Saturday, December 2, 2017

Looking at Billy the Kid—Part IV—The End and After

Pat Garrett shows off Billy the Kid to a large admiring crowd in Las Vegas, New Mexico after his capture.

When Lincoln County Sheriff Pat Garrett arrived with his wagon load of prisoners at Las Vegas, New Mexico the day after Christmas 1880 he found a circus-like atmosphere.  Word of their expected arrival had come by telegraph big crowds of gawkers had assembled in the streets.  Garrett obliged crowd by displaying his prisoners from the porch of a local hotel.  Billy the Kid seemed relaxed and nonchalant enjoying the attention.  He waved his shackled hands at well as he was able and exhibited his lop-sided smile. 
Later, after being fed a good meal and provided with good new clothes, Bonney was even allowed to chat with reporters.  He expressed no animosity to Sheriff Garrett, an old friend and likely rustling accomplice.  He cheerily told a reporter from the Las Vegas Gazette, “What’s the use of looking on the gloomy side of everything? The laugh’s on me this time.”  He also denied running a large gang or committing most of the crimes ascribed to him.  He tried to cover for his compadres by claiming that they were just ranch hands who happened to be with him. 
It was a striking performance of bravado from a man who had just been arrested, was facing the hangman’s noose, and had just seen his two best friends shot down before his eyes. 
Billy and the rest we stuck in what was described as a hole in the wall jail overnight.  Given his experience, he probably figured that he could break out without much effort once all of the excitement outside died down and the posse dispersed.
Unfortunately for Bonney, they would not be held long in Las Vegas.  The next morning they were taken to the railway station for transportation to the Territorial Capital in Santa Fe.  They found an angry lynch mob already there.  The mob led by local Deputy Sheriff Romero was not howling for Billy, who seems to have elicited a lot of sympathy, but for Dave Rudabaugh who had killed a jailer a few months earlier in an escape of his own.  Garrett would not turn the terrified man over to the mob but agreed to allow Romero and another man to accompany them so they could appeal to a judge to let them bring him back to Las Vegas for trial.
Bonney was held in relatively comfortable custody for three months in Santa Fe.  During that time he wrote four letters to Governor Lew Wallace pleading with him to keep his promise to extend amnesty. The Kid maintained that he had faithfully upheld his part of the bargain by testifying against the killers of lawyer Huston Campbell at great risk of retaliation to himself for having broken the truce agree on that night between the former Regulators and the Dolan/Murphy faction.  He also pointed out that he had not since been indicted for any new crimes including the saloon shooting of Joe Grant, or the death of Deputy Jim Carlyle.  Wallace did not reply Bonney had to give up hope for relief from that quarter.
Billy also tried to secure a lawyer his first choice seemed to lose interest and stopped visiting or responding to note.  Likely John Chisum or others encouraged him to lose interest.  A second lawyer demanded to be paid up front.  Bonney had no cash, no assets, and no friends able or willing to pay.  He offered to sign over ownership of his favorite horse, a fast mare that he claimed was worth $500—a pretty large sum for any horse.  But that horse had been given by Garrett to one of the members of his posse.  The lawyer would have to sue to recover it.  He, too, lost interest.
In April 1881 Billy went on trial in Mesila in Doña Ana County near the Mexican border, which was considered safer than Lincoln.  After two days of testimony, Bonney was found guilty of the murder of Sheriff William Brady—the only conviction of any the combatants in the Lincoln County War. On April 13, Judge Warren Bristol sentenced Bonney to hang until he was “dead, dead, dead” to which Billy was reported to have replied “you can go to hell, hell, hell.” The execution was scheduled for May 13.

Bob Olinger, left, was such a top gun for the Dolan/Murphy faction in the Lincoln County war that he was photographed with his boss James Dolan in 1879.
The day after the trial Bonney was shackled and loaded into a coach for a slow and dusty six day trip back to Lincoln for his execution.  He was escorted by six armed guards riding in and on top of the coach and on horseback alongside.  Their instructions were that in case the met either a lynch mob or an attempt to spring Billy that they should kill him first.  Three guards were top guns in the Dolan/Murphy faction during the war including Bob Olinger who had been made a Deputy U.S. Marshal.  During the trip Olinger roughly handled the Kid and constantly taunted him.
Animosity between the two men ran deep and not just because of the abuse on the road.   During the Lincoln County War Olinger had shot and killed John Jones another Dolan crew member in a dispute.  Although they had by happenstance ended up on opposite sides in the war, Jones and his wife had rescued and given refuge to Billy after Mescalero Apaches had stolen his horse and boots and left him to die in desolate territory.  Bonney held Jones in the same kind of loyal affection as he did for his former boss John Tunstall.
Since there was no suitable jail in Lincoln except for the old hole in the ground from which Billy had already once escaped, he was held in a room in Pat Garrett’s office on the second floor of the Courthouse which used to be Lawrence Murphy’s store.  There was no cell. He was shackled at all times and bolted to the floor.  A chalk line was drawn across the floor of the room and the two armed guard assigned to be with him at all times were instructed to shoot him if he crossed the line.  On the day shift the guards included Olinger and James Bell.  Although Olinger continued to ride him, Bonney struck up a friendly, bantering relationship with Bell and passed the time playing checkers with him.
Around noon of April 28 Billy took advantage of the relaxed relationship he had established with Bell.  Sheriff Garrett was out of town on other business.  When Olinger left Bell alone with the Kid while he took some other prisoners across the street to a hotel for dinner he asked to be taken to use the outhouse.  Rather than waiting Olinger to return, Bell agreed. 
There are two conflicting stories about what happened next.  In one version, popularized in stories and film, someone hid a gun in the privy which Billy secreted in his pants.  On their way up the stairs the Kid drew the gun, got the drop on Bell, and then shot him when he turned and fled downstairs.
But according to Bonney’s own account and seemingly confirmed by wounds on Bell’s head, Billy was able to squeeze his slender hand out of one of the shackles and swung it by its chain hitting Bell twice in the head and grabbed the gun from the stunned deputy’s holster then shot him in the back as her ran.
Bonney had no time to lose.  He kicked in the door to Garrett’s office where Olinger had left his loaded shot gun and ran to the open window.  Hearing the shot, Olinger rushed to the Court House.  As he approached Billy reportedly called out “Look up, old boy, and see what you get.”  He wanted to make sure Olinger saw what was comingblasts from both barrels of the shot gun.  John Jones was avenged.
Billy the Kid gets his revenge on Bob Olninger.
Despite the ruckus in broad daylight and a dead man sprawled in the street, the citizens of Lincoln were not about to do anything as foolish as to rush a building holding and armed Billy the Kid and with Garrett gone and the deputies dead there was no one to organize a posse.  Bonney had a leisurely hour to hack himself out of his remaining fetters, slip out a window, steal a horse, and by some accounts ride out of town singing and unmolested. 
By the time Garrett returned to Lincoln and organized a posse, Bonney was long gone and the trail was cold.  Although many expected him to leave the Territory for Texas or Mexico, he remained in New Mexico, as Garrett thought he might.  He quietly visited some friends and several times described his own account of the escape.   He did get out of Lincoln County for a spell spending some time in near-by San Miguel County.  But the lure of Fort Sumner was too strong to long resist.
For his part Garrett changed his strategy.  Instead of charging around at the head of a large posse, he sent out scouts to collect information quietly from those who knew Billy he encouraged snitching and could dangle a new $500 dead or alive reward for the fugitive.  He would follow up on the most promising leads riding with just one or two trusted men.  In July he got word that Bonney was in and out of Fort Sumner.
That word may have come from Pete Maxwell, the son of legendary mountain man and associate of Kit Carson Lucien Maxwell who had purchased the post from the Army when it was closed and set up the headquarters for a ranching empire in the old commanding officer’s quarters.  Pete was now running his late father’s empire and had been friendly to Billy—and was likely a good customer for his stolen cattle.  He also had a younger sister Paulita Maxwell who was said to be Bonney’s latest and perhaps most serious sweetheart.  Garrett himself had let her kiss the Kid goodbye when he last took him from Fort Sumner.  Pete Maxwell was not happy with the relationship, especially because his sister was now engaged to another powerful rancher.

Paulita Maxwell, one of the Kid's sweethearts.  Did her brother's disaproval help lead to Billy's death?
Garrett rode to Lincoln with two of his best men, John Poe and Kip McKinney and quietly entered the town on July 14, 1881 reportedly spending most of the day with Pete Maxwell while his men laid low and kept out of sight.
What happened next is controversial.  According to the account of Pat Garrett in his ghost written memoirs he and Pete Maxwell were sitting and chatting in Pete’s second floor, unlit bedroom late that night.  Why they would do such a thing in the dark is never explained.  The Kid suddenly appeared in the doorway and hearing a rustling in the room called out “Quien es?”—who is it?  Garrett fired twice hitting the target both times once in the chest then he and Maxwell rushed out of the room leaving the wounded man lying on his back gasping for breath.  When they heard what sounded like a death rattle, they returned and Garrett claimed that by lamp light he could see that the Kid had a gun in one hand a knife in the other.  They dragged the corpse outside where a crowd gathered, many swearing at and threatening Garrett.  

A popular, but questionable version of the shooting of Billy the Kid based on Pat Garrett's account.
His friends were allowed to take the body and prepare it for a wake and burial.  The next day Justice of the Peace Milnor Rudulph, viewed the body, agreed it was Bonney’s who he knew well, and made out the death certificate.  He was hastily buried afternoon next to his close friends Tom O’Folliard and Charlie Bowdre.
Conspiracy theorists offer other several versions of what happened, most being variations on this:  Garrett, Pete, and Paulina Maxwell conspired to find some passable look-alike patsy to enter the room where Garrett laid in ambush and shot him.  A corrupt official signed the death certificate and the body was hastily disposed of to hide the evidence.  Billy was allowed to ride away in safety and survive to live out a long life in secuity.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   
There are obvious problems with both accounts.  But pretty clearly the dead man was William H. Bonney, the latest identity of a kid who began life as Henry McCarty in New York City about 20 years earlier.  Too many people who knew him, friend and foe alike, saw and recognized the body and no one who did every reliably denied it was the Kid’s.   As for the rapid burial, there was nothing unusual about that in a warm climate where embalming was unavailable.
Several men well into the 20th Century claimed to be Billy the Kid and some had impressive bullet wound scars to back them up.  Two of the best known were Ollie P. Roberts a/k/a Bush Bill who died in Texas in 1948 and Arizonan John Miller who passed a decade earlier but no evidence supported either claim.
On the other hand Garrett’s story does not entirely hold water.  It was largely written to defend himself against the wide spread, and probably justified, public opinion that he had ambushed and murdered Bonney in cold blood.  The story of him just happening to be in the dark room with Pete Maxwell simply does not make sense.  More likely Garrett lay in wait there in the expectation that the Kid would come to that specific room around that time.  Some say that one of Billy’s known girlfriends was bound and gagged before the shooting.  Whether or not that is the case, Billy likely was expecting to meet a woman—not Paulita Maxwell but one of the Maxwells’ Mexican servants for an assignation.  That would explain why he would ask “Quien Se?” in Spanish and not in English.
But we will never know for sure.
For his part five days after Bonney’s killing, Garrett went to Santa to collect the $500 reward offered by the Governor but Wallace was out of the Territory and Acting Governor William G. Ritch, refused to pay it.  But Garrett was not unrewarded—citizens of Las Vegas, Mesilla, Santa Fe, White Oaks, and other New Mexico cities including John Chisum and other large ranchers subscribed over $7000 for a private reward and the next year the Territorial Legislature made good on Wallace’s reward.
Pat Garrett's ghost written, unreliable account laid the groundwork for the Billy the Kid legend.
Garrett hired journalist Marshall Upton to ghostwrite his memoir, The Authentic Life of Billy, the Kid which was published in 1882.  Although initial sales were modest, interest in the book grew over the years, especially after Garrett’s somewhat mysterious murder in 1908 revived interest in Billy the Kid.
The book is the foundation of most of lore and legend and helped inspire what would become a cultural flood of fiction, plays, songs, a famous ballet, and, of course many movies.
Next—The final chapter, the cultural legacy of Billy the Kid.


  1. "Billy the Kid gets his revenge on Bob Olninger." Congratulations to you and the artist! Although the outside front stairs did not exist in Billy's day, you two are the f i r s t i n h i s t o r y to properly represent that the House's exterior walls were not stuccoed at the time.

    "Why they would do such a thing in the dark is never explained." What was Garrett supposed to do, flip on the lights?" Garrett's story has to be true. If he/Upson labored to make something up it would have been better than that.

    Many other problems here, but it would take muchmuch too much time to cover them all. When it comes to the Kid I'm a wholesale revisionist.

    1. You may be a wholesale revisionist, but you apparently have reading comprehension problems. It is clear that the "Why would the do such a thing" referred to Garrett's story that he was just chatting with Maxwell in the dark room. My own conclusion was Garrett, who I believe did shoot Billy in the room, was covering for baiting a trap and ambushing him, to shooting in a chance encounter." I am also not responsible for the artist renditions--I did not create or commission them. Most such recreations have some inaccuracies or anomalies. And I expect my readers to be sophisticated enough to realize it. When the representations are especially questionable, as in the near contemporary woodcut, I do point it out.