody footprints visible on the stairs, which were still visible years later. She fled to the nearest cabin for help; Nelson followed her, killed her, and threw her body into an irrigation ditch. Pete Nelson, the saloon keeper (no relation to Martin Nelson) appeared on the scene, grappled with the youth but was no match for the murderer. Nelson shot him to death and left his bleeding body in the street. The next victim was the storekeeper, Herman Beck, who came out to learn the cause of the gunshots. Nelson killed him with one bullet.
Bonito's terrified citizens locked themselves in their homes until morning while Nelson roamed at large, finally climbing up a nearby mountain. In the morning, as Charlie Berry, Rudolph Schultz and Don Campell were standing in the street discussing the murders, they sighted Nelson returning down the mountain. He saw the men, brought up his rifle to fire, but was an instant too late. Berry felled him with a bullet through the heart. Nelson's last shot went harmlessly into the air as he fell. The total casualties were eight killed, including the murderer, and one wounded. It was years before the people of Bonita City recovered from the shock, and for fifteen years nobody set foot in the log hotel. Folks said it was haunted, telling stories of shrieks and groans in the dead of night, of seeing lights flicker from room to room, or hearing muffled shots. Those who peeped through the dusty windows could see the bloody footprints left by Mrs. Mayberry's feet. The murderer was buried at Bonito with his head pointed down. Folklorists say this custom was to prevent the buried person from walking as a ghost. The victims were also buried in Bonito side by side of each other and a reasonable distance away from the murderer Martin Nelson.

Gradually Bonita City died. The final blow came when the railroad arrived on the desert below and took a business like approach to acquiring water rights in the Bonito Valley and later on buying out the land in which the remaining residents of Bonito City lived. In 1930 Bonito Dam was built by the Southern Pacific Railroad, the remains of the victims were moved to Angus Cemetery. A large stone marks their resting place and as for Bonita City, it is presently resting under seventy-five feet of water that is now known as Bonito Lake. Since then, Bonita City (or Bonito City) has become an old memory and a murder mystery of the past. Some people have claimed that during a well moonlit night, they can see the top of the church steeple shining below the serene resting water of the night. (But the church steeple is a myth.)


This is the only known existing photo of Bonita City (as far as i can find) ; building is the general store.


EDIT: Bonito City – The Real Story

Bonito City and its ghosts — if there are any — were featured in a recent ghost-related TV show.T he show’s three ghost enthusiasts visited Bonito Lake in Lincoln County, New Mexico. However, their version of Bonito City’s past was very different from actual history, and they may have missed the real ghosts of Lincoln County.

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.

The Truth

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.

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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

goldfever1When 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

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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.
  • bonito-torreonThe 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.
  • Angus Cemetery – Communal graves, such as where Martin Nelson’s victims are buried, are often active.  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.)
  • fortstanton-lynchingFort 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.

References (in addition to the links in this article)

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