Wednesday, May 13, 2015

"History's Rich With Mysteries" with Earl Staggs-- THE MYSTERY OF BILLY THE KID

I am very pleased to welcome Earl Staggs back to the blog. While he has been an infrequent and very welcome reviewer here over the years, Earl has a recurring segment in mind these days. In his “HISTORY'S RICH WITH MYSTERIES” segment each month Earl plans on looking at various mysterious people and events  in the past. Today, he considers a legendary western mystery involving Billy the Kid…..


I love mystery. I also love history.  When I look at the past, I find events which may have passed. at the time without much notice, but over time, if everything is not crystal clear about that event, it can become one of history’s endearing mysteries. Some of them may eventually be solved, some may not.  In this series of articles, I want to explore some of those mysteries from history which have not been solved.  I find them fascinating and hope you do too.

This is the first in the series and involves a historical figure from the past who happens to be a favorite of mine.


As often happens with historical figures, legend and fact entwine over the years, leaving us with a combination of the two. While some facts about Billy the Kid’s life are known, much about him is supposition, exaggeration, myth, and tales told around a campfire, leaving us with a number of mysteries surrounding his life and death.  

His story has certainly been told and retold over the years. As of last count, more movies have been made about Billy the Kid than any other historical character in film making history. Movie stars who portrayed Billy include Paul Newman, Emilio Estevez, Val Kilmer, Audie Murphy, and Roy Rogers. It has been said that when writer O. Henry developed his own fictional western hero, he borrowed from the legend of Billy the Kid and named his character The Cisco Kid. 

As an example of fact versus legend, while popular legend has always held that Billy killed 21 men by the time he was 21 years old, actual facts indicate that number was no more than 9. Not so well-known is that he loved horse racing and even owned two racehorses and that he had a decent tenor singing voice.

Most historians agree he was born in New York City on November 23 in the year 1859. Or it may have been 1860 or 1861. He began life as William Henry McCarty, Jr, even though the identity of his biological father is uncertain. It’s not even certain whether McCarty was the maiden or married name of his mother, Catherine.  

In 1868, Catherine moved with her two sons, William and Joseph, to Indianapolis, Indiana, where she met William Antrim. They eventually married and settled in Silver City, New Mexico. That’s where Billy grew up and began his life of adventure and crime. His first crime occurred when he was about 14. He stole several pounds of butter from a rancher and sold it to a local merchant.

Billy used several names during his life, including William McCarty, William Antrim, Kid Antrim, and, finally, William H. Bonney. Billy and his childhood friends in Silver City liked to play pirates. He fancied the idea that he was a descendent of Anne Bonney, an infamous female pirate. Most likely, that’s why he eventually adopted Bonney as his last name.

A SURPRISING TRUTH: Billy was NOT lefthanded.

For a long time, legend held that Billy was a southpaw gunfighter. A movie released in 1958, in fact, starring Paul Newman as Billy, was titled “The Left-Handed Gun.” The misconception came from the only authenticated photograph of him. In that picture published over and over again for many years, Billy’s revolver hung on his left side, indicating he was left-handed.

Eventually, sharp-eyed historians noted discrepancies in the tintype photograph. First, the buttons on his vest are on the left side, common in women’s clothes but not men’s . Also, the prong on Billy’s belt points the wrong way. The most convincing evidence, however, comes from the rifle he is holding. It’s an 1873 Winchester, which was manufactured with the loading slot for cartridges on the right side. In the picture as it was reproduced for many years, it was on the left side.

These clues made it clear that the famous picture was a mirror image. Tintype negatives of that era were often produced backwards as a result of the technical process used at the time. Here’s the picture after it was reversed, showing everything facing correctly, proving that Billy was right-handed.

Incidentally, the original photograph of Billy was sold at an auction in 2011 to a billionaire collector of western artifacts for the staggering sum of $2.3 million dollars.

The greatest mystery about Billy, however, is the how, when and where he died.

History books say he was shot by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, New Mexico, on July 14, 1881, and was buried there the next day. Another version of the story holds that Garrett and Billy were friends and when they met that night, they came up with a plan which would give each of them what they wanted. Garrett wanted credit for killing the most notorious outlaw of the time. Billy wanted to ride away from his past and lead a quiet life.  As this story goes, someone else who had been killed that night was buried in Billy’s grave.  Garrett became famous, and Billy, now officially dead, lived out his life without anyone in hot pursuit of him.

That version gave rise to stories of Billy surviving Fort Sumner, changing his name, and disappearing for many years, no longer hunted by the law. One such story concerns a man named John Miller. After Miller’s death in Arizona in 1938, family and friends of his claimed he was the real Billy the Kid.

Probably the best known “real Billy the Kid” story involves a man known as Brushy Bill Roberts. Roberts, the story goes, showed up in Hico, Texas, in 1949 and claimed to be the real Billy. He died there a month after his 90th birthday. Much has been written about Roberts’ claim, including two movies starring Emilio Estevez, Young Guns and Young Guns II. 

In this day and age, it’s natural to think DNA tests could finally dispel the legends and prove whether Billy was killed in New Mexico by Pat Garrett or lived out his life as John Miller or Brushy Bill Roberts. All you’d have to do is dig up the graves in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas and compare them to DNA samples from the remains of Billy’s mother, Catherine Antrim. For several reasons, that is not feasible and would have little chance of being accurate.

In 1889 and again in 1904 the Pecos River flooded the Fort Sumner cemetery and all grave markers were washed away. In 1932, local residents did their best to approximate the location of Billy's grave and a new marker was put in place. Even if an exhumation recovered remains there, there’s no guarantee they would be Billy’s.

The grave of Catherine Antrim in Silver City was relocated in 1882, but there is no proof that her actual remains were moved or merely the grave marker. It’s also possible that others were buried on top of her, leaving uncertainty as to whose remains they might uncover there.

Efforts to consummate DNA investigation has been fought in courts for years. It would seem those places claiming to have the real Billy’s grave do not want any disparate truth to be revealed. Billy’s final resting place is a big tourist attraction for them, and the loss of that draw would mean a financial loss of those tourist dollars.

A few years ago, my wife and I visited Hico, Texas, which is less than two hours from Fort Worth where we live. It happened to be Billy the Kid Day, a celebration they stage every year in honor of their legend that Billy lived there as Brushy Bill Roberts in his final years. We visited the Billy the Kid Museum and stood on the exact spot in the street where Brushy Bill fell and died of a heart attack. I was fascinated by the whole experience and not long after that, worked it into one of my short stories.

I don’t write historical stories, western or otherwise. Instead, I wrote a contemporary story about a modern day bounty hunter traveling to Hico to collar a young man on the lam named Billy. While there, his quest becomes entangled with the old legend of another young outlaw named Billy, and the past and present collide in a surprising ending.

I called the story “Where Billy Died” and was very pleased with the way it turned out. I was pleased many times over when the story brought home a Derringer Award as Best Short Story of the Year in its category from the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

The bottom line is that the how, when, and where Billy died will never be resolved to absolute and resolute satisfaction.  Billy’s life – and death -- will always be an enigma swaddled in legend. Perhaps it’s better that way. Truth is always desired in most things, but truth easily becomes staid and boring. Legend, on the other hand, holds a hint of romanticism and carries an aura of excitement borne of uncertainty, of adventure, and of imagination. And, of course, mystery.

Earl Staggs ©2015

Derringer Award winning short story “Where Billy Died” is available from the Untreed Reads Store for $.99 in all ebook formats.

Earl Staggs earned a long list of Five Star reviews for his novels MEMORY OF A MURDER and JUSTIFIED ACTION and has twice received a Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year. He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mystery Magazine, as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars.


Earl Staggs said...

Thanks, Kevin, for letting me take up space with my new series here. I hope people like it. Incidentally, Untreed Reads has a mammoth sale on short stories going on in May – all short stories are only 25 cents, including the one I mentioned here – “Where Billy Died.” All short story fans should hop over to and take advantage of this sale.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

That they do. And big time thanks for being here and doing this. Much appreciated.

Unknown said...

Great post! When I'm teaching Oedipus Rex, I often bill it as the first murder mystery. It's practically a procedural.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the stimulating read. It's a great reminder that one event can be told a thousand ways.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Earl and Kevin,

I enjoyed reading this post. Historical mysteries are the most interesting for me. Billy the Kid is still fascinating.

Barry Ergang said...

An article as entertaining as the short story your research gave rise to, Earl. The Billy the Kid mystique is definitely a captivating one for fans of history and western fiction.

Kaye George said...

What fun! I fancied we were related when I was very young and my grandmother, whose maiden name was Kidd, told me she was related to Billy the Kid. I eventually noticed the difference in the Ds.

The story of naming himself after a female pirate--wow! I never knew there WAS one. Thanks for this history lesson.

Susan Oleksiw said...

What a fascinating history! I look forward to the next installment here.

Earl Staggs said...

My thanks again to Kevin for letting me stand on his corner for a bit and big, big thanks to everyone who stopped by and left a comment. We'll do it again next month with someone even more mysterious than Billy.