Note: Last week I began working on a post about the apparent discovery of a tintype image of Billy the Kid and his killer. It was one of those projects that rapidly got away from me and took on a life of its own. So today, I begin a three part series. In the first I will examine the new discovery and other real, suspected, or faked images of the West’s most famous bad man. Tomorrow I’ll look at what is known about his life. And I will wind up with a post on cultural interpretations of the myth surrounding him. Stay tuned.
The announcement that a blurry tintype had been discovered and painstakingly authenticated by experts created a sensation because of its subjects—five rough looking characters in big hats and boots seated staring at the camera. The image was taken in New Mexico about 1880. The eye first wanders to the man on the far left, gaunt with a drooping walrus moustache. Frank Abrams, he man who found it in North Carolina, of all places, and paid $10 for it to decorate a room he rented out on Airbub, at first just thought it was a quaint curio—a picture of a bunch of anonymous cowboys. But on closer inspection he recognized the man with the mustache—Pat Garrett, the Lincoln County Sheriff who shot and killed Billy the Kid.
That set Abrams on a quest to authenticate that picture and identify the men. Tintype experts and Western historians verified the age of the photo and its New Mexico source.
Tintypes—one-of-a-kind images produced on iron plates, were introduced in the 1850’s and were widely used not only by studio photographers but by traveling hucksters who set up at fairs and markets in small towns across the country giving the locals a perhaps once-in-a-life-time opportunity to preserve their likeness. By 1880 the process was rapidly being supplanted by glass plate photography from which multiple images could be printed and which were sharper and clearer. But the process was more expensive and the subjects sometimes had to wait days to have their photos processed and printed. So tintypes, which could be finished in minutes and handed over to eagerly waiting customer, remained popular in places like New Mexico where they were often taken on a lark. Think of them as stone age selfies.
A close examination of the clothing, hats, boots, and gear of the men, as well as the apparently nickel plated revolver in the hand the guy on the left, all verified the age and locality of the image.
|Pat Garrett was easy to identify. Others in the photo more difficult.
Next, Abrams had forensics and facial recognition experts went over the picture using the latest technology. Verifying Garrett, who appeared in several other tintypes and photographs, was easy. Working from knowledge of his known associates at the time and existing pictures of them, they concluded that the young man in the back row on the left was Billy the Kid, known to be a pal and gambling buddy of Garrett at the time. The image is somewhat blurred, but matching feature for feature with the most famous authenticated photo, they were able to make the pronunciation. Billy also appears to be holding something, but it is obscured by the hat of the center man and unidentifiable.
Although the picture does have some skeptics and has yet to be formally appraised if ever offered for auction because of its rarity and the presence of both legendary figures it would easily be the most expensive Western tintype ever offered and perhaps the most valuable American photo image.
|The full tintype image of a gathering and croquet game.
It is not the only recently discovered image found and claimed to be authenticated, however. Two years ago a National Geographic Channel show claimed that a tintype found in Fresno, California showing several men and women spread around the yard of a simple wood frame building depicted Billy the Kid playing croquet, of all things in an odd striped sweater. The photo was supposedly taken in August or September of 1878 just after Billy and his pals known as Regulators lost the final major gun battle of the Lincoln County War. At a ranch that had been owned by John Tunstall, the rancher and merchant who Billy worshiped as a surrogate father and whose murder set off the formation of the Regulators and the range war. Several members of the Regulators were identified as were some women including the bride and the niece of cattle baron John Chisholm, who had sided with the Regulators in the war. The building was identified as a school house.
Billy and others were said to have been matched facial recognition software. Isolated and blown up the figure identified as the Kid is hard to make out beyond a youthful countenance. He does have on a high crowned black hat that resembles the one in the familiar picture and is also wearing a sweater, a fashion choice not that commonly seen on other cowboys. Another croquet player is pointing to him as if to make sure the photographer knows he is an important personage.
|Blown up and isolated, one player points to another during a dusty game of croquet. Could the young man in the sweater and the hat similar to the one worn in a verified image really be Billy the Kid?
After a flurry of publicity critics began to dispute the authenticity of the picture. Their objections were outlined in a long article in True West Magazine, a respected popular history publication, by Mark Boardman. Those objections included questions about the locale. According to a detailed plat of Lincoln County showing virtually every known structure, no permanent building at all was shown at the ranch. Moreover the building was constructed with planking, exceedingly rare and expensive at the time in that nearly treeless area of New Mexico where almost all buildings were constructed from adobe or stone or were even sod dugouts. What appears to be a graded road passes by the building. A ranch road of the period would barely be a beaten path, perhaps rutted by wagon wheels, but packed hard except for rare rains when it would turn into a river of mud.
Another objection had to do with the dating of the photo. Southern New Mexico is blistering hot in August and September but like Billy everyone had on warm clothing. There are numerous trees on the hills behind the building and around it—far more than the arid landscape of the real ranch—and all are leafless. But the surviving Regulators had broken up before winter and had scattered, many running for their lives with prices on their heads. Also, why would the Regulators who were being hunted pause for a party at a known haunt and apparently all be unarmed against a surprise attack by their enemies who dominated the surrounding territory?
Critics had other nits to pick as well as disputing the provenance of the picture which was said to be found in the possession of California family members of one of the Regulators. The man hoping to sell the photo for millions and the producers of the National Geographic program responded defensively and for months back and forth arguments continued with each side lining up backers and supporters. With the dust settling I suspect the skeptics are carrying the day, especially now that the attention of Western history aficionados have been drawn to the next shiny object, the Garrett group shot.
|Among the more credible possible picture is this one of a 15 or 16 year old all cleaned up from a carte de visite of young Henry McCarty a/k/a Henry Atrim before he started using William H. Bonney--Billy the Kid--as an alias.
There have been other disputed or debunked photos of Billy the Kid. One shows a downy cheeked young man in a brand new store bought suit standing stiffly erect next to a chair. Another shows a fair-haired, hatless young man standing with a gun belt slung over one shoulder in a good suit with two men identified by one researcher as Billy’s pals Yginio Salazar and Charlie Bowdrie. One head shot shows a young man with the kind of bushy sideburns that had been particularly popular among New York slum toughs when Billy was growing up there. The picture is apparently a photo of a drawing or sketch and was said to have been used in early wanted posters, but those posters have not surfaced.
Perhaps the most egregious hoax was a photo of four young men standing together that was being hawked as a picture of Billy, Doc Holiday, Jesse James, and Charlie Bowdrie supposedly taken in Las Vegas, New Mexico in 1879. There is no reason to believe that either Holiday or James crossed paths with Billy and Bowdrie or that they would have any reason to associate. Jesse James never set foot in New Mexico. And none of the men even look much like who they were reported to be. None-the-less someone made a good buck selling copies of the “authentic” poster to tourists out West, via the internet, and on a variety of merchandise from coffee mugs, to cell phone cases, to duvet covers.
|A patently fraudulant picture puroprting to show from left to right Billy, Doc Holiday, Jessie James, and Charlie Bowdre in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
There has been, at least until now and if the claims made about the Garrett picture hold up to inevitable scrutiny, only one absolutely authenticated picture of Billy the Kid as a grown-up gunman. Four virtually identical tintypes—each one was an original—taken in a saloon in Fort Sumner, New Mexico in late 1879 or early 1880 when he was about 18 years old. Billy reportedly did not like the images and gave away his copies to his friends. No wonder he didn’t like them. They were not flattering.
He is slovenly attired in an open vest over a cardigan sweater and a shirt with some kind of print. Baggy trousers are stuffed into hard-worn boots. A kerchief is loosely knotted around his neck and he is wearing an odd high crown hat bashed in on one side. He has a Colt revolver in a holster with a cartridge belt and is holding a Winchester 73 lever action rifle by the barrel at his side. He seems to slouch with his head a bit cocked to one side. The hat is mashed so far down the back of his head that his ears are pushed out. He has a slack jawed expression with his lips slightly open showing a crooked front tooth. He looks, quite frankly stupid and perhaps even mentally retarded, a conclusion drawn by some early writers who saw copies of the picture.
In the original, as in all tintypes, the image was reversed so that it appears that his holster is on his en left hip which made people think that he was left handed. In fact he became enshrined in legend as The Left Handed Gun, the name of a film starring Paul Newman. But when the image is flipped on its vertical axis like a mirror image. Corrected it is obvious that he drew right handed since his gun butt faces rear.
Images taken from the tintypes—glass plate photos of them and etchings made for the press from those—were known in Billy’s life time. One appeared on an authentic wanted poster and Pat Garrett used it in his book The Authentic Life of Billy the Kid ghost written by Ash Upsom, the book that virtually invented the Billy the Kid legend and is now known to be unreliable and exaggerated.
All four copies of the tintypes were believed lost but one ended up in the hands of Dan Dedrick who rustled cattle with the Kid and was passed down in his family until a great grand nephews Art and Stephen Upram allowed it to be publicly displayed at the Lincoln County Heritage Trust Museum in Lincoln for three years in the 1990’s. It was then sent to Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York for preservation and restoration. Rumors circulated that Kodak had had botched the job and returned the plate virtually black. The family kept it out of sight for more than two decades.
In 2011 billionaire William Koch—yes one of the infamous right-wing funding Koch brothers—bought the tintype at auction for $2.3 million, setting of the gold rush of collectors and con men trying to find and sell new images.
Despite the ubiquitous use of the Ft. Sumner image, many historians believe it did not accurately capture the elusive young outlaw. Most contemporary accounts describe him as quite handsome with mild blue eyes, and grin that could be shy or impish by turn. Despite a lack of formal education—no one knows if he was literate or not, he was said to be sharp and quick witted.
Tomorrow: Will the Real Billy the Kid please stand up!