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Billy the Kid - Outlaw

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An old black and white photograph of Billy the Kid, public domain

Although Billy the Kid is firmly established as an American icon, it has taken researchers more than a century to unearth details of his life, and even now some facts about him remain sketchy. A biography, The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid was published only two years after his death1, but the authors were his killer, Pat Garrett, and an alcoholic postman named Ash Upson, who ghost-wrote much of it. Deconstruction of this book has revealed the first 15 chapters, the part Upson wrote, to be a mish-mash of fantasy studded with the occasional fact. The latter part, detailing Billy's last days, was written by Garrett... and a large question mark still hangs over what exactly happened when Billy was killed. The picture it paints is a sensationalist portrait of a young man who was bad through and through, and whose only destiny was to be killed by Sheriff Garrett.

The Birth of Billy the Kid

Billy was born William Henry McCarty in New York City. In Authentic Life, Upson gave Billy's birthdate as 23 November, 1859, which has perpetrated itself all the way into the Encyclopædia Britannica. But research has revealed that 23 November is actually Ash Upson's birthday! Utley examined birth records for New York City in 1859 and came up with two more likely dates for Billy's birth; 17 September or 20 November. The latter date is more probable, since it more accurately identifies Billy's brother, Joseph Bonney McCarty.

Early Life

The first indisputable records place Billy's mother, Catherine McCarty, and her sons in Kansas City, where she married William Henry Antrim at a Presbyterian church, with the boys as witnesses. At this point, Billy began to be called Henry in order to distinguish him from the elder William Henry. Not long after the marriage, the new family decamped to Silver Springs, New Mexico. The stepfather absented himself for much of the time, prospecting for silver in the nearby hills. Catherine, ill with tuberculosis, took in lodgers and laundry. The boys attended grammar school and ran in the streets with other boys.

Billy was remembered by his teacher as having an artistic nature, as being intelligent and eager to please. Visibly smaller than other boys his age, he was delicate and girlish-looking. He also showed talent as a singer and dancer, and performed as Head Man in a black and white minstrel show at the Silver City Music Theater.

But within 18 months Catherine had died from her illness. Antrim put Joseph with a saloonkeeper's family and 14-year-old Henry (Billy) with a hotelier's family. Each boy began to work to pay their bed and board. Antrim then dissolved what remained of Catherine's estate and went back to the mining camps.

Early Signs of Trouble

At first Billy was obedient and spent most of his spare time escaping into novels and 'detective gazettes'; but within the year he started to get into trouble, culminating with the theft of some clothes from a Chinese laundry. Billy didn't steal the clothes, but hid them for an older boy; nevertheless he was turned in by the hotelkeeper's wife. Before two days passed, Billy had escaped from jail, where he was put in order to frighten him a little, by scrambling up the chimney and was gone from Silver City for good.

Not too much is known of his whereabouts over the next two years, but when he reappeared he could speak Spanish fluently and he was riding on the fringes of an outlaw gang. It was the final three years of his short life that formed the basis of his legendary status.

Legends and Lies

The launching of the legend took place in Billy's lifetime; he was aware of it, and was reportedly both thrilled and disconcerted. Even when Billy was on the run, the Hispanic shepherds - most of whom liked and respected Billy - regularly brought him newspapers, which he read avidly.

A Santa Fe, New Mexico journalist, writing about the problem of cattle rustling, seems to have decided to give colour to his story by making 19-year-old Billy the 'desperate cuss' who led a vast outlaw gang of thieves, rapists, rustlers and counterfeiters. The story was picked up by Eastern newspapers, and by mid-November of 1880, the name of Billy the Kid was known from coast to coast. His capture and arrest by Pat Garrett at Christmas 1880 was therefore a national media event of which Billy himself was quite aware. Not long after his death in July 1881, the dime novels began to proliferate. If he had indeed committed every crime for which he was given credit, he would never have had time to sleep.

Many now regard Pat Garrett's biography of Billy to be an attempt at self-justification. Garrett made $2,500 from the killing, which he used to grubstake a ranch. Although he continued in the office of sheriff for many years, and enjoyed fame for this single act, he was not particularly competent, drank heavily, and slid into debt. In February 1908 he was shot in the back of the head while relieving himself. His killer, a young cowboy named Wayne Brazel, was later acquitted on grounds of self-defence!

The Legend Grows

In 1928 Walter Noble Burns wrote The Saga of Billy the Kid2. This was the first revision of Billy's story, and it established a more romantic image of Billy as a put-upon social outcast. But it perpetuated many of the lies embedded in Upson's opus. Still, the book is of value today because it contains transcriptions of interviews with men and women who knew Billy personally. Between Garrett, Upson and Burns, a highly inaccurate image of Billy Bonney took root in American culture.

About 10 years after Burns's book, a medical doctor and hobbyist historian named Philip Rasch began patiently combing through old newspapers, museums and court records in towns throughout the southwest for data about Billy. As he unearthed new information, he published his results in essays, which have just recently been collected and re-published in a single book, Trailing Billy the Kid3. Rasch's life work constituted a major breakthrough in tracing the true course of Billy's early years.

Robert M Utley, a noted academic historian and author of books on the history of the American West, produced a definitive and exhaustively-researched biography of Billy in 1989, entitled Billy the Kid: A Short and Violent Life4. Building on the research of Philip Rasch and other 'Kidologists' such as Robert N Mullin5, Richard Weddle6, and collector Maurice Fulton, Utley produced a scholarly but readable biography complete with photographs, maps, and extensive notes. He shows how Billy's life played out against a backdrop of economic and political corruption, and how Billy became enmeshed in a struggle that ultimately destroyed him.

Recent Biographies

Since then, two more notable biographies have been published. Fred Nolan, a British historian, has written The West of Billy the Kid7, an oversized and profusely-illustrated tome that puts Billy's life in the context of the times. Bob Boze Bell has written what must be the most original and entertaining (but still accurate) biography of the lot, The Illustrated Life and Times of Billy the Kid8. In addition to including true anecdotes, which the more academic writers must have considered too frivolous, Boze Bell, a prolific artist, has drawn from imagination and studded his book with paintings and scratchboard illustrations. This book ought to be in every high school library.

Much more has been written about Billy the Kid, but the above-named sources constitute the most reliable and interesting of the genre.

His Photograph

One day in the summer of 1879, Billy the Kid and several of his compadres rode into Fort Sumner, New Mexico, after several weeks on the trail. In those days he wasn't yet notorious, but he was well known, as 'Kid' Antrim, aka Billy Bonney. He was generally involved in rustling, and he, Charlie Bowdre, Tom O'Folliard, Billy Wilson, and Tom Pickett would go down to the Texas panhandle, pick off some longhorn cattle or a remuda9 of horses, and drive them back up to White Oaks, where they would fence the stolen stock at a livery stable run by Sam Dedrick.

Ordinarily, Billy liked to clean up and change into fancy town clothes as soon as he got in, because he would have at least one girlfriend to visit and he never missed a dance if he could help it; but on this day his interest was caught by a tent out on the street. It was a travelling photographer. Photographic technology had advanced from daguerrotype10, but hadn't evolved to modern processes, and the most accessible form of picture-taking for those outside the cities was the tintype, or ferrotype, because the metal photograghic plates were lighter, cheaper, and easier to handle than glass plates. Using mirrors inside the camera's box to reflect the image, the photographer could, with one exposure, create multiple images (up to 16 thumb-sized, but usually three or four somewhat larger pictures). After developing and fixing the thin metal plate, the photographer would dry it, cut it into singles with tin snips, and present it to the waiting customer. The cost was usually about 25 cents.

So Billy impulsively decided to get his picture taken, at four images for a quarter. We know that he kept one copy and that he gave another to his friend and inseparable sidekick, 'Big Foot' Tom O'Folliard. Another one seems to have gone to Sam Dedrick, and the whereabouts of the fourth was never traced, although theories abound. When Tom O'Folliard was shot and killed, Pat Garrett is supposed to have taken the picture of Billy from Tom's body, before Tom was buried at Fort Sumner. This copy of the tintype has never been found. When Pat went on to write The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid in 1882, he sent the tintype to Chicago to be copied by an engraver for the frontispiece of the book. It was probably never returned.

Disappearance of the Original

When Billy was captured at Stinking Springs on Christmas Eve 1880, he gave his copy to a Navajo servant woman named Deluvina Maxwell. Deluvina worked for Pete Maxwell, whose daughter Paulita was Billy's main querida11. Deluvina kept the picture until she died, at which time the image passed into her family's hands, but the tintype was destroyed in a fire in the 1920s. By that time, the tintype had been photographed using modern wet-plate processes, and most of Billy's surviving friends had copies, but they were less distinct than the original.

A Discovery

That is how matters stood for about 80 years. Dozens and dozens of photographs were put forward by researchers ('Kidologists') as possibly being images of Billy, but it was impossible to tell from the poor quality surviving reproductions of the original tintype whether the wannabes were truly of Billy.

Then, in 1986, the Upham family, descendants of Sam Dedrick, discovered one of the four original tintypes in their family 'stuff', and gave it, with some other relevant pictures, to the Lincoln County Heritage Trust, who ran the museum in the town of Lincoln, New Mexico. The Lincoln County War is another story, but suffice it to say that much of Billy's short life centred around violent events in Lincoln between 1877 and 1880.

All sorts of experts were called in to examine and analyse the tintype, and of course it was extensively photographed. Meanwhile, the museum put the tintype out on display, under glass and bright lights. This is something you must never do with old-technology images. Inevitably, the tintype darkened. When the Upham family discovered how the tintype had been allowed to deteriorate, they were furious and took it back. But by then it was too late, and the tintype was toast. Neither the Kodak Institute in Rochester New York nor the FBI forensic centre in Chicago could do anything with the remains.


The old Trust is gone, and a completely new organisation now looks after the museum in Lincoln; but at least there are a full set of good photographs of the tintype still in existence, including two cibachrome12 photographs of the top half of the tintype. The cibachromes give the viewer a true idea of what the colouration of the original was, and it is possible to distinguish surface dirt and scratchings from the image under the grime. For many years the tintype must have been up on a wall, because it has tack or nail marks at all four corners. The bottom corners are both gone and the surface varnish has been rubbed away in several places. But plenty of detail remains.

1The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid by Pat Floyd Garrett. Santa Fe: New Mexico Printing and Publishing Co, 1882.2The Saga of Billy the Kid by Walter Noble Burns. New York: Konecky & Konecky, Legends of the West Series: 1953, 1992.3Trailing Billy the Kid by Philip J Rasch. Oklahoma: Western Publications for NOLA (National Outlaws and Lawmen Association), 1995.4Billy the Kid; A Short and Violent Life by Robert M Utley. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.5The Boyhood of Billy the Kid by Robert N Mullin. Southwestern Studies Monograph #17. El Paso, Texas: Texas Western Press, 1967.6Antrim is My Stepfather's Name: The Boyhood of Billy the Kid by Richard Weddle, Introduction by Robert M Utley. Arizona Historical Society Monograph #9: University of Arizona, 1993.7The West of Billy the Kid by Frederick Nolan. University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.8The Illustrated Life and Times of Billy the Kid by Bob Boze Bell. Phoenix, Arizona: Tri-Star Boze Publications, Second Edition, 1996.9Remuda is Spanish, meaning 'a small herd'.10Daguerrotype is the original photographic process, dating from the 1830s, using a highly polished silver surface on a copper plate sensitised to light by exposing it to iodine. After exposure, an image is developed by exposing the plate to mercury vapour, a time-consuming, difficult, and dangerous technique.11Querida is a Spanish term meaning 'sweetheart'. Billy was fluent in Spanish, but the terms that appear in this article are part of English as spoken in the American southwest today.12Cibachrome photographs are produced from transparencies directly onto paper that is impregnated with photosensitive dyes. Images are considered to be of archival quality due to their intense colour saturation, sharpness, and durability.

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