When it comes to American legends can any match Billy the Kid’s? Five foot eight inches and weighing a slight 140 pounds when he died at the age of 21, he hardly cut the figure of a tough and mean “desperado,” the word he was called while still alive.
Those who knew Billy invariably described him as “jolly,” a fun person to be around, a man who loved to dress well, and did, as often as he could, and who had small hands and small feet, and a soft and pleasant voice — not the stuff that makes it easy to build a bad man image.
Billy (1859-1881) did indeed do some small-scale cattle rustling and petty thievery from his early teens on, but so did many others in the wild and lawless New Mexico of his time. And he became famously skilled with gun and rifle at a time when those abilities were widely admired – but, again, so were many others.
What Billy did that initially caught the imagination of America was kill men both in one-on-one shoot-outs and with his gang, each instance of which (and with a few added, and their nastiness magnified) made the Eastern press, and began to make his name familiar.
And he made a few daring escapes from jail, once and famously through a chimney (it helped being small), and the second time, when under imminent sentence of being hanged for murder, by cleverly taking advantage of his two guards, killing them, and then riding out of town, singing nonchalantly in the beautiful voice he was said to have.
This was material out of which legend could be fashioned – and was – by a press willing to stretch the truth and even tell outright lies to make a story exciting. The fact that the public was ready to believe those lies – indeed was eager for the stories, however outlandish and unsupported – helped urge the legend on by allowing the yellow journalists of the time to greater levels of invention about Billy and his deeds.
And they did make up a great deal, which makes it hard today to separate the truth from the fiction. We now know – despite all the lies – that Billy very likely killed only ten men (four one-on-one, and six as part of his gang), surely a big enough tally for any one but far short of the 20 to 30 with which he was often credited.
Nor was he quite as bloodthirsty as some described him – he was said to be willing to kill Hispanics or Indians just for sport. The truth is quite the contrary: it’s now certain that Billy befriended non-whites, particularly New Mexico’s Hispanics, who regarded him as a hero.
Billy was already world famous when he was killed by Pat Garrett on July 14, 1881 in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. Long before his death, the New York Sun, one of the great newspapers of the day, had sent one of their best writers – a war correspondent – to cover Billy’s antics in New Mexico Territory and write about them for a New York audience who couldn’t get enough of the legend.
Lesser newspapers had their correspondents there as well, which led to troops of reporters trekking across New Mexico, trying to out do their competitors with ever-bigger and ever more titillating stories.
At his death, obituaries were published not only across America, but in London as well, often expressing outrage. In San Francisco, a newspaper ran an editorial that called for Garrett’s arrest and incarceration for the murder of the Kid, already regarded by many as America’s own Robin Hood whose deeds were done for the downtrodden and poor and directed against the rich and powerful.
Billy’s fame didn’t die with him. It has continued to grow, and today he’s more famous than ever. Only last year, the one authentic image we have of Billy — a tiny two-by-three inch ferrotype taken in 1879 or 1880 – sold at auction for $2.3 million, at the time the 6th highest price ever paid for a photograph.
The Kid has been portrayed in more than fifty Hollywood films from the silent era on, and presented in each in vastly different ways – from near saint to downright evil – by actors as diverse as Robert Taylor (out to right deep wrongs done friends), Roy Rogers (whose Billy frequently broke out in song), Paul Newman (moody beyond compare), Kris Kristofferson (anarchic, countercultural) and Michael J. Pollard (an unkempt, and nasty Billy).
Actor James Dean, the very icon (like Billy) of youthful rebellion and nonconformity, was slated to play the Kid in “The Left-Handed Gun” (in the role taken over by Paul Newman) just before he died in 1955. That’s a loss, because he would have made an interesting, if not definitive Billy.
In 1988, Emilio Estevez took the part of the Kid in “Young Guns I” – a far more accurate film about Billy than most of the earlier ones, but which stands out for a viewer today because Estevez’ real-life brother, Charlie Sheen, plays the part of an older, wiser and level-headed member of Billy’s gang.
Billy has been the subject of numerous television documentaries and TV and radio programs. In the 1950s, he became the main character in a popular comic book published in England, while American comic books offered Billy-spinoff characters, like “Lash Larue.” Ballads and popular songs mention his name and deeds.
High culture as well took Billy to heart – in 1938 composer Aaron Copland’s ballet “Billy the Kid” had its New York City premiere and has continued to be performed regularly. In 1958, the gifted and wry San Francisco poet Jack Spicer published as series of poems on the Kid.
Can there be any doubt that far more people in America today and worldwide recognize Billy’s name and can identify his deeds than could say anything at all about the man who was President at the time when Billy was in his prime – Rutherford B. Hayes – or about any other American alive in Billy’s time with the possible exception of writer and humorist Mark Twain?
Five years ago, I got swept up in Billy-mania when I reviewed a new biography of the gunslinger – one of many books about him that have appeared over the past two decades.
Billy the Kid: The Endless Journey, by popular Western historian Michael Wallis, is a good read, but what it did for me came as a surprise. It allowed me to see how completely from the time I was very young that I’ve been surrounded by Billy.
As a kid, I read and reread the comic books that made him or Billy-like characters their subject. I saw all the movies (never missing a Western at my local theater’s Saturday matinee), and continue to see new Westerns, as rare as they are these days. And, no doubt, I took the role of Billy when we boys played cowboys, which we were always doing. He is just the sort of character I’d choose to be.
It was these memories brought that my partner, the artist Ray Petersen, and me on a visit this spring to the grave of Billy the Kid near Fort Sumner, New Mexico. It’s a 160 mile drive south and east on mostly two-lane Route 60 from our condo in Albuquerque, where we spend about half our time (for the rest we live in our home in Milton, Delaware).
Route 60 passes through standard New Mexico terrain – sometimes forested, then changing to scrub, then breaking to barren and treeless. But frequently – and this is true of travel around the state generally – there will be a sudden view of incomparable and breathtaking beauty that leaves one gasping in admiration.
Population grows sparser as we move further from Albuquerque – agriculture is the main endeavor in these parts – and from time to time the highway runs through ghost towns that look like they might have been thriving only a decade or two ago but are now dead beyond revival. Along the highway, too, there are frequent abandoned, decaying filling stations, signs of better times.
Fort Sumner is certainly not ghostly. It’s a dusty, Western village – population 1200 – that has a vitality of its own, and is county seat of De Baca County – population just over 2,000.
We visited the Billy the Kid Museum on the town’s long main stretch – a privately run place whose gift shop offers collection of Billy the Kid books and paraphernalia on sale. The museum itself is a large room (it costs $5 to enter) that’s full of artifacts from Billy’s time and afterward which shed no more light on Billy than they would on anyone else alive at the time (an exception: the museum does claim that a rifle in the collection was Billy’s).
Lunch proves a problem. The town’s restaurants are closed and we learn from friendly natives that the reason is that there are two weddings in Fort Sumner that day, and a conference as well, and the restaurants are catering the affairs. At a small downtown grocery we buy lunch meat, bread and pickles. We dine in the town’s small city park with our dog Pearl and watch, with Pearl, two healthy and vigorous pit bulls playing in a nearby yard.
But present-day Fort Sumner is not the Fort Sumner of Billy’s time. It’s a newer town built nearly four miles distant after old Fort Sumner was washed away twice, in 1889 and 1904, by severe flooding of the usually placid Pecos River.
The town Billy knew is long gone. The home of his close friend Pete Maxwell, the son of cattle-barren Lucien Maxwell and the house where Billy was shot and killed –washed away in the first flood.
There’s no sign of old Fort Sumner’s shops or homes, no sign of the old fort itself and no sign of the hardware store or saloon that Billy had his picture taken in front of in 1879 or 1880 and which is the only authentic image we have of him. (There’s only the Fort Sumner Museum that looks very much like the Billy the Kid Museum, and offers much the same stuff for sale).
The cemetery Billy was buried on July 15, 1881 next to his partners in crime Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre washed away in the floods as well. Not a single gravestone was left standing.
So is there anything authentic about Billy’s grave today? Probably – but like so much about the Kid, there is uncertainty. After the last floodwaters receded, Fort Sumner old-timers got together and made an educated guess about the grave’s location, so it’s like the location is very close if not right on the hallowed spot.
Admirers placed the large stone that’s there today and has been chipped away by visitors. They later placed a foot stone which has been stolen twice by Billy’s fans, recovered in a farmer’s field in rural Texas the first time, the second time turning up in Huntington Beach, California. After the second theft, Fort Sumner residents built the iron fence around the two stones that’s there today.
What’s striking about the cemetery today is that so few gravestones were replaced after the flooding. The burial ground is mostly barren, and the few stones that are there are so distant from the graves of Billy and his friends that it makes Billy and his two partners seem very alone, except for their own company, which was at times their lot in life as well.
It was a beautiful day. The intensely-blue, cloudless and big sky (the sky in New Mexico is big – bigger than the sky in the East) felt encompassing, as it tends to do out West at its best, allowing everything to be seen with great precision, the cottonwoods nearby and those down along the Pecos, and the horses and cattle on the ranches in the area, and the young and very green alfalfa growing in the fields. It was a drama, albeit a quiet drama, going on around us that was nothing short of splendid.
I didn’t know what to make of all this until three or four weeks later, back in Delaware, in the densely-populated East with its (mostly) orderly towns, well-groomed lawns, and heavy traffic.
And what dawned on me wasn’t anything new – people have been saying it about Billy for years. But even though it’s obvious, it had for me a clarity that made it really my own and I understood or at least comprehended intuitively why Billy and Billy’s legend are so important.
What I concluded was that Billy’s legend isn’t just good fun, an exciting chapter in American history. No, the legend is actually essential and necessary, and if that legend hadn’t grown up around Billy, it would have had to find someone else to anoint and make its hero.
It’s necessary because it’s a legend that teaches something about freedom and the chance to be yourself. Those are vague terms. But Billy’s story as it grew from facts into legend was about a particular young man in a particular place and at a particular time who had freedom, and who was himself and was himself in a grand style.
It was Billy fortune (and misfortune) to be alive when Eastern newspapers had began to serve mass audience and when dime novels (to which Billy was said to be addicted) carried overheated stories of violence and lawlessness and had become tremendously popular.
Another factor is important: Billy’s time on Earth corresponded precisely at a time when the East had become tamed and industrial and many Easterners hungry for the wild and lawless. Only weeks after his death dime novels purporting to tell his true story hit the stands across the country, selling in large numbers.
That doesn’t mean we’ve come to condone his murders (but yet we have to some extent). What’s interesting is that as the legend grew, his murders always became more and more excusable: He is the just brigand robbing the rich to give to the poor; he killed to avenge friends who had been shot down unjustly.
We see him as beholden to no one, certainly not the rich and powerful. What could be more American? Indeed, what could be more human than to place such an ideal, perfect, gentle knight (as Chaucer called one of his characters) on a pedestal?
Harvey Fergusson was one writer who got Billy mostly right. Albuquerque-born Fergusson published a novel based on his hometown, “The Blood of the Conquerors.” He was also a Washington, DC reporter and a close friend of H. L. Mencken, the Sage of Baltimore.
In the June, 1925 issue of The American Mercury,” Mencken’s publication, Fergusson wrote of the Kid, lamenting that Billy wasn’t more famous than he was and fearful that his memory would disappear completely: “he was the key figure,” Fergusson claimed, “of an epoch – the primitive pastoral epoch in the history of the West, which began after the Civil War and ended with the completion of the first trans-continental railroads in the early eighties.”
Fergusson worried that the fame of men like Frank and Jesse James, whom he didn’t like because he found them too calculating, too businesslike, would eclipse that of Billy, leaving America impoverished.
Fergusson need not have concerned himself. Billy’s memory has not been lost. In the past two decades or so, works on Billy have proliferated. There’s been some effort at DNA studies to help determine identity, but they’ve largely nixed by courts. There was even a move a decade ago to have then New Mexico governor Bill Richardson to pardon Billy – but Richardson declined to do so, citing the ambiguity around Billy’s history.
The recent scholarship has gone a long way, however, to clear up much of that ambiguity though much still remains. We now know that Billy was very likely born in New York City in 1859, the son of an Irish immigrant mother (his true father’s identity remains unknown), and that his birth name was Henry McCarty.
Much of his movement West is known, too, and his early life in boom mining towns like Silver City, New Mexico. Important new studies have shed light on Billy’s role in the Lincoln County War – the bloody conflict between two cattle interests in New Mexico that led to the murder of Billy’s close friend and mentor, the young Englishman John Tunstall, shot down in cold blood when he was 24. (In the movies, Tunstall has customarily been pictured as a much older man, twice Billy’s age, and not a man only a couple of years his senior). Billy spent much of the rest of his short life avenging Tunstall’s murder.
But Hollywood take note. The Billy that’s now emerged from recent works is an articulate young man, fluent and well-spoken in English and Spanish, who was generally neat in his habits and ambidextrous: he could shoot and write equally well with both hands.
What’s significant is that the more we know about Billy, the stronger the legend seems to be. Often when the clay feet of our heroes gets publicly displayed, the legend collapses, but not Billy’s.
One last thought. Billy’s legend isn’t just about what he did personally that got turned into legend. It’s about the place he lived, too. The wide-open spaces of the West then, and even now, symbolize freedom and the ability to expand to one’s full potential.
In 1996, I was on a story in Barstow, California, at the edge of the Mojave Desert, with Rick Kozak, the photographer I worked with for many years. It was evening and we were having beers in a bar when three large German guys entered. They’d rented Harleys in Chicago to travel Route 66 all the way to Santa Monica and back to Chicago, and it wasn’t the first time they’d done it.
I asked them why Harleys, and why Route 66, knowing their answer, but wanting to hear them say it. And they couldn’t have said it better. “Have you been to Europe,” one of them replied. “There’s only a couple of kilometers between towns. There’s people everywhere. No open roads, no chance to open up, no chance to be alone. No chance to feel free.”
The chance to feel free. No one has captured this aspect of the Billy the Kid legend better than Paul Andrew Hutton in “Dreamscape Desperado,” the best short essay that’s been written on the Kid.
Hutton is a historian at the University of New Mexico and one of the most highly-regarded people in his field, the history of the West. In his piece, he has an amusing anecdote about how historians can get angry when there’s a conference where they deliver a paper they’ve worked hard on, only to find that reporters stay around only for papers on Billy the Kid, then abruptly leave when other subjects come up.
As far as the press goes – even 130 years after his death – Billy still trumps all other stories. But here’s what Hutton has to say about Billy at the end of his essay, and it sums up the power of the legend completely: “Billy the Kid just keeps riding across the dreamscape of our minds – silhouetted against a starlit Western sky, handsome, laughing, deadly. Shrewd as the coyote. Free as the hawk. The outlaw of our dreams – forever free, forever young, forever riding.”
A SHORT BILLY-OGRAPHY
Frederick Nolan’s 2007 book “The Billy the Kid Reader,” published by the University of Oklahoma Press, is a necessity for anyone interested in Billy the Kid. It offers selections from the most of the important works on Billy’s from the time of his death to the present day. There’s a print edition, but I keep my copy on my Kindle Fire.
Walter Noble Burns’ “The Saga of Billy the Kid,” first published in 1925, is still a tremendously exciting read. Burns was a correspondent with the Chicago Tribune who interviewed many of the surviving people who knew Billy. He got some things wrong, but he knew how to keep a reader’s interest, and it’s easy to see how this book was used by Hollywood writers and directors as a guide to make the many Billy movies turned out since its publication. There’s a paperback edition available published by the University of New Mexico Press with an introduction by Western scholar Richard W. Etulain.
My favorite of the numerous recent Kid biographies is Michael Wallis’ “Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride,” published by W.W. Norton in 2007. Wallis is a popular historian not associated with any university and he’s written what to my mind is an incomparable epic of the West, “The Real Wild West: The 101 Ranch and the Creation of the American West,” published in 1999 by St. Martin’s Press and released the following year in paperback.
There are many fictionalized accounts of Billy the Kid’s life, but one of the most interesting is easily the Kiowa-Cherokee writer N. Scott Momaday’s lyrical “The Ancient Child,” published by Harper Collins in 1989. Momaday is a Pulitzer-prize winning author.
(Feature photo: The Billy the Kid Museum and East Sumner Street, Fort Sumner’s main throughway. All contemporary photos are by Ray Petersen. )
Steve Goode grew up in Elkins, WV in the 1950s – a fine time and place to be young
– and attended Elkins public schools. He holds a BA from Davidson College, an MA from the University of Virginia, and Ph. D. from Rutgers – all in history – but pursued a career in journalism rather than academia. For 20 years he wrote on politics and culture for Insight Magazine and the Washington Times. He is the author of 17 nonfiction books and numerous articles in various publications. With his partner of 40 years, the botanist and artist Ray Petersen and their dog Pearl, he divides his time between their home in Milton, DE and a condo in Albuquerque, NM.