Massacre in Bonito Canyon

The wind blows across the cold dark waters of Bonito Lake and the tree covered hillsides whisper secrets of a century-old murder mystery that still haunts Bonito Canyon. The legend of the 1885 Mayberry murders are shrouded in a cloak of time. 

The truth of what actually happened that night in Bonito City may never be known. Somewhere in the combination of many versions told and re-told runs a thread in the fabric of fact. What is indisputable is that Martin Nelson, 24, went on a shooting rampage, killing four members of the Mayberry family and three bystanders in cold-blooded murder on the night of May 5, 1885. His motive was never determined but often thought to be greed, madness or unrequited love.

Bonito City, just 12 miles northwest of today’s Ruidoso, was a cluster of log buildings birthed from a mining tent town that rose up during a local gold rush in 1870. The town nestled in meadow of Bonito Canyon at 7,000 feet boasted a saloon, general store, school, post office, some log and plaster homes with the centerpiece being a two-story hotel operated by Mr. and Mrs. W. F. “John” Mayberry. The couple had three children: Johnny, Eddie and Nellie ages 17, 7 and 14.

Almost all accounts agree that Nelson was a miner and drawn to the area in search of gold but seemed reluctant to want to work for it. He was obviously a drifter and perhaps even a gunslinger.

On the night of the murders, according to one version of the story, there were only two guests staying in the hotel on the second story. Dr. R.E. Flynn from Ohio and Martin Nelson. After a night of card playing, the Mayberrys and their boarders went to bed about 10 p.m.  At about 1 am, Nelson arose and knocked on the door of the room where the two Mayberry boys slept, also on the second floor.

The door was opened by Johnny. Nelson shot him point blank with a .38 caliber rifle, then clubbed him when he tried to resist and shot him again. He then turned the rifle on young Eddie who was shot once as he sat screaming in his bed.

When Dr. Flynn heard the shooting he rushed to the boys’ defense but was shot in the head, bludgeoned and his body thrown on top of the others.

John Mayberry, hearing the screams, was making his way up the dark stairs from the first floor when a shot through the heart dropped him to the landing.

Blood and mayhem took over the night. Nelson then turned his gun on Nellie as she appeared at the scene, shooting her in the side and leaving her for dead. She would become the only survivor of the hotel massacre.

Clad in her nightclothes, Mrs. Mayberry climbed up the stairs to the sounds of screams from her family. Nelson shot her in the chest. She struggled down the stairs leaving a trail of bloody footsteps as she stumbled out into the street.

Herman Consbruch, a witness to the scene, gave a written account saying that in great fear, the occupants of a nearby cabin refused to open their door and render aid to Mrs. Mayberry. Nelson had followed her and with one more bullet, he killed her.  Consbruch wrote, “As Nelson went right back in the house, I went to the store, and lifting her up she said, ‘Oh, he killed all of us.’ To my question, ‘Who?”, she whispered, ‘Nelson,’ breathed and fell to the ground dead.”

Pete Nelson, no relation to the murderer, ran from his saloon and attempted to wrestle the rifle away from the shooter. In the tussle, he was shot and killed, his head bashed in with the butt of the rifle. Leaving the body lying in the street, the killer then turned his gun on Herman Beck who had opened the door of his store to see what was happening. Other story renditions have Beck in other locations and in a different timeline but all agree, Beck was the final victim to fall to the killer.

With the fearful residents of Bonito City barricaded in their homes throughout the night, Martin Nelson roamed around and finally left into Littleton Canyon. The next morning, three men were standing in the street discussing the murders when Nelson was seen climbing down the mountain. As Nelson raised his rifle and pointed at the trio, Charlie Berry raised his rifle and killed Nelson in one shot.

Nellie Mayberry, the lone member of the family to survive, was eventually retrieved by relatives from the East.

With a total of eight deaths, the murderer and those he murdered, local folklore has it that no one entered the hotel for 15 years and that Mrs. Mayberry’s bloody footsteps on the stairs could still be seen through the window. Townspeople spoke of shrieks, groans and flickering lights in the log hotel. It was also said that eventually a reporter entered the hotel but soon came running out screaming.

The victims, all but Dr. Flynn, were buried in the Bonito Cemetery under a concrete headstone engraved with their names. Flynn body was retrieved by a Santa Fe undertaker, embalmed and shipped back to his home in Ohio. Martin Nelson was buried a distance away, facedown, as was the custom to prevent a person’s soul from walking around as a ghost.

In 1930, as the waters of Bonita Lake rose due to the construction of a dam, the graves were moved to the nearby Angus Cemetery. Martin Nelson was buried just outside the graveyard boundaries.

The concrete grave marker holds another part of the mystery. The first name carved into the concrete is R.F. Oswald, yet his name never is mentioned in any of the stories about the murders. Only speculation offers an explanation, but there is no longer anyone that could clarify the mystery.

As the dam waters took over the valley, the remaining buildings that made up Bonito City were dismantled. However, reality is always superseded by legend and tales continue today of sightings of the church steeple beneath the surface waters of Bonito Lake or a glimpse of a log building deep in the waters.

Perhaps, it could be so in a ghostly sort of way. After all, it’s a world that was left to a sketchy bit of history and the imagination of those standing at the shore of the lake listening to the sounds in the wind. Could it be?

-Julie Carter

For more about what’s going on and history of New Mexico visit our partner site, Focus NM.