By Lisa Blessing

As the host venue for the Catron County Historical Society’s February presentation of Murders Most Foul, the Quemado Senior Center fed the multitudes. In keeping with the subject matter, the center was festooned with crime scene tape, a “corpse” under a sheet on the pool table, and crime scene tape of the outline of a victim. The sinister elements didn’t seem to dampen enjoyment of roast beef or roast pork.

Helen Cress played to a full house as she spun the tale of at least four murders surrounding Henry Coleman. Drawing on extensive research done by her mother, Eleanor Williams, Helen bolstered that information with research of her own including forays to the Goat Ranch.

As Helen teased a narrative out of disparate contemporary accounts from over 90 years ago, she made one thing abundantly clear — there were two versions of every story. Henry and his compadres told one tale, ranchers whose cattle magically gravitated to Henry’s herds wherever he was told another. The only indisputable facts were that Henry was a handsome man capable of great charm. Henry was also a dead shot and by all accounts willing to pull his .45 out of his holster if provoked, and that enabled him to escape from difficult situations more than once.

Henry was widely reputed to acquire cattle by illegal means At one point he used a slaughterhouse in Deming on the railroad line which gave him a perfect place to dispose of the evidence of his theft while earning a hefty paycheck. When life would get too hot on the New Mexico side of the border, Henry would slip down to live among friends of his in Mexico. Around 1918, Henry and his wife, Clara, were divorced after she charged him with abandonment. He gave her their spread along Largo Creek where Clara continued to run cattle. Clara’s neighbor, Bourbonaise, at one point tried to fence off the water, causing a contentious relationship to develop with Clara.

On the night of the December 11, 1918, Clara and Don Oliver who did some work for with Clara were in Clara’s house. Someone shot them to death. The bodies were discovered the next day by someone delivering cattle to Clara. The house itself is long gone but the fireplace remains to this day.

Henry was immediately suspected but he had an alibi, having driven with friends in the back of their truck to Magdalena. Many thought that Henry had gone out of his way to establish an alibi. One person who did not have an alibi was Ben Foster, a man hired by Henry just before the murders. Because Clara’s feud over water with Bourbonnaise was well known, Henry convinced the sheriff and deputies to arrest Bourbonnaise. Instead of taking him to Quemado, they took him to Clara’s house where Henry waited. When Bourbonnaise entered, Henry shot him dead and insisted it was self-defense. The lawmen all agreed, and this was not the only time Henry was saved by friends.

Despite the fact that the court had appointed Ray Morley as Clara’s executor, somehow Henry got himself appointed instead. Not surprisingly, Henry took everything that Clara had right down to $15 in her bank account.

No one was ever tried for Clara’s murder, but Henry was tried for the shooting of Bourbonnaise and found not guilty. He remarried, and with his new wife moved into a house owned by an absentee landowner without his permission. From this ranch near Red Hill known as the Goat Ranch, Henry continued his rustling. At the age of 49, Henry was indeed a hard working rustler, and must have been feeling pretty invincible. Recognizing that Henry was not going to go to prison for murder, a number of local ranchers felt they had to do something to keep Henry from stealing more of their cattle. They formed a posse of five men led by CCHS member Burl Adams’ grandfather. It is thought the posse was deputized by Elfuego Baca.

On the night of October 10, 1921 the posse rode to Goat Ranch, tying their horses far away and hiking to get themselves into position for the sunrise when Henry was accustomed to come out of the house and head up to the top of the hill to look over his livestock. There are those who say Henry was told to put up his hands and come quietly, but others insist he was gunned down by the entire posse. He tumbled into a gully where he was mostly out of sight and there he remained for the day. The posse was afraid to go near him lest they be killed. Finally, one of them made his way behind Henry. He shot Henry in the back of the neck, taking no chances. The coroner later said the bullets Henry had taken to his groin and hip would have caused him to bleed out. A Grand Jury was convened and the posse was found to have acted appropriately.

Eleanor Williams interviewed Marvin Ake of Magdalena in the 1950’s and he remembered as a boy going to Henry’s funeral and seeing him laid out in a crisp white shirt and fine boots. He particularly remembered the diamond ring on Henry’s finger. To have such a fine funeral, clearly Henry had supporters in the community.

We are left with speculations. Certainly the only person who profited by Clara’s death was Henry. Did Henry have Clara killed to get her property? Did he kill Bourbonnaise because he knew too much? Those who knew took their silence to the grave. What we do know with certainty 93 years later is that innocent or guilty, Henry’s behavior over many years so outraged folks in the Quemado area that Henry was accorded the ultimate frontier justice from which there was no appeal. Helen believes the evidence overwhelmingly points to Henry Coleman as a charming rogue, an inveterate cattle thief and a cold blooded killer, and she marshalled a dazzling array of facts to support her contentions. She held the large audience spellbound as she unfolded the tangled tale of the Texan, Henry Hudspeth, known in New Mexico as Henry Coleman, and buried here in an unmarked grave.